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My Personal History

On my own at 13, I learned a painful lesson: Mochtar Riady's story (6)

The Japanese army detained my farther, leaving me alone and prey to swindlers

At the age of 13 I was suddenly left alone when my father was detained by the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Pacific War broke out in December 1941, and the following March Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies in pursuit of oil. Japanese forces landed on Java and advanced to Malang, where my father and I lived.

In Malang, there was an association of people who had come from Xinghua (present-day Putian) in China's Fujian Province. Both my father and uncle belonged to this association. The Japanese military believed the group to be an anti-Japanese organization linked to the Kuomintang government in Chongqing.

One morning not long after its arrival, the Japanese army detained the 62 members of the association. Both my father and uncle were taken away and did not return until Japan's surrender in 1945.

I was left completely on my own. I started running my father's textile store, and I also worked as a clerk at a hotel where Japanese military officers stayed.

Since Japanese guests used kanji to fill out the registration forms, I was asked to use my knowledge of Chinese characters to help with the registration process.

A portrait of my father, who detained by the Imperial Japanese Army (Photo provided by company)

I heard that some rank-and-file Japanese soldiers were violent, but the Japanese officers I met were all polite. They often asked, "Can you write kanji?" Even though I couldn't speak Japanese, using Chinese characters I was able to communicate with them in writing.

During Japan's occupation of Java, local residents were required to take turns keeping watch on each of the town's streets every night.

We had nothing to do but to kill time during these long night watches. On one such night, three men and I were also on watch and we agreed to bet on a traditional Chinese card game called "Si Se Pai," or Four Color Cards.

I suffered an endless spate of losses and ended up deep in debt. I sold some of my father's belongings, including gold ornaments, to pay what I owed, but even that was not enough.

The three men came to my house and demanded payment. They were all more than 10 years older than me.

I left my house and did not return for days. But as I stood in front of my mother's grave weeping tears of bitter regret, it suddenly dawned on me: "They must have cheated me, a child, out of money." This realization gave me the courage to return home and reopen the shop.

Before long, the three men came to my house and again demanded money. I flatly refused them.

"You cheated me in the game," I said. "I'll forget about the money I have already paid, but if you keep asking for more, I'll tell people I know about this."

The trio never gave me a hard time again. I learned a bitter lesson from this mistake. Since then, I have always heeded my father's advice and refrained from gambling.

During the Japanese occupation, junior high school classes were canceled, so I continued to attend Nan Qiang Primary School.

The school's principal, Luo Yitian, was well-versed in classical Chinese literature. Principal Luo helped me read such classics as "Laotzu," "the Analects of Confucius" and "Master Zuo's Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals."

The principal also enlightened me on contemporary thinking, like Sun Yat-sen's "Three Principles of the People."

Principal Luo was a staunch believer in leftist ideology and encouraged me to read a book written by Zou Taofen, a respected Chinese journalist in those days. The book described how black people were oppressed in the U.S. and criticized capitalism.

"Although all people are equal, imperialist nations rule many colonies and discriminate against Asians and Africans," Principal Luo said.

Influenced by his thinking, I began to develop sympathy for anti-imperialist and anti-colonial causes. 

 

Mochtar Riady is the founder of Lippo Group.

Click here to read Mochtar Riady's full "My personal history" series.

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