Saturday, January 23

The brave drivers and mechanics


Tribute to the Nanyang volunteers


The Memorial to the Nanyang Volunteer Mechanics and Drivers was unveiled by the then three surviving Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics on August 20, 2016. — Photos by Lim Yu Seng

THIS year 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the epic event of the Nanyang Volunteer Drivers and Mechanics who served in the Resistance War in China in 1939.

Last year (2018) the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register — Asia and Pacific Regions — had endorsed the contributions of this special group of people during World War Two. Who are the Nanyang Volunteer Drivers and Mechanics?

The term Nanyang, literally translated as Southern Ocean, refers to Southeast Asia today.

Before the Second World War, the region, with the exception of Thailand (formerly Siam), was controlled by western colonial powers.

The Memorial Monument to the Nanyang Jigong at Wanding, Yunnan. — Photo supplied by Tang Xiaomei

Indonesia was ruled by the Dutch and known as Dutch East Indies. The British controlled Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei.Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were ruled by the French as Indo-China and the Phillipines was an American colony.

As hard-working migrants, many Chinese arrived in Nanyang over the years and during the colonial period. These millions of far-flung individuals all considered China as their homeland and cultural base.

Generally, the term Nanyang Chinese is always considered as a reference to members of a disparate group in relation to each other, as well as in relation to mainland China.

Nanyang gave the overseas Chinese a collective regional identity, providing the basis for the founding of the Federation of Nanyang China Relief Fund Committees in 1938. When drivers and mechanics from Nanyang volunteered to serve in China during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), they were known as Nanyang Volunteer Mechanics or NanqiaoJigong.

From 1928 to 1937, Japan initiated a series of “incidents” as a pretext for military action in Northern and Northeastern China. On July 7, 1937 the Japanese claimed one of their soldiers was missing and demanded to search Wanping (a Ming Dynasty Fortress in Beijing) for him. The Chinese refused, thus creating a pretext for the Japanese to initiate the invasion of Beijing.


July 7 Incident

This event became known as the July 7 Incident or the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which marked the beginning of a full-scale war between China and Japan. The Japanese had estimated they could win the war in three months but it lasted for eight years, until Japan officially surrendered on Sept 9, 1945.

The Memorial Monument dedicated to the Nanyang Volunteer Mechanics and Drivers at Xishan Forest Reserve of Kunming, Yunnan. (Photo by Lim Yu Seng 2013).

About a month after the July 7 Incident, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Singapore published a notice in the Chinese press, calling for a conference to be convened on August 15, 1937.

At this meeting the Malaya/Singapore Overseas Chinese Relief Fund Committee was formed and Mr Tan Kah Kee (Chen Jiageng) was elected chairman. Simultaneously, the overseas Chinese in other Southeast Asian countries set up their China Relief Fund Committees as well.

About 180 representatives from the Philippines, French Indochina, Thailand, Indonesia, Hongkong, Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah, and Burma attended the Overseas Chinese Conference on Oct 10, 1938 at the Nanyang Secondary School in Singapore. Together, they represented more than eight million ethnic Chinese living in the American, French, Dutch, British colonies in Nanyang and Thailand.

By the end of the meeting, the Nanyang Federation of the China Relief Fund was formed as the regional coordinating body. Mr Tan Kah Kee was elected chairman, and the regional headquarters was located in the Ee Hoe Hean Club in Singapore.

The representatives from Sarawak were Wee Kheng Chiang, Hwang Yew Khiam and Tu Nai Bing from Kuching; Zhuan You Cheng and Yang Yi Ying from Miri; Chen Zhong Chi and Lau Kah Too from Sibu.

Through various fund-raising initiatives to support the war, the China Relief Fund facilitated the transfer of significant financial resources to the Chinese Nationalist government. The funds played a crucial role in supporting China in every aspect of the war and were used to purchase medication, medical equipment, clothing, food, and military hardware such as planes, tanks, trucks, explosives, weapons and other military material.


Ground-breaking Ceremony at the site of the War Memorial to the Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics at JalanTabuanSetia, Kuching on Jan 28, 2016. (From left) Dato Ngeng Eng Cheng, Dato Amar Hamed Sepawi, Temenggong Lu Kim Yong, Julitta Lim assisting Fong Chen Piao, Consul General Fu Jijun, Chai TzeJin, and Liaw Soon Hee.


Volunteer drivers

In 1939, the Chinese government requested the chairman of the Federation of China Relief Fund to recruit volunteer drivers and mechanics to serve in China. From Feb to Sept 1939, more than 3,200 young Chinese were recruited.

A Centenarian Birthday Dinner was held on July 26, 2015 to honour the then surviving Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics.

Among the documented lists were about 100 non-Chinese volunteers — 55 Indians, 18 Malays, 11 Burmese, two Indonesians. There were others whose nationalities were not given. About 100 plus came from Sarawak — majority from Kuching, others from Sibu, Binatang (now Bintangor), Miri, Engkilili and Bintulu. Those who had registered through the Recruitment Committee of the China Relief Fund in Kuching went over to China in three separate batches.

Some Sarawak youths had registered as volunteers in Singapore and others proceeded to China on their own. All of them were grouped again into different teams in Singapore before leaving for China.

Historic meeting of the five Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics 60 years after their return from China, (from left) Yap Kee Ping, Fong Chen Piao, Teo Tian Shu, Kho Hai Seng and Lee Ah Liew with the authors of The Intrepid Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics, Fong Hon Kah and Julitta Lim Shau Hua.

Since the Japanese had effectively blockaded the entire seacoast, the materials necessary to wage a war could not enter China from the sea routes. A road connecting Burma and Yunnan was eminent. It should be noted that from 1928 to 1945, General Long Yun was the governor of Yunnan Province. Therefore, it was under his administration that the construction of the Yunnan-Burma Road was carried out in Nov 1937. By Aug 1938, a barely passable road was opened and it required continuous modification and repair throughout its use.

International aids and supplies for China were sent by sea to Rangoon in Burma, then transported by rail to Lashio, and finally by truck through the treacherous Yunnan-Burma Road to Kunming in Yunnan.

It took about a week for a truck to drive from Lashio to Kunming alone. Then the volunteer mechanics would drive from Kunming to provinces such as Guizhou along the treacherous 24 bends, and Sichuan.

The Memorial dedicated to the Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics who served in the Second World War.

By 1941, it was estimated that a monthly average of about 600 vehicles with a combined capacity of 10,000 tons were using the Yunnan-Burma Road. It was truly a logistical feat, but the dangers faced by the volunteer mechanics and drivers were unfathomable.

One-third of the trucks on the Yunnan-Burma Road were donated by the Southeast Asian China Relief Fund. There were some 3,200 drivers and mechanics driving along the Yunnan-Burma Road in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces, and they were mostly volunteers from Southeast Asia.


Front cover of the new extended edition of ‘The Intrepid Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics’.

Half came back

After the war, of the Sarawak Chinese Volunteers who had gone to China to fight the Japanese, only half of them returned. Because of complications in repatriation, they could only come back in

1947 or later.

They had sacrificed much in the Resistance War of China, laying down their lives to sustain the bloodline in the Resistance War and fighting in the cause of peace and freedom. In a way, they had contributed, albeit indirectly, to the victory of the Allied Forces.

The epic story of the Sarawak Chinese Volunteer Drivers and Mechanics is not only an episode in the world history but also an integral part of the Sarawak Chinese history as well as that of Malaysian history.

In Malaysia several War Monuments have been erected in memory of these Nanyang Volunteer Mechanics and Drivers — Penang in 1946, Selangor in 1947, Johor in 2013 and Sarawak in 2016.

In China, there is the Memorial Monument in Xishan, Kunming, constructed in 1989 and one in Wanding, built in 2005, that is complete with a Memorial Hall, especially dedicated to the Nanyang Volunteer Mechanics and Drivers.

Back cover of ‘The Intrepid Volunteer Mechanics’ showing the Yunnan-Burma Road.

To date, three of the Volunteer Mechanics and Drivers — all centenarians — are living in China. Of the six Sarawak volunteers mentioned in the book entitled The Intrepid Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics and Drivers who were interviewed by Fong Hon Kah and Julitta Lim Shau Hua more than 20 years ago, have already passed on.

According to records, the first Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics who died in the course of duty was Xu Qixin of Sibu. While he was driving along the Burma Road, his truck was bombed by a Japanese plane in 1942. His death was reported by Chen Zhong Ji, the then Chairman of the Sibu Chung Hwa Chamber of Commerce in the annual journal of 1950. And the last Sarawak Volunteer Mechanics to pass on was Lee Ah Liew of Lundu — of old age in May 2018.

However, it was, indeed, a wonderful occasion when, after more than seven decades, Kho Hai Seng of Serian and Lee Ah Liew of Lundu revisited Kunming in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

To all the Nanyang Volunteer Mechanics, this epic event had remained in their hearts even to their final days on earth. This group of Nanyang Volunteer Mechanics and Drivers legitimately deserve the world’s recognition; the successful archival selection into the UNESCO’s World Memory Register is tribute to them!