AT the age of 15, girls were pretending to be boys during the Japanese Occupation in Malaya, but Yap Chwee Lan was bravely rescuing the people of Kampung Baru, Johor, all because she could speak Japanese.

“Every night, about seven or eight young girls from the neighbourhood would come to my house to sleep because they felt safer there. They knew I could speak Japanese,” recalled Yap, now 90.

“The Japanese soldiers would come knocking on our door to ask for young girls and I’d respond in Japanese, ‘Why do you need women? You need housekeepers?’. They were shocked I could speak Japanese.”

Yap learnt the language from her former Japanese employer, who was a hairdresser in Johor. The then 13-year-old picked up the language quickly, and was even treated well by his family.

Yap’s fluency in their language granted her favour in the eyes of the Japanese, and this ordinary girl found herself holding extraordinary power – the ability to save people.

She managed to save those who lived in her town, Kampung Baru, Johor, by identifying them – in Japanese – to the soldiers who would have killed them on suspicion of aiding the resistance.

And we were there to capture her experiences as the R.AGE crew brought her around Johor to film at locations that hold significant memories during the Occupation. This is for The Last Survivors, an interactive online documentary project that aims to raise awareness to youths about the importance of preserving Malaysian World War II stories.

From the temple where she sought refuge during the Japanese attack in Singapore to the laundry shop where she hid young girls from the soldiers, World War II survivor Yap Chwee Lan brought the R.AGE crew around Johor for The Last Survivors shoot. — CHEN YIH WEN/R.AGE

Listening to her stories when he was growing up, one of Yap’s grandson Sebastian Chew, 18, is glad he didn’t have to experience WWII and the Occupation as he thinks it will haunt him throughout his life.

“I can’t imagine going through everything – from the bombings, hiding, living in fear and when the Japanese made the people dig their own graves in one of the fields and killed them. I don’t know how my grandma did it,” he said.

“That’s why I think it’s important for young people to know about these war stories so they can prevent anything of this sort from happening in the future. It’s cruel and heartbreaking.”

In her teenage years, Yap, whose father passed away when she was seven years old, had to work because her family was living in poverty.

She got married when she was 15, and lived with her husband Chiew Seng Leung at his laundry shop, Kedai Dobi Shanghai, in Johor Baru. Twenty days after their wedding, the Japanese started bombing Singapore.

Japanese fighter planes, based in Johor, would fly across to Singapore twice a day to bomb the neighbouring country. As the Japanese was attacking Singapore, lots of people walked over to Johor for safety. Yap and her family evacuated to Tampoi.

“We packed food and clothes, and placed them on my husband’s bicycle. As we were walking to Tampoi, we were stopped by a soldier because he wanted our bicycle. I told him in Japanese that it was ours and he let us through,” said Yap.

“The soldiers would leave you alone if they knew you could speak Japanese because it was like you were one of them. They’ll have more respect for you.”

At the old temple in Tampoi, Yap sat down with R.AGE producer Chen Yih Wen to talk about the time she and her family, along with 50 other people, hid at the temple for a week before it was safe for them to go home. — VIVIENNE WONG/THE STAR

Once they were in Tampoi, they sought refuge in a temple along with about 50 other refugees, but soldiers came looking for comfort women. Yap not only told them there were none, but also said she was part Japanese, hoping they wouldn’t come back.

But the next day, the Japanese returned. This time, they were with their general.

“Strangely enough, I wasn’t scared.”

“He was impressed that I could speak Japanese and praised me, saying it was good because I could help the Japanese soldiers,” she said. He proceeded to ask Yap if they had enough food and made sure they did by sending them rice, sugar and flour so they could cook.

He also offered her a job in Singapore as a liaison officer between the Japanese and the locals. She took the job after the island was invaded, but later learned that the Singaporeans she had liaised with were all eventually killed.

The distance was too much for Yap to handle as well, as she didn’t know if her family was well and alive. She returned to Johor one week later, and things were unfortunately similar to what was happening in Singapore.

Chiew’s boss had been arrested, along with a bunch of other people.

“There were black flags all along the streets,” Yap recalled. “It meant everybody was to stay home, because the Japanese would arrest anyone on sight.”

Those who were arrested were taken to a house in Jalan Abdul Samad, behind what is now the Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar, to be held before being taken to Dataran Bandaraya, where they would be executed.

“When I got to the house, the people were kneeling on the ground, their hands tied behind their backs with thick wire as the Japanese soldiers pointed bayonets at them,” said Yap.

“A lot of them called out my name, begging me to save them. Then the Japanese asked if I knew these people.”

“I said, ‘Yes, I do’. A lot of them lived in my neighbourhood. When I identified them, they were freed.”

The rest, whom she couldn’t identify, weren’t so lucky. Her mother’s friend’s son was one of the unlucky ones.

“I didn’t see him there, I was devastated when I found out. His mother was crying in the street,” said Yap, recalling the horrors of wartime Malaya.

Those remained were brought to the field. They were asked to dig holes in the ground, sit at the edge of the holes and were shot with machine guns.

As the bodies fell in, those who were merely injured were kicked into those holes they had dug themselves and buried alive together with the dead.

While a great number of people died during the Occupation, many more owe their lives to Yap.

Her family, though, remained safe, thanks to Yap.

“Before I went to Singapore, the Japanese general gave me a permit for my family,” she said. “He told me, ‘If anybody disturbs your family, ask them to report to one of my officers’.”

Today, Yap and her family still live in Johor, where some of the survivors’ descendants still recognise her.

Yap was accompanied by her grandson (left) Sebastian Chew, 18, and her son (right) Chiew Kek Whye, 64, during The Last Survivors shoot at her house in Johor. She has 11 children, 25 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. ― HAFRIZ IQBAL/R.AGE

“I was walking around town and suddenly someone called out, ‘Ah Ma!’. They told their kids that I saved their grandfather or grandmother,” Yap said with a laugh.

  • man from Tokyo

    As a Japanese, reading a series of articles brings me deep sorrow and remorse.Even 70 years have passed, we Japanese still are stunned by what happened during WW2.I know, of course, what my country did in 1940’s especially in Asia.Japanese invention seriously damaged Asian countries including Malaysia.For instance, I can see many inhumane words in this story.Those were what our grandfathers did.This truth really depressed me.When talking with my Malaysian friends, I always recall my grandfather and think about a word “sorry”.

    It was 80 years ago when my grandfather was in mainland China.He was a solder.I am not sure what he did.I am also not sure if he killed someone or not.I am only sure he was awarded with many decorations.I was not familiar with him – to be honest, I didn’t like him – hence, there is no memory of talking with him.I have never heard about WW2 from his lips.If I had got any clue from him…I would have hated him more? It is no point thinking about it, though.He passed away 30 years ago.

    So, all the memories will fade away like old soldiers.Once lost, it is hard to retrieve.I believe that memories are more honest than records

    facing the past is sometimes difficult.However, what makes us human is that we can share knowledge, thought and memory.Living in this beautiful country, I will remember my grand father again and again.With sorrow and pain.

    • R.AGE

      Dear Man from Tokyo,

      Thank you for your sincere comment and understanding of what went on during the Japanese Occupation. If it is any consolation, all the survivors featured said they have no ill will towards the current generation of Japanese, and that they understand now that how Imperial Japan behaved is to be expected of a conqueror.

      As we also want to feature both sides of the story, do you happen to know any Japanese survivors who were in Malaya during WW2?

  • man from Tokyo

    If I could be a middleman between you and ex-Japanese soldier, it would be a consolation and a meaningful step.However, it is hard to find them even in Japan due to their old age.They are 90 years old or more.

    Thank you for your warm words.I always appreciate all Malaysians.

    • Dear Man From Tokyo,

      We’re actually in the process of trying to find the ex-Japanese soldier, but the government agency we contacted in Japan said they’re not allowed to pass on any information 🙁

      • manfromtokyo

        I think that no one can stop ex-soldiers from expressing their opinions and experiences.Because freedom of speech is guaranteed in my country.Even in front of the emperor’s palace or the parliament building, we can say whatever we think.If there was someone who wanted to stop others from expressing opinions by a political attempt, that person would be blamed strictly. I suppose that the reason for ex-soldiers’ silence would be their emotion.Because It would be a hardship even for them.

        Give me some time.I try to talk with my friends who are in a media industry.It would be not easy, though.

        • Al Johnson

          There are a number of ex Japanese soldiers who remained in Indonesia and fought in the Merdeka movement. They are registered as heroes with the Indonesian government, pretty easy to look then up as they give interviews every year.

  • vincentia

    we need to know the history(past),the true history and learn from the past but not to live in the past and repeat the past. Don’t bring down the revenge and hatred to the next generation. I believe that those survivors featured and old soldiers. Deep down in their heart understands what is truth. The most important things is we must have LOVE in our heart. And not self-centered. See the world now so many mix married. That is LOVE.

    • Couldn’t agree more! The survivors in this series all talk about how important it is to learn lessons from what happened during WWII, but almost all of them said they’ve made peace with what happened, and they do not blame the Japanese. Takes incredible strength to have such forgiveness.

  • The atrocities that human beings commit against other human beings in any form of conflict (be it personal, commercial, tribal, racial, religious, political) have been a well documented fact of the history of human “civilization” that have been occurring and also accepted by nearly everyone in those times as a universal social norm until after the Second World War. With the establishing of the United Nations a new world order slowly began to emerge that seeks to establish a more “equitable” and humane world order.

    The current world order “oversight” that places emphasis on human rights, freedom of expression and freedom to practice one’s religion have not occurred naturally or overnight but took decades of political, military and social manuring. Let us not deliberately pretend to be stupid to not realize that everywhere in every nation and in every nook and cranny of this earth, forces are continually being exerted to take the social order back to the days of barbaric atrocities of the days where those who hold power (whether social, commercial, religious, political andor military) can plunder, rape and murder anyone and everyone they are able whenever they have some measure of impunity to be able to do so, even as this is still occurring before our very eyes in many areas and in many nations today.

    Even in the more socially liberal and humane countries among the so called developed nations, plundering (i.e. thefts and robberies), rape and other violent abuses, and brutal murders and salvage carnages are stilled be perpetrated by criminal elements on a daily basis.

    So let us not fool ourselves that we are living in a peaceful and humane world. It is just a surface mirage that can at any moment ruptures and dissolves into violent and brutal carnage that humankind have always carried out against one another whenever they come into unmitigated conflict. This rupture by the way is what we are still seeing and continue to see everyday in many nations of the world today.

  • Hamdan Mustapha

    My father grew up as a child in Kepala Batas during Japanese Occupation, and spoke quite good Japanese then. He has some interesting stories to tel about what happened at the POW camp nearby. That’s all I can share with the readers in this window.

    • R.AGE

      Hi Hamdan Mustapha,

      If you’d like to share anything with us, you can email us at We’ll put the story and any pictures you have up at 🙂

    • Hi Hamdan Mustapha. If you’d like to share your father’s story with us, you can email it to We’ll put the story and any pictures you send up at

  • Subang-ian

    I listened to this story the 3rd time. The 1st time was from my father of how my grandparents survived by washing clothes and fixing the japanese soldiers uniform, basically working for the japanese saved their lives! Eventhough they were called traitor of their race but if it saves them, why not?!
    Currently i am working in a small japanese construction company in Malaysia & once told the malaysia WW2 story to a japanese colleague. He was shocked! He said in history books in japan, the soldiers went overseas as teachers. How come what i told him is totally different from what he read. He could not believe what i had told him.I told him its ok, i have no hate againts you or japanese people. Its during our grandparents time, does not relate to us. ( Though i wonder if my grandparents were alive, what would they feel if they knew i work for japanese people. )

    We should move on. I have a few japanese friends, but I am hesitating to show this story, as I feel there is no need to make them say sorry for their grandfather’s doings. What good does it bring to us? When we receive an apology from someone 3 generations later.

    What are your thoughts on this? Should i share this story with my japanese friends? I do not want to make feel /say sorry for something they did nothing wrong to me.
    Also Japan has been paying alimony money to all the countries they have did wrong to since WW2 .China receives the most but still holds the most grudge until today!
    Malaysia’s alimony is in another form. Political collaborations.

    • matthewchua14

      You shouldnt hesitate to tell them about this story,it is the truth and it is something they should know,to learn from it.we are made of history after the saying goes,those who dont know history are doomed to repeat it.

    • Hi Subang-ian,

      Thanks for sharing your story with us. Where were your grandparents during the war? We’d love to put their story up on . If you have any pictures of them you’d lke to share, you can email them to

      We believe you should share these stories with your Japanese friends – many of the survivors we interviewed say the current generation has nothing to do with the war so there’s nothing to apologise for. However, there should be awareness of what happened in the past so the same mistakes aren’t made in the future :).

  • Al Johnson

    Like the article about the living witness to tge landing in Kota Barhu, this article is also filled with many errors.

    First, the Comfort Women were contract prostitutes from existing brothels, NOT hired directly by Japanese soldiers. So the assumption the soldiers were looking for Comfort Women is completely inaccurate and a little suspicious as to the integrity and ability of the writers.

    Second when the author states “Japanese fighter planes, based in Johor, would fly across to Singapore twice a day to bomb the neighbouring country.” this again is completely inaccurate, both areas were under British occupation and not separate “countries”. This is basic history -101and the mistake in fundamental understanding makes the rest of the project highly suspect.

    • Hi Al, thanks for commenting! While it is true that a lot of comfort women comprised of prostitutes, all the survivors we have spoken to have said the Japanese lured or dragged away women and girls to serve as comfort women. This is also something former comfort women in other countries (such as Korea and China) have mentioned.

      You’re right in that Singapore at the time wasn’t a different country (it was considered Malaya), however the article was written for the present time where it is a separate country.

      Thanks again for checking out Chwee Lan’s story – she’s one amazing lady.

      • bombkiller007

        Is there an unedited interview link?

      • Al Johnson

        Thank you for the reply, I agree that she is one amazing lady.

        However, the information regarding Comfort Women is compiled from US, UK, Dutch wartime investigations into the Cofmort Women specificly for wrongdoing such as kidnap/rape/illegal confinement. None of these were found in the thousands of civilians processed and many Comfort Women that were captured and interrogated. I am addressing the Korean women specificly because they were a particular focus of the US OSS who was conducting OPERATION EAGLE at the time to identify, fund, and motivate Koreans to split from supporting Japan and form a revolutionary government under Kim Ku and General Lee. The South Korean professors of concious such as Professor Ahn Byong Jik (Seoul University) Professor Yuha Park (Sejong University Women’s Studies), and Professor Lee Yong Hoon (Seoul National Uniersity) who actually were allowed to interview, research, and verity the allegations of kidnapping found that NONE of the South Korean group (and two Chinese that took residence there after 1997 and 2000 respectively) were kidnapped and/or forced.

        The difficulty in oral interviews as you know is that (a) Individual testimony wihtout evidence to support is the lowest form of proof. This is both for honest historians as well as court testimony. (b)Methedology must be implimented to guard against transference from the interviewer, or even other external factors, into the account of the person being interviewed. Especially on Senior Citizens, it is very easy to guide them into statements they never made before.

        I would highly recommend the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Washington on memory and how easy it is to fabricate memories in subjects. As a professional goal, it is always good to note the signs of false memory, understand the limits of false memories, and most important ethicly…to guard against intentionaly or unintentionaly guiding someone being interviewed into a false memory or encoraging a false memory. I am not saying Ms. Lan’s account of the Japanese is incorrect, but it does not match the facts, and the word “Comfort Women” was not in the Malayan lexicon at that time, so this is evidence in part of a recently constructed understanding of the issue (The Comfort Women issue was created in the late 1980s by a small group of Japanese lawyers and writers interestingly..but that is another story).

        Thank you again for preserving the oral interviews. Will you do the same for the Malayan Emergency?

      • Al Johnson

        Do you have the list of the Comfort Women you interviewed?

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