“In the train everybody was in their own world. There were those who were lying down because they didn’t have the energy to sit. There were those who squatted. There were also those who seemed like they were waiting for death, because they were severely hungry and none of them looked happy or at ease…” Mas Rahmat’s thoughts turned inward… “A body thin and withered, that would have separated from my bones, were it not for the skin. A face that has changed from being clean to being full of scabs and black from dust. Clothes that are torn beyond all mending. Perhaps no one will recognise me.” In 1946, Ahmand Luthfi, a journalist during the Syonan years wrote ‘Bangkai Bernyawa’ (Living Corpses). It was a novel inspired by Javanese labourers – Romusha, who were recruited to work all over Japanese conquered territories during World War 2. Heaps of Indonesian people who somehow were brought here by the Japanese. They were forced to come to Singapore. And these people were very very badly off. Pat would say, “Mum look, Java beggars.” That’s how they were, Java beggars. They use to be you know, they used to scrummage in, by the bins you know, ‘tong sampah’ (garbage) you know, and try to get food out of that. They never went home, they came here as recruited workers by the Japanese. And they were all like destitute you know, roaming the street looking for work. There was no work for them. They were left on the roadside to die… If you cycle along the Rochor Canal Road, you see some of them dying on the road. Neglected, Japanese didn’t care for the sick ones. The romusha were forced to build roads, laboured in mines and cleared jungles. They were treated like slaves, kept in camps and given very little. But life outside the camp was no better for them. Some 300,000 romusha were sent outside of Java to work. Over 3 quarters of them perished. We couldn’t help them because we couldn’t help ourselves. It was very sad. 2 years into the Japanese Occupation, food supplies dwindled. It was normal to be hungry. My brother pulled me along to work at the docks. My brother would bring back rice in a small cigarette tin. The rice would be cooked into porridge for everybody to eat.
There was nothing else. My grandmother and mother would boil grass stems to eat. As time passed, food was getting less and less, less rice. So, when it came to feeding five children, four children and one baby. There was not enough to go around. There was only enough for one plate of rice. So what did we do, we sat down in
front of our mother, mamma, and she would feed us, not that we didn’t know how to eat on our own, but because there was not enough food. So she would feed us one at the time, until the bowl was empty. And when the bowl was empty we were still hungry. Because it was not enough. It was only enough for one person. But because it was not enough, we shared the food first. So that’s how it is. I remember during the eve of Chinese New Year, we did not get to eat for two days straight. My baby brother was crying because
we had no milk to feed him. People scolded us because he was crying incessantly. My mother could only say that he was crying because he was hungry. Having no choice, I went out and looked for families having dinner. I would knock on their doors and
ask them to spare me some food. He said why don’t you eat here?
I said no, can you give it to me? I was given a bowl of watery stuff.
I then fed it to my baby brother. None of us had any food to eat, not
my father, nor my mother, nor me. My mother asked me if I had eaten and I lied
that I have. I gave it to my little brother. Later on, due to starvation, he died when he was only 4 years old.
There was no choice. My two aunts went for a, have a little bit of a meal. And they went to a hawker stall. I think there were some hawker stalls around.
They had this plate of ‘char kway teow’, because there’s not enough to buy two plates,
so they shared the plate. Now as just they’re going to eat them, the noodles, suddenly a child came up to them and grabbed the plate from them and ran away. So my aunt wanted to chase the child
and get back the plate. What did she see? She saw the child sitting on the ground feeding her small brothers. She didn’t steal it for herself. She stole it for the brothers. So they didn’t challenge her or scold her, or try to get back the plate. They just let her share the plate. Many young people found themselves having to work to help feed the family. Teenagers grew up quickly and some found they would do anything to help put food on the table. I started to look for work when I was 14 to 15 years old. I would travel from Chinatown to a place called ‘Fo Seng’.
There was an iron foundry over there. I was told that I could use a hammer
and hammer nails until they were straight. The work was until 5pm. There was no food provided,
but the wages was worth a few cents. I had no choice, so I accepted the job.
I hammered nails every day, to the point my hands were hurting.
The nails were so small. My mother would prepare some rice,
which I carried in a mug with a cover. The rice was mixed with some beans and peanuts
that were stir-fried. There was no water. When it’s noon and I am hungry, I would eat the
rice to fill myself up, even if it was cold. Returning home, Mother would tell me that
many people were lining up to bathe and I had to wait. I told her I didn’t want to wait, that I had another
job to go to. My mother didn’t know about it. I said that I might have to go to the amusement park to sell tickets. I would sell tickets until 10pm and went back home.
I gave all the money I earned to my mother. Mother was all in tears when she received the money.
I told her not to cry. I want to sleep. I would wake up at 5am, take a quick shower, and grab a drink.
My mother would already be cooking. I would take the rice that mother had
prepared for me, then walked to work. This routine went on for a few months. Later on I went to work at People’s Park
where Japanese soldiers were staying. After a while, one of the Japanese soldiers
came to ask me about my family. I told him about my family’s plight, about having no food to eat. So he told me that he would help me
and I asked how he could help. This Japanese soldier was very nice. He said he could
send men – “Just give me your address. Every week, I would send rice, fish, meat and vegetables.” With that I was relieved of my worries
and did not bother about it anymore. People turned to drastic measures to fill their stomachs. Sometimes though, one just had to look in their backyards or the roadside. The papaya tree grew abundantly and was a good source of nutrition. When my child was born, we were afraid
he didn’t have enough to eat. I then recalled reading a Chinese Medicine book about
the goodness of papaya in soups. We would eat the ripe ones and cook the green ones in soup. Buy some pork bones, fish tail and fish bones to make soup.
My baby grew strong and big. Two of my children were born during the Japanese time.
There was no nutrition. Cow’s milk was not very nutritious, and there was
no breast milk, so they ate papaya. We eat it every day, two bowls with rice… Today I’m making Savoury Papaya Soup or ‘Betik Masak Titek’. This recipe comes to us from Mrs. Kathleen Woodford of The Eurasian Association. It is simple and tasty soup that you don’t often see in restaurants nowadays. Seasoned with very simple spices. The two main ingredients are seafood which could be fish, salted fish, shellfish. Today we’re going to be using some prawns and the other ingredients is semi-ripe papaya. First I slice it in half, and you can see that it’s orange in the middle but not very ripe, still a bit firm. And I’m going to scoop the seeds out. Then I’m just going to take the skin off with a peeler. You want to keep some of the firm pale flesh so that this prevents the papaya from falling apart during cooking. Do be careful the papaya can be quite slippery, so just be careful not to cut yourself. So I’m just going to slice these. Now the flavour of the soup will vary depending
how ripe the papaya is that you use. If you use very green and unripe papaya it will be more sour. If you use slightly riper more yellow skin papaya, the taste will be sweeter and slightly more fruity. There, that’s done. Now I’m going to chop and pound some shallots. We’re just going to chop them coarsely. It doesn’t need to be too fine, because you want some texture in the soup. I’m going to pound them. So of course this is different from blending or chopping shallots in a food processor or blender.
A metal blade chops things, whereas a pestle and mortar crushes things. So we have about 5 or 6 shallots. Next, we’re going to rinse some dried shrimp or ‘hae bee’. Just rinse them in some water to get rid of the dust or debris and this also helps them to hydrate slightly and soften them before we pound them. Pound them until they fluff up and are broken up. Again, we don’t want them to be too fine.
We’re just pounding them to break them up, so they will release the flavour into soup more easily. And now we have the chilies, you can use 2 chilies, 4 chilies, and 6 chilies depending on how spicy you want it. I’m just going to use 2 today, but I’m going to leave all the seeds in. So take off the stems. And then I’m just going to cut a slit in each chili. If you want less heat of course you could remove the seeds. I’m going to leave them in. But putting a slit in the chili allows some of the heat to escape into soup. So today for the fresh seafood, we’re going to be using some prawns. Make sure that the heads don’t flop around when you waggle the prawn. I’ve just washed them, cut off the legs underneath the head and trimmed off all the sharp points and eyes. Of course leaving the heads on the prawns when you put them in the soup allows much more release of flavour. Now the stock is simmering. I’m going to crumble in my ‘belacan’, and then we’re going to add our pounded dried shrimp, and our pounded shallots. The stock needs to simmer for a while, so the ingredient flavours can mingle. And now going to add the sliced papaya and the slit chilies. The amount of time the papaya needs to cook again depends on how ripe it is. Stir them in, simmer for a little bit. Then we’re going to add the prawns now. And we want to cook the prawns until they’re only just cooked through. And the final seasoning, a generous dash of white pepper. And the final garnish, some Asian basil. And of course, basil has a slightly peppery taste, so it perfectly complements the seafood and the papaya. Savoury Papaya Soup. ‘Betik Masak Titek’. When food rations ran low, and people grew tired of tapioca and sweet potato, the papaya provided some variety to their diets. Ripe papaya was eaten as a fruit. The green papaya was used in soups, curries, pickled and preserved. The war was still going on and my mother was still sick. I returned to my work place and asked the Japanese man
why he didn’t send my family food. He said he was not able to send my family
any more food and asked me to go home. We were Christians. All my mother did was
every night kneel down and pray. For two hours, kneel down with her, and pray for what? Pray for food. Pray for good health. As long as my stomach is filled, then it’s all right.
I’ll buy only as much as I need. If there are children around then I would buy more.
If I’m alone then it’s really simple. As long as it’s filling I’m contented. I don’t like to waste. Well when I was a grass cutter, some of us used to bring food along, not wait for the Japanese to give you the food. And then we use to share things occasionally you know, a plate of ‘bungkus’ or ‘nasi lemak’ would be a tremendous luxury. Sometimes we used to share with one another, things like that. If you are in a situation where it is very brotherly, very intimate where people know one another, I think it is easy to share, it is easy to find a way. Hunger brought out the worst and best in people. Many were driven to extreme measures to fill an empty stomach. For those who shared the trauma of hunger, and managed to get by, their experience inspired acts of kindness that renewed peoples’ faith in goodness and humanity. Unfortunately, for people like the romusha and ordinary folk who succumbed to a slow death by starvation, their suffering was as bad if not worse than the thousands of violent deaths that occurred during this dark period of Singapore’s history.