Yap Chwee Lan was only 13 when she picked up the Japanese language from her Japanese employer.
Her first job as a babysiter started from the tender age of nine and it earned her merely RM3 per month.
“I worked from 7am until 9pm every day with no days off,” she said.
She later got a job with a Japanese hairdresser for about two years before she got married at the age of 15. She lived with her husband at his laundry shop, Kedai Dobi Shanghai.
But 20 days after I got married, the Japanese started bombing Singapore and Japanese fighter planes would fly around above them.
Her Japanese language ability was a valuable asset in helping save hundreds of lives during the Japanese Occupation in then Malaya.
When the war started, her family decided to move from Johor Baru and sought refuge at a temple in Tampoi.
While on the way there, a Japanese soldier had stopped her husband and demanded for him to give up his bicycle.
“I asked him in Japanese why was he taking away my husband’s bicycle. That shocked him,” she said.
The soldier apologised and let them through.
In the temple there were about 50 other people seeking refuge and at night, Japanese soldiers would come knocking to ask for the gu niang (chinese word for maiden).
During those times, women would cut their hair short and hide in drains to avoid being taken in as comfort women for the Japanese army.
When the soldiers heard Yap speak in fluent Japanese that there were no women in the temple, they were very impressed. She then earned their respect.
“They were very impressed. They would ask me if I had enough to eat, besides giving me rice, sugar and flour.”
One of the Japanese generals even offered her a job as a liaison officer between the Japanese and the locals in Singapore.
But her heroism didn’t end at the temple.
When she moved back to Johor, the Japanese had put up black flags on the street indicating that no one were allowed to be out of their homes. And those who defied the rule, were killed.
Those who were caught outside their homes would call out Yap’s name and she would tell the Japanese soldiers that those were her friends. The Japanese soldiers would then let them go.
Thanks to her Japanese speaking ability, Yap estimates that around 300 people avoided execution.