Monday, May 01, 2006

The Battle of Serendah

All this fuss about Kokoda has rekindled interest in my own family's brush with the Great Pacific War. That, and I haven't had time for an original post. So here's a piece I wrote for my VCE English class seven years ago, about the Battle that Didn't Save Malaya.

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Our flight touched down after dark, at Kuala Lumpur's gleaming Sepang Airport, which doubles as a Formula One racing track. Visiting grandparents is routine familiar to every Chinese family. Much of our three days in the Malaysian capital is spent seeing friends, but one is set aside.

The North-South Highway shimmers in the heat, symbol of Malaysia's progress. We speed along in a rented Proton, the air conditioner set on high. One cannot look around at the surrounding country without shades: not that there is much to see. After passing the ubiquitous green-roofed tollgates, it is jungle or rubber plantation the whole way.


Serendah, once a tin-mining town, is now a jumble of housing estates, commissioned to line the pockets of some Chinese tycoon. The place is a bath of heat. We trundle down uncovered lanes and round blind corners, products of shoddy building regulations: symptoms of too-rapid development. The houses are typical Malaysian homes, one-story link structures sharing a common wall on each side, each with its own small paved yard in front. Chinese households are marked by the red altars standing in the front yards, or by blackened joss sticks stuck in the grass outside.

Serendah has not changed in sixty years. Kuala Lumpur is a city dominated by the Petronas Twin Towers, and sporting all the trappings of a First World capital, if not the cleanliness. My friends there frequent air-conditioned shopping centers and internet cafes. Here, bare-foot children play alongside open storm drains. In the restaurants, their walls plastered with Chinese lunar calendars and Guinness posters, old men sit at tables dotted with flies, staring at the wall-mounted TV between draws on their cigarettes.


The house, all tiles and bare walls, is surprisingly cool. The entrance leads into the living room, some four metres by three. A fan is suspended from the ceiling, its blades turning lazily. The sole evidence of the Nineties is a small TV and VCR in the corner. On top of the TV sits a photo of my family, six years past. One top of the VCR is a video tape of my one-year old cousin in Wantirna.

My mother converses with her parents in a string of Cantonese, smattered with English. My grandfather, hale for his seventy-seven years, reclines in a striped deckchair, cigarette in hand. His eyes, framed by prominent cheekbones and whip-combed hair, study me inscrutably. Koong (his Chinese title) grew up in this town, and like most venerable men loves to tell stories of his childhood. His favourite is that of the battle fought here sixty years ago, when the Japanese swept the British out of Malaya.

On this occasion, he asks if I would like to see the sites I have heard about so often in a Melbourne living room. With no other prospects for the next hour and a half, I readily agree. We don hats against the ferocious tropical sun, step outside and into his old Datsun, the interior musty and humid despite the shade.

We inch down the town’s main street, a solid mass of trucks, motorcyclists and the odd Proton. There are no traffic lights, much less regulations; the whole scene is awash with noise and heat, not to mention pollution from two-stroke engines. This was once the main trunk road from the north, down which the Japanese came, also riding on bicycles. Then, as now, it was overlooked by the ubiquitous Chinese shop signs, their characters splashed in red or black, with the absence of the small KFC. Finally, we are beyond the crush and driving alone along the outskirts. Grass tall as a man lines each side of the dirt road; the jungle has long since disappeared from this place. The land, once cleared for the endless rubber plantations, will likely soon be the site of some new development monstrosity.


Serendah, never a town of note, has one distinction to its name. Here, sixty years ago, was formed the first unit of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, the MPAJA; a force run by the Malayan Communist Party. The Malayan campaign was not going well. The outnumbered Japanese were driving the British and Indians down the peninsula at frightening speed. In desperation, the British recognized the Communists and gave them arms. Later, these would be used against the British themselves, in the postwar struggle for Malaya’s independence. At the time however, all the colonial masters cared about was halting the Rising Sun, for even a few days.

No local boys joined – my grandfather never contemplated it. The Communists recruited from the Chinese middle schools in the cities: smooth-faced youths, their minds opened by education and seeking a cause. Before them were dangled the twin prospects of a crusade against the hated Japanese, and the inevitable victory of Communism. ‘The East is Red’ was a slogan taken seriously in those days.


A cul-de-sac leads us to the river itself. Sungai Serendah is a sluggish creek, wandering beneath high banks crammed with jungle foliage. It is hard to imagine these slow brown waters being an obstacle to anyone, let alone a battle-tested army.

There is no bridge now, in place of the parallel structures of sixty years ago, one road and one rail. Both were dynamited by the British, as they arrived in retreat from the north. The British proceeded to fortify the line of the river, setting up four or five antitank rifles along the banks, with three artillery pieces in the town. They hoped to fight a delaying action, nothing more.

The Chinese population, meanwhile, had abandoned the town for the relative safety of the jungle fringe. The behaviour of Japanese troops in China was well known, and the fear of the Japanese Army preceded it. Koong and a few other youngsters, however, sneaked back out of curiosity. The town was being looted – even the Indian soldiers were breaking into shophouses in search of liquor. People were in no doubt as to which way the campaign was going. Already, survival was the priority. As Koong and his colleagues left, arms filled with as much as they could carry, the hills echoed to the crump of the British artillery, bombarding the Japanese concentration north of the river.

The fighting commenced just before dawn, the favourite hour for Japanese assaults – a fact the British had by now worked out. With typical disregard for personal safety, the Japanese tried to force a crossing in the face of withering machine gun fire. After clogging the river with the bodies of their soldiers, they withdrew and tried another way.


A drive past the derelict tin mine takes us out of town, to the Chinese cemetery by the river. The graves sprawl across the slope with a total lack of order, the size of each denoting its occupant’s affluence. The grass grows wild, save where a dutiful family has cleared a patch round their deceased.

The hill overlooks both town and river, and had been chosen by the fledgling MPAJA as their headquarters. It was occupied by about a hundred middle school students, boys with guns. One was on sentry duty when a Japanese patrol appeared and crossed the river. In panic he fired on them, and the Japanese fired back – but their mission was reconnaissance, not battle. The young guerillas hurriedly retreated to the mountains. ON their way, they passed through the refugee camp, telling everyone of their great clash with the invaders.

The Japanese had done what they did throughout the campaign – outflanked the defenders. Now Japanese fighters appeared to strafe the British positions. There was not an Allied plane in sight. By afternoon, the British had withdrawn. Kuala Lumpur, forty kilometers to the south, fell two days later. The Japanese chased them all the way down to Singapore, and what Churchill would label ‘the greatest disaster in British military history’.


For the people of Serendah, those two days transformed their world forever. The whole prewar order collapsed before an invader who was absolutely merciless. For the next three years the population eked out a precarious existence, between their occupiers and the growing prospect of famine. Koong supported the family by cycling forty miles to Kuala Selangor to buy tapioca, then bringing it back to sell to the starving Indian plantation workers. The Japanese were finally expelled in 1945, but they had shattered colonial prestige forever. The British returned to a population no longer prepared to obey them. In 1957, the Federation of Malaya was born. My mother was two years old.

I sit another hour in my grandparents’ house, listening to Koong and my father debate the merits of the Mahathir government. When I was small there was an Indian hawker on the street outside, whose pisang goreng (banana fritters) provided some relief from the monotony. But she is gone now; perhaps gone to the city to seek a better fortune. Serendah, like a hundred similar towns across Malaysia, is withering in the wake of the national boom. Already elderly folk like Koong and Po make up much of the population.

It is time to go. We say our farewells, getting into the baking Proton. Again I promise Koong that, one day, I will get around to writing our family history. The question is how far back it will go. It is something to ponder, as we board our flight to Shanghai.

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