Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One Day In 1969

I came across this article in the Star newspaper years ago. I read it with great interest because of the title and the content:-

IT WAS around 4pm, May 13, 1969.

I was taking my usual leisurely walk home from St John’s Primary School on Bukit Nanas in Kuala Lumpur to nearby Kampung Baru.

It seemed like any other day except that we were let off early. I didn’t know why, but as a 10-year-old I didn’t care.

On the bridge that divided the then Jalan Ampang commercial heart of KL (where British trading houses like Inchape and Wearne Brothers were located) from Kampung Baru, I saw my mother.

Surprised, I asked: “What are you doing here?”

She grabbed my hand and said: “I was going to take you back from school. Hurry, hurry, go home. There is going to be trouble.”

After seeing me home, my mother, who by then was in a state of panic, rushed to the other end of Kampung Baru to get my sister from the Jalan Temerloh school near where Istana Budaya is today.

I had no clue what was happening. Some of our neighbours had already packed and left. I remember my father telling someone off: “Spread rumours and I will report you to the police. There won’t be trouble. Just stay home.”

When my mother returned, she told everyone there were hundreds of people out on the streets at the Jalan Raja Muda/TPCA stadium junction but there was no trouble yet.

We were seven Chinese families living in four wooden houses just off the bank of the Gombak river, surrounded by Malay homes. Across the river, where the Renaissance Hotel now stands, was a small Chinese enclave where most of the Chinese in the area lived.

Born and bred in Kampung Baru, my five older siblings and I are first generation Malaysians. Our parents and our paternal grandmother who lived with us came from China after the War.

Kampung Baru was where I learnt to catch spiders, play guli-guli, watch joget at Malay weddings, enjoy sambal belacan and eat with my hands. My best friend was Atan, a chubby boy who lived just opposite us. I spent hours playing with him, ate and slept over at his house.

For a 10-year-old, it was bliss, although we were dead poor and all six of us slept in one room with our parents.

But our world would be shattered that one day in 1969.

By dusk, all but two families had left, including the family living in the same house with us. We decided to go indoors. Just as we were locking up, one of my sisters said, “Let’s go over and join Kimi Chi.”

Those words saved our lives.

Kimi Chi, our nickname for her, was a kind woman in her early 30s and we treated her like an older sister.

When we went over, she and her family – husband, amah, three kids, including a baby – were about to hide themselves in a Malay house separated by a narrow lane from hers. Fearing trouble, the makcik and her family had decided to leave but not before suggesting that we take shelter in her house.

The Malay houses were all on stilts. The Chinese homes were not and would be easily identified as all of them had altars in front.

Virtually minutes after we entered the house, they came, scores of them. They had come from the direction of Gurney Road using the riverbank. Soon, we could hear them smashing things up in Kimi Chi’s house.

This went on for a while and throughout that first night people were running up and down that lane shouting. We heard many gunshots from a distance.

I was not scared initially because I didn’t know what was happening. I thought it was just some bad hats running wild.

But the adults and older kids knew it was more serious than that. It was a racial clash – sparked by politics and bankrupt politicians – and we were caught in the heart of it.

Throughout the time we spent in hiding, we had only water and biscuits. Amah would quietly boil water to make milk for the baby. I was mostly hiding under the bed together with the other males.

The women had decided that the attackers, if they were to break in, would go after the males first so we should be hidden away. We spoke rarely and only in whispers for fear of being heard.

There were two close calls. One evening we heard two men talking outside the house. The baby cried. One man said: “What’s that”? The other replied: “Just a cat!”

Another time, someone said they should check the house. From their footsteps we knew they came right to the door, but stopped when one of them said: “Rumah Melayu-lah.”

After three or four nights in hiding we started to wonder how we were going to get out safely.

Then one afternoon, we heard light knocks on the side of the wooden house from outside and a male voice said softly in Malay:

“Hello, is there anyone inside?”

We maintained silence.

He knocked a few times again and said:

“Hello, don't be afraid, I am a soldier. If you are in there, please knock back.”


“Don't be scared, I am here to help you.”

Was he genuine? We were truly frightened.

Finally, out of desperation, someone answered him.

“Yes, we are inside.”

Within hours, the good soldier, who later told us he had heard the baby cry, brought in a rescue team.

We were taken to an army camp where we stayed for a few weeks. On the way there, I could see burnt cars and there were still scores of people with weapons roaming the streets. At one point, they tried to stop the army truck to check who was inside.

The army camp was luxury compared to our next place – the refugee centre at the Shaw Road flats school opposite Victoria Institution. There we slept on floors or desks combined into makeshift beds. There were at least 40 to 50 people crammed into each classroom.

From the school we could see soldiers patrolling the streets, and an armoured car was positioned all the time at the roundabout (now an underpass) opposite.

It was a couple of months before we were relocated to a low cost flat to enable us to return to normal life and for me, school.

I remember my school friends – Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians – asking me what happened on my first day back at school. They knew I was a victim by the tattered donated school shirt I wore.

Almost four decades have passed and, as someone who went through the horror, I say it is now time for us to exorcise the ghosts of that one day in May, 1969.

The people, regardless of race and faith, are ready. In fact, the people were never the problem.

There were many instances of one race helping others during the riots. Mine was only one of them.

May 13, 1969, was about politicians, politics and power.

So, are our politicians ready for a fresh start?

Ho Kay Tat is editor-in-chief of The Edge.

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