A Changi well hidden from sight

18 10 2013

Looking across a sun baked tarmac during a rare opportunity I had to pay a visit to Selarang Camp, it was quite difficult to imagine the square decorated by the shadows of rain trees along its its periphery, cast in the dark shadows of the war some 71 years ago.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

Surrounded not by rain trees, by the buildings of Selarang Barracks, the shadows of yesterday were ones cast by the events of the early days of early September 1942, events for which the barracks completed some four years before to house a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, would long be remembered for.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Little is left physically from the days of darkness in today’s Selarang Camp. One of the oldest camps still in use, it is now occupied by HQ 9th Division of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). There is little resemblance the tarmac and its surroundings bear to the infamous barrack square now half the size of the original where scenes, possibly descending on chaos from the thousands of Prisoners of War (POWs) – estimates put it at some 13,350 British and 2,050 Australian troops, a total of 15,400 (some estimates had its as high as 17,000) who were made to crowd into a square which measured some 800 by 400 feet (244 x 122 metres), and the seven buildings around it – each with an floor space of 150 by 60 feet (46 x 18 metres) – a density of 1 man for every 2.3 square metres not counting the kitchen tents which had to also be moved into the square and makeshift latrines which had to also be dug into the square!

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The event, referred to as the Selarang Barracks Incident, is one which is well documented. What had triggered it was an escape attempt by four POWs, two Australian: Cpl Rodney Breavington and Pte Victor Gale, and two British: Pte Harold Waters, and Pte Eric Fletcher. To prevent similar attempts in the future, the Japanese captors, under the command of the newly arrived Major General Fukuei Shimpei (under whose charge the internment and POW camps in Malaya had been placed under), tried to persuade the men in captivity to sign a non-escape statement.

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

This was on 30 August 1942. The statement: “I, the undersigned, hereby solemnly swear on my honour that I will not, under any circumstances, attempt escape” – was in contravention to the Geneva Convention (of which Japan was not a signatory of) and the POWs were unanimous in refusing to sign it. This drew a response from the Japanese – they threatened all who refused to sign this undertaking on 1 September with “measures of severity”.

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

It was just after midnight on 2 September, that orders were given for all British and Australian POWs (except for the infirmed), who were being held in what had been an expanded Changi Gaol (which extended to Selarang and Roberts Barracks which was used as a hospital), to be moved to the already occupied Selarang barrack buildings which had been built to accommodate 800 men.

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

There was little the POWs could do but to make use of whatever space that was made available, spilling into the non-sheltered square around which the barrack buildings stood. The space was shared with kitchens which the captors insisted had to also be moved into the area. Conditions were appalling and access to water was restricted and rations cut (some accounts had it that no food at all was provided), and were certainly less than sanitary. With water cut-off to the few toilets in the barrack buildings rendering them unusable, trenches going as far down as 16 feet had to be dug into the hard tarmac of the parade square to provide much needed latrines.

The ‘Selarang Square Squueze’ as sketched by a POW, John Mennie, as seen on an online Daily Mail news article.

To put further pressure on the POWs to sign the statement, the Japanese had the four recaptured men executed by an Indian National Army firing squad. This was carried out in the presence of the POWs’ formation commanders on the afternoon of 2 September at the Beting Kusah (also spelt Betin Kusa) area of Changi Beach (now under an area of reclaimed land in the vicinity of the Changi Airport Cargo Complex). The execution and the escape attempt by the two Australians is described in detail in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957), Chapter 23 (see link):

The four men executed included two Australians—Corporal Breavington and Private Gale—who had escaped from a camp at Bukit Timah on 12th May, obtained a small boat and rowed it about 200 miles to the island of Colomba. There in a semi-starved condition they had been rearrested, and at length returned to Singapore where Breavington was admitted to hospital suffering from malaria. At the execution ground Breavington, the older man, made an appeal to the Japanese to spare Gale. He said that he had ordered Gale to escape and that Gale had merely obeyed orders ; this appeal was refused. As the Sikh firing party knelt before the doomed men, the British officers present saluted and the men returned the salute. Breavington walked to the others and shook hands with them. A Japanese lieutenant then came forward with a handkerchief and offered it to Breavington who waved it aside with a smile, and the offer was refused by all men. Breavington then called to one of the padres present and asked for a New Testament, whence he read a short passage . Thereupon the order was given by the Japanese to fire.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Another account of the execution which also highlighted the bravery of Cpl Breavington was given during the trial of General Fukuei Shimpei in February 1946 at the Singapore War Crimes Court:

All four prisoners refused to be blindfolded, and 16 shots were fired before it was decided that the men were dead. One of the prisoners, Cpl Breavington, a big Australian, made a vain, last-minute plea to be allowed to bear alone the full responsibility and punishment for the attempt to escape. He dies reading the New Testament. The first two shots passed through his arm, and as he lay on the ground, he shouted: “You have shot me through the arm. For God’s sake, finish me this time.”

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip (photograph taken off a display at the Changi Air Base Heritage Centre).

After holding out for a few days, the fast worsening conditions became a huge cause for concern due to the threat of the disease and the potential it had for the unnecessary loss of lives. It was with this in mind that the Allied commander, Colonel Holmes, decided to issue an order for the POWs to sign that the non-escape document under duress. With the POWs signing the statement on 5 September 1945 – many were said to have signed using false names, they were allowed to return to the areas in which they had been held previously.

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The incident was one which was certainly not forgotten. It was on two charges related to the incident that General Fukuei Shimbei was tried in the Singapore War Crimes Court after the Japanese surrender. The first charge related to the attempt to coerce the POWs in his custody to sign the documents of non-escape, and the ill-treatment of the POWs in doing so. The second was related to the killing of the four escapees. General Fukuei was sentenced to death by firing at the end of February 1946 and was executed on 27 April 1946, reportedly at a spot along Changi Beach close to where the four POWs had been executed.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Walking around the camp today, it is an air of calm and serenity that one is greeted by. It was perhaps in that same air that greeted my first visits to the camp back in early 1987. Those early encounters came in the form of day visits I made during my National Service days when I had been seconded to the 9th Division to serve in an admin party to prepare and ship equipment and stores for what was then a reserve division exercise in Taiwan. Then, the distinctive old barrack buildings around the square laid out on the rolling hills which had once been a feature of much of the terrain around Changi were what provided the camp with its character along with the old Officers’ Mess which was the Division HQ building.

The former Officers' Mess - one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

The former Officers’ Mess – one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

Another view of the former Officers' Mess.

Another view of the former Officers’ Mess.

It is in the a heritage room in the former Officers’ Mess, only one of two structures (the other a water tank) left from the wartime era that the incident is remembered. The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre is where several exhibits and photographs are displayed which provide information on the incident, as well as how the camp had been transformed over the years.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers' Mess.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers’ Mess.

Among the exhibits in the heritage room are old photographs taken by the POWs, a sand model of the barrack grounds and buildings which came up between 1936 to 1938, as it looked in September 1942. There are also exhibits relating to the camps occupants subsequent to the British withdrawal which was completed in 1971. The camp after the withdrawal was first used by the 42nd Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR) before HQ 9th Division moved into it in 1984. It was during the HQ 9th Division’s occupancy that the camp underwent a redevelopment which took place from July 1986 to December 1989 which transformed the camp it into the state it is in today.

An exhibit - a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit – a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A view of the parade square today.

A view of the parade square today.

One more recent relic from the camp before its redevelopment is a bell which belong to a Garrison Church built in 1961. The church was built as a replacement for what had been a makeshift wartime chapel, the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, which was, as was St. Luke’s where the Changi Murals were painted, a place which offered solace and hope to many POWs in extremely trying times.

The Garrison Church bell.

The Garrison Church bell.

The bell, now supported by a structure – said to resemble a 30 foot bell tower which originally held it up, can be found across the road from the parade square. The bell was transferred to Sungei Gedong Camp by 42 SAR before being returned to Selarang by HQ Armour in July 1999. It is close to the bell, where a mark of the new occupants of the camp, a Division Landmark which features a soldier next to a snarling panther (a now very recognisable symbol of the 9th Division) erected in 1991, is found standing at a corner of the new square. It stands watch over the square perhaps such that the dark shadows and ghosts of the old square do not come back to haunt us.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

The division landmark.

The division landmark.

While there was a little disappointment I felt on not seeing the old square, I was certainly glad to have been able to see what’s become of it and also pay a visit to the heritage centre. This has certainly provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the camp, its history, and gain greater insights into events I might have otherwise have thought very little about for which I am very grateful to the MINDEF NS Policy Department who organised the visit.  It is in reflecting on events such as the Selarang Barracks Incident that I am reminded of why it is important for us in a world we have grown almost too comfortable in, to do all that is necessary to prevent the situations such as the one our forefathers and their defenders found ourselves in barely two generations ago.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.





A light where there was only darkness: The Changi Murals

20 09 2013

It an air of quiet calm that greeted me as I stepped into a room where the ghosts of a time we may otherwise have forgotten continue to haunt us. The room, bathed in the glow of light painted gold by the ochre of the walls the light reflected off, seemed to extend a warm welcome which it would have in the cold dark days when it offered hope when there might only have been despair.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The room, converted into the makeshift Chapel of St. Luke (dedicated to St. Luke the physician) during the Japanese Occupation, was where a Prisoner-of-War (POW) by the name of Stanley Warren who held the rank of Bombardier in the Royal Artillery, weakened by a severe bout of renal disorder and dysentery, drew on whatever reserves he had left in strength, to decorate, remarkably, two of the chapel’s walls with five paintings of biblical scenes from the New Testament which along with the chapel became a light in the darkness of days uncertain.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity for prisoners during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel which occupies a room in what was Barrack Block 151 in Roberts Barracks, which together with the neighbouring barracks and nearby Changi Prison became an extended gaol that the Japanese forces used to hold the large numbers of POWs they held. Block 151 was made part of the gaol’s hospital becoming part of a dysentery wing which included several other surrounding buildings.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Another view of Block 151.

Another view of Block 151.

Even if not for the weakened state of the painter, putting the paintings we now know as the ‘Changi Murals’ on the walls would have required an incredible effort. Based on information provided by the expert guide Mr. Vickna, we were told of how paints, pigments and even brushes were in extremely short supply, and they had to be procured through whatever means available – some which may have even put the men involved at risk.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

There was also a huge degree of improvisation involved – the colour blue for example, was obtained from crushing chalk used on billiard cues.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

Too ill to be sent to work on the Death Railway in Siam, which he is said to have said probably saved his life, Warren found himself recuperating in a ward above the chapel in 1942, Warren and many around him drew on the comfort provided by what could be heard of the strains of Merbecke’s arrangement of the Litany being sung in the chapel.

Mr Vickna the guide.

Mr Vickna the guide.

It was hearing the voices in song throughout his slow recovery which was to serve as an inspiration for Warren who was approached by the chaplain who knew of his artistic background to decorate the makeshift chapel. He struggled through the first, The Nativity, for over two months, managing to complete it in time for Christmas in 1942. Warren was to complete four more works – the last, a mural of St. Luke in Prison, was completed in May 1943.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse's head.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse’s head.

A feature of the murals is how Warren also used it depict what he did see around him – many of the faces were those of his fellow POWs and in the third mural, The Crucifixion, which I thought was the most moving, we do also see slaves dressed in loincloths in the same way the men around him were dressed in their rags. The words found above the mural “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” were we were told also a reference to his captors and the slaves crucifying Christ being the “slaves” many of his captors were to authority.

The Ascension - the second mural.

The Ascension – the second mural.

The murals were initially thought to have been destroyed – the Japanese later converted the room into a storeroom and were thought to have broken down walls as well as painting over the remaining murals. They were thought to have been discovered by Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel in 1958 and a search was made through the press in the UK for the painter – the name Stanley Warren cropping up only when a short description of the chapel and a reference to the murals was found in a book “The Churches of Captivity in Malaya”, which was discovered in the Far East Air Force Educational Library in Changi.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall - the evidence of which can still be seen.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

Then an art teacher in London, Warren was invited to restore the murals, first refusing to do so on the fear of having to confront the demons of the dark days in which he executed the work. He did eventually return after much soul searching – first just before Christmas in 1963, and then again in 1982 and 1988. One of the murals does remain unrestored – the last, the lower part of which was destroyed when the wall was knocked down by the Japanese.

The Last Supper - the fourth mural.

The Last Supper – the fourth mural.

It was one for which Warren did not have a copy of his original sketch of (which was found in the possession of a fellow prisoner later in 1985), and decided to leave what remains of in its original condition. Warren did paint a copy of it, a photograph of which can be seen below the mural in which he replaced one of the figures he orginally painted.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The Crucifixion is also one which was partly destroyed when a doorway was made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

A copy of the copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

A copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

Another interesting fact was one that we did learn about The Nativity mural – it was thought to have been destroyed and a copy was painted on a wallboard which was eventually removed by the RAF. The copy was one on which Warren replaced the head of the horse found on the original work with an albatross to as a symbol of flying men of the RAF which was using the barracks at the time. A part the original mural – that of the horse’s head, was found by one of the boys from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Boys School (which occupied the building in the 1980s) tasked with helping Warren to restore the murals in 1982.

A view of the chapel.

A view of the chapel.

The work, which is said to have offered solace and hope to the many prisoners who used the chapel, is today a reminder not just of a event we should never again want to find ourselves confronting, but also one of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The building which houses the chapel, lies today in a restricted area within the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) Changi Air Base (West) and I am grateful to MINDEF’s NS Policy Department and the RSAF for the opportunity to be moved by the murals in its original setting. A copy of the murals to which members of the public have access to, can be found in the Changi Museum.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

The corridor outside the chapel.

The corridor outside the chapel.


Information on Stanley Warren and the Changi Murals

* with photographs of it in the condition it when it was originally uncovered





Voices from a forgotten past

18 12 2012

I was fortunate to have been able to catch Royston Tan’s sequel to Old Places, Old Romances, at its premiere on Saturday morning. Old Romances, described by the director as ‘45 personalised love letters to forgotten places’, is not just about personal romances in and with each of the 45 places featured, but about continuing a love affair that has been rekindled by the making of Old Places for a Singapore we might otherwise have forgotten about. The 45 places are all, on their own, fascinating. They are places that many must have deep in their hearts in one way or another. While some, in the two years it took to complete the documentary, have become like that lost love, painfully present in our distant memories; there are many that are there for us to discover a love we might have not known is there.

The serenity of the grounds of the Japanese Cemetery Park.

The serenity of the grounds of the Japanese Cemetery Park.

An iron fence around a grave.

An iron fence around a grave.

One place that is featured in which I took the opportunity to find a new love in is the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue. The cemetery, said to be the largest burial ground for Japanese outside of Japan (it has also become the resting place for an estimated 10,000 war dead), is a space that I have found to be extremely interesting as a link to a world that we largely have forgotten about. It is however the tales that the sleeping residents tell that thoroughly fascinates me. The 910 graves found on the grounds does each have an interesting story to tell, and among it you will find tales of many extraordinary lives as well as insights into the early Japanese community in Singapore.

The peaceful setting of the Japanese Cemetery Park's grounds.

The peaceful setting of the Japanese Cemetery Park’s grounds.

Headstones in the cemetery.

Headstones in the cemetery.

The cemetery now serves as a memorial park, having been closed to burials in 1973. It does have a long history and counts as one of the oldest cemeteries still in existence in Singapore, tracing its history to the end of the 1800s. Its owes its founding to three brothel owners, Futaki Takajiro, Shibuya Ginji and Nakagawa Kikuzo, who in 1891 sought the colony’s approval to convert up to 12 acres of land including some of their own (they owned rubber estates in the area too) into a cemetery for the burial of destitute Japanese prostitutes, the Karayuki-san. Burials in the grounds do however predate its official establishment, Shibuya and Futaki had reportedly moved the remains of 27 Japanese from a mass grave to the grounds in 1888. Also in 1981, a survey conducted found three gravestones which dated back to 1889.

A Hinomoto Gurdian Deity erected as a memorial to 41 civilians who died under internment at Jurong while awaiting repatriation after the Japanese surrender.

A Hinomoto Gurdian Deity erected as a memorial to 41 civilians who died under internment at Jurong while awaiting repatriation after the Japanese surrender.

Another view around the cemetery.

Another view around the cemetery.

The cemetery is interesting also in contrasting it to the largest cemetery in Japan at Mount Koya or Koyasan which I also had the opportunity to visit recently. While many of the 200,000 graves in Koyasan are those who had a high station in life, many of the graves in the cemetery in Singapore are of those with a humble social status – at least a third of the graves belong to Karayuki-san.

A memorial to the war dead said to be intended as a representation of the Syonan Chureito that was erected during the occupation at Bukit Batok.

A memorial to the war dead said to be intended as a representation of the Syonan Chureito that was erected during the occupation at Bukit Batok.

A grave in the cemetery.

A grave in the cemetery.

The Japanese cemetery today occupies a 3 ha. (about a 7 acre) site. No longer set amongst rubber trees (a reminder of that is perhaps a cluster of rubber trees found in the grounds), it today finds itself in the middle of a residential neigbourhood. Stepping into the grounds, an air of serenity greets you. The well-kept cemetery is quietly beautiful and takes one far from the hustle of the urban world that is now at its doorstep. Much of what we see of the very well-kept grounds today is the result of effort undertaken in 1987 by the Japanese Association (which has maintained the cemetery since 1969) to beautify the cemetery in commemoration of its (the association’s) 30th Anniversary (post-war) using donations from the community as well as with assistance from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The serenely beautiful grounds of the cemetery draws many in search of a quiet place to read or to study.

The serenely beautiful grounds of the cemetery draws many in search of a quiet place to read or to study.

While the cemetery has a substantial number of graves of those of humble social status, there also also many graves of those of high social standing that can be found.

While the cemetery has a substantial number of graves of those of humble social status, there also also many graves of those of high social standing that can be found.

The largest structure we see in the grounds, is that of the beautifully constructed Prayer Hall or Worship Hall, built in 1986 on the site of two previous Saiyuji temple buildings. The Saiyuji was a Soto sect temple which traces its history to the arrival of its founding monk, Shakushu Baisen of Hyogo in 1892. The first building which was constructed in 1912 and was pulled down in 1960. It was replaced by a second building in which the altars of two disused temples in the city had found a home in. It is the second building that the secular Prayer Hall was built to replace.

The largest structure is a Prayer Hall built in 1986 which replaced a Saiyuji Temple.

The largest structure is a Prayer Hall built in 1986 which replaced a Saiyuji Temple.

Another view around the cemetery.

Another view around the cemetery.

The small cluster of rubber trees are the remnants perhaps of the 1000 trees the monk Baisen is said to have planted. That was done to honour the act of philanthropy of the cemetery’s founders, as well as to provide an income for the temple. The cluster can be found in the cemetery’s south-west corner. The corner is also where a set of three memorial stones erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War can be found. Behind the memorial, a single concrete gravestone stands, marking the spot where the ashes of the 10,000 war dead, recovered from the Syonan Chureito in Bukit Batok, lie buried. The largest of the rubber trees is one of two heritage trees found on the grounds. The other is a non-fruiting lychee tree found at the side of the Prayer Hall (next to the caretaker’s quarters).

The three memorial stones erected by erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War.

The three memorial stones erected by erected by Japanese Prisoners of War in memory of those who lost their lives during the Pacific War.

The concrete marker where the remains of the 10,000 war dead are buried.

The concrete marker under which the remains of the 10,000 war dead are buried.

The cluster of rubber trees - the largest has been designated a heritage tree.

The cluster of rubber trees – the largest has been designated a heritage tree.

The heritage lychee tree.

The heritage lychee tree.

It is in the gravestones of the voiceless that perhaps have the loudest voices. It is thought that a large proportion of the 494 graves of the identifiable graves which do not bear a date are those of the Karayuki-san. There probably were a lot more – a 1947 survey did show that there were 1270 graves and many of the graves of the Karayuki-san had simple wooden grave-markers (before they were replaced with stone) which could have decayed with age.

A substantial number of the graves with small headstones are thought to be those of the Karayuki-san, many of whom died penniless.

A substantial number of the graves with small headstones are thought to be those of the Karayuki-san, many of whom died penniless.

That a substantial number of the graves belonged to the Karayuki-san, provides an insight into the first Japanese nationals to arrive in Singapore – their first recorded arrival in 1877 coinciding with a period of development which began in the 1870s that provided opportunities which attracted many male immigrants to Singapore. The brothels that the Karayuki-san worked in were centered mainly in what is today the Bugis area (Bugis Junction), first on Malay Street, before spreading to Malabar, Hylam and Bugis Streets with as many as 109 brothels recorded in 1905 employing some 633 Karayuki-san. It was in the area that the early Japanese community was also to establish themselves – Middle Road was referred to by the community as ‘Chuo Dori‘ or ‘Central Street’.

Malay Street at the turn of the 20th century. The street hosted the first brothels with Karayuki-san.

Malay Street at the turn of the 20th century. The street hosted the first brothels in which Karayuki-san worked.

The entire area including Hylam Street soon became a red-light area.

The entire area including Hylam Street soon became a red-light area.

Besides the many graves of the voiceless, there are several (some are memorials rather than graves) which belong to notable personalities. One is the grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army which swept across South-East Asia. Count Terauchi died in Johor as a Prisoner of War in 1946 and his ashes were sent back to his family in Japan. It is thought however that some of his remains and his insignia is however buried in the cemetery.

The grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army.

The grave of Count Hisaichi Terauchi, a Field Marshal who was the Supreme Commander of Southern Command of the Japanese Imperial Army.

One grave that does have a fascinating story to tell is that of a certain John Matthew Ottoson. Described as an adventurer, Ottoson is does seem to have been almost a legendary life of adventure. Better known by his native name Otokichi, his adventures started at the age of fourteen in 1832 when he found himself cast adrift off the coast of Japan on a storm damaged ship, the Hojunmaru, on which he was a deckhand. He survived, but not before a fourteen month ordeal which took him across the Pacific to the shores of what is today Washington State. He and two other survivors found washed ashore and soon found themselves in the care of the native Makah tribe.

The Prayer Hall built in 1986.

The Prayer Hall.

The next chapter in his adventures took him first to London, then to Macau, and on to Shanghai. It was in Macau that he is thought to have had a hand in the first translation of the Bible into Japanese. He became a British subject in the process, returning to Japan twice as a translator in the service of the British. His second return in late 1854 is significant in that it led to the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United Kingdom and Japan. He married a Malay woman later in life and eventually found himself residing in Singapore where he was a trader in local farm products from 1862 until his death in 1867 at the age of 49. In 2004, Otokochi’s remains which had been relocated from the original burial site were found to be at Choa Chu Kang. The remains were exhumed and cremated. Some of his ashes were brought to Japan with a portion is kept in the charnel next to the Prayer Hall at the Japanese Cemetery Park. More about the life of Otokichi can be found in this Japan Times article (click here).

A charnel containing the remains of the first Japanese resident of Singapore Otokichi alias John M. Ottoson.

A charnel containing the remains of the first Japanese resident of Singapore Otokichi alias John M. Ottoson.

Among the other graves and memorial stones of the notable is one that is a memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei (二葉亭 四迷) in the south-eastern corner of the grounds close to Count Terauchi’s grave. Futabatei Shimei’s work published in 1887, Ukigumo (Floating Clouds) is regarded as Japan’s first modern novel and he was returning from Russia as a special correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper at the time of his untimely death in 1909. The memorial has apparently been a venerated spot, particularly with visiting Japanese newsmen. Next to the memorial, the unique gravestone belonging to the grave of Kantaro Ueyama can be found. Kantaro Ueyama, who perished in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942, was the first son of inventor of the mosquito coil, Eiichiro Ueyama.

The memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei.

The memorial to novelist Futabatei Shimei.

The unique lantern like gravestone of Kantaro Ueyama who died in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942.

The unique lantern like gravestone of Katano Ueyama who died in a plane crash at Sembawang in 1942.

Along the northern boundary of the grounds is the memorial plaza where there is a cluster of memorial stones placed to commemorate several well known figures. One is that of another somewhat legendary figure, a Terengganu born Japanese bandit popularly known as Harimau (Malay for Tiger), Harimau Malaya (Tiger of Malaya), Raja Harimau (King Tiger). Immortalised by the 1943 Japanese film Marai No Tora (マライの虎) or ‘Tiger of Malaya’, he was apparently notorious along the East Coast of Malaya and Southern Thailand where he led a band of some 3,000 Malay bandits and portrayed as a Robin Hood like character. Harimau, whose family had run a barber shop in Terengganu’s motivation in leading the bandits was to seek revenge for a sister Shizuko who was murdered by a Chinese mob angered by the Manchurian Incident. He later served as an agent for a Japanese Imperial Army intelligence unit and succumbed to Malaria at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore at the age of 32 on 17 March 1942. His remains are thought to have been buried in a Muslim cemetery near the hospital.

The memorial to Harimau Tani Yutaka.

The memorial to Harimau Tani Yutaka.

Besides the grave-markers that have vanished with time and the Saiyuji over which the Prayer Hall has been built, there would have also been a two chamber crematorium in the grounds of the cemetery that was also used for non-Japanese cremations and a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, of which there are no more traces of. The crematorium which began as a wood-fired one is possibly the first crematorium to be built in Singapore having come up in the first decade of the 1900s. For a period of time following the end of the war, the crematorium was leased to the Singapore Casket Company.

The crematorium at the Japanese Cemetery seen prior to the war (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

The crematorium at the Japanese Cemetery seen prior to the war (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

Despite not being fond of hanging around cemeteries, I did spend 3 hours or so at this one. The cemetery is one that I will certainly visit again for the little piece of calm in the storm that has swept across modern Singapore it offers and to perhaps seek more tales that the gravestones hold. The Japanese Cemetery Park (日本人墓地公園 or Nihonjin Bochi Koen) is located at 22 Chuan Hoe Avenue and is about a 300 metre walk in from the junction of Chuan Hoe Avenue with Yio Chu Kang Road. The park is open to visitors from 8 am to 7 pm daily.

Stone slabs with the names of army officers killed during the war.

Stone slabs with the names of army officers killed during the war.

Dressed jizo statues at the entrance to the cemetery.

Dressed jizo statues at the entrance to the cemetery.

The park is popular with Japanese visitors to Singapore.

The park is popular with Japanese visitors to Singapore.





Remembering the ultimate expression of love on the 14th of February

14 02 2012

The 14th of February being Valentine’s Day, is a day that is highly anticipated, rightly or wrongly, in modern Singapore. It is an indication of how far Singapore has gone in the embrace of the new world and has been influenced by the practices of cultures previously alien to Singapore. And while Singapore celebrates with a commercialised expressions of love, many in Singapore are blissfully unaware of the significance of the date in Singapore’s history – a date which 70 years ago in 1942 witness a very different and perhaps a lot more genuine expression of love by a group of valiant men who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of freedom.

A World War II outpost on Kent Ridge. The ridge - then Pasir Panjang Ridge - had been defended by the Malay Regiment in a battle that lasted for two days ending on 14 February 1942 on Bukit Chandu - a battle that saw a valiant fight put up by members of the regiment led by Lt. Adnan Saidi who was brutally killed on Bukit Chandu.

It was on the 14th of February 1942, after beating a hasty retreat to Point 226, that a certain Lt. Adnan bin Saidi of ‘C’ Company of the 1st Battalion of Malay Regiment and his comrades found themselves hopelessly defending a strategic position which we commonly refer to as Bukit Chandu or Opium Hill today against the force of an all-out assault on it by the Japanese Imperial Army in one of the last battles to be fought before the surrender the very next day. The position defended the Alexandra area where the British had their ammunition and supply depots and a military hospital (Alexandra Hospital). By the late afternoon, the position was lost after fierce fighting at close quarters – Lt. Adnan and several of his comrades were killed in the most brutal of fashion and events then took place that made a very dark day an even darker one when Japanese troops in pursuit of the few surviving members of the Malay Regiment and Indian troops, stormed Alexandra Hospital and massacred scores of innocent medical personnel and patients. Over at what is the Singapore General Hospital today, 11 medical students from the King Edward VII Medical College were also killed by artillery fire on the same day – 10 of whom were attending the funeral of one of the students who was killed that morning.

A view from the canopy walk which stretches from Kent Ridge Park to Bukit Chandu looking towards the Alexandra area which Pasir Panjang (now Kent) Ridge and Point 226 had defended.

Reflecting on the brave acts of Lt Adnan and his comrades and the other dark events of the day, one is reminded not just of their heroics in the defence of the people they served, but also as a reminder that peace should never be taken for granted. That the war, and the subsequent occupation of Singapore resulted in a lot of hardship for the then residents of Singapore – and for those who rose in their defence, there is no doubt. For many of my generation and after, it is a hardship that would be hard to imagine, having been fortunate to live in, save for isolated incidents of violence, a period of relative peace. It is great to see that the National Heritage Board has, for the 70th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, organised a series of events as a reminder of the dark days of February 1942 and the hard years that followed – something that all should participate in.

A reminder of the Battle of Opium Hill and the exploits of Lt. Adnan and members of the Malay Regiment is provided a Interpretative Centre at the site, Reflections at Bukit Chandu.

One of the events that I did participate in was the very popular guided tour of the Air Raid Shelter at Guan Chuan Street in Tiong Bahru. The shelter was one that was built under pre-war blocks of flats built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in anticipation of the war. There is quite a fair bit on the Air Raid Shelters that’s already out there including this article in the 27 January 2012 edition of the Straits Times.

A peek at the air raid shelter at the bottom of Block 78 Guan Cuan Street as seen through a ventilation opening.

A red brick wall lined room inside the shelter - the shelter is a lot more spacious and airy than I had imagined it would be.

A passageway - a door on the pavement on the ground floor of the block would have served as an entrance to the shelter here. The hole in the concrete ceiling would have contained glass blocks to allow natural light into the shelter.

A room with wooden bunks that was reserved for use by members Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens and their families.

The writing on the wall.

I had, being the true Singaporean that I was, been amongst the first to sign up for this tour when the news first broke. I am glad I did as it wasn’t long before the tours were fully subscribed. Stepping into the air raid shelter for the first time was a surreal experience, especially knowing that it had held people in cowering in fear for their lives as sirens that might have been mixed with the sounds of enemy aircraft dropping bombs 70 years before added to the confusion above. What struck me was how airy the shelter was – and perhaps how thin the walls of red Alexandra kiln bricks seemed to be – I had imagined a shelter would have been behind think walls of concrete with only little openings provided for air and light. Looking at a photograph in the Imperial War Museums collection found on Wikipedia, it surprised me to see that there seemed very much to be an air of normalcy on the faces of the people in the air raid shelter – instead of faces etched with fear that I had expected to see. This is also evident in several photographs I have come across of Singapore during the war including one where a man is photographed having a meal with his daughter in the midst of the ruins of an air raid. That I guess highlights the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity – great adversity that we today have been fortunate not to face.

Another view inside the air raid shelter.

Civilians in a similar air raid shelter in late 1941 or early 1942 (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Air_raid_shelter.jpg).

A photograph of a man and his daughter dining in midst of the ruins left by an air raid on Singapore.

With the knowledge of the events of the 14th of February of 70 years ago and the darks days that preceded and followed it very much in my mind. The 14th of February will always mean more than the superficial expressions of love that the commercial world demands of us. It will always be a day to remember where we as a nation must never go and to ultimately remember the true expression of love that the likes of Lt. Adnan and his fallen comrades and the many others had expressed in what must be an ultimate sacrifice that they made to fight for the freedom of their fellow-men.


Resources on the Battle of Pasir Panjang and on Kent Ridge:

A Pasir Panjang/Kent Ridge Heritage

Fire and Death on Opium Hill

Reflections at Bukit Chandu

The Battle of Pasir Panjang Revisted

My post on last year’s Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk:

A walk along the ridge: Commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang






Adventures in a pill box

3 08 2011

Sifting through some old photographs, I found one of a machine gun pill box that I had as a young boy had many adventures in. The pill box, was one of many that were scattered along the southern coastline of Singapore and one that has all but disappeared (save for the one at Labrador Park) from the southern shores – most having been demolished in the early part of the 1970s. The particular pillbox that is the subject of the photograph, was one that was located close to the fishing village of Mata Ikan, in the days before land reclamation work commenced which added the extension to our southern shores which provided part of the land on which Changi Airport is built on.

The Pill Box at Mata Ikan in 1970.

Mata Ikan, of which I have mentioned in previous posts on the holiday bungalows my family used to frequent, and also in a post on Somapah Village which I always saw as a gateway to Mata Ikan, was for a while a playground for me, having spent many holidays by the sea in and around the area. It was where I first used a fishing rod – a simple bamboo one with a fixed length of line and a hook at its end, fishing for catfish by tghe stream which ran to the west of the holiday bungalows. What the photograph of the pill box evokes is a few memories I have of playing in the pill box with friends, pretending to be soldiers with a piece of drift wood picked up from the beach serving as a rifle, peeping out towards the sea through the openings at the front. There is also that memory of the stench one got from the pillboxes, the stench that probably came from the litter that lay rotting on the ground within the pill boxes. It is a stench I will never forget, but one that brings with it the memories of my adventures in another lost part of Singapore’s past.





A lost world in Lim Chu Kang

19 07 2011

Deep within a world that much of Singapore has lost lies a reminder of that life we once had, a life of carefree days spent by the sea, and quiet nights gazing at the stars. It is a world that for most, doesn’t exist anymore, one that many will find hard to go back to. That reminder is in the form of the former property of the late lawyer Howard Edmund Cashin which includes an expansive garden by the sea and an incredible house built on a pier like structure out over the mud flats and mangroves that still dominate the north-western coastline of Singapore. The house which has been left vacant shortly after Mr. Cashin’s passing in 2009, is one that reminds me of a time when escapes by the then remote, quiet and idyllic coastlines – many of which have been lost to land reclamation, were fashionable, as was living in remote locations by the sea. It reminds me of my own carefree days in the sun, accompanied by the sand and the sea in places that I will never be able to go back to, when Singapore was a much gentler place.

A reminder of carefree days in the sun, accompanied by the sand and the sea … a world that doesn’t exist in Singapore anymore?

A lost world that reminds us of a Singapore that doesn’t exist anymore can be found in Lim Chu Kang.

The lost road to the lost world …

The house, named as “The Pier” by the Cashins, served as Mr Cashin’s home for many years. Based on newspaper articles from the Straits Times, the Cashins, Howard and his wife Gillian, had moved in after the war, building a house over a pier that is significant from the perspective of the landings of the Japanese Imperial Army’s 5th Division along the north-western coastline in the dark days of February 1942 that led to the fall of Singapore. It was apparently at the pier that had stood there that the Japanese had out-fought the Australian 22nd Brigade who had put up a valiant fight inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and established a foothold. In the battle that was fought over the night of the 7th and the 8th of February, some 360 Australian troops are thought to have lost their lives in the same plot of land based on the article. The Japanese themselves had later erected a war shrine in the plot of land – something that Mr Cashin reportedly had trouble finding workmen who were willing to demolish it after the war.

The Pier was the home of Mr and Mrs Howard Cashin and was built over a pier which fell to the invading 5th Division of the Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of February 1942.

A view of The Pier from the expansive gardens.

A view of the gardens.

One of the things I was able to find out from N. Sivasothi or Siva who was kind enough to invite me to accompany him in his recce of the mangroves (see my previous post), was that a regular visitor to the Cashins was the Sultan of Johor (the late father of the current Sultan) who would come by on his boat across the Straits of Johor and drop in for tea. I guess that again is a reminder of gentler times, times when borders did not really exist both physically and also in the minds of many who lived on either side of the Causeway.

The Pier.

A look through the gates ….

While that gentler world has since been lost, we will still have at least The Pier that is left to remind us of it. The Pier which now lies vacant and its ownership has been passed on to the Singapore Land Authority, is not something that we would be saying goodbye to (as is often the case with many abandoned homes which eventually fall into decay). Siva was good enough to share some comforting news on its future, saying that it would see future use as a field station. I know that I can now look forward to going back from time to time, not to a place that I would have once known, but to a world that takes me back to those places that I did know that now remain only in my dreams of yesterday.

A peek through the grilles at the entrance to the house …

Signs of abandonment.

Windows.

A peek inside … what would have been the kitchen and dining room.

The living room.

The balcony.

View of the mangrove dominated coastline.

A stariway to the sea … probably one that the Sultan of Johor would have used to ascend from his boat on his visits to the Cashins.


Update on status of the house (as seen at the URA Draft Master Plan 2013 exhibition in Nov/Dec 2013):

The Pier (Draft Master Plan 2013)






A walk along the ridge: Commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang

14 02 2011

I took a walk with a group of about 50 yesterday morning, along a part of Singapore that I frequent only because of visits I make from time-to-time to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the course of my work, and in doing so, I learnt quite a lot about the area where one of the fiercest battles took place as the impregnable fortress that the colonial masters of Singapore had thought the island was, capitulated to the invading Japanese Imperial Army in the dark days of the February of 1942. The walk had in fact been one that takes place on an annual basis to commemorate the battle, the Battle of Pasir Panjang, with took place over the 13th and 14th of February, in the final hours before General Percival did the unthinkable, being made to take a march of shame up the hill on which General Yamashita had set up shop at the Ford Factory, in an act of surrender that took place on the 15th of February. The walk was organised by a volunteer group, the Raffles Museum Toddycats of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, NUS and was led by the Siva whose intimate knowledge of the history as well as the flora and fauna of the area was supplemented by Dr Lai Chee Kien, of the Architecture Department who shared his insights on the architectural aspects of the NUS and in a few other areas as well.

Walking up Kent Ridge as the rising sun made an appearance. A solemn reminder of the occasion of the 13th of February 1942 when the when the 18th Division of Imperial Forces of the Land of the Rising Sun mounted their attack on what was then known as Pasir Panjang Ridge.

The walk which started at the University Cultural Centre, close to a corner of the rectangular area where the battle was enacted, at what is now the intersection of Clementi Road and the Ayer Rajah Expressway, began with a short introduction and a walk eastwards up Kent Ridge Crescent to the sight of the rising sun, perhaps as a solemn reminder of the battle during which the forces of the Land of the Rising Sun overran the determined but outnumbered defenders of the Malay Regiment that set out to defend the geographical feature that is now known to us as Kent Ridge, and continued along the length of the ridge eastwards towards what is now known as Bukit Chandu. Along the way, our guide Siva was not only able to share his knowledge of the battle as it played out, but also on some history of the area, the etymology of Kent Ridge and Marina Hill, as well as on the flora and fauna of the area.

Along the way, our expert guide Siva, was able to share many different facets of Kent Ridge, including on its flora and fauna.

The Simpoh Air and Resam Fern are fast growing plants commonly found on Kent Ridge as well as much of Singapore taking over much of the land that is cleared. The leaves of the Simpoh Air are used to wrap Tempeh.

The Battle of Pasir Panjang, sometimes referred to as the battle of Pasir Panjang Ridge, involved an invasion force of some 13,000 troops of the first wave of invading Japanese forces of the 18th Division sweeping down from the west towards the city. The ridge was defended by the remnants of the Malay Regiment, in which the origins of today’s Malaysian Armed Forces lie in, a poorly trained and ill prepared group of men who had been tasked to defend the approach to the ridge, the Gap but instead bore the brunt of the thrust of the invasion force. The accounts of this battle are well documented on the wonderful resource page that the Toddycats have put up, which can be found at this link, as well as in a newspaper report in the Straits Times of 13 February 1967 entitled “Fire and Death on Opium Hill” (on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Battle).

Kent Ridge features many wonderful bungalows that would once have housed military personnel on a featured that gave a commanding view of the western coastline and area around the ridge.

Much of the land around was used for plantations of among other plants, included rubber trees and nutmeg, and has since been taken over by Secondary Forest.

One of the interesting reminders of the military past of the ridge is an outpost, a collection of four flat roofed buildings that served as a lookout point over the southward facing slopes of the ridge. The roofs made the cluster of buildings, which are set on three levels, easily camouflaged. Much of the area is inaccessible to the public as the buildings are in dilapidated state and it was a treat for me to see the buildings. Peeking into some of the rooms of the buildings, it was easy to identify the functions of the rooms as well as to recognise that the lookout would have been self-sufficient. There was one room that was obviously used as a kitchen and another with the remains of an old bathtub – but other than that, very little evidence of anything else remains.

One of the interesting remnants of the military past is the Outpost, a collection of four buildings that served as a lookout point, set up on three levels on the southward facing slopes of the ridge at Prince Edward Point.

The buildings of the Outpost feature flat roofs that can be easily be camouflaged.

A stairway providing communication between two of the three levels.




 

Another interesting set of facts that came out of the walk was the sharing by Dr Lai on the architecture of the NUS and the thinking behind some of the features which the architect behind the NUS shared with him. Among the interesting facts was one revolving around the use of over burnt bricks and the use of the primary colours for the features: yellow for the communication channels that provided the links to the various parts of the NUS laid over the ridge; red for the handrails – the orginals of which have mostly been replaced; and blue for features such as doors.

Following not so much the yellow brick road, but the yellow ceiling is a sure way around the NUS.

One of the last remaining original red iron railings ….

Another view of the ridge …

Another remnant of the past?

Moving east to the area which was known as the Gap, where South Buona Vista Road meets Kent Ridge Road, Siva provided the evidence of origins of the name Kent Ridge and Marina Hill just across the road, on which Kent Ridge Park now sits. A plaque commemorating the visit of HRH the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, and her son the Duke of Kent, Prince Edward of Kent stands at the corner, telling us of the visit of the Duchess and the Duke on 3 October 1952 and the naming of the ridge after the visit of the royal pair as well as Marina Hill after the Duchess. The commemorative plaque is due to be shifted from its original position as there are plans to widen the road.

Siva speaking about the plaque commemorating the visit of HRH the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, and her son the Duke of Kent, Prince Edward of Kent.

A close-up of the commemorative plaque which provides the evidence of the etymology of Kent Ridge as well as Marina Hill. It was in honour of the visit on 3 October 1952 that the plaque was laid on 23 February 1954 and that the name of Pasir Panjang Ridge was changed to Kent Ridge.

Across South Buona Vista Road, part of the ridge had to be skirted around due to it being occupied by the premises of the Defence Science Organisation – but we were able to continue further down to where a creek was behind Normanton Park where we were shown the Gelam tree, a member of the Eucalyptus family, also know as Kayu Putih – its oil is used for medicinal purposes and bark is apparently used as caulking material in traditional wooden boat building. It was from here that we made our way back up the ridge to where Kent Ridge Park sits.

Two of the participants in the walk near Marina Hill.

Part of the creek near Normanton Park.

Guide Airani showing the leaves of the Gelam Tree.

The bark of the Gelam is used as caulking material in traditional wooden boat building.

Scenes of autumn in Singapore?

The thin tree trunks of the secondary forest in the area.

Back up on the ridge at Kent Ridge Park, we were able to take in the commanding view which made the ridge an important military asset, and we made our way (some of us, muscles aching) then to our intended destination, Bukit Chandu, via a canopy walk that provides a wonderful northwards view beyond the ridge as well as of the forest below (as well as of some of the colourful inhabitants of the forest that inlcuded a Green Crested Lizard). And after what seemed like a very long walk some five hours after we set off, we arrived at midday at Bukit Chandu or Opium Hill, named after an opium processing plant that had featured at the foot of the hill – the scene of the final stand on the 14th of February 1942 of C Company of the 1st Battalion of the Malay Regiment and on which the Reflections at Bukit Chandu Museum stands as a reminder of the valiant efforts of the men of the Malay Regiment. Leaving the hill, it wasn’t the sore muscles that made the biggest impression, but the overload of information provided by the guides and the great sense of appreciation for the men who fought so gallantly in defence of freedom.

The flight of stairs back up to the ridge.

The group at the top of the ridge.

The ridge at Marina Hill provides a commanding view of the western harbour.

As well of the reclamation works that are extending Singapore’s southern shores.

A memorial plaque commemorating the Battle of Pasir Panjang at Kent Ridge Park.

The view north-east from the canopy walk from Kent Ridge Park to Bukit Chandu.

The canopy walk.

A resident of the ridge, a Green Crested Lizard, says hello.


Resources on the Battle of Pasir Panjang and on Kent Ridge:

A Pasir Panjang/Kent Ridge Heritage

Fire and Death on Opium Hill

Reflections at Bukit Chandu

The Battle of Pasir Panjang Revisted


More blog postings on the walk:

Fifty people and two dogs on the Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk, by N. Sivasothi a.k.a. Otterman, on Raffles Museum Toddycats!

The walk to commemorate The Battle of Pasir Panjang! by Leone Fabre on “my life in Singapore”.


The next Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk would take place on 15 February 2014, which will also mark the 72nd Anniversary of the battle. For more information and to signup, please click on this link.






The Bridge over the River Kwai

22 12 2010

It might have been because of the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”, that I have held a long fascination with bridges, having many doses of it throughout my early childhood. It was a fascination that was also fed by my regular encounters with the two railway bridges from my childhood journeys through the Bukit Timah area, and of those with the magnificent Anderson and Cavenagh Bridges that sets our Civic District apart from much of the rest of Singapore, and maybe by the picture of the red oxide coated Forth Rail Bridge on the back of a postcard that my mother had for much of my childhood displayed on her dresser. There were of course bridges of significance that I encountered in my diet of war inspired movies and novels that might also have fed that fascination: one being “A Bridge Too Far” over Arnhem that was the subject of Cornelius Ryan’s novel which was adapted by William Goldman for the movie of the same name; and the so-called “Bridge on the River Kwai”, part of the infamous Death Railway, that was made famous by the 1957 David Lean movie based on a novel entitled “Bridge Over the River Kwai” by French writer Pierre Boulle, which I had watched many times on TV.

Poster for the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai".

The bridge over the River Kwai in Dec 1984.

The bridge in 2006.

That I guess was what compelled me to visit the bridge that stands over the River Kwai today, or the River Mae Khlung as it should rightly have been (the river has since been renamed as the “Kwai Yai” for the tourists). The bridge that stands today isn’t the wooden bridge built in 1943 that was the subject of the movie, but a second more sturdy bridge of concrete and steel built by the Prisoners of War (POW) also in 1943. It stands as a powerful symbol of the pain, suffering and death that was inflicted on the POWs who were put to work on the infamous Siam to Burma rail supply line that the Japanese intended to use on their push towards India. Estimates vary but at least 100,000 POWs and labourers died in the construction of the railway due to the harsh conditions, starvation and malaria.

A view of the bridge from the far bank. The two straight-sided spans were transported from Japan after the end of the war as part of Japanese war reparations, to replace the two original arched spans which were brought over from Java by the Japanese which were destroyed.

Another view of the bridge.

Information plate on one of the replacement spans.

One of the original arched spans which the Japanese brought over from Java.

My first visit to the bridge which is about 5 kilometres out of Kanchanaburi , which is located 130 kilometres west of Bangkok was in December 1984 – back then I was struck by the surreal calm that taking a walk on the bridge provided despite the presence of the tourists (not the hordes that one encounters these days) and the vendors trying to hawk a few souvenirs. I did return some twenty years later – dismayed to find that the bridge had been overrun by hordes of tourists and the area now dominated by the tourist shops that have somehow destroyed the peace that I had first encountered in 1984. Still, taking a walk on the bridge provides a wonderful experience, and certainly once across the bridge, the far back does provide that sense of calm absent on the near side.

Taking a photograph of the bridge in 1984.

On the bridge in 2006.

Around the bridge, there is the River Kwae Bridge railway station which is certainly worth a visit. The station in fact provides an gateway for rail passengers coming from the south who can make a connection at Nakhon Pathom, and also directly from Bangkok. The line itself runs over part of the original Death Railway route to Nam Tok. The line which was assessed to be too poorly constructed to support commercial use was sold by the British in 1946 to Siam for a sum of ₤1.5M which included 65 locomotives, 1125 wagons and other stock, and revived in 1948. The train also runs through and stops at the town of Kanchanaburi.

Ticket counter at the River Kwai Bridge Station.

River Kwai Bridge Station.

An old steam locomotive (#719) on display at River Kwai Bridge Station.

Beyond the area where the bridge is, it makes sense to also pay a visit to one of the war museums to have a sense of what went on, as well as the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The museum I visited was the JEATH (Japan, England, Australia Thailand, England) War Museum, which is housed inside the grounds of the Wat Chai Chumphon temple and is built around huts meant to replicate those that the POWs had been housed in and contains graphic images showing the conditions the prisoners had lived in.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in 1984.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

Plaque at the entrance of the War Cemetery.

Plaque at the War Cemetery.

The JEATH War Museum.

Exhibit at the JEATH War Museum in 1984 with photographs of the bridge destroyed in 1945 by allied bombings.





A Saturday morning’s stroll through Old Singapore

15 12 2010

Starting at the centre of the Padang where Raffles had once proudly stood, a leisurely morning’s stroll around the Padang with Pugalenthii Ramakrishnan and the National Library Board on Saturday through familiar territory did throw up a few surprises. Moving to the Esplanade towards where the Tan Kim Seng Fountain stands, the sight of a snake charmer with his python on the grass probably caught not just me, but the others on the walk by surprise. For me snake charmers were something that I had somehow always associated the Esplanade with, along with the Satay Club, Chendol at the semi-circular hawker centre, and the colourful balloon and windmill sellers who would support their air filled balloons not with sticks as we do these days but with long skinny balloons. Over at the Tan Kim Seng Fountain, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that among the participants was the great great grand daughter of Tan Kim Seng, who is herself the author of a book “Seven Generations and Counting”.

Pugalenthii Ramakrishnan, guide for the Stroll through Old Singapore.

A snake charmer with his python on the grass.

The Tan Kim Seng Fountain - among the participants on the walk was the great great grand daughter of Tan Kim Seng.

Moving back towards where the Cenotaph stands, we were to discover one that maybe shouldn’t have surprised me: that the Cenotaph had actually once been right by the sea, with the shoreline just by the bottom of its seaward steps, knowing that quite a lot of reclamation work had gone on int the area around the Esplanade way before the much of the shoreline in the area moved much further south in the extensive land reclamation project that provided the land for the Marina Square complex. We were also to learn that the leader of the Indian National Army, Subhas Chandra Bose, had stood on the very steps of the Cenotaph to rally support for the Indian Independence movement during the Japanese Occupation in World War II.

The Cenotaph had once been right by the shoreline.

Photograph in the National Archives Collection showing the Esplanade in 1926 (note the position of the Cenotaph relative to the sea (source: http://picas.nhb.gov.sg).

The other parts we passed on the walk included the site of the Indian Army Memorial which was erected at the Esplanade by Bose and destroyed by the British upon their return at the end of the war. Down the pedestrian tunnel to Empress Place, where we encountered the Dalhousie Obelisk and the grass cutters of the modern day (in contrast to the grass cutters of the days gone by which Pugalentii had highlighted through the use of a photograph in the National Archives that had once been commonly seen in the Padang).

At the bottom of the Obelisk in Empress Place.

The grass cutters of old seen on the Padang in 1946 (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

By contrast the modern grass cutters ...

From Empress Place, it was past the old Supreme Court and City Hall (both soon to be transformed to the National Art Gallery) where we had the opportunity to chat on its famous steps, before moving on to our final stop – St. Andrew’s Cathedral which I had finally stepped into for the very first time in my life.

St. Andrew's Cathedral.

Cathedral window.

Inside the Cathedral for the very first time ...

More views inside the Cathedral.

The Cathedral has some wonderful stained glass.

Stained glass panels at the main entrance.

Close-ups of the Stained Glass.

Books of Prayer.

Pews.





The Gemencheh Bridge

6 12 2010

One of the main attractions around the railway junction of Gemas would be the site of the Gemencheh River Bridge, a wooden bridge that was blown up by Australian Forces as they desperately attempted to stem the tide of the Japanese invasion through Malaya in the final days of the Battle of Malaya. Those were dark days as the relentless Japanese advance arrived close to Singapore’s doorstep. Gemas was perhaps where any final resistance could be offered being the entry point into what must have been the psychological final buffer to Singapore, after which only the state of Johore stood in the way. It would probably not have come as a surprise that it was at Gemas where an ambush was planned, one that could and perhaps might have had influenced a very different outcome if events had worked in the favour of the defending forces. That it did not, brought the Japanese invasion forces closer to their goal both physically and psychologically, and within two weeks of the battle, the Japanese had arrived at Singapore’s doorstep at Johor Baharu.

The Gemencheh River, near Gemas, was the site of an ambush in January 1942 that saw a heavy loss of life amongst the Japanese troops.

The ambush was mounted at 4 pm on 14 January 1942, launched by “B” Company of the 2/30th Battalion. Ignoring the advance party of Japanese scouts on bicycle, the Australian unit blew the bridge up as the main party crossed resulting in a heavy loss of life by the Japanese. Estimates range from 600 to 1000 fatalities on the Japanese side and a handful suffered by the Australians. While the initial ambush was a huge success, reports suggest that fighting continued south of the bridge for two days, in part due to a lack of artillery support due to communication lines being cut by the Japanese advance party, with the Australian forces withdrawing south through Gemas.

Possibly the bridge that was rebuilt by the Japanese as seen in 1945 - Caption on Photograph at the Austrlian War Memorial (http://awm.gov.au) site: Gemencheh, Negri Sembilan, Malaya. 1945-09-25. The bridge (middle distance) over the Gemencheh River where, on the 1942-01-14 members of the 2/30th Australian Infantry Battalion supported by No. 30 battery, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment and the 4th Australian Anti-Tank Regiment ambushed and killed some 600 Japanese soldiers (57 mile peg.) (source: Austrlian War Memorial http://awm.gov.au).

Today, a memorial can be found at the site of the ambush. Referred to as the Tugu Sungai Kelamah or Kelamah River Memorial, the memorial appears to be named after a tributary of the Gemencheh River. The site of the memorial is on the southern bank of the part of the river where the Gemencheh River Bridge had stood (coordinates 2° 35′ 43.66″ N, 102° 31′ 8.22″ E), with wooden stumps – remnants of the bridge’s columns still very much in evidence in the river itself. The site lies some 11 kilometres north-west-west from the Gemas Railway Station and within sight of a road bridge to the east along Federal Route 1 – probably the one built to replace the destroyed bridge, and can be reached by taxi from Gemas (about a 15 minute ride).

The remnants of the original wooden bridge that was blown up by the Australian Forces - wooden stumps of the supporting columns, is very much in evidence at the site.

The new bridge just east of the site - part of Federal Route 1.

Sign at the entrance of the Sungai Kelamah Memorial along Federal Route 1.

Sign at the Memorial Site - unfortunately the date is wrong and the ambush occurred on 14 January 1942 rather than in 1941 as the sign suggests.

The same sign in Bahasa Melayu.

At the site, there is a Memorial that has been erected to remember the Australian troops that fought in the battle – this fortunately has the correct dates on it as indicated on a tablet at the foot of the memorial. Pausing to take in what was around us, surrounded by the air of silence that permeated the air, it is hard to imagine the ferocious battle that was fought close to sixty years ago … it possibly makes us think of the futility of war and the unnecessary pain and suffering it inflicts. I am certainly most grateful to those who fought for our freedom in battle, some losing their limbs, some a lot more psychologically and the many that paid the ultimate sacrifice – with their lives.

A memorial probably erected by the Australians with a tablet at the bottom indicating the correct dates of the ambush and subsequent battle.

The tablet at the bottom of the Memorial.

Another view of the new bridge.

Resources on the ambush at the Gemencheh River Bridge / Battle of Malaya:

Sungei Gemencheh Ambush, Gemas Area – Malaya, 14 January 1942,`B’ COY 2/30 BN AIF, Report by Captain D.J. Duffy OC `B’ Coy (Later Lt. Col. D.J. Duffy MC, ED)

On ABC: Sequence of events in the Japanese campaign leading to the fall of Singapore

Wikipedia stub on the Gemencheh Bridge during the Battle of Malaya

Australian War Memorial WWII Site (Australian Government Site)





A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: the slow train up the length of Johore

3 12 2010

Leaving JB Sentral Station, the train on which we were on for what would probably be the last train journey out of Tanjong Pagar for my friends and me, continued on its journey north. It was a journey that in its early stages, had already been delayed by the stops and starts at Bukit Timah Station and was as one should expect on the KTM trains, that would be delayed further en route to our destination, Gemas. Nevertheless, it was still very much worth the experience, not just for the fact that it would represent a last for me out of Tanjong Pagar, but to be able to have a leisurely glance at the interesting places en route. The route takes the train through much of the length of the state of Johore, passing town after town that can be read from the list of significant positions as they fell in reverse order, in the dark final days of the Battle of Malaya in early 1942, during which the relentless push by Japanese invasion forces towards Singapore during World War II, saw much of the area overrun in a matter of two weeks. Our intended destination, Gemas, just north of the state border in Negri Sembilan, had in fact been where a significant battle took place, one that might, on another day, have turned the tide. That it did not, allowed the invading forces to reach Singapore’s doorstep some 16 days following the engagement in Gemas, with Singapore falling only a month after that engagement.

Time Table for the Ekspress Rakyat out of Singapore and back into Singapore ... the journey to Gemas takes a route through towns in Johore which read like a list of defensive positions taken up by the British forces as they retreated towards Singapore in the face of the Japanese invaders in the January of 1942.

Along the initial part of the journey from Johor Baharu, the unmistakable landscape that characterises much of the urban areas along the railway line was very much in evidence with zinc roofed huts that was once commonly seen lining many of the areas by the tracks in Singapore, lining parts of the tracks. One of the first stops along the way was Kulai, a town some 30 kilometres north of Johor Baharu which was one of the last areas to fall before the Japanese arrived at Johor Baharu on the final day of January in 1942. Kulai had previously been known to me from the road trips I made in my father’s car across the Causeway. It was one of the last towns we would arrive at on the long journeys back home before the final pit stop in Johore Baharu where we would always stop to do some final bits of shopping – particularly for school shoes at Bata (which were because of the rise in the Singapore Dollar against the Malaysian Ringgit in the early 1970s a lot cheaper in Malaysia than it was in Singapore). Later in life, I would associate Kulai with a friend, Paul, whom I met whilst attached to Sembawang Shipyard in the mid 1980s. He had come form Kulai to work at the shipyard, putting up in a tiny room in a wooden shack in the old Chong Pang Village on work days, returning to Kulai only on Saturday nights to visit his mother.

Squatters along the railway line north of JB Sentral - this was a common sight on the KTM Railway land in Singapore up to the 1990s.

Kulai - a town which featured in the march of the Japanese invading forces towards Singapore in January 1942.

Passengers alighting at Kulai Station.

A rail carriage at Kulai.

Rail carriage carrying containers.

Leaving Kulai Station.

Passenger holding a ticket up.

North of Kulai, the next major stop is at Kluang, some 90 kilometres from Singapore. Kluang also featured prominently in the push by the Japanses invading forces – being abandoned by the retreating British led forces to allow them to regroup further south in the face of the Japanese advance through Johore. Kluang was in fact where General Yamashita moved his headquarters to, from Kuala Lumpur, at the end of January 1942, as the forces under his command prepared for the final assault on Singapore. Kluang was also known to me in my childhood, not so much from the road trips, but as the town where my maternal grandmother paid a visit to on her only trip to Malaysia that she made without me that I could remember. She had spent a weekend there with a Catholic group on a pilgrimage at the end of the 1960s.

Passing a level crossing at Kluang.

Pulling into Kluang Station.

Kluang Railway Station is well known for its coffee shop which has even been recreated in places such as shopping centres in Kuala Lumpur.

The tracks at Kluang Station.

A scene along the tracks from Kluang to Paloh.

The view inside the Superior Class coach.

A young passenger ...

The next major stop, Segamat, was the last stop before arriving at Gemas. Before that, there was a stop to make at Paloh, a rather small town set amongst palm oil and rubber plantations – Sime Darby features prominently in the area. Paloh was, during much of the 1950s, caught up in the Malayan Emergency and being one of the notorious “black areas” where Communist activity was rife. Much of its notoriety came from ambushes and killings made by Communist insurgents operating in the area and it was only about ten years after the Emergency was declared that the area was re-designated as “white area”.

View opposite Paloh Station.

Arriving at Paloh.

Kilometre marker at Paloh.

KTM logo at Paloh Station.

View of the area along the way to Segamat.

View of the area along the way to Segamat.

View of the area along the way to Segamat.

1st view of Segamat.

Segamat was again another significant town during the war. It was where the Australian forces had retreated to after being forced back from Gemas. Segamat is of course well known to Singaporeans as being where some of the best durians originate from. My only previous encounters with Segamat had been once again on the many road trips made in the 1970s on the old trunk road leading up to Kuala Lumpur. Here the landscape around the station is dominated by warehouses and some old buildings associated with the railway, which we got a good view of as the train did a bit of backtracking after making its stop, southwards to the truss bridge south of the station, to move to another track and wait for a passing southbound train. This is a common feature in rail journeys through much of the southern part of the Malaysian railway as for most part, there is only a single track. This often makes the journeys longer than it should really be as trains often wait for each other to pass before being able to continue on their journey.

Pulling into Segamat Station.

View opposite the station.

Railway workers' quarters near Segamat Station.

Backtracking along the track to change tracks ...

On a truss bridge south of Segamat Station.

On a truss bridge south of Segamat Station.

Godowns near Segamat Station.

Godowns near Segamat Station and an old train carriage.

Segamat Station.

Another view of Segamat Station.

A member of the KTM staff walking along the train at Segamat Station.

Southbound train pulling into the station.

Southbound train passing a waiting northbound train. The line in the far south is a single track and trains often have to wait for one another to pass at some of the main stations such as Segamat - very often resulting in delays.

Southbound train heading towards the truss bridge.

View opposite Segamat Station.

Close up of a train's undercarriage.

A child looking out of the window of a passing train.

Leaving Segamat ... and on to our destination Gemas.

A companion is often necessary for the long and often delayed train journey.

After Gemas, it was our final push to Gemas. With a lot of stopping for passing trains that morning – it was only one and a half hours later than our scheduled arrival time of 1210, that we arrived at the station, somewhat weary from the journey, and somewhat hungry. Gemas, however was waiting to be discovered and we very quickly got off, found ourselves a place to eat, made arrangements for transport, and were ready for the next part of the adventure…

Arriving at Gemas Station.

Sign at Gemas Station ...

Gemas is the main railway junction in the Malayan Peninsula where the north bound lines split into an eastern line and a western line. The map shows the Singapore station in Tanjong Pagar, this would soon change when the terminal station moves to Woodlands.








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