Shirley Chan
This is writing…

Thank You from Singapore

by Shirley Chan
(The New Zealand Herald & Rotorua Daily Post)

Attending her very first ANZAC Dawn Parade after 13 years as an immigrant to New Zealand, Shirley Chan recounts what the experience means to an Asian.

As a new migrant to New Zealand, I was warned by a Kiwi friend, “Don’t go into town tomorrow or you might get beaten up”. That was 13 years ago and the “tomorrow” was ANZAC Day. Every one of the 12 ANZAC Days since, I have lived in fear of being lynched because of the colour of my skin. I heeded my friend’s advice and lived in fear of offending anyone on such a momentous occasion by the colour of my yellow skin – until now.

This ANZAC Day, 26th April, 2007, I wanted to attend the Dawn Parade in Rotorua. Weeks before, I pictured my own lynching, the vile looks, verbal abuse and barrage of insults. I racked my brain for ways to convey the fact that I was not the offending enemy to whom comrades and family fought and lost their lives to.

I thought I would wear a T-shirt printed with “Singapore Girl, Not Japanese” or” Thank you ANZACS from Singapore” but saw the headlines “Stupid Japanese girl freezes to death at ANZAC Dawn Parade – inappropriately dressed.” So the T-shirt idea was dumped.

I then thought it better to have a placard or a sign around my neck but my Kiwi friend, whom I was going to hide behind at the parade, suggested that I might be too presumptuous. Perhaps no one would bother with me. After all, this is 2007. Perhaps there will be lots more yellow faces there. I would be making light of a solemn occasion and therefore be downright disrespectful. It was not all about me.

My friend did not do much to allay my fears but I decided to go anyway, sans signs, sans messages and brave the onslaught head on. I would attend the ANZAC Dawn Commemoration to pay my respects to the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought valiantly to stave off the Japanese from occupying Singapore, my birth country, many whom lost their lives doing it.

I was, however, completely unprepared for what hit me when I walked up to a silent crowd at the Ohinemutu Church on the shores of Lake Rotorua as the haunting strains of singing filtered across the chilly, still, dark night and the waters of the lake lapped softly on the shores, the sky dark, the lights in the church yard on the numerous headstones and the swirling fog giving me a feeling of surrealism.

I felt a lump in my throat, as I listened to the very descriptive speech of an airman of World War II, a son of Rotorua, as he put vivid images in my mind’s eye, of his enlistment in the air force, his train departing and his family on the platform waving him off, the love he wished he had expressed, how he fought the war from the air above Europe but thought of friends on the ground and sea, his fellow soldiers, friends and comrades who never made it back home to New Zealand. As he completed his speech in perfect time, an orange glow touched the horizon, outlining Mokoia Island, the fog weaving in and out of the hills on the opposite shores and the lake birds began to stir.

I felt a part of the silent, solemn crowd and fought to keep the tears from running down my face as the 3 gun salute brought whimpers from the police dogs, when the notes from the bugle punched the stillness with a morose “Last Post” and when the New Zealand National Anthem was sung. I pictured the young men, decades before I was born, cold and homesick, rising to the bugle calls, desperate for the warmth, the love and familiarity of their country, home and families, some of whom never made it back and now lie buried in foreign shores.

Nothing brought home this fact more than seeing the veterans march past. Dignified, silver haired men, a couple in wheelchairs, medals on their crisp jackets, bitter sweet memories reflected in their sad eyes. Their emotions over-flowed into the crowd and I, too, was filled with pride and thanks to see, in person, the few of those who fought to preserve our freedom.

I was tempted to take up the invitation over the PA system to adjourn to the marae for coffee and mingle or perhaps turn up at the RSA later because I so desperately wanted to thank these veterans in person for fighting to secure a free world but thought I would not push my luck. Perhaps next year. I would not insult these brave men who survived a horrific war and risk reminding them of the colour of the enemy in World War II even though I am not Japanese.

I left the parade in pensive mood and took a silent walk through the park to my car in the still chilly morning, my mind full of thoughts. I wondered what each person had taken from this experience. If anyone learnt anything from such a commemoration to those who put their lives on the line for us.

I know I did. I learnt that it was not all about me and that these were brave men who had convictions so solid in their hearts that they were ready to die for them in order to keep the world safe for future generations. These were people who actioned their beliefs and fought to preserve a world safe from tyrants and bullies. There are still such men and women today doing exactly that.

I feel ashamed that I have not felt such strong convictions about continuing to keep the world safe for the future and have just enjoyed the fruits of sacrifice made by these ANZACs. I am in total admiration of these ANZACS and try to understand the level of staunchness in their hearts. We need a similar strength of determination and staunchness in our own hearts to keep the world safe for our children and our children’s children just as the ANZACs did for us. I made a promise to myself to attend every ANZAC Dawn parade regardless of the colour of my skin. It was not about me.