My cry of surpressed excitement was heard just as Tan was counting the amount of money to pay Asah of Rumah Kejaman. He intended to conclude payment having been reminded by Asah and his crew since the early afternoon.The air in the office reeked of sweet and tobacco.
Tan was the manager of the Nomura Shoji, an offshoot of the Borneo Company Limited, dealing in logging . He was born in Kuching and his present job necessitated him to be stationed at Belaga
Asah was a Tuai Rumah, a stocky but muscular and intelligent man. He and his crew had returned from Long Bahau, after three months of logging in the area.
I was the Dresser in charge of Belaga District, to which I was posted in april, 1942, having been assured that I would be there for only six months. I returned to Sibu on transfer only in June, 1946. (The assurance was conveniently forgotten by my superior officers though I sent reminders to them a number of times.) During the colonial days, Trusan, Lawas, Belaga, Meluan and Lubok Antu were stations where recalcitrant dresserd were transferred and forgotten. This was a result of being rebellious, or trying to assert one's rights.
1942 was different, however. My superiors had to be in the good books of the Japanese Medical Officers. They were the stubborn ones who refused to go to Belaga. I was an obvious choice - the meek and obedient dresser who always tried his best to nurse the sick and willing to take up responsibilities.
I was having my bath at the "jelatong" - floating wharf of two enormous logs plus a covered cubicle which served as the toilet.
I would like to explain that Belaga District lies along the last third of the Batang Rejang and its numerous tributaries which contribute a generous volume of water. It is a hilly district and the quickest and easiest way of getting about is by the river. Giam Bikeh demarcates the district from that of Kapit District. Belaga, which then comprised a kubu, a Bazaar of twenty-one wooden shop -houses built not unlike a longhouse, and a Malay Kampung, sits on the crest of a hill on the the right-hand bank of the Batang Rejang. A little distance from the kubu flows Sungei Belaga into the Batang Rejang.
It was from this sungei that Jok Imut paddled Sergeant Abu Kassim and stopped to tie up at the floating jelatong where I was taking my bath.
Sergeant Kassim, a Malay who had his military training in perth, Australia, was thickset and friendly. He had a beret on his head, and a revolver strapped to his waist where two hand grenades were dangling. He held his carbinet in his left hand, and his jungle green trousers were tucked into his jungle boots.
Jok Imut was a Kayan who lived in Rumah Ageng, which was about thirty minutes paddling up-river. For sometime past , there had been discreet whispers of allied personnel parachuting into Bario. I was taken by surprise by this unexpected intrusion. It was a pleasant one which everyone indulged in the days of enemy occupation.
Jok introduced us and we shook hands. Thereafter, sheer excitement overcome me. I raced up notched logs in bounds with the Sergeant and Jok behind me. I yelled.
"Tan! Tan! The allies are here!"
There was dead silence and suddenly the sounds of feet pounding the kaki lima planks. I saw Tan pushing his way excitedly out of the crowd of loggers and he ran towards me with a look of joy in his shining eyes.
The sergeant shook hands all round and the three-and-a-half years of cages emotions while under enemy occupation escaped like a burst boiler. Free! Free! Free! Tan whooped and pounded my shoulders while I hung tenaciously to the towel wrapped round my waist. We were riotously happy!
A crowd had gathered and on their faces were unmistakable signs of joy. Amidst this happy laughing crowd, a voice suddenly cut in. It was that of Asah's.
"Tan, apa guna duit pisang ini?"
"Makan dia!" came a general chorus. Who cared?
That momentous day was the last day of May, 1945. We had been under enemy occupation since December, 1941, and fed on news and rations handed out by the Japanese. Rations were increased and holidays were proclaimed only when they maintained that they had scored notable victories.
We lived in fear that we might say something which erst-while friends or acquaintances could turn to their advantage. We were careful but thought that should anyone decide to report, it would be easy for them to fabricate. The kempetai technique was to wring a "yes" from the unlucky person's lips with unimaginable tortures, and pulled in a string of others for questioning and beating.
Rumours were few and when there were, we would live on them for weeks. Many who found the enemy occupation intolerable prayed that rescue would not come too late. Like drowning men clutching at anything for survival, many would dissect every scap of rumour and placed their hopes on it.
Indeed, many who managed to keep alive and sane owed their lives to these rumours. Some Chinese mediums of questionable repute maintained that the World War II would end in the Chinese Year of the Cockerel - 1945!
Our wireless friend of the Post and Telegraph Department caught snatches of news from B.B.C. , London. These were depressing until the end of 1943. The outmoded battery charger was temperamental. It would sulkily run for days, and then for weeks it would not, despite a good amount of coaxing, swearing and well-timed kicks!
It was in one of its 'moods' when a Japanese Intelligence Officer chose to arrive. Our unfortunate friend was accused of sabotage when the Japanese officer could not have a high priority message sent out. He raved and screamed, threatening to decapitate the luckless wireless operator with his Samurai sword . At last, he cooled down sufficiently to see reason, and read the stacks of memoranda the Japanese Post-master-General had sent in reply to requests for spares. "It was hard times", the Japanese P-G wrote.
It certainly was harder for our wireless friend, and none of his friends could lift a finger to assist him, until the Japanese officer left amidst "Sayonara! Sayonara !". Then only did our wireless friend mutter: "Pig!"