Learning > Inspiration

Finding her rhythm in music and drama

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Sue-Ann Tan on 16 Nov 2017

The Straits Times

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While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about one such person in the series, The Lives They Live.

 

It has been over 75 years since the Japanese Occupation, but survivor Mary Paul remembers the events of that era with piercing clarity.

 

Now 80, the retired actress recalls the sufferings of her family, but also the kindness of others at a time when cruelty prevailed.

 

She was four years old when the Japanese came. Her family lived near Siglap and kept a big farm with pigs, chickens and cows.

 

"At that time, if the Japanese wanted anything from us, they would just come and take it," she said.

 

"One day, two of them came to our home with big bayonets and said they wanted our cow."

 

However, instead of acceding to their request, Madam Mary's mother resisted.

 

"The servant of the house signalled to her to stop arguing, by using a single finger to silently draw a line across his throat," Madam Mary recalled.

 

"That was when my mother fell silent and they took the cow."

 

Besides this close shave, her father also nearly lost his life because he tried to help British soldiers, who were being marched through villages to Japanese prison camps.

 

"They looked half-dead," she said. "So my parents cooked a lot of food and packed them in banana leaves and told them to put it in their pockets."

 

This kind deed was reported to the Japanese by a neighbour and soldiers came and beat up Madam Mary's parents.

 

"That night, they took him (my father) to a prison at Changi to await execution in the morning. But an Indian guard opened the gate and told him to run for his life. He ran three to four hours in the dark before he came home."

 

However, Madam Mary's father did not stay for long. She said a priest helped to shave his head and gave him a false beard so he could flee to Johor under a false identity.

 

When the Japanese came back to the home the next few days to look for their escaped prisoner, he had gone. It was only about a month later, when the Japanese left Singapore, that she and her five siblings saw her father again.

 

"He was the lucky one," she said. "My mother saw a lorry-load of something (that looked) like coconuts one day, and when she looked closer, she realised it was human heads. That could have been my father."

 

Despite such painful and harrowing memories, Madam Mary said that these events lie in the past.

 

"I don't hate the Japanese now," she said. "In fact, there are some of them in my worship groups and I love them dearly. Why should we hate them for what some foolish people did in the past? My aunt used to say, during a war, everyone is wicked."

 

Following the wartime years, Madam Mary participated in various local musicals and television comedy sketches, despite the fact that she dropped out of school in her teens due to epileptic fits.

 

"I was in a group called The Scene Shifters and we did musicals such as My Fair Lady and Fiddler On The Roof," she reminisced with a smile.

 

Although half a century has passed, she still can sing the words to the classic songs.

 

"I didn't have any formal music training," she added. "I just sang in church and a lady told me I had a good voice. I learnt to read the music through the notes going 'up' or 'down'. It was all through experience."

 

Clearly, singing still brings her much joy, especially now that she is mostly confined at home. In 2008, her left leg was amputated below the knee because of diabetes. She was also diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012.

 

Besides music, Madam Mary acted in Mediacorp television sketches in the early 2000s, sometimes alongside TV personality and actor Gurmit Singh.

 

"I always played the grandma and auntie roles," she said with a laugh. "There was a time when I was on the bus and saw some of the sketches being screened, and I jumped up and said 'look that's me!'"

 

She also recalled a time when she was in a coffee shop and a man pointed at her, asking if she was on TV. The recognition gives her a sense of pride.

 

"I was not fully educated because I left school early, but it doesn't mean I can't do anything," said Madam Mary, who lives in Jurong West with her only child. Her husband died several years earlier.

 

Yet, setting aside her music and acting career, Madam Mary's proudest moment was when her son, Mr Anand Andrew Johnson, now a 51-year-old security guard, was born.

 

"I always wanted to know what a baby of mine would look like, and when I had a child, he looked so beautiful and he made me so happy."

 

Despite using a prosthetic leg and taking medication to manage her illnesses, Madam Mary remains cheerful and optimistic. She attends church once a month and bakes cakes for others.

 

"I'm happy that I know how to do things and I'm not just sitting at home doing nothing," she said.

 

"I still try to be as independent as I can."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.