Eat to Live: Wartime Recipes (Episode 2: Living off the Land)

Uploaded by NationalMuseumSg on 02.01.2013

After the Japanese occupied Malaya,
they anticipated that the region would
eventually be isolated and blockaded by enemy forces.
So, the “Grow More Food” campaign was introduced.
This was to ensure that Syonan was self-sufficient
enough to feed itself and the military.
The Agricultural Department distributed seeds and allocated land for the cultivation of food crops.
Available land in public spaces like football fields and
playgrounds was converted to vegetable plots -
even the Padang was not spared.
Plantations were cleared to make way for the growing of food crops.
Just like in Siglap, most rubber plantations in Frankel Estate
and Siglap had to be chopped down and turned into a vegetable farm.
The farm was for staple food such as tapioca, sweet potatoes, yam and corn
using modern farming systems like tractor, fertilizer, tools and pesticide
to destroy insects, bacteria and fungus. The result was impressive.
So in the beginning I think the approach was a softer approach,
where they tried to encourage populations to grow their own food,
they had you know, made all kinds of slogans.
They introduced gardening in local schools
as part as the schools curriculum right.
So you had students who were actually involved in,
you know, growing little plots, vegetables plots, in their school premises.
Right You had government workers who were involved in this,
you had prisoners of war who were involved in this as well.
In fact I think it’s mandatory for government workers
to spend at least 4 hours a week
working in their plots right, and if you didn’t do that,
it would be seen as subversion.
I am Ivy Singh I am a 63 year old Singaporean,
I am the owner of the Bollywood Veggies.
Bollywood Veggies is a beautiful 10-acre lifestyle farm.
I am a baby boomer you know,
so I never lived through the Japanese occupation.
I am the lucky generation.
But from the stories I hear from older people,
I think what happened was, there was so much devastation with bombing etc.
And people , a lot of the men were killed,
so they don't even have enough people who work in the fields
And simply people’s lives were all overturned
and so the growing of food ,I suppose, was interrupted
which was the main occupation of the community then-the farmers.
So if you overthrow the farmers and nobody grows food ,
I think people will just forage and eat whatever they could.
By 1944, the food supply was decreasing.
The “soft approach” to being self-sufficient was not working.
So, the Japanese reduced food rations.
And they created two farming colonies outside Singapore,
to provide the Syonan population with alternative food supplies.
My name is Tan Chong Hee. I’m 80 years old this year.
During the Japanese time, when the Japanese entered Singapore, our life was very hard.
So in this new village, this new settlement was opened by the Japanese administration
for us to farm, so we migrated to this place
With such an opportunity, we came here to farm. To farm, to be able to eat.
So we’ve been living here in Endau ever since.
My name is Lok Mei Lian. I was born in 1937.
I came to Endau when I was 7, until now, so it’s like 70 years.
We came here for employment. Carrying mud, build roads.
We worked in big groups. Most of the workers came from Singapore,
there was no work in Singapore
and there were rice rations to be had, otherwise we would have no food.
Why did so many people move in during the Japanese time?
Because of the death railway,
the Japanese were conscripting young men to work on the death railway.
So those parents who were rich, they abandoned their land and riches in Singapore
to move here to live. Because if you moved here, your son wouldn’t be conscripted.
When we arrived, they have built these longhouses for us, like in Indonesia, for us to stay.
Then for all our meals, the government would send big rice barrels for us to eat.
After three months, they would distribute a piece of land to you,
for you to farm yourself, to support yourself.
We would consume whatever we grow. It was enough for the entire year.
We never sold them. It was to feed ourselves.
It was tough then. Better than working for other people for a measly 3 dollars a day.
Cutting grass or whatever. Men get 5 dollars only.
In the past it was really tough to grow rice paddy.
Because when the jungle was just opened, there were a lot of tree stumps.
We had to use hoes and could hardly break them down.
Later on we grew sweet potato, tapioca. Rice only harvests once a year.
It is not about farming skills,
it is a love for land,
and a love of nature.
I was brought up loving the land,
and knowing if I put seeds in the ground
it’s going to grow into something.
If I grow a fruit tree, it’s going to give me fruit.
If I grow herbs I can use it in my cooking.
It’s knowledge of your surrounding, knowledge of geography,
knowledge of nature. So you learn the reality of land and life around you.
Endau was successful as a “model farm”;
but Bahau, a settlement for Eurasians and Chinese Roman Catholics,
was a different story altogether.
I am Joe Conceicao.
I am 88 years old. I was born in 1924.
I had been called to the Japanese headquarters
in North Bridge Road or some place like that…
I went into the Japanese person’s office,
and he told me to sit down. Then he said,
I think you better go to Bahau.
So that was a kind of… not a request, but an order.
We never knew how to farm,
which is really kind of concentration camp,
which the Japanese put the Eurasians in.
So they gave us a plot of land –
a very big plot of land,
which we found quite unproductive.
In fact, there was a group of Chinese settlers
who had moved through and they called it “Bo-ho”.
“Bo-ho” in Chinese means no good, you see.
Well, after we arrived there,
we had to be supplied with food because
we hadn’t started our own farming yet.
They provided rice, small portions for each family.
Lot of people was spreading rumors,
so and so died, so and so passed away, you know.
Finally one day, this is memory,
one day somebody came and told my mother that
my grandmother had died, right.
And mother got such a shock. She was so, heartbroken.
She was so upset you know, stressed out
because she thought that if she had gone maybe
grandma wouldn’t have died.
So she went to somebody, some important person
among the Eurasians and he said, nonsense,
it’s not true, she’s ok. So he brought her,
showed her this cutting from the newspaper.
This parts says a picture of a happy Eurasian family
outside a temporary homestead in Bahau.
And the people who died were the old people.
My grandfather died there,
and I had to bury him
And it was a horrible experience, you know, burying someone who had died.
So we use to make coffins ourselves,
just knock planks together, make a coffin
and then put it at the side of the bed,
and we use to take a long piece of wood and push the corpse,
because it’s full of ants and you don’t did not want to…
and the corpse will fall into the coffin and the ants will spread all over the place.
Then we would cover the coffin and bury it ourselves.
Bahau failed
because the middle-class Eurasian population who were sent there
knew little about agriculture.
But even for those who could farm,
the soil conditions were poor, and it was malaria-infested.
Around 3000 people settled in Bahau,
but by the end of the Occupation, between 500 and 750 died.
The exact figures are not known.
For Singapore if you look at the death rates right
for the periods 43, 44, 45, there was a spike in the death rates
and lots of people died, and much of it had to do with,
with lack of access to basic food. But in a kind of ironic way,
if you look at the diet that people were forced to consume
during the Japanese Occupation, it was ironically a healthy diet,
because it was low in fat, low in meat.
They were largely consuming fruits and vegetables, right, that they had grown,
and, you know, this is kind of organic farming right,
you know, you’re growing your own food,
free of pesticide and just using natural fertilizer.
So ironically the food that people were eating
that they could grow and had access to,
was ironically healthy food.
Today we are making a dish of lemak sweet potatoes and kangkong.
“Lemak” means “coconut rich”.
This recipe is from the book, Wartime Kitchen, and it was
contributed by Kathleen Woodford of the Eurasian Association of Singapore.
So I am just going to peel my sweet potatoes now,
and then slice the potato into bite-sized cubes.
Kangkong and sweet potatoes were actually two of the most commonly available vegetables
because they were cheap and easy to grow.
Three to four chilies depending on size.
So we using about four shallots.
I am going to transfer them to a pastel and mortar,
and pound them into a coarse paste.
So I am going to rinse some dried shrimps or hae bee,
add them to motar and pound them together.
They are essentially small whole shrimps that have just been sun dried
and they add lot of savouriness and flavour to a dish.
And the use of a few highly flavoured ingredients to make a dish very tasty,
is not just an example of wartime thrift but of Asian ingenuity in general.
Now we going to fry the spice paste in hot oil as the first step of
assembling the final dish.
Now I am going to add the coconut milk.
I am going to add the sweet potatoes.
This needs to shimmer for around fifteen minutes, until the potatoes are just tender.
Then we’ll add kangkong.
And season it with salt and the dish will be done.
And here is the completed dish
lemak sweet potatoes and kangkong.
In the absence of meat,
wartime cooks had to maximize taste and nutrition
from available vegetables, beans and carbohydrates.
Clever use of available ingredients
gave birth to innovative recipes
that filled empty stomachs.
After the Occupation,
Singapore continued to rely on overseas
supplies of wheat, rice and dairy.
But it also maintained a farming industry that produced vegetables and poultry.
This continued up to the 1960s.
People in charge of communities must understand,
you can give your community all the money in the world,
right, and all the housing in the world,
but if they don’t have food sustainability,
they have no connection to the land,
they are not going to survive.
So it is critical to understand that food sustainability,
self-sustainability, and connection to the land are connected.
During the war,
an urban population was forced to become farmers.
Although it was a struggle, they managed to feed themselves
and their families with what they grew.
The land offered sustenance and nourishment to the wartime population.
Today, as more of land-scarce Singapore is taken over for commercial and residential purposes,
self-sufficiency and feeding ourselves becomes an increasingly pressing issue.
How would Singapore cope
if our food supply is ever exhausted?
Can we go back to the land?