Pulau Ubin in the merry month of May

25 07 2021

One of the places in Singapore in which the memories of old are still alive is Pulau Ubin. It is where many in Singapore now find an escape from the staid and maddeningly overcrowded world in which Singaporeans have been made to call home.

Pulau Ubin — at least pre-Covid — comes alive every May, when the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple honours its main deity Tua Pek Kong, around the time of the Buddhist Vesak Day holiday (which has little to do with the local Taoist deity). The manner in which the festival is celebrated, harks back to the days of village life, with the Ubin’s rural settings certainly lending itself to providing the correct atmosphere.

No village temple festival would of course be complete without a Chinese opera performance. Held to entertain the visiting deity more than the crowd, these performances would in the past draw large crowds and be accompanied by a a variety of night-market-like stalls offering anything from food, desserts, drink, masks and toys, and the tikam-tikam man. While the stalls are missing in the modern-day interpretations of village festivals, Chinese opera performances and these days, getai, are still held at selected temples during their main festivals over the course of several days. Such is the case with the festival on Pulau Ubin, which is commemorated with as much gusto as would village festivals of the past, even if it involves a largely non-resident population. What does complete the picture on Pulau Ubin, is its permanent free-standing Chinese opera stage — just one of three left in Singapore — on which both Chinese opera and getai performances are held.


Photographs taken during the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple’s Tua Pek Kong festival in May 2014





Pagoda Street’s pagoda was probably not the Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram

23 07 2021

One of the fascinating things about the streets of Singapore is the stories that are attached to how they were named, either colloquially or officially. One example is Pagoda Street, along which a pagoda — at least in the modern sense of the word — seems quite conspicuously absent.

While is certainly puzzling to Singapore’s visitors, we in Singapore have been schooled to hold the belief that the pagoda in question is the gopuram of the Sri Mariamman temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Depending on how creatively this story is told, the temple’s prominent located gopuram at the corner of South Bridge Road and Pagoda Street, might have been mistaken by the common folk as a pagoda or for the want of a better description, identified as one. Whatever the story may have been, they all seem to have ignored the fact that the word “pagoda” in the context of the early 19th century when the street got its name, was one that was in use in the English language in making reference to both Hindu and Buddhist temples in India and in Southeast Asia.

The gopuram of the Sri Mariamman Temple

Historically, the use of the term “pagoda” is quite interesting. Its origins as many would have it is said to lie in the Persian word “butkada”, which is said to translate into “temple of idols”. There are also strong suggestions that it may instead have been derived from Chinese, or at least the Chinese dialects — some would argue, languages — that were in use in the past. The combination of Chinese words describing a “tower of bones of the dead” (白骨塔) or literally “white-bone tower”, is often cited as a possible source of the word, or even “octagonal tower” (八角塔) or literally “eight-cornered tower”. Both combinations, when said in one or several commonly spoken southern Chinese dialects, are similar sounding to the pronunciation of “pagoda” in the English language.

A Chinese-styled pagoda at Haw Par Villa (a personal photograph from November 1976). One suggestion is that the origin of the word “pagoda” is Chinese. The word “pagode” was however already in use in the 16th Century in Portuguese India to describe Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Interestingly, the Portuguese version of the word, “pagode”, was already in use as early as the early 16th century, during a time when Portugal established its presence in India after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a hitherto elusive sea route from Europe to the subcontinent. The word was utilised to describe the Indian temple complexes, both Hindu and Buddhist, that fascinated the Portuguese and the Europeans that were to follow. One example of this use was in the descriptions of the rock-cut Buddhist temple complex on Salsette Island near Mumbai or as it would have been called by the Portuguese, Bom Bahia. The complex came to be known as “Pagode de Canarim” (also”Pagoda de Canarin”), which the British would later name “Canari Pagoda”. The word “pagode” in the English form would also come also to be widely used, as is evidenced through official accounts, literature and correspondence through the 17th to 19th centuries, to describe either a Hindu or Buddhist temple and in some cases, even a mosque. There is in fact a description of the Sri Mariamman Temple, on a 1846 sketch made by John Turnbull Thomson of the temple and the Jamae Chulia Mosque on South Bridge Road, that does refer to the Sri Mariamman Temple as a “Hindoo Pagoda”. The mosque is referred to in the same description as a “Kling Mosque”.

“View in Singapore town; Hindoo Pagoda; Kling Mosque”; 1846
Thomson, John Turnbull, ourheritage.ac.nz

Descriptions of Hindu temples as “Hindoo pagodas”, were in fact used rather widely in English accounts of explorations and travels of the 19th and early 20th century. It therefore is quite probable that Pagoda Street was named, not because of Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopruam having erroneously been looked upon as a pagoda, but the Sri Mariamman Temple in whole, was to the English speakers of the day a “Hindoo pagoda”.

The Sri Mariamman, which is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, seen here during the Navaratri festival in 2015, would probably have been thought of as a “Hindoo pagoda”. The term was used in 19th century English to describe Hindu temples.
Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram, seen above the rooftops of the streets of Chinatown.

Various illustrations of “pagodas” found in India in 19th century Portuguese and English literature

An illustration of a Hindu temple in the Damāo Pequeno north of Mumbai in “A India Portugueza” published in 1886.
Another illustration of an Indian temple complex, named “Pagode de Chandrenate” in “A India Portugueza”.
A Hindu temple described as a “Hindoo Pagoda” in an illustration found in “India, historical and descriptive: revised and enlarged from “Les Voyages Celebres” with an account of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857-8, published in 1876.





Beautiful Ridley Park

18 07 2021

Among my favourite Public Works Department or PWD built houses is one at Ridley Park that I was able to photograph a couple of times (seen in the photographs attached to this post). Set in lush green surroundings, the house is among quite a few others found in an estate that took its name from the Singapore Botanic Gardens first director, Henry Ridley. Due to the fact that it was built adjacent to Tanglin Barracks, Ridley Park has often been mistaken as one that the War Office developed for their senior military officers. It however was one of a number that the PWD developed to house for senior government officers and their families.

Having been constructed from 1923 to 1935, a wide variety of PWD residence styles are on display at Ridley Park, which is a a wonderful showcase of the creativity of the PWD Architects’ Branch during what was their most productive of periods blueprint-wise. While many of these PWD houses are described as “black and white” homes or residences, they technically do not qualify as being “black and white” in style; the term being applied quite loosely as a matter of convenience, being perhaps a reference to the manner in which these houses are now painted. The houses in Ridley Park, which have been in government hands throughout their history, may be available for rent where unoccupied.






The “ruins” by Kallang Airport’s gates

16 07 2021

Right by the old gates of the former Kallang Airport, is a crumbling set of structures that pre-date the construction of Singapore’s first civil airport. With a little imagination, the sight of the rather mysterious looking structures could to transport the travel-starved observer to a place like Siem Reap. A closer inspection of the structures will however reveal that the crumbling walls belong not to an ancient temple … or for that matter anything like a palace or istana as recent suggestions have had it as, but to a raised burial plot.

The raised former burial plot, seen in August 2018.

The plot, which shared a boundary with the former Firestone Factory that was established in the 1920s (some may remember the former factory building on the banks of the Kallang River near Sir Arthur Bridge being used by electrical good and furniture retailer Courts in the 1990s), is marked in a 1930 survey map as a “Mohammedan Cemetery” and in a 1936 plan for the new Civil Aerodrome (i.e. Kallang Airport) quite simply as “graves”. An explanation as to why the graves were placed on a raised plot can be found in a 1939 letter to the Straits Times. The writer, who described its location to a tee in saying that an elevated plot of graves could be “seen just inside the entrance to the civil aerodrome, on the right”, recalled seeing them on small eyots or “patches of higher ground” in the mangrove swamp “before the place was reclaimed”. Reclamation work for the airport, it should be noted, was carried out in the 1930s.

The plot in January 2014, with the old airport gates in the background.

While there are no traces of the graves today — they were exhumed sometime in the late 1980s, there is still an item of physical evidence that still exists, if one looks for it along the base on which the structures rests. There, a tablet with inscriptions in the Tamil script can be found and that does in fact confirm that the site was indeed a burial plot — at least based on a translation provided by a local urban exploration group on Facebook in 2019. This translation dates the tablet to 1854, as a burial site for the “kith and kin” of Chinnakkani” — a descendant of “Hajji Ismail of Thiruvarur”.

The tablet seen in September 2018.
The plot in September 2018.
The plot shown in a 1930 survey map (NAS).
The plot shown in a 1936 plan for the aerodrome (NAS).




Where durians and Chinese opera come together

13 07 2021

Once commonly found across Singapore, permanently erected free-standing Chinese opera (also commonly referred to in Singapore as “wayang”) stages have become quite hard to come by in Singapore. Erected to entertain the gods during their visits down to the mortal realm, the were also put to use in several other ways, doubling up as the clan, temple or village schools, depending on where they were built. Only three such stages are left in Singapore, two on the main island and one more on Pulau Ubin and it is always a treat to catch a Chinese opera performance being staged on one of them, especially if one is able to head backstage where in my opinion, the best “action” takes place.

The Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple is a place of devotion for many.

One occasion during which I had the good fortune of doing just this was during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at Balestier Road in September 2016 from which the photographs in this post were captured. The temple, having links to Hokkien plantation workers from Joseph Balestier’s venture to grow sugarcane by the Whampoa River, has a history that dates back to 1847. Its stage, which came up in 1906, was built by Tan Boo Liat — the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, and who is also well-known for erecting Golden Bell — the Edwardian-style mansion on Mount Faber that is now the Danish Seamen’s Church.

It is also a place where Chinese opera performances take place (at least pre-Covid) on one of Singapore’s last permanently erected free-standing wayang stages.

The temple, besides being a place of devotion and a place to catch a wayang, has also become a place that is synonymous with indulgence in the “king of all fruits” — durians. Durians have been sold in and around the area for, which was also known for its cinemas, for a long time and right by or in front of the temple ever since I can remember. Much of the area has changed, even if there is much that is is familiar physically. The durian stalls of old, are however, still very much a common sight every durian season. Not only do you see them just by temple, but also in the side lanes in the area. Like the temple, and the stage when it comes alive, they are among the last vestiges of the living side of the old Balestier Road, a side that long lives in my memory.

Durians and Chinese opera.
Another view of the temple.
Joss sticks at the temple.

Photographs of the Chinese Opera preparations and performance in September 2016






Giving back the Sacred Heart a right heart

12 07 2021

For years, the central stained-glass panel above the sanctuary of the Portuguese Church, depicting the Sacred Heart, spotted a piece of green coloured glass in the place where the Sacred Heart’s heart us represented – as a crude replacement. The series of photographs below show the Sacred Heart given back its heart back in 2014.





A place from my childhood: Port Dickson

11 07 2021

It is sad that many places that featured in our childhoods, collectively as Singaporeans who grew up in the first three decades of independence, have all but disappeared. Even if they are around, they would have changed in an unrecognisable way. There are times when I feel more at home in parts of Peninsular Malaysia that I connected with as a child, than in Singapore, the country of my birth and I have on more than one occasion sought out these places to get a sense of coming home that is absent in much of Singapore.

One place in which I found some of my childhood memories intact is the Lido Hotel in Port Dickson. It was a place that featured regularly in numerous driving trips “up country” that my parents were fond of taking in the 1970s. Port Dickson was often a stopover on the way to, or on the way back from, destinations further up north and one that was made even more special because of the beach.

Beach in front of Lido Hotel, Port Dickson, 1971

I found an opportunity to revisit the area in which the Lido Hotel was during a driving trip up the peninsula some years back, making a small detour from the North-South Highway. The sight of the old hotel was a pleasant surprise. Located right where it was at the 8th mile of Port Dickson’s well known 11 mile stretch of beach, the hotel’s road entrance was certainly a welcome sight as was the building in which the small hotel operated despite the developments that have sprouted up all along the beach. The hotel, when it featured in my childhood trips, had already looked that it had left its glory days far behind, and it came as not surprise to see it in a dilapidated state, reduced to being a place for beach goers to have their showers. Much was however, still familiar. The dining space at which we sometimes had lunch at was recognisable, even if it had been emptied of the tables and chairs that once filled it. The hotel’s two wings in which its rooms were located even if emptied of life, had the grilles and green cement floors that I remember well.

Prior to this visit, the I last time I must have set eyes on this side of Port Dickson would have been in the early 1980s. The opening of the first southern stretches of the North-South Highway, from Kuala Lumpur or KL to Seremban and its extension to Ayer Keroh in the 1980s put paid for the need for stopovers. It used to take 6 hours to drive from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore on the old trunk or coastal road, parts of which were slow, winding, and rather treacherous. Traffic would often be held up by slow-moving trucks loaded with cargo such as the lori-lori balak or logging trucks. The highway may have made it a lot easier to take that drive to KL, but what it may have also done is have us forget some truly charming places along the way such as Port Dickson, that may have featured in the drives we took in the past.





The Bidwell houses at Gallop Road

6 07 2021

Two beautiful conservation houses, Atbara and Inverturret at No 5 and No 7 Gallop Road, grace the newly opened Singapore Botanic Gardens Gallop Extension. Both wonderfully repurposed, Atbara as the Forest Discovery Centre and Inverturret as the Botanical Art Gallery, they are among the oldest and finest surviving examples of residential properties that English architect Regent Alfred John (R A J) Bidwell designed in Singapore.

Bidwell, who had an eventful but short two-year stint in the Selangor Public Works Department (PWD) as Chief Draughtsman and assistant to Government Architect A C Norman, came across to Singapore in 1895 to join pre-eminent architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. In a matter of four years, he became a partner in the firm; an arrangement that lasted until 1907. Bidwell would continue his association with the firm as an employee until 1912. His 17 years with Swan and Maclaren, was one marked by the string of notable contributions that he made to Singapore’s built landscape. His architectural works include many of Singapore’s landmarks of the early 20th century, which include the Goodwood Park Hotel — built as a clubhouse for the Teutonia Club; Victoria Theatre and Victoria Memorial Hall (the theatre component of the pair was a modification of a previously built Town Hall that also gave it an appearance similar to the 1905 erected Victoria Memorial Hall; and Stamford House — built as Whiteaway and Laidlaw Building in 1905. Also notable among his contributions were several buildings that have since been demolished, one of which was the old Telephone exchange on Hill Street that was designed in the Indo-Saracenic style.

The Indo-Saracenic style was something that Bidwell would have been extremely familiar with, having been heavily involved in the design of the Government Offices in Kuala Lumpur or KL, now the Sultan Abu Samad Building. Hints of the style are also found in one of the first design efforts in Singapore, which is seen in the unique set of piers on which Atbara is supported. The bungalow, along with several others that Bidwell had designed, is thought to have influenced the designs of numerous government, municipal and company residences, the bulk of which were constructed from the 1910s to the 1930s. Many of these are still around and are often erroneously referred to as “black and white houses”, a term that is more descriptive of their appearance — many are painted white with black trimmings — rather than a description of a their style or of a particular architectural style (see also: The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company’s Estate on Mount Faber).

Atbara has in fact earned the distinction of being Singapore oldest “black and white house” even if it does display a variety of architectural influences; influences that are also seen in many of the designs of the various residences. Built in 1898, apparently for lawyer John Burkinshaw, Atbara’s piers, timber floorboards and verandahs are among the features or adaptations applied to the residences of the early 20th century, all of which were intended to provide their occupants with a maximum of comfort in the unbearable heat and humidity of the tropics. Many of these adaptations were ones borrowed from the bungalows of the Indian sub-continent, from plantation style houses, and also the Malay houses found in the region. There was extensive use of pitched-roofs, a feature seen in the then popular Arts and Crafts style that the English architects of the era would have been familiar with. These roofs lent themselves to drainage and the promotion of ventilation through convection when combined with generous openings. Tropical interpretations of the Arts and Crafts style were in fact widely applied to several residences built during the era.

Atbara, which early “to-let” advertisements had as having seven rooms, five bathrooms, with a large compound and with extensive views, came into the possession of Charles MacArthur, Chairman of the Straits Trading Company, in 1903. MacArthur added the neighbouring Inverturret soon after in 1906. Also designed by Bidwell, Inverturret rests on a concrete base and is of a distinctively different style — even if verandahs, ample openings and the pitched roof found in Atbara are in evidence.

The two properties were eventually acquired by the Straits Trading Company in 1923, who held it until 1990, after which both were acquired by the State. The houses had several prominent tenants during this period. Just before the Second World War, Inverturret briefly served the official residence of the Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Royal Air Force Far East, from 1937 to 1939. During these two years, Inverturret saw two AOCs in residence, Air-Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder and Air-Vice Marshal John Babington. Their stay in Inverturret was in anticipation of a much grander residence — the third of a trio that was to have been built to house each of the senior commanders of the three military arms. Two, Flagstaff House (now Command House) to house the General Officer Commanding, Malaya and Navy House (now old Admiralty House) for the Rear Admiral Malaya, were known to have been built.

From 1939 to 1999, both Atbara and Inverturret were leased to the French Foreign Office by the Straits Trading Company up to 1990 and following their acquisition in 1990, by the State up to 1999. Except for the period of the Japanese Occupation (it is known that Inverturret was used as a residence for the Bank of Taiwan’s Manager during the Occupation) and shortly thereafter, Atbara served as the French Consular Office and later the French Embassy, and Inverturret as the French Consul-General’s / French Ambassador’s residence. It was during this period that those like me, who are of an age when travel to France required a visa, may remember visiting Atbara. The process of obtaining a visa involved submitting an application with your passport in the morning, and returning in the afternoon to pick the passport and visa up, a process that was not too dissimilar to obtaining an exit permit at the nearby CMPB!


Atbara


Inverturret


R A J Bidwell and Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abu Samad Building



Built as Government Offices for the Selangor Government from 1894 to 1897, the Sultan Abu Samad building – a landmark in Kuala Lumpur was described as the “most impressive building in the Federated Malay States”. Although the architectural work for it has been widely attributed to A C Norman, the Selangor Public Works Department’s Government Architect, it is widely accepted that it was R A J Bidwell who developed the finer architectural details of its eye-catching Indo-Saracenic lines. Bidwell, who was assistant to Norman from 1893 to 1895, developed the plans with input from C E Spooner – the State Engineer, who directed that initial plans for the building be redone in what he termed as the “Mohammedan style”.

Bidwell’s disaffection with his position and salary, saw to him resigning from the Selangor PWD — as is reflected in his correspondence relating to his resignation. The Selangor PWD’s loss would turn into Singapore’s gain, with Bidwell moving to Singapore in 1895 to join Swan and Maclaren .






A temporary Kempeitai HQ at Beach Road

23 06 2021

Convicted as a spy and imprisoned in Changi Prison during a stint as a press attaché with the Japanese Consulate in Singapore, Mamoru Shinozaki is also viewed in some circles as the “Oskar Schindler” of Singapore for the role he may have played in bringing the terrible Sook Ching Massacre to an end. While he remains a controversial even after his death in the 1990s, his accounts of the wartime Singapore remains a valuable resource. In oral history interviews contained in “My Wartime Experiences in Singapore” published by the Institute of South East Asian Studies in 1973, we learn that he was brought to Beach Road upon his release from in Changi Prison by the Japanese Army on 16 February 1942 – right after Singapore fell. Describing his arrival at Beach Road, Shinozaki said, “All along Beach Road, all the houses were closed and I did not see even a cat or dog. It was a ghost town.”

Since demolished buildings at the former Beach Road Police Station.

What was would to follow was his meeting with Lt. Col. Yokota, who had been placed in command of several units of the East Branch of the Kempeitai. “At Beach Road, now the temporary Voluntary Headquarters, the chief of the Yokota Kempei unit, Lt. Col. Yokota, was waiting. When I got down from the lorry he greeted me: “you have suffered so long, please take this.”” This very scene is, quite amazing, one that also exists in a visual record. A Japanese newsreel which contains the scenes that followed the Japanese Army’s taking of Singapore captured by Kameyama Matsutarō, Marē senki : shingeki no kiroku (Malaya War Record: A Record of the Onward March). This newsreel also contains a scene that shows Shinozaki being greeted by Yokata outside what can be identified as Beach Road Police Station (rather than the Volunteer Force Headquarters as identified by Shinozaki). The building, a conserved structure, is still around today and is currently being incorporated into Guocoland’s MidTown development.

While the former police station’s building may have been retained, the redevelopment of the plot as MidTown has resulted in the loss of two other buildings to the rear of the main structure that were part and parcel of the larger Beach Road Police Station complex that was completed in 1934. The construction of the station, came as part of a decade-long effort to upgrade the facilities of the Straits Settlements Police Force and bring about greater professionalism in the face of the high rates of crime in Singapore – or “Sin-Galore” as it may then have been known as. The state of disorder in the colony, also dubbed the “cesspool of iniquity”, even prompted comparisons to be made with Chicago! It was the through the same effort, initiated in the mid-1920s, that the Police Training School at Thomson Road – the old Police Academy – was established and Hill Street Police Station, was built along with several other stations.

A Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets visit to Beach Road Police Station in October 2017.

Built at a cost of $319,743, the Beach Road complex replaced an earlier station that had been located further east along Beach Road at Clyde Terrace. The two demolished buildings at the station’s rear were all built at the same time to serve as modern quarters in an attempt to provide improve policemen’s living standards. A three-storey block accommodated 64 married man and their families, while 80 single men and NCOs were accommodated in another three storey single-men’s block. The latter also contained a mess and recreation room on its ground floor. Along with this, the most senior ranking officers at the station were accommodated in its three-storey main building, which was described as being of a “pretentious type”. The building was laid out to provide quarters for two European and two “Asiatic” Inspectors on the second and third levels, while its ground floor was where the offices of the station, a guard room, an armoury and a number of stores were located. Immediately behind the main block – right behind the guard room, was an annex cell block in which the lock-up was located and “approached from it (the guardroom) by a covered way”.

Besides the episode involving Shinozaki, the station’s played several other wartime roles. A hundred or so Japanese “aliens” were rounded up and held in it following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan on 8 December 1941, before they were moved to Changi Prison. The scene was to repeat itself upon Singapore’s inglorious fall, when civilians from the other side were held with the station serving as a holding facility for civilian internees prior to them being sent to Changi Prison. The civilians rounded up by the Japanese Army included Jews and individuals of various European backgrounds and nationalities, along with members of the Chinese and Indian communities.

Beach Road Police Station also found itself in the thick of action in the tumultuous period that followed the end of the Second World War. During the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, policemen from the station were amongst paramilitary personnel sent to quell disturbances in nearby Kampong Glam. The policemen involved were however forced into retreat with the station serving as a refuge for them along with scores of civilians seeking safe refuge.

Following independence, the station served as the Police ‘C’ Division headquarters until May 1988 – when the division HQ was moved into new premises at Geylang Police Station. The buildings were then used as Central Police Division headquarters from November 1992 until 2001, after which the division HQ moved into Cantonment Police Complex. The decommissioning of the station led to its use by the Raffles Design Institute for some six years. During this time, two sets of newer quarters that had been added on an adjacent piece of land – two four-storey blocks that were built in the 1950s, and a 12 storey block in erected in 1970, were demolished.

Sitting on a prime 2-hectare reserve site, the former station and barracks was sold for a whopping $1.62 million in 2017 and members of the public got to see it for the last time as it was during a “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” visit in October 2017.


A last look at the former Beach Road Police Station as it was in 2017.






Reflections on Singapore

22 06 2021

Reflections have captivated me since I was a child, when I used to think of mirrors as portals into a parallel world. That is perhaps why I take great joy from capturing reflections with the camera, be it one taken off a shop window, a mirror, and especially off puddles of water. In the set of photographs seen below are 37 reflections taken across Singapore. They include ones of places that we see everyday, ones that are a little harder to get to, and a few of places that no longer exist.





Another glimpse of Singapore in 1941

11 06 2021


More of Singapore in 1941 (and also 1942) – from an album of photographic prints taken Colin Keon-Cohen that was donated to Museums Victoria. All photographs Public Domain (Licensed as Public Domain Mark), Museums Victoria Collections.

See also:

A glimpse of Singapore in 1941

Singapore in 1941 from the Harrison Forman Collection


An album of photographs by Pilot Officer Colin Keon-Cohen or life in Singapore with 205 Sqn RAF, then 77 Sqn RAAF, World War II era.






The beautiful Masjid Sultan as you may not have seen it

10 06 2021

Designed in the Indo-Islamic1 style by the prolific Denis Santry of Swan and Maclaren in 1924, the beautiful Masjid Sultan or Sultan’s Mosque stands today as a focal point of the Muslim community here in Singapore. Work commenced in 1928 and the first part of the mosque was completed around 1930. T he mosque replaced an older mosque that was built in a style that is commonly found across the Malay archipelago featuring a multi-tiered roof. The older mosque was built for Sultan Hussein Shah around 1824 with a contribution of 3,000 Spanish dollars from Sir Stamford Raffles. The photographs below, many of which were taken from the roof, belong to a set that I took in 2016 during a visit to it organised in conjunction with the URA 2016 Architectural Heritage Awards – at which the mosque restoration project was awarded a prize for restoration.


Note:

1 The style of the Sultan’s Mosque has widely been described as Indo-Saracenic. However, architect and historian LaI Chee Kien would rather have the style described as Indo-Islamic rather than Saracenic. The reason provided was that the British used more elements from the Mughal period there in India than in Arab-Muslim or Turkish-Muslim areas.



The older Sultan’s Mosque

Masjid Sultan, 1846, by John Turnbull Thomson
Hocken Pictorial Collections – 92/1155 a12134 https://otago.ourheritage.ac.nz/items/show/4675.





The last charcoal shop in Singapore?

7 06 2021

Photographs taken in 2018
©Jerome Lim





The refreshingly revamped Changi Chapel and Museum

12 05 2021

Booking of visits slots to Changi Chapel and Museum:

https://nhb.vouch.sg/ccm




Located close to Changi Prison and in the Changi area where tens of thousands of Allied Prisoners-of-War (POWs) and civilians were held captive during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) is a place to remember the experiences of those held and a site of pilgrimage for the families of those held captive. Closed for a huge revamp since 2018, CCM will reopen on 19 May 2021 with a with a refreshingly new feel, a new logo, and offer an experience that will be a lot more immersive.

The new look Changi Chapel and Museum – a huge improvement from its previous incarnation. The visitor services area, which spots a new look logo, with the CCM monogram shaped like a POW chapel. The logo is also designed to resemble prison bars.

For those held in Changi, the period of captivity, was marked by immense suffering and pain, and for some, death. Disease, malnutrition and the inhumane and overcrowded conditions under which both POWs and civilian internees were subjected to, contributed to this. In all that adversity, there are also many stories of resilience and resourcefulness, of hope, and ultimately, of survival. Some of these stories have been brought out by CCM through a combination of artefacts, personal accounts and through the use of multimedia. On display are 114 artefacts, and in them the individual stories of hope and resilience. Of the 114, 82 are newly acquired or loaned. These new artefacts also include 37 that have been obtained through donations or loans from the public, including several that have very generously come from the families of former internees.

A morse code transmitting device hidden in a matchbox, which shows the ingenuity of prisoners held in Changi.

The revamped museum features eight exhibition zones, as compared to five in the CCM’s previous incarnation as the Changi Museum. Some of the highlights found within these eight zones are given below. Another highlight of the museum is the replica chapel featuring the Changi Cross. The replica chapel, representative of the various chapels of captivity and modelled after St George’s Church, was constructed in 1988 and was originally on the grounds of Changi Prison. This was moved to the present site in 2001. Made from the casing of a 4.5” howitzer shell and strips of brass from camp workshops, the Changi Cross was a feat of the POWs’ resourcefulness and ingenuity. Designed by Reverend Eric Cordingly, it was made by Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden with Sapper Tim Hemmings using a sharpened steel umbrella spike to engrave the badges of the four regiments making up the congregation of St George’s POW Church. The cross has been loaned on a permanent basis to Changi Chapel and Museum by Reverend Cordingly’s family.

The Replica Chapel.

Opening and Admission

CCM will open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (Last Admission is at 5 pm).

Admission to CCM will be free for all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents.

Tourists and Foreign Residents will be charged $8 for adults and $5 for students, and Special Access. Children 6 years and below enjoy free entry. and above senior citizens (60 years and above). Visitors will enjoy $2 off admission with a valid ticket stub from the National Museum of Singapore. There is also a family package of $24 for a family of 5 with a maximum of 3 adults.

For the period of the opening from 19 to 30 May 2021 when all visitors will enjoy free entry.


Changi Chapel and Museum Opening Weekend (22 and 23 May 2021)

Priority Admission with Pre-booked Timeslots


Due to crowd regulation for safe-distancing, visitors are advised to pre-book their admission by timeslots (930am, 1130am, 130pm and 330pm) for opening weekend on 22 and 23 May.

Visitors with pre-booked admission slots will be given priority admission to the museum, but will however be required to visit during the selected time. Timeslots can be booked for up to a maximum of 5 person. Booking opens on 17 May 2021, 12 noon.

Crowd levels can be check via the museum website or chatbot before their visit and those without pre-booked entry timeslots may be required to return at a later time.

Do note that there is limited paid parking lots available at the Changi Chapel and Museum and there is also no public parking available in the vicinity. As such, visitors will be advised to take public transport or private car hire to the museum.

Opening Weekend Programmes include guided tours of the gallery and a recorded orchestral performance based on the experiences of prisoners of war for which pre- registration is required.
Registration for Opening Weekend programmes will also allow priority admission to the museum and there is not need to further pre-book admission by timeslots separately. Registration of programmes will begin on 17 May.

More information is available on the opening weekend programmes and registration details, please visit www.changichapelmuseum.gov.sg and CCM’sFacebook and Instagram pages.


The Eight Zones

Zone 1: Changi Fortress

The first zone, Changi Fortress, provides some context for how Changi became a place of internment in tracing how Changi developed from an area of swamp and forest, into a place for leisure and then into a military cantonment, setting the scene for the role that Changi played during the war. Here the visitor will be greeted by a projection that sets the context for the museum’s narrative as well as maps, and photographs related to Changi’s early days.

Changi Fortress.
The Changi Fortress zone, where visitors will encounter a projection show that sets the context of the museum’s narrative.
A view of a forested Changi in 1869 – a print View in Changi that was published in Skizzen aus Singapur und Djohor (Sketches of Singapore and Johore) by Austrian diplomat and naturalist Eugen von Ransonnet.

Zone 2: Fallen Fortress

The next zone, Fallen Fortress, looks at the Fall of Singapore and its aftermath. Among the artefacts of interest is a well preserved chronometer from the HMS Bulan, a cargo ship that was involved in the evacuation. It left Singapore on 11 February 1942 with a load of civilian evacuees, arriving safely in Batavia after steaming for four days during which time it was attacked.

Fallen Fortress
Chronometer from the HMS Bulan

Zone 3: The Interned

The third zone looks a the stories of the men, women and children who were interned. Some 48,000 of whom were marched to Changi in the days after the surrender with the civilians interned in Changi Prison and the troops in various camps in the area.

Among the artefacts of note is a 1941 Christmas dinner menu from the USS Joseph T. Dickman, a troopship carrying Private Albert Riley of the 195th Field Ambulance Unit, Royal Army Medical Corps, provides a sense of how blissfully unaware and unprepared the troops arriving in Singapore were for the ordeal that was to follow. Also of interest is signed shirt with some 30 names written on it, 22 of whom were known to have survived the war. Found on the shirt is an attempt to document what went on, such a an incident involving Pte Lewer’s fall into a sewer.

The display of artefacts in the third zone.
A Christmas dinner menu from the USS Joseph T. Dickman, which carried Private Albert Riley of the 195th Field Ambulance Unit, Royal Army Medical Corps.
A shirt with names written on it. Out of 30 names found on the shirt, 22 were known to have survived the war.
A close-up of the shirt shows an attempt to also document some of what went on, such as an unfortunate incident involving a Pte Lewer falling into a sewer.

Zone 4: Life as a POW

The Life as a POW recalls how life would have been as a prisoner. Changi Prison is a focal point with remnants of the prison — a place of civilian internment up to May 1944 when civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp. The prison served as the POW camp after this.

The highlight of the zone is a recreation of a Changi Prison cell complete with an actual door from the since demolished old prison. The small cell, intended to hold a single prisoner, held up to four prisoners during the period of internment. The re-created cell includes speakers at various points at which historical recordings of conversations between the internees.

A Changi Prison door. A mirror placed beside the door gives the impression of a long row of cells.
A recreation of the Changi Prison cell.
Historical recordings of conversations between the internees at various points in the cell offer a glimpse into their living conditions and daily experiences.
A captors-eye view through the peephole of the prison cell door.

Zone 5: Resilience in Adversity

The Resilience in Adversity zone provides a look at the hardship that the internees faced and how they responded to it. Among the hardships recalled in this zone are the work camps that the POWs were sent away to, including those on the so-called Death Railway on the Thai-Burma border. Also recalled was the Double Tenth Incident which began on 10 October 1943, involving the interrogation of civilian internees by the Kempeitai in Changi Prison and the likes of Elizabeth Choy in the old YMCA. The incident occurred after the successful Allied commando raid behind enemy lines in the harbour known as Operation Jaywick.

The zone is probably where the most visually impactful section of the CCM also is — where the replica Changi Murals are found. The original murals, five of which were painted, were the work of Stanley Warren from September 1942 to May 1943. Warren, who was down with dysentery and renal disease and a patient in the POW hospital at Roberts Barracks, summoned what little reserves were left in his strength to paint the biblical scenes. This became a source of hope and solace for his fellow POWs. The display, which I am glad has been retained (there was some thought initially of using video projections instead) is supplemented by multimedia panels that tell their story. I was fortunate to have visited the actual murals, which are in Block 151 in the former Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West). More on my visit in 2013 and the Changi Murals can be found in “A light where there was only darkness”.

Also on display in the zone are objects fashioned by prisoners out of available materials such as toothbrushes and several other new highlights of the museum such as a Kodak Baby Brownie Camera and a 400 page diary that was maintained by civilian internee Arthur Westrop. The diary, “A Letter to My Wife”, contains entries written as if they were actual letters to his wife, who was in Rhodesia. The diary, which Westrop kept hidden under the floorboards, survived a raid on his cell during the Double Tenth Incident.

Resilience in Adversity looks at some of the hardships faced. One of the worst periods in POW life came when POWs were sent away from Changi to work camps which included the Thai-Burma or Death Railway (notice the representation of the rail tracks on the ground).
Also recalled was the Double Tenth Incident, involving the interrogation of civilian internees by the Kempeitai in Changi Prison and the likes of Elizabeth Choy in the old YMCA. The incident occured after the successful Allied commando raid behind enemy lines in the harbour known as Operation Jaywick.
Diary of Arthur Westrop 1942−1945, Gift of the family of Arthur Westrop, Collection of the National Museum of Singapore.
Toothbrushes made by prisoners.
The replica murals.
The multimedia panel.

Zone 6: Creativity in Adversity

Creativity in Adversity looks at how creative expression played a huge role in helping prisoners cope with their circumstances. Art and craft, theatrical performances, music, sports and even educational pursuits, played an important role in the process and the zone showcases some of the efforts in this area.

Among the internees were womenfolk, who found comfort in sewing quilts for the wounded. The quilts were also an ingenious method of messaging, as it allowed the women to tell their husbands that they were alive. In each personalised embroidered square, were expressions also of love patriotism, and identity.

Also found in the zone are works of art, efforts to create props for theatre, books that were used for learning including a Malay-English dictionary, and a word map of names of numerous places and objects, written on this piece of paper by Leading Aircraftman Ronald Bailey that provides an insight into a life cut short by a stint on the Death Railway. Bailey died aged 23, in 1943.

Creativity in Adversity
An exact replica of the British Changi Quilt made in2003 by the Asian Women’s Welfare Association. The original quilt is with the British Red Cross.
An interactive panel showing how a ventriloquist’s dummy was made by prisoners.
The Changi University provided education for many POWs in the early days of internment.
A Malay- English dictionary.
A message sent by a wife that tells a story of hope and love.
The word map of names of numerous places and objects, written on this piece of paper by Leading Aircraftman Ronald Bailey. This provides an insight into Bailey’s life and the places that he connect with. Bailey died in 1943 on the Death Railway aged 23.

Zone 7: Liberation

Liberation, which followed the surrender of Japan on 15 August 1945 and the subsequent British reoccupation of Singapore, brought a three and a half year chapter of captivity to an end. The zone is where the immediate aftermath and its impact on internees is looked at. Artefacts in the zone include a samurai sword presented to a POW and a letter from King George VI to POWs.

Liberation
A letter from King George VI addressed to captives.
A samurai sword presented to a POW by a Japanese officer at the end of the war.

Zone 8: Legacies

In the final zone, Legacies, the legacy of Changi as a prison camp, is remembered. Here, the names and stories of the internees call be called up on interactive screens. There is also a running count of internees and view some artefacts that were produced to remember how they had survived the internment.







Colouring Edo and a monochromatic take on a colourful side of Kyoto

8 05 2021

Japan and the rather unique experiences it has to offer, has captured the imagination of many image makers over the history of image-making. How this has evolved over time is wonderfully presented in an exhibition Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto, which opened at the Asian Civilisations Museum on 16 April 2021. Running until 19 September 2021, the exhibition provides a wonderful walk-through of the various aspects of Japanese art of woodblock print making — a popular medium of expression during the Edo period. The art form is also placed in contrast with the modern art of photography, seen through the skilfully and very patiently captured work of renowned Singaporean photographer Russel Wong in the forbidden world of Kyoto’s Gokagai (five kagai).

The exhibition starts with a study of the Japanese art of ukiyo-e or woodblock printing. Ukiyo-e, which translates into “pictures of the transient world”, or as the Britannica has it, “pictures of the floating world”, came to the fore during a period of cultural and social renaissance in 18th and 19th century Edo, with the term “transient world” or “floating world” being a euphemism for Edo’s popular entertainment quarters. Produced for the mass market, ukiyo-e, with its depictions of popular theatre artistes, courtesans, and maybe the seedier aspects of life in the pleasure quarters, could be thought of as a platform for the social influencers of the day — much like what social media and the likes of Instagram is, in the world of today.

Different class of travel in the age of the ukiyo-e.

Comparing ukiyo-e to Instagram may devalue the craft and effort that goes into the production of ukiyo-e. The value of its craft is thankfully not lost in the journey that the exhibition takes visitors through with 157 expertly made prints on show that provide a glimpse of life during the Tokugawa shogunate, themed according to the subjects of travel, beauty, food, entertainment and even the keeping of pets. The production of ukiyo-e would have involved a publisher; artists to draw the design, carve the woodblocks, and to ink, align and press the various blocks individually to add each of the various colours to the prints. The display of a complete set of mid-20th century woodblocks made by the Kyoto Hanga Institute to reprint Hokusai’s “South Wind, Clear Sky” — popularly known as “Red Fuji”, provides visitors with a better understanding of the skill and labour involved in the craft. Overtaken by machine printing and photography, interest in the tedious method of printing would decline in the late 1800s. It is only through the efforts of artisans and institutes such as the Hanga, that the craft has been preserved.

It is probably apt the the transition from the traditional to the modern in the exhibition takes place through the crossing of a bridge and a journey from Edo to Kyoto. The starting point in this journey is the display of Utagawa’s Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print of Nihonbashi – at the beginning of the coastal Tokaido Road from Edo to Kyoto and the first of 53 halting or rest stations (which included the start and end points) Hiroshige depicted in his print series “The 53 Stations of the Tokaido”. This will be replaced (as will the other woodblock prints on display due to their sensitivity to light) in the second half of the exhibition period with a print of the last station, the Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto, which is also depicted at the point where the journey into Russel Wong’s Kyoto begins. Hiroshige’s series provided the inspiration for some of Wong’s work in Japan and Wong’s photograph of the Sanjo Bridge that is on display, was taken with very much the same craft and care that went into Hiroshige’s efforts.

Wong’s captures of the secluded world of the tea houses of the Gokagai, is for the photographer in me, the draw of the exhibition. The story that is seen in his masterfully taken photographs of the Geiko (how Geishas in Kyoto are referred to) and the apprentice Maiko, is as much about the unseen aspects of life in the tea houses, as it is about Wong’s craft and patience. An effort some 13 years in the making, it involved establishing the right connections and a wait of five years before he was even able to step into a tea house. This incredible journey, is supplemented by his efforts to capture the colours of the Kyoto that most of us will only get to see, but in a way few would have the patience for. Seen in his work in colour of Kyoto through the four seasons in the public space where the journey into Edo and Kyoto begins, it is also seen in the monochromatic display of the crowd-free Kinkaku-ji in winter taken through falling snow just as the alarm levels on Covid-19 were being raised and just before travel restrictions were put in place in early 2020.

The Kinkaku-ji in winter as captured by Russel Wong

Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto runs until 19 September 2021 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Tickets are priced at $12 for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents and $20 for Foreign Residents and Tourists. For more information, visit https://www.nhb.gov.sg/acm/whats-on/exhibitions/life-in-edo-russel-wong-in-kyoto.


A ukiyo-e depiction of a brothel room with hidden messages.
Beauty techniques – offered by the “influencers” of the day on ukiyo-e.
Interactions with pets was a popular ukiyo-e subject.
Utagawa’s Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print of Nihonbashi – the first of “The 53 stations of the Tokaido”
Russel Wong on using black and white and more …





A beautiful campus by the sea

20 04 2021

A peek into the beautiful BNP Paribas Asia-Pacific Campus. Established in 2014, the campus occupies two beautifully restored former barrack blocks of the former (Royal Engineers) Kitchener Barracks in Changi. The two blocks, currently Block 34 and 35 and formerly B an C Blocks, were among the first to be built in the Changi Cantonment that was developed from the end of the 1920s into the late 1930s and provide an excellent example of how such buildings could be restored and repurposed in the light of the recently announced Ideas Competition for Changi Point and old Changi Hospital (see also: Ideas sought to repurpose Old Changi Hospital, enhance surrounding Changi Point area).

The former B-Block, together with the former H-Block (now Block 24, which in 1947 was repurposed as RAF Hospital, Changi), were in fact the first barrack blocks to constructed in Changi and were completed by 1930. The cantonment also included barracks for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West) and for the infantry at Selarang Barracks, as well as smaller camps for various Indian Army units.

In the 1920s, Britain had moved to establish a large naval base in Sembawang to defend its Far East interests in the face of rising Japanese ambition. The setting up of the cantonment followed this decision and was carried out to install, maintain, man and secure coastal artillery being placed around the eastern mouth of the Tebrau or Johor Strait to protect the naval base against naval attack.

The cantonment, which sustained some damage in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore but remain largely intact, was evacuated on 12 February 1942. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and with Japanese forces overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of surrendering Allied troops in Singapore, they found a solution to accommodating some of these troops in the emptied barracks in Changi. On 17 February 1942, close to 50,000 British and Australian Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were marched to Changi and placed in the various camps. The troops forming the last line of defence in Singapore, the Singapore Fortress Southern Area troops, which included some volunteer units, were allocated Kitchener Barracks. The Australians were kept separately in Selarang. POW hospitals, which were set up in former field hospitals in Roberts and Selarang, were consolidated at Roberts Barracks — this is where the Changi Murals were painted.

The POWs would initially have little contact with their captors, who got them to wire themselves into the various camps. Discipline was maintained by the officers among the POWs, who also took it upon themselves to keep the morale up. Sports, theatrical performances and even university classes were organised — there were several professional sportsmen amongst the ranks and also lecturers from Raffles College who were with the volunteer units and in Kitchener Barracks, the Southern Area College operated. With the Fortress troops — who were not involved in the retreat down Malaya — being amongst the fittest of the POWs, the men of the camp at Kitchener were among the first to be picked for the Japanese organised work teams, many of which would be sent to provide labour in places like the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway. The numbers in Kitchener dwindled to the point that it could be closed as a POW camp in May 1943, followed by Roberts in September 1943. In May 1944, the POWs, which included those who had survived the Death Railway, were concentrated at Changi Prison, which had previously been used as a civilian internment camp (the civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp).

The two camps would then be occupied by Japanese units involved in the construction of the Japanese airstrip at Changi (operational at the end of 1944), around which the Royal Air Force would establish RAF Air Station Changi (RAF Changi) in 1946. The blocks of the former Kitchener Barracks were then used by the RAF, with RAF Hospital Changi being established in 1947. Among the renumbered blocks, Block 35, housed HQ Far East Air Force (FEAF) Command. The various roads within the former Kitchener Barracks were renamed after RAF Air Stations. Following the British pull-out in October 1971, the barrack buildings (except for Block 24 and 37), were used by the Singapore Armed Forces as Commando Camp. Of the various barrack developments, only the former Kitchener remains largely intact today.





Escape from Tanglin Barracks

16 04 2021

Tanglin Village or Dempsey Hill, a spacious and joyous site on the fringes of Singapore’s city centre, has a history that goes back more than a hundred and fifty years. Established as Singapore’s first purpose-built military camp, Tanglin Barracks, it is a place with stories abound. There are quite a few that I find especially intriguing, including one which has as its leading protagonist a rather flamboyant German mariner by the name of Julius Lauterbach, whose exploits on and off the high seas make for quite an interestIng read.

Tanglin Village today

Lauterbach’s chapter in Tanglin’s history is set against the backdrop of the First World War, a conflict which pitted his native Germany against Singapore’s colonial master, Great Britain. Almost overnight, friends found themselves on opposing sides and even if the war may have been raging far from Singapore’s shores, its fallout extended to the island in one way or another. On 24 October 1914, some three months into the conflict, nationals of Germany and Austria in Singapore received an order to report to the P&O Wharf. There were a number of prominent members of the mercantile community amongst the group. Initially interned on St John’s Island, the group would be moved into Tanglin Barracks‘ vacant blocks and were joined by internees who had been detained in Malaya.

St. John’s Island.

The choice of Tanglin Barracks as a place of internment was only possible as the British infantry units who would have normally be quartered at the barracks were most — in Europe. This arrangement however, would leave Singapore with threadbare defences, although there seemed to be little of concern with the main threat to the island’s security having been ascertained as internal rather than external. The responsibility for maintaining order was placed squarely on the shoulders of the officers and men of a British Indian Army infantry regiment — the 5th Light Infantry, which was quartered at Alexandra Barracks.

The former Gillman Barrack’s officers’ mess – close to the site where the first shot was fired to signal the start of the mutiny.

At Tanglin Barracks, a total of about 250 civilians were held, accommodated in a cluster of barrack buildings which had been ‘wired in’ with scaffolding used as watch towers. The 5th Light Infantry provided the camp’s security details together with a handful of men from the volunteer units. Within the confines of the camp boundary was also a ‘small bungalow’ that was converted for use as a hospital for internees. Tanglin Barracks’ Teutonic flavour was also to be enhanced by a group of about sixty Prisoners of War (POWs) from the German naval cruiser, SMS Emden, which brought the total number of internees at the camp to 309. The POWs were housed separately within the confines of the camp in a barrack block that acquired the name ‘Emden Villa’.

The cricket field and P-Block.

The Emden must have been quite well known in Singapore, having gained notoriety for the damage and disruption to Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea that it had inflicted in the early months of the war. Among the cruiser’s exploits was a daring raid on Penang harbour during which two ships — a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer — were sunk. The Emden, as did many naval vessels on both sides, also employed tactics that could be compared to pirate ships in sending boarding parties to storm merchant ships, either to scuttle them, or if the cargo was valuable enough, to commandeer these vessels as a ‘prize’. The men of the Emden who had found their way to Tanglin were in fact members of ‘prize crews’ of three ships that were recaptured by the Allies, the most senior of whom was Reserve Lieutenant Julius Lauterbach. Lauterbach was taken along with the prize crew of the collier, Exford, which was carrying a cargo of 6000 tons of coal when it was recaptured by the armed auxiliary cruiser, HMS Empress of Japan, off Sumatra on 11 December 1914.

Postcard, S.M.S. Emden, circa 1914, Germany, maker unknown. Te Papa (GH002110)

Lauterbach was already well known in many circles in Singapore in his days as a master mariner who was based at the port of Tsingtao (Qingdao), which Germany held as a concession port from 1898 to 1914. He had been an established fixture on the merchant marine scene and many among the civilian internees had made the passage on ships that Lauterbach had captained. His arrival at Tanglin was said to have been greeted with a loud cheer because of his fame. Being the highest ranking officer among the POWs, Lauterbach was afforded with a degree of respect by his captors, who put him in a three-room house on his own within the camp perimeter and close to the Emden Villa.

Julius Lauterbach at Tanglin

As soon as Leuterbach arrived in Tanglin, he set out plotting an escape and after having observed security arrangements at the camp, he determined that a tunnel would best serve his purpose. On 27 January 1915, with help from a group of trusted men he started on his dig right under the noses of the camp guards, under the guise of doing gardening. It could also have been that the members of 5th Light Infantry who were guarding the camp and who were free to interact with the internees, was under Lauterbach’s influence. Lauterbach was also able to have the company of a French-Chinese Eurasian admirer during his internment, albeit with a locked gate in between them. The young lady, according to a boast that Lauterbach made, had come to Singapore to see to his wellbeing having made her way from her native Shanghai once she got wind of his plight and was also able to hand information such as maps to him to aid in his intended escape.

A very special ward.

Mutiny

All this while, unhappiness was fermenting (some say fermented by Lauterbach and company) among members of the 5th Light Infantry. In January 1915, a decision was made to deploy the 5th to Hong Kong. The destination was however not communicated to the troops. There were rumours abound that the destination was not East, but West in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). With it large Muslim contingent, many among the rank and file were incensed by the prospect of having to fight fellow Muslims. In a move to quell the growing sense of unease, the transfer was brought forward. With the 5th due to be sent out on 16 February 1915 — the day after the three day Chinese New Year holiday weekend, the unit stood down from its duties at Tanglin on 14 February 1915 and camp security was left in the hands of one British and three native officers and twelve men of the Johore Military Forces, who were without ammunition, and a deployment of volunteers.

Remembering the victims of the Mutiny – a plaque at the Victoria Concert Hall.

The growing sense of unhappiness and the impending move to what was rumoured to be Mesopotamia provoked members of the 5th Light Infantry into action and just after 3 pm on the afternoon of 15 February 1915, members of the regiment’s Right Wing — numbering just over 400 men, mutinied (infantry regiments were then split into two wings, each with four companies). A group of about eighty rebels headed to Tanglin, intent on freeing German prisoners in the hope that they would lend support to the rebellion. At 3.45 pm, the mutineers reached Tanglin with a group among the eighty laying siege to Tanglin Military Hospital and firing into its administration building. In spite of coming under fire, Staff Sergeant Vickers, RAMC, managed to make his way to the medical officers bungalow some 300 yards away (270 metres). Finding the Medical Officer out, he was able to raise the alarm to the police, Fort Canning and a Dr Fowlie. A group of fifteen men reached the POW camp about half an hour later around 4.15 pm and also fired on the guards. The lock to the gate was then blown up. In the chaos of the attack, four officers were killed along with ten men. One German prisoner was also fatally wounded.

Buildings of the former Tanglin Military Hospital.

An eyewitness, Corporal J F Bray, RAMC, who was stationed at the prisoner hospital recalled being roused by the firing. German prisoners then told him that a mutiny had broken out. He then rushed to the POW hospital’s dispensary to get dressings in order to attend to the wounded, one of whom was a prisoner in W-Block (now Block 17). Inside W-Block, Bray witnessed six to seven members of the 5th freeing German prisoners before moving them into Y-Block (Block 26). Bray also witnessed the leader of the mutineers shaking hands with the German prisoners. Unsuccessful in their attempts to enlist the help of the Germans, the mutineers then left, promising to return with arms and ammunition. The bulk of the German prisoners, including Lauterbach, had in fact refused to take up arms; some went on to help in attending to the wounded, and transport the more seriously hurt to Tanglin Military Hospital.

Block 17 – a block that many who served National Service in the army will remember as the Enlistment Centre

Lauterbach’s Epic Escape

In the commotion of the disturbance at Tanglin, Lauterbach made a final push to finish the tunnel that he had been working on. Determined to get away unnoticed, he decided against walking out the open camp gate and use the tunnel he had worked on. Selecting a handful of prisoners to go with him for their ability to speak English made the escape as the darkness fell, having to making a vault over a final set of barbed-wire that lay beyond the tunnel exit. Leaving at around 8pm, the group decided that the main roads were to be avoided and took a route through grass, lallang and rubber plantation — a decision that got their guide and themselves lost. With some further help obtained through a handsome bribe, the group eventually found their way to the coast, some five hours after leaving Tanglin. There the scene was set for a voyage to Karimun. The long twelve hours that it would take them to get to the islands, which lay on the neutral Dutch side of the Melaka Strait, would only be the first leg of what was to become an epic journey of escape. The journey was to involve trudging through the jungles of Sumatra, a journey from Padang to Batavia (Jakarta) to Surabaya, a passage on a Dutch steamer to the Celebes (Sulawesi), a five day passage across the Celebes Sea to Mindanao in a leaking boat that required water to be bailed out by hand continuously, a voyage disguised as a Dutchman from Manila to China’s north coast where he made his way down to Shanghai. From Shanghai, he would head east to Japan, then Hawaii, and San Francisco from where he boarded a train for New York. At Hoboken — across the Hudson from Manhattan, Lauterbach signed on to a Oslo bound Danish ship as a Swedish stoke. Making landfall in Europe, he made his way to Copenhagen before finding himself on German soil on 10 October 1915 — some eight months after his escape from Singapore and ten months after his capture onboard the Exford.





An Abundant Celebration

14 01 2021

2020