From Jesselton’s Water Margins to High-Street Merchant
Ashes to Ashes 1945 & 1955
At the break of dawn on the 14th May 1955, Wong Tze-Fatt was rudely awoken by his family retainer Wong Toon-Seng informing him of a fire in Kampong Ayer (Water Village) part of Jesselton township. A fire had started in a shop near to Tze-Fatt’s own shop where in 1945 he had re-established his father’s business after it was levelled to the ground by allied bombing as was with the rest of Jesselton township in the lead up to the liberation of British North-Borneo (Sabah Malaysia) from Japanese Occupation.
Earlier in the year, Tze-Fatt’s wife Bee-Hee and Kah-Poh their daughter and first child; had left Jesselton for Muar town in British Malaya to attend a family memorial service for Bee Hee’s late father who passed away on the 18th December 1954; while their two younger sons, Kah-Ho and Kah-Lok stayed back with him at home. Tze-Fatt awoke his two sons who remained dressed in their pyjamas and seated them in his Austin A40 Panel Van and then called up their nanny to accompany them on the trip ahead and to look after his still drowsy sons.
Tze-Fatt quickly drove the fifteen minutes car drive from his home in Tanjung-Aru to reach Jesselton town, but on reaching the scene of the fire it was patently clear to Tze-Fatt that Jesselton’s under resourced fire brigade could not contain the inferno which started in one of the shops in a block of timber shops from spreading and consuming all the shops that were on that same block which included his own shop. All Tze-Fatt could do was to stare in silent despair at the heart-breaking sight of a smouldering pile of timber embers which was once his shop premises, pride and place of business.
After the devastation to his business in 1945 when allied bombing levelled Jesselton town to the ground at the end of WW2, Tze-Fatt had not expected so soon in the peace that followed to see the same heart-breaking sight of his shop premises similarly reduced to a pile of rubble. It was for Tze-Fatt the second catastrophe in less than a decade that took away his family’s only means of livelihood and as the breadwinner in the family the traumatic sight of his business premises burnt to the ground weighed heavily on him. Tze-Fatt found little comfort in that his wife and daughter were spare the trauma of seeing their shop reduced to ashes being overseas at the time. Without his wife beside him, Tze-Fatt felt a deep sense of loneliness and despair but as he returned to his van the sight of his two sons still bewildered at being awoken so early in the morning reminded Tze-Fatt that unlike his first catastrophe in 1945, he now had a wide and a family whose lives and future depended on him and that his life had a purpose in which he was no longer alone to face the trials and tribulation of a future to come.
The Winds of War
An unfortunate chain of events leading up to the first catastrophic inferno in 1945 which brought Tze-Fatt to the brink of ruins began in 1941 when he was away from his home town Jesselton North-Borneo and studying abroad in the Muar town of Johor-Sultanate in British Malaya. At the end of 1941 Tze-Fatt was finishing his final year as a student at Muar Chinese High-School and in that same fateful year, Japan’s second Sino-Japan war escalated into WW2’s Pacific Theatre with Japan’s surprise attack on the US Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on the early morning of 7th December 1941. A few hours earlier at midnight Malaya local time 8th December 1941 a Japanese invasion armada for its Malayan Campaign landed at Kota-Bahru Kelantan Sultanate on the north-eastern coast of British Malaya in a virtually simultaneous attack coordinated with their attack on the US Fleet at Pearl Harbour Hawaii moments later.
As they moved inland from their beach-head, the Japanese Imperial Army met with some stiff resistance from British Malayan armed forces who then quickly withdrew towards the Port City of Singapore where the British military planners had built its defence fortification in readiness to make a stand to repel any invaders. The fighting in Europe’s WW2 had been going on for more than a year and the war was not going well for the British Empire whose expeditionary forces in France suffered the ignominy of defeat at the hands of Hitler’s Germany and only just avoided annihilation in a hasty retreat and improvised naval evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940. The strategy of a badly overstretched British Admiralty was for the British Army battalions stationed in Singapore to hold Fort Canning and await relief or evacuation by the British Merchant Navy supported by Force Z, battleship group comprising of capital ship HMS Prince of Wales, the battle cruiserHMS Repulse and four destroyers.
As history will record, the British military planners had tactically positioned Singapore’s heavy defensive guns to face its southern sea approaches in anticipation of invasion by a sea-borne armada and had not anticipated a land invasion from the Malayan Peninsular to the north across the narrow Johor Straits. The Malayan Peninsula’s natural hilly terrain dense jungle and rubber tree forested plantations were thought to be impassable by a modern heavily armed invasion force. However the Japanese military planners had secured detailed maps of the Malayan Peninsular and were well prepared and appropriately resourced to tactically deal with obstacles presented by its terrain and natural jungle vegetation. The Japanese invasion force had brought with them small but agile armoured light-tanks and bicycles for their infantry soldiers in the Malayan Campaign. The armoured units easily traversed the rubber plantations on the Malayan Peninsular as the narrow track of their light tanks could easily pass in-between the precise rows of rubber trees carefully laid out by the British colonial planters. Then getting onto well paved roads built by the British as infrastructure through the Malayan jungle for transportation of rubber bales from Malaya to the Port of Singapore, the Japanese infantry on bicycles swept down the Malayan Peninsular literally in a “Bicycle Blitzkrieg” to Johor and trapping the British Armed forces and civilians across the Johor Straits in Singapore.
Just before 20:30 on the 8th February 1941 the Japanese troops crossed the narrow Johor Straits into Singapore and engaged the British troops in an intense urban battle for Singapore’s city centre where civilians were deliberately massacred by the Japanese army in the fighting. Earlier on the 10th December 1940 as part of their Malayan Campaign the Japanese airforce found and destroyed “Force Z”, in the sinking of battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser HMS Repulse. With no possibility of relief and evacuation by the British Navy the British surrendered the Port of Singapore on the 15th February 1941.
As the Japanese Army had previously experienced stiff resistance from Chinese volunteers and guerrillas in their second Sino-Japan war in China and similarly meeting with some Chinese local irregular militia especially in Muar on their way down the Malayan Peninsular during their Malayan Campaign; the Japanese “Kempeitai” Military Police began the purging of suspected hostile Chinese elements in Malaya and Singapore to suppress local popular uprising and pre-empt any armed insurrection. In Singapore between the 18th February to 4th March 1941 the Japanese “Kempeitai” Military Police would periodically round up young Chinese males of combatant age and line them up for identification parades before “hooded” turncoats and informers. The sinister and anonymous “hooded men” would then point out individuals from the line-up and on their dubious assertion that these men were Chinese volunteers loyal to the China’s Nationalist Government, the men singled out in this manner were then transported by lorries to a quiet Changi beech on the northeast of Singapore where they were mercilessly slaughtered by machine gunfire.
The Japanese Shingapōru Daikenshō pogrom of ethnic “cleansing” for the Singapore Chinese populous became known as the infamous “Sook-Ching” “spiritual cleansing” incidence as its initial phase ended around 4th of March 1941 coinciding with Chinese traditional annual visit to their ancestral graves when they performed “spiritual cleansing” ancestral rites. The Japanese pogrom against the Chinese populous was extended to Malaya similarly to eliminate any possible popular insurrection from the local Chinese diaspora and was amongst a litany of war atrocities routinely perpetrated by the Japanese army to terrorise a hapless Chinese civilians during Japan’s long war against China.
Reports of Japanese soldiers rampaging through Malaya and Singapore carrying out summary execution of Chinese civilians on the slightest of pretext spread like wildfire and Tze-Fatt realised that fate had put him the wrong place at the wrong time and he was in great danger of loosing his life simply to the blood lust of Japanese soldiers. Fortunately for Tze-Fatt his high-school classmate Lee Bee-Hee whom he was courting at the time sort permission from her father Lee Soon-Eng to provide Tze-Fatt refuge in the sanctuary of their family home in Muar until such time that he could safely travel and return home to his family living in Jesselton, North Borneo.
1940 – 1943 Sanctuary in Muar’s High-Street “Lee Kongsi”
Bee-Hee’s father Lee Soon-Eng was a successful trader for Malaya’s Lee Rubber “Kongsi” which was a rubber plantation and trading distribution nepotistic commercial alliance comprising of the Lee Hokkein Chinese clan. Britain’s colonial business model for commercially exploiting the resources in the Far East was for British Chartered Companies to form commercial alliances with indigenous enterprise to run local industries such as for rubber and tin which were the two main commodities exported to Britain from Malaya at the time. The Lee Hokkein clan’s “Kongsi” literally translated as meaning a “shared enterprise” was Britain’s indigenous commercial alliance partner in Malaya’s important rubber industry whose output supplied almost all the world’s industrial demands for commercial rubber.
Sanctuary provided by the Lee family for Tze-Fatt to take refuge in their home in Muar almost certainly saved Tze-Fatt’s life for the reason that rubber was an essential strategic commodity required for Japan’s war effort and the Japanese Occupation Administration commandeered Malaya’s Lee “Kongsi” to continue operating and maintaining Malaya’s rubber output but redirected shipments of raw rubber bales to Japan instead of to the factories of Britain. The Japanese wartime economic policy in Malaya which served to secure a steady supply of raw materials needed for Japan’s war effort vicariously worked to protect Chinese families and their young menfolk employed in Malaya’s rubber industry and which safeguarded them from the worst extremes in a brutal Japanese wartime occupation administration when life was cheap especially for the Chinese diaspora.
The Lee family lived in a traditional red “Malacca” roof tiled four-storied shop-house in the town centre facing the Muar river estuary. The family resided in the three upper floors and accommodated their rubber trading office premises on the ground floor. In the running of the Lee family business Bee-Hee helped her father Lee Soo-Eng manage his “Lee Kongsi” as his accountant. While taking refuge with the Lee family Tze-Fatt earned his keep in assisting Bee-Hee as her bookkeeper and as the “Lee-Kongsi’s” representative for any dealings with the Japanese Occupation Authorities and Military Police “Kempeitai” who would frequently drop in to inspect the “Lee Kongsi” premises as to satisfy themselves that they were not engaged in any nefarious activities. During his stay in Muar working for the Lee family Tze-Fatt learnt to drive the trucks and lorries that were used for the transportation of rubber bales and would often accompany consignments of rubber bales transported to Singapore for onwards transhipment to Japan.
Life in Muar was harsh under a brutal Japanese Occupation Authority. The supply of food and essentials were strictly controlled by the war-time commandeering of locally produced food and essential supplies prioritised for consumption by the Japanese armed forces and thus limiting supplies in the local markets. However the “Lee-Kongsi” as rubber traders were essential to maintaining the supply of rubber for the Japanese war effort and thus spared the worst of the hunger and starvation that befell many living in Malaya’s urban areas under Japanese occupation. The Japanese Occupation of Malaya was for Tze-Fatt a time that he strengthen his faith and toughened his resolve to meet the trials and tribulations of life that was to come. Before WW2 Muar was a buzzing cosmopolitain cultural mixing bowl and a premier commercial and trading centre in Malaya quite unlike Tze-Fatt’s hometown in pre-war Jesselton which remained very much in the backwaters of the British Empire. Living and working with the Lee “Kongsi” gave Tze-Fatt the critical experience in business management and a nascent business network or “guanxi” that served him well for the rest of his life. However following independence of British Malaya as Malaysia, the tale of the two cities would see Muar’s decline into parochialism and Jesselton which became Kota-Kinabalu after independence of North Borneo as Sabah Malaysia would become a primal city in Malaysia and a regional international destination in S E Asia.
Very much later in his life when he was in the course of drafting his will and last testament, Tze-Fatt would privately mention to his eldest son Kah-Ho in a complete non sequitur that his one and only business partner was his wife and mother of his children. It was his way of telling his eldest son Kah-Ho that when he was stranded in Malaya at the on-set of WW2, his life was saved by Bee-Hee and her family in giving him shelter and unquestioningly sharing their home and food on their table.
Tze-Fatt knew that his family living in Japanese occupied North Borneo will not be so lucky as without any form of protection from any quarter in the harsh Japanese wartime regime, they would be exposed to the worst consequences of Japan’s occupational administration’s policy of divide and rule which was cynically interpreted as a carte-blanche permit for Japanese soldiers to terrorise Chinese civilians and to rule by fear. Later Tze-Fatt on his return home to Jesselton would confirm that his worst fears were well warranted. Anecdotal stories from surviving family members and friends corroborated his suspicions that Japanese wartime administration has successfully exploited the age-old Chinese cultural sectarian divisions and factions within the local Chinese community that had lead to a complete loss of humanity and a breakdown of society and all civilised behaviour within Jesselton’s small Chinese diaspora.
The Condition of the Chinese Diaspora in Jesselton
At the turn of the 20th Century the Chinese people and its South East Asia diaspora were emerging out of 2000 years of a tradition bound feudal society with its Dynastic Emperor presiding over a China’s vast, largely uneducated illiterate and barely numerate populous. China’s ancient feudal culture which persisted well into the twentieth century had its origins in ancient China where the Analects of Confucius were promulgated as religious dogma that substituted myths for authentic spiritual faith and knowledge to establish rituals and political doctrines which structured a rigid conservative familial and paternal social order delineated by family linage, clan culture and geo-political divisions of dialects based sub-cultures. China’s glorified image of a mythic civilisation civility and culture was in reality confined to a very thin veneer of a privileged and literate warlord oligarchy consigning the greater part of China’s anonymous farmers peasants merchant and traders to an existence that was really little better than living the life of a beast of burden for the benefit and convenience of a ruling martial oligarchy.
With the benefit of hindsight and our contemporary ideas of democracy, the existential reality of the fractious Chinese Nation State was that of a rigid caste ridden society ruled by warring Kings, Princelings and Warlords whom successive Militarist Imperial Dynasties in turn subjugated. The so called “heaven’s mandate” for China’s Imperial Dynastic rule was founded on a tribal compact whereby successive Militarist Imperial Dynasties would come and go and when installed as China’s Imperial Court by the “mandate of heaven” the Militarist Emperor would then quell the sinitic Han Chinese people’s own troublesome indigenous warring Han Kingdoms and Principalities subjugating them as vassal states to keep the uneasy peace over all China as its supreme Imperial Emperor
In the first millennium after Emperor Qin Shi Huang who died in 210 BC, was a period characterised by militarist northern Sinitic Han tribal Kingdoms and Principalities who fought amongst each other and a gradual unification of these warring states into a recognisable continental nation state of diverse tribes governed by an Emperor whose Imperial Powers kept the peace amongst the former warring states who were subjugated as vassal states to the Imperial Court.
“Heaven’s mandate” in Imperial China’s second millennium was characterised in the militarist nomadic Mongol and Manchu minority tribes to China’s western and norther margins provided protection for the now settled and urbane Sinitic Han tribes against their ancient historical Asiatic Turkic Mongol marauding hordes who came out of China’s infertile steppes and western deserts to plunder the urbane Han populous living in the materially fertile heartlands of China.
China’s Imperial Dynastic system was inherently unstable as evident from its perpetuating cycle of successive ascending Tungusic Mongol, Sinitic Han and Jurchen Manchu Militarists Imperials Dynasties which brought momentary peace, order to both allow trade with the Far West and protection from China’s ancient historical Turkic and Asiatic marauders who also came out of China’s Western margins. However peace restored by every founder of successive Imperial Dynasties proved to be a brief respite that was inevitably followed by a cycle of dynastic nepotism decadence, corruption, decay and when the descendant generations of Dynastic founders lost their martial heritage and skills, China would gradually return to the generational chaos of war. This endless generational cycle of instability repeated itself in successive succeeding Imperial Dynasties for over two millennia and which serve to stifled any opportunities for China to look outwards and open itself up to progress and instead choosing time and time again to look inwards to its chronicled mythic Middle-Kingdom in total denial of the rising global industrialised European Imperialist Kingdoms to the Middle Kingdom’s Far West.
Ironically it was the advent of European Merchants from the Middle Kingdom’s Far West seeking trade in the fabled wealth and riches of China around the eighteenth century that shattered the thin veneer of a mythic Chinese civilisation and Imperial power to reveal the weak underbelly of Chinese ancient culture and a polity that was frozen in feudalism for over 2000 years. Hitherto China lay to Europe’s Far-East which in ancient times was naturally defended by China’s passable but inhospitable western desserts. But with the advent of European global maritime exploration and the development of heavily armed “blue-water” ocean going mercantile sailing ships, China’s hitherto back door which was the South China Sea was thrown wide open and now accessible by the heavily armed ocean going mercantile ships of European Imperialist maritime nations. China was indeed the world’s fabled “Middle Kingdom” in the European Middle Ages at a time when world order was defined by the globe’s terrestrial features and mankind and mind-kinds was divided between the eastern and western hemispheres. However in the eighteenth and nineteenth century with the circumvention of the globe by sea established a new maritime world order to usher in the twentieth century and the Merchants in the sun-rising Enlightened Far-Western hemisphere collided and occluded Merchants in the sun-setting Ancient Far-Eastern hemisphere.
With European mercantile interests in China’s material resources came an inflow of western cultural beliefs and political ideas that dragged China kicking and screaming into the modern twentieth century. In particular religious and scientific enlightenment in Europe facilitated technological advances in modern weaponry challenged ancient Chinese cosmology in peeling away the myth of Confucius civility and an old world order steeped in mysticism to reveal an existential reality for the greater number of Chinese people which right up to the dawn of the twentieth century was still rooted in ignorance; ancestors worship, astrological superstitious beliefs and rituals which no longer allayed Chinese primal fear of nature’s natural state of chaos.
As a result of China’s vicarious exposure to western enlightened existentialist philosophy, mercantile materialism, advanced science and technology in the eighteenth and nineteenth century resulted in China’s own mercantile middle-class intelligentsia at the turn of the twentieth century in the last millennium to question a Chinese cosmology and world view and a fragmented polity divided between those that benefited from prolonging China’s decadent Manchu Imperial Qing Dynasty and China’s Revolutionaries lead by Dr Sun Yat-Sen the father of Modern China. The Revolutionaries were themselves quickly divided amongst competing imported Western ideas of the democratic process and the very nature of the people’s mandate to rule themselves in a modern China after the overthrow of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. These initially foreign intellectual ideas later manifested themselves in China’s Civil War as conflicting ideologies of those that were Communists and those that were Nationalists. The Japanese invasion of China’s north-east regions further muddled the myriad of political ideologies fermenting in China at the time in ostensibly uniting the dispirit factions and sects under a single raison d’être and warring banner which was to repel the Japanese invaders who had conquered much of China’s north-eastern region of Manchuria and were waiting for the right moment and a pre-text to conquer China’s materially fertile resources and subjugate the Sinitic Han Chinese people in its heartlands.
In Jesselton the Japanese North-Borneo Wartime Occupational Authorities cynically exploited the myriad racial cultural and political fissures and factions in its local Chinese diaspora and as in Japanese occupied Singapore and Malaya encouraged “faceless informers” within the local Chinese emigrant diaspora community to spy on their kith and kin and to betray their brethren in pointing out those men accused by “hooded men” as spies working for the China Nationalist Government, thus committing them to certain death by execution purely on their baseless assertions and allegations.
Letter from a Widowed Mother
Within this background of global carnage, genocide and a total breakdown of humanity and civilised behaviour in territories under Japanese wartime occupation, Tze-Fatt’s father Tun-Hiong tragically died at the end of 1942 reportedly while he was at home on his deathbed dying from internal bleeding after a severe beating he received while under interrogation by the feared Japanese “Kempeitai” Military Police. Tze-Fatt never ascertained the circumstances and full truth that lead to the interrogation of his father Tun-Hiong by the Japanese Kempeitai and could only confirmed his father’s untimely death came after three days of suffering and while Tze-Fatt was still stranded in Muar and incommunicado on the other side of the South China Sea. On his deathbed Tun-Hiong instructed his wife Sen-Lan to write and send a letter to Tze-Fatt in Muar to convey his last wishes for his Tze-Fatt to return home as soon as possible as Tze-Fatt as the eldest son was duty bound to take over his estate and to care for his mother and siblings as Chinese tradition of filial piety in a long line of successive family patriarchs.
As was common for women of all social classes in feudal China, Tze-Fatt’s widowed mother Sen-Lan could neither read nor write and after her husband’s curtailed wake and funeral asked her brother (Tze-Fatt’s uncle) Leong Sheng-Foo to commit her husband’s last wishes to paper to be delivered by hand in a letter for Tze-Fatt who was stranded overseas in Malaya Muar town. Although Sen-Lan’s letter was penned soon after the death of her husband in late 1942, it had to be delivered hand by hand from Jesselton out to Singapore and then onwards to Muar town in Malaya and in this laborious manner her letter only reached Tze-Fatt in Muar around the middle of 1943.
Crisscrossing a Salted Battlefield
Sen-Lan’s simple plea for her son Tze-Fatt to return home as soon as possible presented him with a dire existential dilemma. In the Pacific War, Japan’s advancement on Australia was stopped in Papua New Guinea and General MacArthur had begun breaking through the Japanese encirclement of his Allied Pacific Command forces in Australia. The war’s initiative was now with the allies and General MacArthur’s “island hopping roadway to Tokyo” was gaining in momentum. Using captured airfields in Papua New Guinea and Guadalcanal allied long range aircraft bombers the allies could now bring the fight right to the front doorsteps of the Japanese Empire in the conquered territories of South East Asia. To reach home in Jesselton Tze-Fatt had to risk making a hazardous journey through the frontline Japanese Occupied territories of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo which was now the killing fields in a hot war, or he could wait until a ceasefire in the Pacific War when it was safer to travel but by then his family would have certainly perished.
While he was taking refuge in Malaya, Tze-Fatt had witnessed the horrors that the Twentieth Century philosophy of modern total warfare brought to innocent civilians and the resultant loss of humanity that caused a breakdown of community amongst a dispirit Malayan Chinese diaspora. Tze-Fatt knew that life in Jesselton would be little different to that of life in Malaya where Japan’s pogrom had decimated any humanity remaining in the local Chinese community. In these circumstances his family would be traumatised and without its patriarch was like a rudderless ship in a maelstrom and it was a matter of time before they would all perish under a socially unjust and inhumane Japanese Wartime Military regime.
With the lives of his whole family at stake Tze-Fatt felt he had little other choice but to leave the safety of sanctuary in Bee-Hee’s family home in Muar town and as soon as Bee-Hee’s father Lee Soon-Eng could obtain the necessary travel documents to embark on a highly hazardous journey through Malay Singapore and Sarawak to reach home in Jesselton North Borneo. Both Tze-Fatt and Bee-Hee realised the significant risks and threat that such a dangerous journey through the killing fields of a hot war would posed to life and limb and in fearing for the worst outcome they came to a sensible but fraught consensus to formally break off Tze-Fatt’s courtship with Bee-Hee. But in hoping for the best Tze-Fatt promised Bee-Hee and her father Lee Soo-Eng that as soon as he reached home in Jesselton he will send news of his safe arrival and on securing the safety and wellbeing of his family he will return to Muar to take Bee-Hee’s hand in marriage.
In late 1943 Tze-Fatt set off from Muar travelling by road through Malaya to the island of Singapore where he boarded a tramp streamer as an on-deck passenger and sailed for Kuching the capital town of Sarawak. Tze-Fatt’s travel papers only took him as far as Kuching in Sarawak and he was fortunate enough to secure work as a accounting clerk for Japan’s Colonial Civil Administration in Kuching to earn enough Japanese Wartime-Currency and secure the necessary travel permits to continue his journey to Jesselton. After working almost 6 months in Kuching Tze-Fatt finally saved enough money to pay the fare for his onward passage and he boarded a streamer and again as a on-deck passenger he sailed for Jesselton on the last leg of his long and dangerous journey and against all odds arriving home safely in mid-1944.
Tze-Fatt would later reflect that his return home to the Port of Jesselton in mid-1944 was a bittersweet moment. As he walked up the jetty towards Jesselton and through a silent town, he could see that he returned against all odds to a relatively intact Jesselton town which until then was spared the attention of Allied long range allied bombers operating from captured and liberated Japanese airfields in Papua New Guinea, Guadalcanal and Sulawesi. But Jesselton’s “phoney war” did not last long as within a few months he was soon to find himself a hapless witness to the destruction of his family home and business by allied aerial bombardment beginning in 1945 as the lead up to the liberation of North Borneo from Japanese occupation by Australian allied ground forces at the end of WW2.
Trial by Fire in 1955
Following the first ruinous fire at the end of WW2 in 1945, Tze-Fatt and his father’s two family retainers, Mr Chan Seng-Chun (Ah-Chip) and Wong Toon-Seng salvaged whatever property and goods that remained after his father’s shop along with Jesselton town was levelled to the ground by allied bombing at the end of WW2. Fortunately for Tze-Fatt much of the stock of wines and monies had been stored away from Jesselton town centre and kept at the bungalow where the family retainers lived. With the emergency lifeline of loans borrowed from his Leong relatives on his mother’s side and with grants and assistance offered by the British Colonial Government to win the peace in getting Jesselton’s township back on its feet again after devastation under Japanese occupation, Tze-Fatt was able to relocate his business to a row of temporary timber shop-houses built by the British Colonial Government fronting Jesselton’s Town Padang Railway Stop on the eastern margins of Kampong Ayer. There Tze-Fatt reopened his father’s line of business in operating a traditional coffee-shop where he also purveyed Chinese fortified herbal wines and in continuing his father’s small “awallah” financial remittance business which serviced the needs of a small China Hainan emigrant community living in Jesselton to periodically remit their salaries to support family members still living in China.
In the early post war years following the reinstatement of British Sovereignty over North-Borneo at the end of WW2, the Colonial Government’s laissez faire and progressive liberal “new deal” policies encouraged local businessmen to become stakeholders in the rebuilding of the Colony of British North-Borneo. To contribute in reviving Jesselton’s town community and commerce Tze-Fatt served on the Board of Jesselton’s emigrant Hainan “Clan” Association and the Jesselton Chinese Chambers of Commerce. To revive and revitalise Jesselton’s community British post-war colonial government put the reopening of schools high on its list of priorities and Tze-Fatt’s contribution to the development of education in his founding of the Jesselton Chinese Middle-School located on Race Course Road opposite the Jesselton Turf Club in Jesselton’s Tanjung-Aru precinct.
Unlike the pre-war North-Borneo Chartered Company employees that governed North-Borneo and who were exclusively bachelors as a condition of their employment agreement, the latter post-war British Colonial Government Service encouraged married men accompanied by their families to reside and work as government servants in North-Borneo. At the suggestion of Ralph Hone Governor of North-Borneo at the time, Tze-Fatt acquired freezer cabinets and began the distribution and retail of imported branded frozen meats, tinned milk and food products to serve a fast growing community of British, Australian and New-Zealand government servants residing in Jesselton’s Tanjung-Aru precinct and which laid down the beginnings of his lifelong career as Jesselton’s leading grocer and purveyor of imported western branded quality food products.
By 1947 Tze-Fatt was modernising the financing of his general grocery business and had become a proud customer of the Standard Chartered Bank. His good stead in Jesselton’s business community as a honest businessman meant that middlemen traders who supplied his grocery store trusted him to repay the lines of credit that they extended to help his business cash flow. With the financial support from his bankers and middlemen businessmen suppliers he settled the personal loans that he had earlier borrowed in part from his relatives and the remaining part from Jesselton’s prominent high-street businessmen as the initial emergency financial life-line he needed to get back on his feet again after the devastation to his business at the end of WW2 in 1945. Tze-Fatt then recalled his widowed mother and siblings back from the little town of Bongawan which was located a distance of about 60 Kilometres south of Jesselton where he had earlier sent them by rail in 1944 to take refuge with relatives during the final years of WW2 and he then resettled them in Jesselton town. When the local La Salle and St Francis Convent mission schools reopened he put his siblings back to school to complete their six years of middle and high school formal education that was interrupted by the closure of all formal schooling during the Japanese Occupation of North Borneo in WW2.
Bond and Bondage
Last but not least there was one matter left which was a promise to his future wife Bee-Hee to release his mother’s serf Ms Wong from her bond as a chattel to the family estate and to end a long feudal practice of serfdom and slavery in Tze-Fatt’s family. How Ms Wong had come to be a chattel and serf for Tze-Fatt’s mother Sen-Lan owes much to the fact that although slavery was officially abolished in China in 31st January 1910, serfdom was still in existence in China’s rural and agricultural community right up to 1951 as many of the earlier slave families only knew a life of servitude to their master. When slaves were freed in 1951 those that choose to leave the confines of their master’s estate headed for the cities in China. As the freed slaves were uneducated and lacked any trade or useful skill that could provide a means of making a living in the city to sustain a life outside their previous life of servitude, many freed slaves ended up as beggars scratching a living on the street of China’s cities and barely surviving off the merger charity of city folks. Serfdom where slaves remained tied to the landlords estate but were treated more humanely as an adopted member of their patriarch’s extended family and often taking the surname of their patriarch’s family as their own. The practice of serfdom continued in Hainan right up to 1951 when the Chinese Communists, with the exception of Taiwan island completed their conquest of all China when they symbolically took control of Hainan island in China’s far south.
Tze-Fatt’s mother Sen-Lan was born to a land owning Leong family and as common in feudal China, families who could aspire to aristocracy had their daughter feet bound by cloth binding before their bones lost their childhood flexibility and as early as 6 years of age with the bizarre intention to cripple perfectly healthy girls by stunting the natural growth of their feet. This bizarre feudal practice has its blurred origins in China’s Imperial Palace as a way to keep the womenfolk of its aristocracy from straying beyond the confines of the palace walls. Feet-binding was practiced by the lower landowning gentry social class as to emulate the Manchu aristocracy and the practice became widespread as a bizarre cultural fetish and an urbane status symbol which equally bizarrely rendered young maidens more upwardly socially mobile by marriage into a higher social class. When Tze-Fatt’s father Tun-Hiong married Sen-Lan she was almost crippled by the painful cloth bindings on her feet and needed assistance to hobble about the family compound. Her serf Ms Wong in contrast was a daughter of a poor peasant family and as a baby girl survived infanticide but when her biological parents came into hardship they had put their daughter out for sale as a serf. When Tun-Hiong heard of the plight of Ms Wong’s peasant family he purchased Ms Wong from her family as chattel to begin a life of servitude as his bride’s Sen-Lan’s personal serf and to assist her in walking to get about her family compound.
Tun-Hiong was in the government service first as a chief of police and then later as a District Officer, he was aware that Empress Cixi had decreed the practice of foot binding outlawed and this decree had not been rescinded under the present government. Further his forebears were purveyors of herbal medicine and traditional physicians from the Hokkein province and understood the fundamentals to a healthy lifestyle and thus Tun-Hiong had made up his mind to end the bizarre cruel and unhealthy feudal Chinese fetish for feet binding. On the day of his marriage in 1920 to Sen-Lan, he instructed his bride to removed the crippling cloth bindings on her feet. Tun-Hiong’s foresight would prove to be timely as later in 1932 when Sen-Lan had to flee the turmoil of China’s civil war with their four younger children, her serf Ms, Wong and household entourage to join Tun-Hiong who left Hainan earlier in 1929 with her eldest son Tze-Fatt to establish a second home in North Borneo; Sen-Lan was in good health and had regained the full use of both her feet to walk unassisted. For the rest of her life in North-Borneo Sen-Lan enjoyed walking about Jesselton town unaided. She remained in good health until she passed away 2 Sept 1992 at the age of 88 although her feet remained unnaturally small for the rest of her life requiring her to wear petite custom made clog shoes many sizes smaller than normal.
Before Tze-Fatt repatriated his mother’s serf Ms Wong to join her biological family in Hainan, he explained to his mother Sen-Lan that as he was to be married it was Chinese tradition for his future wife Bee-Hee to replace her serf Ms Wong as his mother Sen-Lan’s companion. Furthermore as his mother Sen-Lan had regained the full use of her feet she no longer required the assistance of her serf Ms Wong to walk and move about town when undertaking her daily chores. In late 1947 Tze-Fatt had notarised papers drawn up releasing Ms Wong from her lifetime bond as serf to his father’s estate and sent her back to Hainan to re-join her biological family. With his duties and obligations as the executor of his father’s wishes completed Tze-Fatt could then begin to think of fulfilling his promise to Lee Bee-Hee to marry her and raise a family together. Bee-Hee had been waiting for him patiently in Muar town Johor Sultanate of Malaya for his return since 1943 when Tze-Fatt left Muar under some duress to return to care for his widowed mother and siblings living in Jesselton North-Borneo after taking refuge with Bee-Hee’s family at the onset of WW2.
In late 1947 Tze-Fatt journeyed back to Muar town and asked Lee Soon-Eng for his daughter Bee-Hee hand in marriage. The couple had a quiet family church ceremony in Muar town Presbyterian Church and on the way home to Jesselton they stopped over in Singapore where at a simple ceremony at Singapore’s YMCA their marriage was legally formalised by a Registrar for the China’s National Government in Taiwan and witnessed by Taiwan’s Trade Consul resident in Singapore. After a brief honeymoon stay in Singapore the newly married couple returned to Jesselton to began their new life together.
Days of a Phoenix
By 1955 in less than a decade after Tze-Fatt’s marriage to Bee-Hee in 1947 they were proud parents to a family of three healthy children. KahPoh was their first child and daughter followed by the boys Kah-Ho and Kah-Lok and his wife Bee-Hee was expecting their forth child and son Kah-Imm. Tze-Fatt had established a thriving general groceries, cold store and wines business and for the first time since their marriage he could afford for his wife Bee-Hee and daughter Kah-Poh to travel back to Muar in 1955 to attend a family memorial for her late father who passed away a year earlier in 1954.
This second inferno on 14th May 1955 which took away the sole livelihood for his family will again severely test his strength of character, tenacity and perseverance in the face of a catastrophe to pull himself up and start all over again to rebuild a livelihood and secure a future for himself and those under his care as the family patriarch. Its was fortunate for Tze-Fatt that the North Borneo Government had recently completed two rows of two-story red-tiles shop houses fronting Bond Street as part of its post-war urban renewal effort to rebuild Jesselton’s high street after the destruction of WW2 and shop #109 Bond Street was available for immediate rent and occupancy. Gathering whatever little that was left after the fire that consumed his business, Tze-Fatt quickly moved his business to #109 Bond Street and reopened his Tong Hing Cold-Storage & Wines grocery store.
In the time after the liberation of Jesselton from Japanese occupation in 1945, Tze-Fatt had earned a sterling reputation for hard work and honesty in business and he enjoyed the goodwill of the British Colonial Government and Jesselton’s high-street business community. His reputation for diligence probity and honesty in all his dealings was perhaps the only business capital that he was left with at the end of WW2 but on which he could rely on again for financial support in loans extended by the Standard Chartered Bank and lines credit from his business associates as the emergency life-line he needed to tie him over the loss of his income stream while he moved his business to new premises after the second calamitous fire in 1955 that brought him to near ruins again.
In his new rented business premises at #109 Bond Street, Tze-Fatt had built Jesselton’s first freezer cold rooms to replace the small free standing freezer cabinets used at his previous business premises. Now Tze-Fatt could import and store whole carcasses of frozen meat and he set up a proper butchery to add value for his customers in preparing domestic consumer-size cuts of meat for retail. The first Tong-Hing Cold Storage & Wines signboard in English was raised and Tze-Fatt restarted general grocery business. Tze-Fatt worked a 6 day week getting to his shop soon after sun-rise and working long working hours daily in taking telephone grocery orders and attending to his customers patronising his store. After a long day’s work he would drive his black Austin A40 Panel Van every evening to provide daily home deliveries to his British government servants customers who were residing with their families in Jesselton’s Tanjung-Aru beach area. In a short three months Tze-Fatt had regenerated enough sales for his business to show a promising balance sheet, but that did not slow his entrepreneurial zeal and Tze-Fatt began to search for a piece of land in the town area on which to realise a vision to build Jesselton’s first modern supermarket and to house his cold store, groceries and trading business activities under a single roof.
A Town Like Adelaide
As a means to conduct a simple grocery market survey on the consumer support that he could hope to rely on from British families living in Jesselton, Tze-Fatt shared his dreams with his customers who patronised his store and one of whom was Bruce Aubrey Reeves a New Zealander who was a land surveyor and department head in North Borneo’s Lands & Survey Department.
Prior to the outbreak of WW2 Bruce Aubrey Reeves worked as a land surveyor for the Sarawak Kingdom ruled by the Rajah Brooke family at the time. The third Ruler of Sarawak, Rajah Vyner Brooke ended the absolute rule of the Rajah in 1941, by granting new powers to the Council Negri (the parliament) and this transfer of power happened just before Japan’s invasion and occupation of the British Colonies of Sarawak and British North Borneo. With the inevitable capitulation of the Rajah Brooke Sarawak Government who had no military means to resist the formidable Japanese invasion forces who had just conquered Malaya and Singapore and were heading across the South China Sea to take Kuching town; civilians with families were advised by the Rajah Brooke government to surrender to the Japanese invasion force as to avoid a senseless massacre resisting an unstoppable overwhelming force. Bruce Aubrey Reeves however who was a bachelor at the time elected to try a solo escape to Australia rather than to surrender and be interned by the Japanese Imperial Army. Taking just his compass and a few survey maps he had of Borneo and what little food and water he could carry in a saddle bag, Bruce Aubrey Reeves left Kuching on a pony heading southwards along the Kuching river and into the dense jungle of Borneo’s interior keeping one step ahead of a fast approaching Japanese Imperial Army.
On his earlier field trips to survey Sarawak’s interior, Bruce Aubrey Reeves had befriended indigenous Sarawak tribes living in the upper reaches of the Kuching River and it was in this direction that he headed on his pony. On reaching the traditional tribal longhouse community where his tribal friends were living he took a brief rest and after which he set off again accompanied by a guide from the longhouse community and together they headed westwards crossing into Indonesia West Kalimantan Borneo to reach the next tribal longhouse community. There Bruce Aubrey Reeves parted company with his guide and proceeded alone on foot and after an arduous one months trek through Borneo’s dense jungle travelling from longhouse to longhouse he finally reached the coast of Borneo and then worked his way southwards along the coast to the coastal town of Singkawang and finally reaching the town of Pontianak. In Pontianak Bruce Aubrey Reeves joined up with other British Australians and New Zealanders who were likewise escaping from capture by the Japanese Imperial Army and making their way back to Australian to join the war effort under General MacArthur’s Pacific Theatre Allied Command.
From the town of Pontianak, Bruce Aubrey Reeves boarded a ship bounded for Australia and after a long 6 months journey since fleeing Kuching he finally landed in the Port of Darwin emaciated from his ordeal but in good spirits and most important of all a walking free man. As Bruce Aubrey Reeves had been trekking through the mosquito and malarial infested jungles of Borneo and exposed to a host of potentially debilitating infections, he was sent by rail to Adelaide’s Infirmary for a full medical examination and to treat him for any tropical disease and parasites that he might have picked up. It was while recuperating in Adelaide’s Infirmary that he met his future wife Margret Glennis Smart who had nursed him back to good health during his stay in Adelaide. At the end of WW2 Bruce Aubrey Reeves married Margret Glennis Smart and returned to his former career as a surveyor with the Sarawak government which as in 1946 the third Rajah of Sarawak Vyner Brooke ceded his life interest in his Sarawak domain to the British Colonial Service, Sarawak was now governed by the British Colonial Office in London.
In 1949 Bruce Aubrey Reeves responded to an offer for posting to British North Borneo and transfer to the Land & Survey Department in Jesselton the capital of North Borneo. In addition to directing land surveying activities for the North Borneo Colonial Government as its deputy director he was town planner for the rebuilding and urban renewal of Jesselton the capital of North Borneo which was levelled to the ground at the end of WW2 unlike Kuching town which was spared allied bombing and came out of WW2 with its urban landscape intact.
Bruce Aubrey Reeves accepted his new posting to the North Borneo Government’s Lands & Survey Department and he arrived in Jesselton in 1950. His wife Margret, two young daughters Marion and Elizabeth and his baby daughter Ann who was born in Adelaide soon joined him. The Reeves family was to fall in love with their new home North Borneo and Bruce Aubrey Reeves and his wife Margret would stay on in Jesselton serving both the British North Borneo Colonial Government through to North Borneo’s Independence as the State of Sabah Malaysia in 1964 when he became the Director of Sabah’s Lands & Survey Department until he and his wife retired in 1967 to Adelaide in South Australia.
Jesselton’s High-Street Merchant
Bruce Aubrey Reeves was a frequent customer at Tze-Fatt’s Tong-Hing Cold Store & Wines grocery at #109 Bond Street and was North-Borneo Lands & Survey Deputy Department Head of Land Surveying and Town Planner at the time responsible for the post-war rebuilding and urban renewal of Jesselton. The North-Borneo Colonial Government had introduced the compulsory acquisition of land in Jesselton town centre which were left derelict at the end of the war for reasons that the land owners had no means to redevelop their land or simply had not fulfilled their land lease obligations to pay quit rent. To alleviate a development constraint on Jesselton town exerted by a middleman class of rent seeking landowners at the time, the Colonial Government had waived the requirement for disposal of Government land assets by public auction. From a town planning perspective public auction has the undesirable economic effect of raising property rental values benefiting a middlemen class of rent-seeking compradors, plenipotentiaries and landowners with little or no urban societal development gains accrued to benefit reviving Jesselton’s community and commerce.
When Tze-Fatt shared his vision to build a modern supermarket with Bruce Aubrey Reeves, he saw the development of a supermarket as a much needed community facility and an ideal land use for the urban renewal of a line of derelict land lots extending from the northeast beginnings of Bond Street and running southwest ending in front of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank adjacent to the Harrisons & Crossfield building. Under the post-war Government’s laissez faire post-war urban renewal schemes, Bruce Aubrey Reeves was able to offer Tze-Fatt the block of derelict land titles at a nominal lease value and attached quit rent. Tze-Fatt recognised a good business location when he saw one but declined Bruce Aubrey Reeves suggestion that he should strategically acquire and develop the whole block of land titles as a commercial strip, explaining to Bruce Aubrey Reeves that the corner end-lot opposite the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank would suffice for his supermarket business needs. In years to come Tze-Fatt would wryly reminisce to his eldest son Kah-Ho that if only he had accepted Bruce Aubrey’s Reeves far sighted offer to acquired the whole block of land instead of only its corner lot, he could have retired early as a very wealthy property tycoon.
In 1957 Tze-Fatt commissioned architect Billings Leong to design a four story Tong Hing Supermarket building at 55 Bond Street and when it was completed in 1959 its was a realisation of Tze-Fatt’s long held dream to own and open North Borneo’s first modern supermarket to serve his customers.