A few years ago, Judy Yung, who was my Asian American studies professor back in college, was in Los Angeles to give a talk at the Chinese American Museum. I had been Judy’s teaching assistant for her Asian American Experience class and she had been my faculty advisor when I had taught my own course in Asian American literature at UC Santa Cruz and we’ve kept in touch since I graduated. It was at that event when she introduced me to her “new” husband, Eddie Fung.
Although Eddie was in his 80s when I met him, there was nothing frail or elderly about him. Judy introduced him to the audience during her talk and I remember he jumped up and moved around and spoke with the energy of a man a third his age about the new book he and Judy had collaborated on that told the story of his life entitled The Adventures of Eddie Fung: Chinatown Kid, Texas Cowboy, Prisoner of War. And among his many amazing accomplishments, he had the distinction of being the only Chinese American soldier (and one of only two Asian Americans) captured by the Japanese during World War II where he was put to work building the Burma-Siam Railroad made famous in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Judy sent me a copy of the book and it was a great read. I’ve been meaning to blog about Eddie as one of our Original Offenders and since today is Veteran’s Day thought it’d be appropriate to do so now.
Eddie grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1930s. He was restless and wanted to get out to see the world so when he got kicked out of school during high school for “being a wise guy,” he set out for Texas at age 16 to become a cowboy. He did just that, working on several ranches in the Midland area, until World War II came along and he enlisted in the Texas National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division. His battalion shipped out of Pearl Harbor in 1941, just six days before the infamous attack and was captured by the Japanese on March 8, 1942.
Eddie was taken prisoner and he along with the other POWS were used as slave labor to build the Burma-Siam railroad, which spanned 262 miles through the tropical jungle that connected Rangoon to Bangkok. The project was completed in a record 16 months, but at the cost of the lives of 12,500 POWs and 70,000 Asians.
As one of only two Asian American soldiers captured by the Japanese in World War II (the other was Japanese American hapa Frank “Foo” Fujita), Eddie was concerned about what the Japanese would do to him (including the possibility of being tortured and killed for betraying the “yellow” race). But though he was sometimes beaten for being Chinese, Eddie found that his Chinese upbringing made the POW experience somewhat “easier” for him. He was more readily able to adjust to the meager diet of rice and vegetables and found ways to supplement meals with throwaways like fish heads and animal organs, his limited knowledge of the Chinese language allowed him to trade with local Chinese and communicate with Japanese engineers, and the scrounging skills he learned growing up in Chinatown helped him survive.
The experience brought Eddie a better understanding and appreciation of his Chinese heritage: “I had finally come to terms with my past, and I was looking forward to going home and telling my mother, ‘Okay, Mom, I understand what you and Pop have been trying to get through to me—about what it means to be Chinese—and I’m going to try and live up to it.”
But it wouldn’t be until the end of the war in the summer of 1945 when Eddie would be released and have a chance to do that. In the meantime, he went through some grueling experiences (the POWs were over-worked and under-nourished), which led to a bout with dysentery, malaria and a weight loss that took him down to 60 pounds. Even at his lowest point, the strong curiosity that Eddie exhibited since he was young kept him going: “I wanted to see what the next day would bring; whether it was good, bad, or indifferent. I just wanted to know.”
And the key to survival for Eddie? As he says in his book: “People who come to know me often ask how I was able to survive the prison camps. I tell them that it’s only when you are personally put to a test that you will find out what you are made of. It basically takes guts, the will to live, and lots of luck. What we learned early on is not to project too far ahead. When we were first taken on March 8, people were talking about getting out by July 4. Then it was by Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Then we realize it might be a matter of months and years. So, gradually, we learned to live day by day. Then we learned how to roll with the punches, to take the beatings and humiliations without striking back. The point is, you can give up your pride, but you don’t have to give up your dignity.”
And even over six decades later, the experience still has a profound impact on his daily life: “In retrospect, being taken prisoner has been the focal point of my life. I was a snotty-nose kid just out for adventure, thinking that was all there was to life. But I’ve never regretted the war or the hardships I’ve suffered, because it made me a better man. It taught me to respect other people’s feelings, and not to treat anyone unkindly, as I had been treated. More importantly, it gave me the self-confidence and tools to solve any problem that may come up. The thing I have to remember, though, is not to be too arrogant about it, because Mother Nature has a way of shoving things in my face to remind me that there are still things I cannot handle.”
So on this Veteran’s Day, we salute Original Offender Eddie Fung.