(Extracted from Oct-Dec 2003 Issue of The Peranakan newsletter)
There they are, the ancestors, solemn and studio-posed in sepia-toned photographs. There is grandfather, in suit ‘n tie, and there is grandmother, attired more traditionally. And there are the hairpins, kerosang, bracelets (both wrists), geland kaki (both ankles) and chin-chin (nearly all the fingers!).
But hopes of “chope-ing” any jeweled heirlooms are soon dashed. Like those who wore them, they are no longer with us.
Even before the Japanese occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, some women, like Madam Josephine Tan, 89, had already sold their gold and diamond accessories for a noble cause- to raise money for the China Relief Fund. This was part of the local Chinese population’s endeavours to send money to the Mainland Chinese in their fight against the invading Japanese Forces. Other groups, like The Merrilads, staged productions for the same purpose.
When it looked like Singapore too was to fall to the Japanese, many families hid jewellery, documents and other valuables in all sort of places- under staircases, in attics, in secret compartments of cupboards, and even in holes dug next to some significant tree, hoping against hope that they would still be standing!). Then, when Singapore was Syonan, homes were emptied of owners as people either fled or were forcibly relocated into camps. The looters moved in and valuables were lost. One such house was Mr. Peter Wee’s family home in Waterloo Street.
The Japanese Military governement arbitrarily imposed a “tax” of fifty million dollars (thankfully in banana notes) to be raised by the local population for the Japanese war effort. It was, I am told, very systematically done, with each dialect group directed to collect from its members. The Straits Chinese community was not spared. My maternal grandmother, a widow with young children, sold some of her best pieces of jewellery as her “contribution” from the extended family.
In those harsh and perilous times, jewellery could make the difference between life and death. My mother, Mrs. K.T. Koh, 82, says, “I ate her jewellery. A whole diamond kerosang set paid for only a tin of milk powder for me, and piece by piece was given up for food at black-market prices”. From my aunt, Mrs. Theresa Ong Keong Hee, 77, comes this first-hand account:
“The British Military expected the Japanese forces to land on the beaches. So our family was advised to vacate the home in Marine Parade to our rumah abu at Thomson Road. I was still a teenager then, so I owned no significant jewellery to speak of. But my mother must have carried it, as many did, on her person, because I was given a few pieces upon my marriage two years later. Our sense of security in the Thomson Road house was misplace and short-lived. Little did we know that RAF planes were supposedly hidden in nearby MacRitchie Reservoir. I remember that day clearly. Out of the blue, the alarming wail of sirens filled the air. Japanese bomber planes had come to destroy those Bristish planes. The family members and servants who happened to be on the ground floor dashed for the air-raid shelter built into the hill slope beside the main house. But I was upstairs and could only dive under the bed. My uncle, who dived in after me, received a shrapnel injury to hisback. When the smoke cleared, half our house was destroyed, and with it, my eldest sister’s wedding jewellery.”
Nonya Mabel Tan, 86, of Dunbar Walk sewed a cloth belt with pouches to hold her diamond kerosang, earrings and other items. This she tied securely around her waist, where it remained undetected despite the forced march under Japanese orders from Tembeling Road to the concentration camp in Telok Kurau School. Widowed during the Japanese Occupation, she eventually parted with some items to buy a home for herself and her family.
What she will never part with though is a pair of truly impressive diamond earrings. They dangle and move with each turn of the head, throwing off light from the rows of large diamonds. Not surprisingly, the sheer value and the glamourous style earn pieces like these the term anting-anting kemantain (bride’s earrings). This particular pair has been worn by her daughter, grand-daughters and nieces on their wedding days. Her great-grand daughters are next in line.
But after the Occupation years, a significant amount of family jewellery changed hands to start businesses, rebuild careers or just to live- painful but necessary decisions. Clearly, when life deals some hard knocks, having some convertible assets does help to cushion the blows and is one reason to slash away some sparklers. I knew there had to be a moral somewhere.