When I was growing up, my father told me several times about his grandfather’s brother, who had been taken away during “Sook Ching”, the Japanese military’s massacre of predominantly ethnic Chinese males during its occupation of Singapore in World War II. His name was Chua Choon Guan, and the family had given him up for dead until they read, many years later, an account of his survival in a book entitled “The Knights of Bushido”. No one knew why Chua Choon Guan never came home.
“Why did the family not look for him after you found out?” I asked once. “If he didn’t want to come home, why should we have looked for him?” said my father with a strength of feeling that could not have been his own – born after the war, he had never even met Chua Choon Guan. I surmised that my father was transmitting his grandfather’s pain, passed to him through the close relationship I knew they had, and now passed to me.
20 years later and after my father’s passing (in which time our family’s copy of “The Knights of Bushido” had inexplicably disappeared), I found and ordered another copy on Amazon. Chua Choon Guan’s name jumped out at me on page 248; but the author had not provided any references for his two paragraphs on my great-grand-uncle’s survival. I turned to Google, not hoping for much. To my surprise, Chua Choon Guan’s story turned up in multiple accounts of the Sook Ching massacres. It became clear that this story came from witness testimony that he had given during the War Crimes Trials in Singapore in 1947. One thing led to another, and with the help of Dr Cheah Wui Ling of the Singapore War Crimes Trials Project, a couple of months later I held in my hands a binder containing the transcript of the trial.
Chua Choon Guan was Prosecution Witness 20 in the trial of Nishimura Takuma and six other former Japanese officers, charged for committing a war crime in their roles in the massacre of Chinese civilians at various places in Singapore between 18 February and 3 March 1942. Chua Choon Guan, the third of five sons, had emigrated with his parents from Fujian Province, China to Singapore. He would have been in his 40s by the time of the war. Living at No 68, Upper Perak Road at the time, he became part of the Japanese purge of the Jalan Besar area that took place within a week of Singapore’s surrender. He was brought to the football field at Jalan Besar, where the Chinese persons gathered were made to form rows. A “crowd” then came and picked out individuals, who were then herded into eleven waiting lorries. Chua Choon Guan’s testimony does not explain who these persons doing the sorting were (and it is not clear that if he knew), but the testimony of other witnesses regarding the Jalan Besar purge suggests they included local collaborators. According to Chua Choon Guan, all persons with a relatively big build, including himself, were picked out. Unlike another witness who was a resistance fighter, and another who was a Government servant, Chua Choon Guan professed at the trial that he had no idea why the Japanese would have wanted to kill him.
After the sorting, the eleven lorries, filled to capacity with Chinese males, were driven to the beach at Changi/Tanah Merah. When they reached the beach, the men were tied up eleven in a row, moaning and crying in the knowledge that they would be killed, and taken to the edge of the water. Here, they were sprayed with machine gun fire. Chua Choon Guan was hit by bullets on his side and legs, the marks of which he still bore and showed the tribunal at the trial. Not fatally injured, he fell, semi-conscious. Other bodies fell on top of him and a hard knock on his head rendered him unconscious.
Regaining consciousness later that night when the tide came in and touched this face, he found a rock by the beach, on which he rubbed his cords until they gave way. He then crawled away and made his escape.
Here his testimony ends, and along with it what we know of his story. But the questions remain for my family. Why did he never come home? In his testimony at the trial, the address he gives is 105 Koon Seng Road – a mere thirty minutes’ walk from his brother’s house, the house in which I too grew up. I have walked past 105 Koon Seng Road any number of times in my life. How was it possible that his family never came across him? That his family believed him dead is confirmed by a notice in the papers dated 7 January 1947, calling on creditors and any other claimants against the estate of Chua Choon Guan to make their claims to the Public Trustee. The uncertain details of death provided in the notice – “died in or around Singapore on or after the 21st day of February, 1942” – bear all the hallmarks of disappearance in Sook Ching. The date of the notice suggests that his family waited in hope for years before accepting that he was dead, like many families of Sook Ching victims. Yet, two/three months after this notice, he was giving testimony in a public war crimes trial at Victoria Memorial Hall. How did his family never find out?
For now, these appear to be questions we will never answer.