Growing up in New Jersey, Theresa Loong often wondered why her father, Paul, was so much older than her friends’ parents.
But he never talked about his past until she found a diary that he kept during World War II. She discovered long-kept family secrets about her father’s past, which inspired her to document his life and experiences in a new film called “Every Day is a Holiday.”
As a 19-year-old Chinese Malay serving in the British Royal Air Force during World War II, Paul Loong was captured by the Japanese and did hard labor for three years in a prisoner of war camp.
The mortality rate was high. The prisoners were beaten and fed meager rations. One in five prisoners died in the first winter.
"You know, those unpleasant things fade away gradually,” Paul said. “Until you don’t feel like talking about them.”
But at 88 years old, he doesn’t think one can completely forget. On a recent trip to Japan with his family, Paul visited the site of the P.O.W. camp and could not hold back his emotions.
In a burst of emotion, Paul remembered that one in five of his fellow prisoners died — and he was forced to watch them die.
"I could not help but cry, thinking of the people who could have been saved with some decent medical care,” he said said.
Loong’s daughter Theresa said it’s the only time she's ever seen her father cry.
The title of the film is based on something Paul wrote in the diary he kept during his years as a prisoner of war. He promised himself that if he survived the camp, “every day would be a holiday.”
Paul and several others in the camp were forced to watch the deaths of other prisoners — some of whom they'd become close friends with. Some survivors were even forced to carry the dead bodies to the crematorium and assist with their friends' cremation.
“All during the war, even the Japanese people suffered a lot. From hunger, from lack of clothing, even lack of ordinary soap. Everything was so sickly rationed, and people wore clothes full of patches,” Paul said.
He recounted fights over a grain of rice, an example of the excessive hunger that gripped the prisoners, many of whom thought they would not survive.
But not only would Paul survive the P.O.W. camp, he also eventually gained citizenship in the United States and became a doctor.
Paul went to great lengths to become an American citizen during a time when only 105 Chinese immigrants per year were permitted to gain citizenship.
He became a merchant marine, because the laws at the time allowed anyone who served aboard a U.S. ship for five years to become a citizen. But that fell through. So Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, and went on to fight another war, in Korea.
He remembers being made fun of and called names upon his arrival in the U.S. Still, Paul said he wanted to come to the U.S. for freedom, and all the opportunities given to immigrants.
“There was a fight in my native country, Malaysia. Malaysians were fighting against the Malaysian communists too, at that time. So, in fighting Korea, I was fighting against world communism,” Paul said.
Paul says he has never forgotten the opportunity the United States has given him and its role in his liberation. And despite his hardships, he does not harbor resentment toward his captors.
He once asked in his diary, "How can I forget and forgive?"
Since writing that entry, he has found the answer.
“As a practicing Christian, I have forgiven. It is not the fault of the common Japanese people, themselves. They were fooled like the rest of the world with the false propaganda. And died by the thousands in the kamikaze attacks, died all for nothing,” he said.
Theresa said her dad’s perseverance reminds her to keep positive in the face of hardship. Her film, “Every Day is a Holiday” will air on PBS stations throughout the country this month.
For Paul, every day really is a holiday.
“I still believe that," he said.