KUALA LUMPUR: There is an old Cantonese saying: “Thin tit lok lay, dong pei kum”, which means, “If the sky were to fall, we shall use it as a comforter”.
Meant to put people’s fears to rest, the saying is also the title of a book by Malaysian historian and professor Gary Lit.
It is quite an apt title, given that it was the life motto of Lit’s grandfather, and it represented the mentality that helped the Lit clan survive through trial and tribulation.
Written in the memory of Lit’s late father, it is a biography that follows the story of the Lit family during the turbulent years of World War II and the Emergency period.
In the book’s introduction, Lit writes that he had long planned to tell his family’s story, but felt that his father’s memoir ought only to be written when his father was no longer around, as it contained controversial elements.
So it was that only after Lit’s father died in 2015, did the professor begin putting on paper the many stories told to him by his father about the war.
“If the Sky were to Fall…” rightfully begins by sharing the civilian perspective of Malaya in the years leading up to the Japanese invasion.
Lit is a particularly descriptive author, and masterfully conveys the panic that gripped the people when they heard of the advance of the Japanese.
Despite the turmoil, Lit’s grandfather, Dai Gow, guided by his life’s motto, stayed level-headed and led his family out of Kampar and into the jungle to escape the fighting.
The memoir describes in vivid detail how the various members of his family reacted to the ordeal and struggled to keep their wits about them.
At points, it reads almost like a children’s adventure novel, with Lit’s father and his friends getting up to all sorts of exploits while avoiding Japanese patrols.
Yet, it is still very much tethered to reality – the sorrow felt when there was a death in the family, and the horror of seeing friends suffer the cruelties of the war.
In addition to retelling the story of his family’s ordeal, the memoir also provides readers with a different perspective of the events that became a part of Malaysian history.
While the first half of the book deals with events during the Japanese occupation, the second half details life during the Communist insurgency.
Many Malaysians are only vaguely aware of the period, with the Communists often being portrayed as power-hungry terrorists attempting to seize control of a young Malaya.
But Lit reminds readers that the insurgents were very much complicated human beings, and not mindless minions.
One recurring figure in the book is Keong, a man whom Lit’s father befriended while hiding out in the jungle during the Japanese occupation.
In the early chapters of the book, Keong is described as a strong and determined young lad who protects his family at all costs.
However, by the end of the war, Keong had clearly become a battle-scarred and tired guerrilla, having given up years of his life for his ideological beliefs.
It is quite a sad and shocking moment for any reader to digest, and witnessing Keong’s transformation is a sobering experience.
The stories in Lit’s book are a mix of humour and despair. And despite these stories being from a bygone age, they still impart a wealth of wisdom to anyone willing to learn from the experiences of others.
“If the Sky were to Fall…” is a good read for anyone seeking a glimpse of war-torn Malaya and a worthy tribute to those who came before us.