While growing up in Clark, Chinese-American filmmaker Theresa Loong knew little about her father Paul's past. Then, one day she discovered his secret diary, written when he was a teenager and POW in a Japanese work camp during World War II. In it, he vowed to make “every day a holiday” if he ever survived.
Told through Loong’s eyes, Every Day Is a Holiday tells the life-affirming story of her father’s unlikely journey, from Chinese Malay teenager and Japanese POW, to merchant seaman, American soldier, Veterans Affairs doctor, and proud citizen of the country that liberated him: the United States. Using intimate conversations, rare archival footage and his wartime diary, the film traces how, through sheer strength of will and a remarkably positive outlook, Paul Loong, now 88, overcame the horrors of war and obstacles as an immigrant, truly making “every day a holiday.”
In our Q&A, Loong opens up about deciding to make the film, growing up in Clark, and her father's reaction to seeing his story on TV.
How did the project come about?
Loong: I had known that my dad was a prisoner of war after one day growing up when I had seen a scar on his back. Sometimes people would call and they’d be the prison camp friends. But he didn't really talk about it and growing up I was busy getting ready to go to college. Then one day I thought this is a good chance for me to go home and spend some time with him and talk about more than every day things. The film is one part him learning how to survive in a prisoner camp and one part this personal and family story of him as a Chinese person in Japan and then trying to make it in the US in 40s, 50s, 60s. I worked on it 10 years on and off - I'm in New York and he's still in Clark. Then one day he showed me this secret diary he had, and I was all, "You didn’t show Mommy? You didn’t show me? You didn’t show my brother?" For whatever reason he was ready to share. That’s when project took off.
How did he become a POW?
Loong: My dad was born in Malaysia in 1923 and it was British colony at that time. Around the time WWII was heating up he had joined special training corps. The Royal Air Force was looking for people to help maintain engines. They moved from Malaysia to Singapore to Indonesia and the fighting wasn’t going so well - the Allies didn’t have a lot of resources at that point in time. There came a point where my dad ended up with other POWs surrendering in Java, Indonesia. The Japanese shipped thousands of them to a camp in Japan.
What sorts of conditions did he endure?
Loong: He was forced to work in two prisoner camps, the first was building a hydro-electric dam and the second was a copper mine. It was intense, heavy labor. My dad had to survive terrible conditions on the journey, too, because they went by ship. Both on the ship and in the camp he saw people dying. In the camps they were beaten. Then there's the mental abuse, the guards would say things like, "You’re gonna die here as our slave" and because they didn’t have much access to news it wasn't hard to believe that. They had no medication and very little food. That first camp was actually up in the mountains in Nagano, so imagine people from Malaysia who’ve never even seen cold and now they are suddenly working in it in substandard clothing. It’s just incredible.
Why did your dad decide to come to the U.S.?
Loong: In the camps, he had heard Americans fantasizing about back home and talking about the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty and that everyone had cars. He resolved that he would come to the States. He was a POW from 1942-1945 and came to the U.S. in 1947. He first ended up in San Francisco on his way to Chicago. He became a merchant seaman and traveled the world. Eventually he signed up for the draft and was deployed to Korea during the Korean War in 1952. He became a citizen in 1966 and was able to go to Manhattan College because of the GI bill, and then he went to medical school in Italy. He’s retired now but he was a doctor at Veteran's Affairs Hospital in East Orange and he specialized in physical medicine and rehabilitation and dealt with a lot of patients who had strokes or were amputees. A lot of them were WWII veterans, and I think his work was a way he could pay back the people who had freed him.
What's the significance of the title?
Loong: This mantra "every day is a holiday" is something he always told me growing up. When I read that he actually wrote that in this diary – when he got out every day would be a holiday – I said okay well this is going to be the structure of the film. In a way, he manifested his own future. In this diary, he was planning his future and saying I want a family, I want to go to the Mediterranean and all these things actually came true.
Do you think this future planning is what helped him survive?
Loong: I think it’s this combination of things. He’s Catholic, so he attributes his faith to helping him survive and also this planning and trying to stay positive during moments of being down. He told me stories about how he’d encourage a guy that was sick. He saw people die because they gave up. Part of it is his personality and just this incredible desire to live.
What was it like growing up in Clark?
Loong: Clark is a really nice town. People are friendly. It was a little hard because there weren’t very many minorities. I was the only Asian girl in my class. My brother and I went to ALJ and St. John the Apostle. There were some misconceptions and it wasn’t always the easiest, but on Nassau Street we have wonderful neighbors. Also, last year I ran a campaign using a crowd-funding platform called Kickstarter and I actually got some support from Clark classmates. Michael Vogel, who was one of the drama teachers at Johnson was able to put the word out to other alums. One of the goals of the film is to show more broadly that we’re an American family and we have a perspective. It’s another American story. There are some shots of Clark in the film – my dad is a lifelong member of the American Legion Post 328 and there's a photo of him with the tank outside. There's shots of him marching in the Memorial Day parade, too.
What form does the film take?
Loong: There's rare archival footage, some of prisoner of war camps and footage during WWII. There's interviews and interplay between me and my dad. We go to Japan and go to the camps. It was the first time he was back and it was intense. Very difficult for him.
What was your dad's reaction to the finished film?
Loong: His first reaction was "It’s the truth." I was surprised and flattered, but on the one hand I said, "What did you think it wasn’t going to be?" I guess because there are some people who claim they were in war or in the military. People who pretend. The truth can be distorted, so I think he was concerned.
How much of his POW experience did you know before making the film?
Loong: Very little. I think largely because my dad wanted to protect us. What I realized in making the film is that it's hard for him to talk about it. There would be times when he’d say, "Oh that’s enough, turn that thing off." Sometimes it’s almost like he’s back in the moment and he’s reliving the past. I'm grateful my dad was willing to talk because I do think this is important, especially because I think we don’t have a great sense of it in the U.S. That history seems so foreign to us, and it still has a relevance and importance in today’s world because we still have soldiers at war.
How has making this film changed your relationship with your dad?
Loong: I was close with both my parents and my brother beforehand, and I’ve always had tremendous respect for him, but I have even more now. The reason I’m telling his story is because there are so many other stories like this as well and I think we need respect for people who have survived and gone through hardship. I think he didn’t think I would see this through and he doesn’t have as good a sense of what I do in digital media. I think it’s been a good chance for him to see that I’m a professional. But in certain ways, I’m always his little girl. I like to think that he and I have a similar sense of humor and similar sense of life – a goal for me is to be positive because he is so positive. His drive and his persistence is so incredible.
Every Day is a Holiday premieres on public television this May in conjunction with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Memorial Day.
Sunday, May 27, 2:30 p.m. on WNET/Thirteen
Sunday, May 27, 5:30 p.m. on WLIW21
As founder of the interactive production company, FORM360, Loong has provided editorial and strategic consulting services to AMC Networks, New York Magazine, The New York Times, Intellitoys, Architecture for Humanity, Milestone Films and Time Warner. Loong is an award-winning multimedia director and producer whose work has been exhibited at the SVA, Teriennale di Milano and Círculo de Bellas Artes. Loong served as an associate producer on the film So Very Far from Home (PBS and SMG Documentary Channel, Shanghai). She was also a researcher for the one-hour PBS documentary China Now: To Get Rich Is Glorious. Loong has taught multimedia at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. She is a graduate of Harvard University, where she studied social anthropology and conducted ethnographic research using film and video. She is currently working on a new project called Feed Me a Story. For further information, including information about purchasing a DVD, visit http://www.everydayisaholiday.org.
To learn more about Every Day is a Holiday and be notified about future airings, like the film on Facebook at facebook.com/everydayisaholiday.