World War II POW Paul Loong is seen in an undated photo with his family. Theresa Loong, pictured in center of photo, accidentally stumbled upon the journal her father kept while in captivity, eventually picked up a video camera and turned his story into an hourlong documentary, "Every Day Is a Holiday." It airs in May and June on public television stations. CNS photo/courtesy Theresa Loong

To filmmaker, 88-year-old WWII POW documentary subject is still 'Daddy'

By  Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service
  • May 21, 2012

WASHINGTON - Paul Loong was determined to survive the POW camps where he was held by the Japanese for three years. While imprisoned, Loong kept a journal that had a chance of surviving him if he never made it out alive.

But Loong did. And he made his way to the United States, got married and had a daughter, Theresa, who accidentally stumbled upon her father's journal. She eventually picked up a video camera and started asking him questions about what he had written when he was in captivity.

The result is an hourlong documentary, "Every Day Is a Holiday," which airs in May and June on public television stations. (Check local listings for dates and times.)

"It's been a process. It took over 10 years. I can hear my dad laughing," Theresa Loong said May 7 on a conference call with Catholic News Service. Theresa was speaking from her home in New York City; her father was talking, and sometimes laughing, from his home in the New Jersey suburbs of New York.

Despite the distance created by the camera, Theresa still calls her 88-year-old father "Daddy," both in the interview and in the documentary.

Paul Loong is ethnically Chinese, but was born in Malaysia -- the Dutch colony of Malaya during his upbringing. Despite not being Catholic, he attended a school run by the Christian Brothers -- "the same ones who run Manhattan College" in New York, where he later got a college degree, he noted -- which had a polyglot student body of different ethnicities and religions.

He would have been content to join the merchant marine and see the world, but World War II got in the way. Before he shipped out to war, he was baptized a Catholic by a Dutch priest.

Paul Loong escaped death many times, including after his capture by the Japanese. The Japanese ship was struck by a U.S. torpedo, but the torpedo was a dud. "Fortunately for us," he told CNS. "After the war I learned that a high percentage of American torpedoes were duds. After they corrected that problem, they started sinking Japanese ships left and right."

He also evaded death on the ship. "So many people died," he recalled. "I thought I would die on the slave ship from Java to Japan. I thought I would die of diarrhea." He estimated that a third of the prisoners died before the ship reached land.

Then, while in the Japanese POW camps, it was one indignity after another. "They would harass you day and night, day and night, and they thought their emperor was a divine person and they would not be brought to account for their crimes," Loong said. "They thought they were invincible, invincible."

Through it all, Loong stayed strong in his faith. "There was no Sunday get-together in the camps. There was no leader in prayers," he said. "The Franciscan priest who baptized me wrote in one of his letters to me, 'I took a chance by baptizing you.' So I became faithful to the faith."

It was during his confinement when Loong wrote that, should he ever be freed, "every day will be a holiday." It's not only the source of the documentary's title, but the grace note of Theresa Loong's relationship with her father.

"Before I heard the rest of the story, I would hear, 'Every day is a holiday,'" Theresa said.

Instead of returning to Malaysia after the war, Paul Loong came to the United States, based on the accounts of the country he heard from American POWs. "I applied for a visa to the United States as a student, and that was no easy thing at that time," he said. He ultimately became a doctor with a successful practice.

Even though a lot of historical and interview material had to be dispatched to the cutting-room floor, there are still some things Theresa Loong doesn't really know about her father.

"In the diary my dad alludes to his faith; he's never answered fully. I do think there's still more information or more conversation that I'd love to have with my dad," she said. "Daddy, you say you've told me everything, but I don't believe it."

Theresa added, "It's not always easy to be Catholic. But where I grew up, in New York, faith was a very personal thing." Her father shot back, "There is hell to pay, and not everybody wants to talk about it." Paul Loong later protested: "My story's not unique. All I'm hoping for is to lead a good life and meet the Supreme Creator so he can allow me to join the company of saints."

While Paul Loong may embody a living legacy, his journals are sure to outlast him. So, too, the documentary, which Teresa hopes will beget a legacy of its own.

After its TV airings, she said, she'd like to use "Every Day Is a Holiday" as "an educational tool. I think it will be interesting to provide that. We'll be able to provide DVDs for education and home distribution. ... We can have a dialogue about immigration, or faith, or intergenerational dialogue. That part of the plan isn't solidified yet. There may be some screenings in different cities. I'm still trying to put together what makes sense. I'd still like to collect other people's stories."

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