WW2 survivor’s search for Bahau, and closure
The rain was pounding down hard last Friday (21 May) as I beelined my way into Avondale Library to listen to Christina McTaggart's World War 2 experiences.
Christina was the first baby to survive Fuji-go (‘Fuji Village’), a Catholic resettlement colony (also known as a prisoner-of-war camp) in Bahau, West Malaysia, during the Second World War.
It was a fearful time, and Christina’s immediate family members decided to move north from Singapore to the Malaysian settlement to escape ill-treatment by the Japanese.
Despite high infant mortality rates in Bahau, Christina was born healthy. She was only 18 months old when the war ended, so her stories have been handed down by her mother Hilda, now 91.
The colony, split into ‘camp 5’ for the Chinese and ‘camp 6’ for the Eurasians, offered protection and safety to its people.
“Otherwise you were ‘outside’ and risked being captured and tortured by the Japanese.”
Many men were interrogated and suffered a terrible fate, and one of Christina’s uncles was arrested, tortured and killed because he worked for the British government.
Starvation and malaria were the biggest killers in Bahau, claiming between 300 and 1500 lives. However, the settlers were allowed to roam freely as long as they behaved and stayed well within the boundaries.
“We were treated well as long as we worked hard to grow food – it was a time of survival.”
While it’s notoriously difficult to get war information out of the elderly Chinese, Christina has been documenting her mother’s stories for 20 years.
Christina’s uncle was 10 when they were in the camp. Now 76 and living in Melbourne, it was initially impossible to obtain any information from him.
“It was a very sad time. Whenever I asked, he always said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ He always wanted to forget about that part of his life.”
Christina and her cousin have been tenacious with the questioning, and the uncle has only begun to open up, in part due to the cousin having started researching the family’s history.
Beyond Gallipoli, and reliving history for future generationsKeeping people informed, and history alive, are the reasons behind Christina’s speaking engagements about Bahau. She wants to hand down her mother’s courageous stories of survival – not only to her own two children and six grandchildren – but to anyone who wants to know about the war heroes and survivors beyond Gallipoli and WWI.
“There were lots that happened to other people all over the world during the Second World War too.”
She wants to get people like her uncle “to come out of the woodwork.”
Compared with the Holocaust or China's Nanking massacre -- dubbed ‘the forgotten Holocaust’ by the late Iris Chang
in The Rape of Nanking -- the horrors in South-East Asia during the Japanese invasion are not as well known.
How the younger generations are being told about Japan's WWII involvement in its schools is still controversial. This significant chunk of history has, for decades, been hugely distorted or whitewashed in the country’s high school textbooks to the point that some Japanese are clueless about the war crimes which occurred.
“When I went to Japan and stayed with the families, I was given VIP treatment. But if you ever said anything [about the war], they would say to me, ‘No, it can’t be.’ It’s because they were not told.”
Christina will be doing two more talks in Auckland before heading off to Malaysia and Singapore at the end of June. She’ll be visiting her mother who’s turning 92 soon, and meeting up with a historian, Fiona Hodgkins, whose mother was also at the Bahau camp.
My jaw dropped when she admitted she’d never once been back to Bahau since 1945.
“I’ve always wanted to go! They [sic] have opened up so much more about Bahau. I’ll be taking photos and finding out all about camp 5 – Mukim 5 – my camp.”
She will dig deeper about other settlement camps – for instance, the whereabouts of camps 1 to 4 in Bahau if they existed – in her quest to piece together the Bahau jigsaw.
“I want to write about Bahau and the war. I have memoirs from a priest who was at the camp. He’s dead now, but I’ve got 80 pages and would like to get this documented.”
And hopefully, what Christina unearths will soon be turned into a valuable source of information about what happened in South-East Asia during the Second World War.
If you would like to get in touch with Christina McTaggart-Tie about her experiences or research on the Bahau camp, please email her at Kimnyongm0@gmail.com
Recommended books about Singapore, Malaysia and WW2
- The remorseless road: Singapore to Nagasaki, by James McEwan
- Empires on the Pacific, WW2 and the struggle for the mastery of Asia, by Robert Smith Thompson
- Singapore: the pregnable fortress, by Peter Elphick
- A fearful freedom: the story of one man's survival behind the lines in Japanese occupied Malaya, by Robert Hamond
Related linksArticles on Christina McTaggart:
- ‘Tale of wartime horror’, by Charles Chan, The Star.
- ‘Migrant works to honour war heroes’, by Lincoln Tan, NZ Herald.
- The Japanese invasion of Malaya, by Paul Kratoska.