Survivors of War

Posted on January 7, 2013


The same day as the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese Emperor launched his bid on the Pearl of the Orient and the other British possessions in its neighbourhood. Four days later, the bombing of Penang began, and life for my family would be changed forever.

The Rising Sun now ascendant over Malaya, previously distant horror stories of mass rape, genocide and retribution against agitating Chinese were suddenly much more real.

As women were quickly married off and locked away, as little girls’ heads were shaven to hopefully pass for those of little boys, as a local newspaper editor rallied the different races together to launch a collective plea for normalcy under the new Imperial masters, looting and anarchy finished off what the bombing had left intact. Our shop-house did survive the bombs, but it was never going to house a clock repair business again. The vandals had stolen everything, set the shop on fire, leaving the upstairs flat dangerously unstable and reeking of smoke.

There was nothing prosperous, auspicious or in any way festive about the spring of 1942.

During the time of the occupation my family lived on simple and cheap cuisines such as salted fish served with stir-fried bean sprouts, which I still enjoy even today in a time of plenty. This recipe, together with the others found in upcoming posts, are unique because they use traditional humble ingredients that have been a common feature of Chinese cuisine in Penang.


400g bean sprouts
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped finely
250g salted fish, cut into small pieces
150g fried tofu puffs, halved
2 stalks spring onion, chopped finely
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon water


  1. Rinse and clean bean sprouts. Remove roots.
  2. Heat wok with vegetable oil and sauté chopped garlic till slightly golden.
  3. Add salted fish and toast till fragrant.
  4. Add other ingredients except bean sprouts and stir-fry briefly.
  5. Add bean sprouts, stir-fry very briefly (5 sec) and remove from heat.

Serves 4 (with steamed rice or rice noodles/vermicelli)

Note: Be careful not to overcook the bean sprouts to preserve the crunchy texture. Dried salted fish can be found at Asian grocers.

Salted Fish & Bean Sprout2