(Photos: Ho family private collection, unless otherwise stated)
Life is a journey through changing scenes. Born in tumultuous times, one is often swept by the currents of change, like a paper boat, going with the flow while dreaming about the destination.
Ho Weng Toh, a former member of the Flying Tigers* group of WWII volunteer pilots, has lived a blessed life for almost a hundred years and counting. Every aspect of his life speaks of the power of love. He loves his country and is willing to die for her. He loves his comrades with whom he fought shoulder to shoulder with to take down the Japanese soldiers. He loves the women who have crossed his path, even though some memories were regretful and brought much pain.
In conjunction with the launch of his autobiography, Memoirs of a Flying Tiger published by World Scientific, the once dashing young pilot sat down for an exclusive interview with Lianhe Zaobao, candidly sharing what’s worth cherishing most in life. Although Ho is bilingual, it was clear that he was more comfortable speaking in English. He wished to answer Zaobao's questions in Mandarin, but in the interest of a smoother interview process, the interview was conducted in English.
This centenarian was one of the founding pilots of Singapore Airlines but speaks ever so proudly about his love for China. To him, China remains his motherland — he admits, “Sorry, I’m a little chauvinistic. I love China very much.”
In this reporter's eyes, that is not “chauvinism”. It is the genuine sentiment of a man whose roots are in Shunde, Guangdong but was born in Ipoh, Malaysia in 1920 and has lived in Singapore with his family since 1953. It is the heartfelt declaration of a WWII pilot who was once ready to lay down his life for China. It is an everlasting bond and a sense of identity that needs no apology.
Hong Kong was a flourishing colony
At 19, Ho went to Hong Kong alone to study. He lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years in the early 1940s, and again in 1949.
In the early 1940s, he was enrolled in The University of Hong Kong. When Hong Kong fell, he and some 20 odd international students fled to Guangdong, seeking refuge in Free China (the areas that were not occupied by the Japanese) under the protection of special agents.
In 1949, he became a pilot of the Central Air Transport Corporation (CATC). That same year, he married the love of his life, Augusta Rodrigues, and lived in a small apartment in Tsim Sha Tsui with her and her family. He said that although life was tough, they lived in bliss.
Up until today, Ho keeps in close contact with his friends in Hong Kong. He even went on a solo trip to Hong Kong two years ago to celebrate a friend’s 91st birthday. He recounts, “The thing about the 1940s is that the colony of Hong Kong was very strong. England practically depended on Hong Kong for a lot of trade and income. The Hong Kong Bank and Chartered Bank were very powerful. At one point, it was called the British empire where the sun never sets.”
“The Japanese invaded Manchuria and China since 1931. The Kuomintang and all the rich and famous in China had nowhere to go, nowhere to park their assets, so they came to Hong Kong. That’s why in the 1940s, Hong Kong became very rich and was flourishing. The rich kids also went to Hong Kong to study. There’s a college called St. Stephen’s College at Stanley. I went there, but it was not that I was rich. I couldn’t afford it but I had no choice. I just went there to study Science and Mathematics as I was trying to get into Hong Kong University.”
Ho did make it into the University of Hong Kong. However, less than two years later, Hong Kong fell. His university education was thus disrupted. He says, "Life is like that: there were a lot of crossroads, and a lot of dead ends. I didn’t know what to do.”
The uprising of two airlines in 1949
May 1949. After a brief period living in Shanghai, Ho flew to Hong Kong with his wife at the dawn of a new era. He recalls, “Shanghai fell to the Communists. I couldn’t understand why the Kuomintang kept losing the war. It started from Shenyang all the way down to Beijing, and then to Nanjing and Shanghai. In a matter of years, the whole country collapsed.”
At that time, airplane fleets of the CATC and the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) were stationed in Hong Kong, resulting in the “uprising of two airlines” (两航起义) incident spearheaded by then Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai. The pilots collectively flew multiple airplanes to mainland China, pledging allegiance to the new government.
Ho tells us the story: “81 aircrafts belonging to these two airlines were all grounded in Kai Tak Airport. Zhou Enlai came over to negotiate. He asked, ‘What are you folks doing? 81 aircrafts sitting there. You’re pilots, why don’t you come and join us?’ We were very surprised that we were given an invitation. Not only that, but his terms were very good. We could have the same pay, the same position, and we could go anytime we liked. So of course we all jumped at it. Not that we wanted to join the Communist cause. At that time, the word ‘communism’ was very scary, we didn’t understand it. The airline qiyi (起义 uprising) created a very big hooha. Chiang Kai-shek was very mad in Taiwan. He called us “defectors”! But we didn’t say that, we called it qiyi.”
Ho shared that politically speaking, Hong Kong underwent a huge change at that time. The new government took charge of the CATC, and Ho had to shuttle between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. While in Guangzhou, Ho was not only flying in his capacity as a pilot, but also attended political lessons. He recounts, “I was very curious about the People’s Liberation Army. I admired them so much, how they could fight against the Kuomintang with nothing. I wanted to know how they did it.”
“At that time I was paid in US dollars. But the People’s Liberation Army and the cadre had practically nothing. They were paid very little. I couldn’t understand. And they didn’t show any resentment! I admired them even more.”
However, the political lessons were a torture to Ho. He shares, “They tried to talk to us, to influence us, telling us all about their regime. But it was completely different from my lifestyle. They told us about the classless society, that the cleverer you were, the more lowly you were. It was very hard for me to accept. They kept asking me to write a memoir, my biography. It could only mean two things: either they didn’t trust me, or they really wanted to know me. But every time I wrote it, they rejected it all. They didn’t believe me. It was very difficult for me. My Chinese was not good enough. At one stage, I was completely lost.”
In 1950, the two airlines relocated from Guangzhou to Ningxia. Ho decided to resign, recounting, “I said I had to leave because of personal reasons. They let me go. I was very surprised they allowed me to go.”
In 1953, Ho brought his entire family to live in Singapore. At that time, he was among the pioneer batch of Asian pilots at the Malayan Airways, which was the predecessor of the Singapore Airlines.
Ho received a monthly salary which was much lower than what Caucasian pilots received. After intense rounds of negotiations, including requesting mediation from Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, then a young lawyer, he finally received the fair treatment he deserved.
When Ho retired in 1980, he was captain of the B747 and had served at the Singapore Airlines for 29 years. He accumulated a flight time of over 20,000 hours and trained over 300 pilots.
Hong Kong and Singapore in my eyes
Ho has seen the changing scenes of Hong Kong since the 1940s. It is obvious he has a special bond with this Pearl of the Orient. Looking at Hong Kong’s current state of unrest, he’s heartbroken, “I’m very, very sad. The Hong Kongers keep saying there’s not enough democracy, freedom, and human rights. But I think Hong Kong is freer than Singapore. Hong Kong is full of papers and television stations.”
“To me, they’re so free. Nobody arrests you or stops you from doing what you want. Singapore is much stricter, but I don’t blame Singapore for what we are. We’re restricted but it’s okay, we have security. So that’s why a lot of people like me, we are all wondering, why are the Hong Kongers doing things like that?”
Ho may have left Hong Kong due to the political lessons he feared, but he has his own thoughts about the current situation in Hong Kong, saying, “All I know is that the young people of Hong Kong simply dislike China. They dislike China so much that they did all these. They are not blaming anyone but are venting their grievances like this. They feel like they don’t have a proper home and that they’re neglected. To me, it’s very ridiculous for people to destroy where they live, and destroy their economy. There’s no future in doing things like that.”
Ho also empathises with the young people in Singapore, acknowledging that life is tough for them as well, “We don’t have any natural resources. Life in Singapore is not easy. Land is expensive, the cost of living is high, and it’s getting worse. And these are the things that make me feel for the young people. But we are better off than Hong Kong. Those guys have nothing to fall back on now.”
The most dramatic part of Ho’s life was when he was in his 20s.
When he fled to Pingshi, Guangdong in 1942, he chanced upon a recruitment advertisement of the Republic of China Air Force in the newspapers. He went for the interview, and according to him, scraped through the assessment and was recruited.
This successful recruitment brought him to China’s different regions, Lahore (which now belongs to Pakistan), and the US for a series of trainings. It was not until early 1945 that he completed his training and came back to China to fight the war.
In his memoir, Ho details his intense passion and readiness to sacrifice for the country in the war. Everyone was eager to don their battle gear and fight; no one shunned their duties. Ho excitedly recounts, “I tell you, Ms Chow, when we were in America, we could hardly wait to come back! We didn’t want to stay in America. We were so proud to wear the uniform and we could hardly wait to come back to fight the war. The word ‘death’ was not in our dictionary. We didn’t care about our lives. It didn’t matter, it was not important! We didn’t talk about it!”
Ho acknowledged the danger a war entails, and admitted that no one wanted to die, but nobody cared if they had to sacrifice for the country. I could still hear the passion in his voice when he told me his stories, “You know, that sense of patriotism, that sense of belonging! It’s very important to me. There’s a sense of nationalism.”
“I didn’t feel it when I was in Malaya, we were a colony. My status was a ‘protected person’. So when I was given a passport in Kunming to fly, wow, I was so proud! Finally, I had Chinese citizenship. Even though I was not born in China, I was full of pride. This is not just fighting for your country, this is also my personal war. I feel that we’ve been humiliated for too long, our country, my motherland.”
I asked him if he would still call China his “motherland” today.
There was no hesitation in his reply, “Yes. This is what my father taught me. He gave me a historical background of China so I could have this sort of feeling. I know we don’t have this feeling in Singapore. We’re becoming more materialistic. I sometimes wonder about Singapore’s nationalism. Unfortunately, we are too small. We have NS and we try to instil nationalism, but it takes a long time, many generations in fact. My generation was difficult because we were forced into this. I tasted nationalism, and I value it.”
Ho proclaimed that if he were to live once more, he would still make the same decision to fight for the country. He said that it was worth it.
Fleeting love, fleeting bliss
Approximately ten years ago, Ho (who was already close to 90 years old then) took a long-haul flight back to Colorado in the US. He needed to confirm something. At the end of 1944 when he completed his training in the US and was to return to China, he not only left his American comrades behind, but also left an American lady behind. A lady that he was engaged to and who said she would wait for his return. That was a lady named Marilyn.
Ho wrote a heartfelt chapter in his book about their love and reminiscing the embrace they shared when he departed. That goodbye at the train station was a goodbye for good. They never met each other again. When Ho called Marilyn four days after he left the US, he received the news that Marilyn had passed away. It was unbelievable; Ho could not accept it. Yet, they were in an era where means of communication were underdeveloped. He could only leave it at that.
What Ho left out from his memoir was that he had finally gone back to the place they met close to 60 years later, and even found her grave. That young lady who gifted Ho the greatest gift of love really did pass away due to an asthma attack.
Ho did not shun the topic of his "girlfriends" — the women who brought him much happiness and strength at different stages of his life. The most important woman in his life is his wife, Augusta Rodrigues, who journeyed 30 years with him and bore him three children.
On the topic of love, Ho said that love is very important, and it is all fated or the act of providence, “Like their mother, she’s a fantastic lady, but she died so early of lung cancer. Up until now, I cannot find anybody comparable to her. I’m not trying to compare, but life is like that. So I’d rather stay by myself. This is life...”
Be kind, that’s the most important life value
Almost all of his comrades from back in the day have passed away. In the 1980s, early on in the days of China’s reform and opening up, Ho eagerly travelled to Beijing to visit his friends. Having undergone the Cultural Revolution, China was at rock bottom then. A few of his comrades who resolutely pledged allegiance to their motherland were seriously implicated and oppressed, living under harsh conditions. Some even needed Ho’s financial help to live. After China’s gradual economic growth eventually picked up speed and propelled forward, Ho discovered that a few of his friends had become rich overnight. He revealed that they seemed to spend money like water, as if there was no tomorrow.
Having seen life’s ups and downs, I asked Ho how we should make life decisions. His reply was, surprisingly, also fate, or providence, “Life decisions, I can’t tell you what to do. When it comes, you just have to face it. I call it ‘providence’. Somebody up there is helping me.”
However, Ho was very sure of how one should carry himself or herself in all of life’s uncertainties, “If you can afford to, be passionate, be caring. I discovered, and it’s very strange, for all the good things that I’ve done for people, they have all repaid me. It’s very strange. I didn’t ask for it, but people do it for me. For example, all my students from SIA, they take turns to bring me out. It’s incredible. I have two or three appointments every week. They appreciate what I’ve done for them and they reciprocated.”
“But at the same time, you have to learn to accept things. When hardships come, you have to assess it. Not everybody can go through it, but you have to learn to accept it. Learn to be kinder. That’s all. That’s my value in life.”
Ho is an extrovert. He says the secret to longevity lies in exercising, being passionate, and keeping in contact with friends. Ho only stopped travelling solo three years ago after suffering a mild stroke. Recently, he even visited Ipoh with his family.
At the end of the interview, I invited him to sing a battle song for us. Frederick Ho, 69, his eldest son who also lives with him, playfully teased his father and said that he should sing for his girlfriends first. His son said with a laugh, “Every woman in his life has a song dedicated to her. It’s very romantic.”
Ho took the cue and lovingly sang the song Tosselli Serenade (Nightingale Serenade) and dedicated it to Florence Wong in Hong Kong.
As Ho poured his heart out in the song, Frederick Ho jokingly said, “But dad, you only sang one song. How about the others? They’re going to be jealous you know?” This father-son banter filled the room with laughter and was especially heartwarming to watch.
We still wanted to hear a battle song. He pulled out a thick file that contained scores of the battle songs he used to sing with his comrades, such as Air Force Academy Song composed by Liu Xue’an, and Air Force Battle Song composed by Liu Xue’an and written by Jian Pu. He says, “These have to be sung together by many. I can’t do it alone.”
And then, he proceeded to quietly hum the song, “La La La…” The lyrics were filled with passion and love for one’s country, describing the magnificent sights seen from the skies above.
As his humming grew louder, it was as if this centenarian went back in time and was again the charming young pilot he once was.
*About The Flying Tigers (the “Fourteenth Air Force”) and the new book
In 1943, the First American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force (The Flying Tigers) were absorbed into the US’ Fourteenth Air Force. Their headquarters was situated in Kunming, and commanded by Claire Lee Chennault.
By the end of the war, the Fourteenth Air Force was 20,000 people and 1000 fighter aircrafts strong. From its establishment until the end of the war, the Fourteenth Air Force destroyed 2135 enemy aircraft. On average, for every loss of a Fourteenth Air Force aircraft, ten aircraft from the enemy’s fleet was shot down.
The new book, Memoirs of a Flying Tiger: The Story of a WWII Veteran and SIA Pioneer Pilot, is jointly written by Ho Weng Toh and Jonathan Sim of the National University of Singapore’s Department of Philosophy. It is published by World Scientific and retails at S$28 before GST (paperback) and S$86 before GST (hardcover).