Lost places: The shrine across the Divine Bridge

7 04 2014

The Japanese couldn’t have picked a more divine setting in Singapore for the Syonan Jinja (昭南神社), the Light of the South Shrine that was to be the grandest of Shinto shirnes erected in the southern reaches of the empire. Even today, despite its site having been reclaimed by the forest , it is not difficult to find the beauty and peace the site was chosen for, in an area that even today does seem far removed from the urban world.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia's  leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

The site of the Syonan Jinja where remnants of what was once South-East Asia’s leading Japanese Shinto shrine is today an eerie yet peaceful spot. What is seen in the photograph is one of the more visible remnants, a sacred granite water trough for ritual purification.

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

A worship ceremony involving Japanese troops at the opening of the Syonan Jinja in 1943 (source: http://www.himoji.jp/himoji/database/db04/images_db_ori/2200.jpg).

The shrine, built with labour provided by the Allied prisoners-of-war (POW), was one of several that came up in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. One of two of the more notable shrines – another was the Syonan Chureito on Bukit Batok, the Syonan Jinja stood on a slope of a hill that rose from the water’s edge around the western reaches of MacRitchie Reservoir, across a what from the evidence presented in photographs of it, was a beautifully crafted bridge, known as the Divine Bridge.

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja seen in 1943 (Showa History Vol. 10: Pacific War Breaks Out、Mainichi Newspapers Company, uploaded to http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The Torii Gate at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the Syonan Jinja as seen in 1943 with the Divine Bridge in the background (source: Mainichi Newspapers Company, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Shonan_Shrine.jpg).

The shrine and its site and the grand plans for it, which was opened to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1943, have been described in the National Library’s infopedia page on the shrine:

a beautiful wooden structure that featured the clean, simple lines of classic Japanese architecture. It was built on a raised stone platform and it had a large granite ceremonial fountain for ritual purification. The surrounding area was designed to be a Japanese garden with gentle pebbled streams, stone lanterns, a stone-stepped path, small torii gates (traditional Japanese gates commonly found at the entrance of Shinto shrines), and landscaping featuring native and imported plants. Four to five tonnes of pebbles were imported from Borneo for this project, while religious artifacts and certain plants were sourced from Japan. The wood used for the shrine, however, was from Singapore”

The area around the shrine was to be transformed into a 1,000-acre park with public recreational and sporting facilities. These facilities were to include gardens, promenades, playgrounds and a lake for fishing and boating. The proposed sports compound was to feature a stadium, a swimming pool, wrestling arenas and public bandstands, and would be a possible venue for the Greater East Asiatic Olympic Games envisioned by the Japanese. The planners also declared that a new city would develop with the Syonan Jinja at its centre

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

General Yamashita and Japanese troops crossing the Divine Bridge at the opening of the shirne (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_207.jpg).

What remains of the Divine Bridge today - wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

What remains of the Divine Bridge today – wooden stumps in the water that were part of the columns that supported the bridge.

Little today is left for us to see of what it might once have been – wooden stumps, only visible when the reservoir’s water levels are low enough, tell of of the location of the Divine Bridge and where the Torii gate and the stairway up to the shrine would have been. Across the reservoir, it is through the thick undergrowth of the secondary forest that has reclaimed the area, that one finds the flight of stairs, rising first to a terrace on which a water trough hewn out of a block of granite still stands. The trough would have served to hold water for the ritual purification asked of visitors to the shrine.

A concrete retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A retaining wall around the terrace on which the trough is found.

A panorama of the site.

A panorama of the site (click to enlarge).

Beyond the trough, the stairway leads to another platform – the main site of the shrine and except for a few slabs of stone lying around and the platform itself, there is little but that sense of an uneasy calm that one does feel at the site of the shrine, which was destroyed before the Japanese surrender to prevent it from being desecrated.

Concrete slabs at the site.

Granite slabs at the site.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

The platform for the shrine seen in the forest.

Some of what we do know of what did go on at the shrine, comes through the accounts of local residents who participated in some of the rituals that did go on. One practice that did get mentioned is that of the Japanese community’s visits first to the Syonan Jinja to participate in Shinto rites early in the morning on New Year’s Day, before they made their way to the Syonan Chureito to pay respects to the war dead, an observance that also involved employees of the Japanese and would be followed by a lavish lunch (see “The Last Days of the Japanese Occupation”, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 1976).

More stone slabs.

More stone slabs.

One of the things about the shrine does does come out in some of the accounts is of the pebbled streams in what must have been a beautifully landscaped area. The pebbles, ” four, five tons” of them, as is described in one account, were apparently ones that had been had been brought in from Borneo for the Bukit Timah rapid gravity filter beds that were being constructed.

A close up of the foundations.

A close up of the foundations.

A view of the stairway.

A view of the stairway.

The site does attract a fair amount of interest despite it being rather difficult to access. It has been designated as a Historic Site since September 2002 and a marker / information plaque on it can be found at the junction of Sime and Adam Roads – from which it is an over 2 kilometre walk that does take one through parts of the gravel paths in the MacRitchie forest, as well as along the water’s edge past what is some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found in Singapore.and for that alone, it is well worth the effort involved.

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).

POWs provided the labour to build the shrine (source: http://www.himoji.jp/database/db04/images_db_ori/shinjin_206.jpg).





The Peace Boat docks at the POD

6 04 2014

It was two Sundays ago at the National Library’s the POD that the opportunity arose to hear the accounts of the Hibakusha. Survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki close to seven decades ago, the group of seven, together with other participants of the Peace Boat Hibakusha Project, were in Singapore to share their remarkable accounts of survival in the face of the effects of what has to be one of the most horrifying weapons mankind has employed in an armed conflict. The project, has participants making a global voyage on a passenger ship, and is aimed at promoting peace and sustainability and ultimately, a nuclear-free world.

Small group discussions with the Hibakusha at the POD.

Small group discussions with the Hibakusha at the POD.

It is much more than time and distance that separate us from the horrors of a war in which Singapore had been very much a part of. We in the Singapore of today, have had the good fortune of being separated from some of the conflicts of more recent times and it would be very difficult for us to imagine what it was like living through the war, let alone attempt to comprehend what the survivors of the atomic bombs must have lived through.

Mr. Lee Jongkeun, a second-generation Korean resident in Japan who was 15 when the bomb fell on Hiroshima.

Mr. Lee Jongkeun, a second-generation Korean resident in Japan who was 15 when the bomb fell on Hiroshima.

The first of the Hibakusha we did hear from was Mr. Lee Jongkeun, not a Japanese, but a second-generation Korean resident in Japan. Aged 15 when the bomb fell on Hiroshima, Mr. Lee spoke, among other things, of the discrimination he faced, even to this day, as a resident of Korean origin. The presence of Mr. Lee, also highlighted the fact the the victims of the a-bomb weren’t just Japanese, but also many other nationalities. The victims included some 70,000 who were forcibly brought from the then Japanese colony of Korea to work in Japan, as well as Chinese who were there in similar circumstances and also the many prisoners of war being held in the areas at the time.

Ms Hattori Michiko, who was a 16 year-old nurse 3.5 km away from the hypocentre in Hiroshima.

Ms Michiko Hattori, who was a 16 year-old nurse 3.5 km away from the hypocentre in Hiroshima.

Following the testimony of Mr. Lee, there was a short performance by Ms. Ayumi Hamada – an actress and a youth participant in the Peace Boat project, who recited a poem, before another Hibakusha, Ms Michiko Hattori, spoke. A 16 year-old nurse with the Military Medicine Department in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing, Ms Hattori, she was only 3.5 km away from the hypocenter, and related some of the horrifying scenes she encountered after she recovered consciousness and attended to the other casualties in the aftermath of the bombing.

Ms. Ayumi Hamada with Ms. Michiko Hattari.

Ms. Ayumi Hamada with Ms. Michiko Hattari.

There was an opportunity to also hear from the other Hibakusha - all with a common tale not just of what was encountered in the immediate aftermath, but also of the discrimination they faced long after, along with the after effects of exposure to radiation that left many with long term illnesses and the fear many felt of what were uncertain futures. Many had difficulty finding marriage partners as a result.

Ms. Nobuko Sugino, who was 1 year old and 1.3 km from the hypo centre.

Ms. Nobuko Sugino, who was 1 year old and 1.3 km from the hypo centre.

Ms. Nobuko Sugino, who was a year old when the bomb was dropped, and at her home 1.3 km away from the hypocentre, was too young to remember  the aftermath. She spoke of the fears she had growing up due to the exposure she had to radiation. We were reminded of the story of Sadako Sasaki and the 1000 origami paper cranes. Sadako was 2 at the time of the bombing, and at her home at a distance of some 1.6 km from the hypocentre. She had been in good health for some 9 years before she became ill and was diagnosed with leukaemia before dying at the age of 12. Sadako had attempted to fold 1000 paper cranes in the hope that it would allow her wish to be granted by the gods, falling short of her target before the disease claimed her life. The story of Sadako had many like Ms. Sugino fearing that they might suffer a similar fate.

Ms. Noriko Sakashita, who was 2.

Ms. Noriko Sakashita, who was 2.

Ms. Motoko Nakamura who was 11 months.

Ms. Motoko Nakamura who was 11 months.

 Another survivor that did recount what it was like in the immediate aftermath was Mr. Takanari Sakata. He was 15 and working at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard in Hiroshima as a part of the mobilisation of students. He has very vivid memories of the scenes that he was to witness after regaining consciousness. He spoke of the scene that greeted him as he had walked across a bridge near the only building that had been left standing in the hypocentre – what is today the iconic A-Bomb Dome that serves as a memorial. From the bridge, one side of which had collapsed inwards and the other outwards, he could see many blackened bodies of victims in the river and many who had survived asking for water, which he was advised not to give as it would have killed them.

Mr. Takanari Sakata, who was 15 and working at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard in Hiroshima, 3 km from the hypocentre.

Mr. Takanari Sakata, who was 15 and working at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard in Hiroshima, 3 km from the hypocentre.

It is in hearing from the Hibakusha, who have shown great courage and determination in attempting to reach out to the world in the hope that their testimonies will help with the realisation that the experience they had been in, should never again be repeated and it is only with a nuclear-free world that the risk of it happening again will diminish.

A youth participant speaking.

A youth participant speaking.

On the Peace Boat, now in its seventh global voyage for a nuclear-free world, with the Hibakusha, are several youths who hope to raise awareness of the need for a nuclear-free world to fellow youths worldwide through their participation. Besides their involvement in workshops, they hope to interact with the young from different countries. The Peace Boat, having left Singapore, continues on what will be a 104 day voyage around the world that will see it calling at 20 ports in 18 countries, before returning to Yokohama on 24 June 2014. More information on the project and the Hibakusha can be found at the Peace Boat’s website, www.peaceboat.org.

An image of children quenching their thirst on snow that had covered the hypocentre in Hiroshima on display.

An image of children quenching their thirst on snow that had covered the hypocentre in Hiroshima on display.

Some of the horrifying images seen in the aftermath - on display at the session.

Some of the horrifying images seen in the aftermath – on display at the session.

 





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.





A dancer, an iron bed, and a war heroine

9 10 2012

And what has a dancer, an iron bed and a war heroine have to do with each other? Come Friday 12 October 2012, the dancer, award-winning dance choreographer, Tammy L Wong will give a ten minute self-choreographed performance which is an interpretation of a war heroine’s personal struggle and faith as she faced repeated acts of torture at the hands of the occupiers of Singapore during the Second World War. The piece features in a collaboration between five local dance choreographers who have had an impact on Singapore’s contemporary dance scene entitled SideBySide.

A look of anguish on an iron bed … Tammy L Wong shares a very moving personal with a bed borrowed from SJI International in a 10 minute piece for the Esplanade’s 10th Anniversary programme.

SideBySide is part of a weekend programme that is being lined-up for the anniversary weekend of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay which celebrates its tenth anniversary on 12 October 2012. The anniversary programme, part of a year-long celebration, Dedicated to You, is one that is dedicated to the arts and to Singapore artists, featuring performances specially commissioned for the occasion with invited local artists sharing their personal journeys. Also featuring Joavien Ng, Ming Poon and Scarlet Yu who will perform a piece together, and also Daniel K, SideBySide will see a presentation of short dance pieces, each, a tribute to a personal inspiration.

Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay celebrates its tenth anniversary this weekend.

Thanks to the Esplanade, I was able to catch a rehearsal of the piece that Tammy L Wong’s will present, entitled Andante, a ten minute long piece that will take the audience into the darkness that accompanied war heroine Mrs Elizabeth Choy’s internment by the Japanese during the Second World War.

Andante is Tammy L Wong’s interpretation of a first-hand account of Elizabeth Choy’s darkest moments during 200 days of torture when she was interned by the Japanese during World War II.

The imagery provided by the iron bed is a powerful one that transports the audience into the late Mrs Choy’s tortured soul, tortured not just by the repeated acts of savagery that she was inflicted with, by also by time that in the circumstances, would have seemed to pass all so slowly, as is suggested by the title of her piece.

The iron bed is one that immediately transports the audience into the torturous solitude that Elizabeth Choy found herself in.

No attention to detail had been spared, even for the short piece. The bed is one that took some finding – with Tammy having to borrow the right one from SJI International for the performance. The music that accompanies includes a hymn which does not only represent Mrs Choy’s deep Christian faith which she drew on to find the strength and courage to survive where many others would not have. Her moves on and off the bed, speak also of anguish and of solitude and of a body broken by torture.

The dance moves and music are ones that tells of the pain and suffering as well of Mrs Choy’s deep faith.

On the evidence of what I was able to see during the rehearsal, the piece would certainly be a very moving account of Mrs Choy’s struggles condensed into ten minutes. It is however Tammy’s account of her personal encounters with Mrs Choy that had to be the most stirring part of the session which included an opportunity to speak to Tammy.

Besides the insights Tammy shared about the piece, Tammy also spoke of her encounters with Mrs Choy herself, all of which started with a letter that Tammy had sent to her driven by a desire to seek the strength that Mrs Choy had demonstrated.

Tammy also spoke of that first encounter connected the two of them, and of how Mrs Choy had without hesitation, taken out photographs taken of her in the nude, when she had posed as a model for sculptor Dora Gordine.

Tammy at the end of the rehearsal.

What is remarkable to hear of is the matter-of-fact manner with which Mrs Choy related what must certainly have carried a lot of pain. That she did feel it, was however evident – the sessions often went on into the evening when Tammy would often find herself listening to Mrs Choy in the dark. Mrs Choy, had, as a result of the numerous occasions during which she was tortured with electrical shocks, developed a fear of anything electrical, including turning on the lights.

Sharing a lighter moment.

The poignant account is one that certainly puts the piece into context and one that will be the subject of Tammy’s second book which will be published next year. It would certainly be interesting to see it on the day of the performance – alongside with the other pieces, each with an equally interesting story. The hour-long SideBySide will play at the Esplanade Theatre Studio at 8pm on Friday. More information can be found at the Esplanade’s page on the SideBySide.


About SideBySide:

By Daniel K, Joavien Ng, Ming Poon, Scarlet Yu and Tammy L Wong

Date: 12 Oct 2012, Fri, 8pm
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio

SideBySide presents five established and independent dance choreographers who have made an impact on Singapore’s contemporary dance scene. The evening features new short works, with each piece created as a tribute to a personal artistic inspiration.

In a celebration of real and imaginary champions, Tammy L Wong creates a moving tribute to Singaporean war heroine Elizabeth Choy in Andante, while Joavien Ng ventures to make her very own superhero, in a salute to caped crusaders and the hero in all of us, in My Superhero.

For the first time, Ming Poon and Scarlet Yu perform together in a duet about the serendipity of encounters in The infinitesimal distance between two bodies, while Daniel creates a solo for arts practitioner Low Kee Hong who becomes his own cheerleader in The Cheerleader.

(1hr with short breaks)

$10

All Secondary Schools, Junior Colleges, Centralised Institutes and ITEs may use the Tote Board Arts Grant to subsidise up to 50% of the ticket price.






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









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