MANILA - It wasn't just Filipinos fighting Japanese invaders on Philippine soil during World War II.
Ninety-one-year-old Dee Hong Ki was a member of the Wa Chi, or the Philippine-Chinese Anti-Japanese Guerrilla Forces. He was among hundreds of young Chinese men who fought for and with the Filipinos during the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines.
Dee arrived in the country in 1936 when he was 13 years old. At that time, it was common for young Chinese men to leave their country and look for a better life elsewhere.
Dee's older brother was the first to come to the Philippines, followed by another brother. Together, they lived in San Pablo, Laguna where they had a small sari-sari store.
Tragedy struck his homeland shortly after he left China in 1936.
In 1937, the Japanese attacked Peiping.
The sudden, unprovoked attack sent ripples of anti-Japanese sentiment across the region. The Chinese community in the Philippines was outraged.
"Ang [mga] Hapon, salbahe. 'Wag tayo bumili ng 'Made in Japan'," Dee said, adding that they also sent money to China to buy weapons against the Japanese.
By 1941, the war reached the Philippines.
Dee said their small store in San Pablo was among the first casualties of the war.
"Noong giyera, mahirap ang buhay. Hindi [ka] na maghahanap ng kayamanan, kundi maghahanap [ka] ng pagkain," he added.
Manila was declared an open city in 1942, and more Japanese soldiers arrived in the country.
Residents at that time were required to bow down and show respect to the Japanese soldiers. Anyone who fail to do so receive a slap, or worse, tied up and left under the scorching heat.
The Japanese were also suspicious of the Chinese. Because of this, they were more cruel to the Chinese in the Philippines.
"Nagmemeryenda kami, may lumapit na Hapon. Kinuha 'yung bag ko, may hinahanap. Noong inaagaw ko ang bag ko, tinutukan ako ng bayoneta. Sabi sa akin, 'Ano, laban ka pa?,'" Dee recalled.
Dee and his brother decided to be part of the Wa Chi, and went underground to fight the Japanese invaders. He, along with 700 other young Chinese men, chose to join the struggle for freedom of a country not even their own.
As residents, Dee said the members of Wa Chi consider the Filipinos their siblings.
"Kami nabubuhay dito. [Ang mga] Pilipino, sama-sama tayo. [Kapag] maginhawa, [o] mahirap, sama-sama tayo. Parang kapatid tayo," he added.
As more Japanese soldiers arrived in Manila, the Wa Chi had no choice but to go deeper into the provinces.
This was the start of a 26-day march. Without food and rest, the guerrillas had no one to turn to in the harsh terrain.
FARMERS FEED CHINESE
Just as hope was all but lost, the Wa Chi found an ally in Filipino farmers in Santa Cruz who gave them food.
Dee recalled how happy they were when the Filipino farmers handed them food wrapped in banana leaves.
As food was scarce, rice alone would have sufficed. The Filipinos, however, were generous enough to also give them pork and chicken to eat with the rice.
"Kung walang Pilipino na tumutulong sa guerrilla, ang [mga guerrilla], hindi mabubuhay," he said.
The commitment to help the resistance kept the Wa Chi in the fields, spending their days patrolling the area against the enemies, and helping the defenseless from the effects of the war.
Dee also saved many Filipinos from the wrath of Japanese soldiers. At that time, he said it was their duty to help the Filipinos without asking for anything in return.
"Noong panahon [na iyon], katungkulan namin. Hindi ka [papasalamatan], katungkulan mo ['yun]. Bilang guerrilla, aalagaan mo ang mga tao," he added.
As news of the return of the Americans started spreading, the Japanese became more vicious. They also started rounding up members of the Wa Chi.
Dee survived the war but 230 of his comrades, including his brother, were not as lucky.
After the war, Dee went to Davao and borrowed money from his cousin. Using this money, he invested in lumber, a business that was very lucrative at a time when people were trying to rebuild their houses and their lives.
Seventy years after the war, the remaining members of the Wa Chi still get together once a year.
They also implement several projects for the benefit of Filipinos who helped them during the war.
"Marami kaming utang na loob sa mga Filipino. Kaya noong nakaraan, nagbayad din kami ng utang. Nagpatayo kami ng dalawang school sa Santa Cruz, isa sa Calamba," Dee said.
The group also aims to let as many young Filipinos know the story of how the Filipinos and the Chinese joined the fight against the Japanese.
Dee can still recall what a Filipino soldier told him before.
"Mas mahalaga ang Wa Chi kaysa sa Pilipino. Kayo, hindi kayo Filipino citizens, pero binigay niyo ang buhay [niyo], kasama ng mga Pilipino," he recalled.
He, however, looks at it differently. For him, it is their duty to help save the country where they were living at that time.
"Mahal ko [ang] mga anak [ko], mahal ko [ang] mga apo [ko], mahal ko [ang] mga Pilipino. Ang puso ko ngayon, siyempre sa Pilipino na. Dito ako nabuhay, dito na ako ililibing. Ito ang bayan ko na ngayon," Dee said.