The last days of Empire

6 02 2017

On the afternoon of Chinese New Year’s day, 75 years ago in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japan. It was to bring three and a half years of hardship on Singaporeans and a shift in power that would bring about the end of the once mighty British Empire. The capitulation of the Empire’s “impregnable fortress” had come swiftly, in a manner nobody might have expected. Just two months had elapsed since the Japanese Imperial Army launched its invasion of Malaya, and in a matter of one week since making landfall on Singapore’s northwest coast, the jewel in the crown was firmly in the hands of Japan.

On the ground, the poorly equipped, ill-trained and demoralised troops defending Malaya and the island were no match for the experienced, efficient and motivated fighting force Japan had committed to the task. With their back to the walls in Singapore, the defenders – British, Australian and Indian troops and members of the Malay Regiment, plus those of volunteer units such as the Chinese organised Dalforce, fought gallantly but there was little that could be done to stem a tide that had already turned against them.

In the less threatening environment we live in today, it is probably difficult to appreciate what these desperate defenders would have been put through. While it will of course not be possible to fully appreciate that, we can attempt to have some sense of it through the testimonies captured of those who have fought – what the National University of Singapore’s Southeast Asian Student’s Society hopes to do in putting together “The Last Days of Empire: Japanese Advance along Bukit Timah Road, 1942”. The guided tour, is one of 12 to look out for this February and March (see also: The ruins on Sentosa and a rare chance to visit), as part of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

The trail starts at the University Cultural Centre (UCC). The UCC stands where the assault on the strategic Pasir Panjang Ridge commenced on 13th February 1942. A vicious battle would be fought over the ridge over two days, which culminated in the Malay Regiment’s last stand on Bukit Chandu and the taking of the British Military Hospital, Alexandra Hospital today, at which a massacre occurred.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

Dr. Effendy at the foot of Bukit Timah Hill.

From the UCC, the trail backtracks the Japanese advance north along Clementi Road – then Reformatory Road, a main thoroughfare that links with Bukit Timah Road and thereby connects north and south of the island. Stops along the way include the site at Dover Road at which the Rimau Commandos were executed. The rather strange spot at which the 10 of brave commandos lost their lives – just a couple of months before Japan was to surrender, was selected by the Japanese apparently for the view to honour the bravery of the men, who were said to have gone to their deaths laughing (see: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19600228-1.2.63). Operation Rimau, mounted by a total of 23 British and Australian commandos and intended as a sequel to the highly successful Operation Jaywick, was aborted with 11 commandos being captured alive.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Marker for the Rimau Commando execution site at Dover Road.

Participants are also brought to the sites near the Buona Vista Battery, where a couple of monster 15 inch guns were mounted. More on these guns can be found at Peter Stubbs’ FortSiloso.com. It is though that remnants of the emplacement for No.1 Gun, tunnels serving the guns as well as an underground Battery Plotting Room for the battery are still intact – below what had previously been Mowbray Camp. Some remnants of No. 2 Gun are also thought to exist in the area of Pine Grove, which was also where a POW Cemetery, the Ulu Pandan Cemetery existed until 1975.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15" guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

A view down Ulu Pandan Road, to the areas on both sides of the road where the 15″ guns of the Buona Vista Battery were mounted.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

Dr Effendy speaking on the Buona Vista Battery.

The former Mowbray Camp - remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

The former Mowbray Camp – remains of No. 1 Gun emplacement, tunnels and a battery plotting room are thought to still exist.

Other sites that will be visited are the area close to Bukit Timah Village, where participants hear of the use of bamboo tyres by Japanese troops on bicycles; the foot of Bukit Timah Hill where the little known contributions of Dalforce is spoken about; and the POW built stairs that once led to the Syonan Chureito – a memorial to the fallen. The memorial, which contained the ashes of 10,000 Japanese who perished in the Pacific war, also included a small memorial for allied soldiers. Some of the local population will be mobilised during special occasions, such as the New Year, to attend ceremonies at the memorial (see also : my entry on Syonan Jinja). The Syonan Chureito was destroyed by the Japanese prior to their surrender for fear of its desecration and the remains of the Japanese war dead moved to the Japanese Cemetery at Chuan Hoe Avenue.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

POW built steps leading up to the Syonan Chureito at Bukit Batok as seen during the Occupation.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

Dr. Effendy and students at the steps of the Syonan Chureito.

The tour will end off with a guided tour at the Old Ford Factory’s newly revamped Syonan Gallery. The old Ford Factory was where the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army took place on 15 February 1942. The tour will be led by Dr Mohamed Effendy and at the Old Ford Factory, by Syonan Gallery docents. More information on the tour and other tours can be found at:

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.

A view towards the area where Bukit Timah Village was.

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The second part of the walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: The mysteries around Hillview

24 10 2010

Leaving the compound of St. Joseph’s Church (Bukit Timah) with the sun peeking through the clouds, after a pause in our trek down Upper Bukit Timah Road, it was a good time to get reacquainted with the railway track side of the road. We crossed the overhead bridge which provided a wonderful vantage point from which I was able to take in the tremendous changes that the area, which lies in the shadow of Singapore’s tallest hill, Bukit Timah Hill, has seen over the three to four decades since I had first become acquainted with it. Somehow, it didn’t seem that long ago when I would view the area from the backseat of my father’s car en route to an adventure across the causeway or on a visit to the orchid nursery in the Teck Whye area which was run by a friend of my mother. There was a time as well – that would have been in the 1980s, when I did pass through the area on my own – on my way to a friend’s place up on Chestnut Drive, when the road was a lot narrower and the area around seemed a lot less built up.

The area where the tracks run opposite St. Joseph's Church.

After another pause at an area by the train tracks, accessible from the main road as what has become a popular short-cut had been trampled through the vegetation from Hillview Avenue, where we were able to have a wonderful view of what we could imagine of as a pass that was carved through a hill and where we were treated to a dash of bright blue in the form of a White-Throated Kingfisher perched on a branch of a tree by the tracks , we made our way south towards a building that had served for many years as a landmark in the area. The building is the Standard Chartered Bank branch building at the entrance to Hillview Road – a building from which I could count the number of bus stops to ensure I stopped at the correct one, on a side of the road that had once been devoid of any form of landmarks to identify where one was – especially in the dark of night. I would be always be reminded by my friend to stop at the second bus stop after seeing “Chartered Bank” – which had stood at the same spot – almost unchanged since it was first opened in April 1957.

A view of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

The tracks, looking north, near the shortcut to Hillview Avenue.

The Chartered Bank, a popularly referred to landmark in the area, as it looks today.

The Chartered Bank branch building at Bukit Timah seen at its opening on 6 April 1957 (source: The Free Press, 16 April 1957).

The view from Upper Bukit Timah Road of the entrance to Hillview Road had in itself, always interested me since the days of my backseat adventures. Hillview Road, and Hillview Avenue beyond it was one area that my father never seemed to go through. Looking through the narrow passage under the concrete supports of the railway girder bridge that runs across Hillview Road – always seemed to somehow suggest a sense of mystery of what lay beyond – the rise of the road beyond the bridge obscuring what lay beyond the little that was visible through the passage under the bridge. It was only much later in life that I actually discovered, to a sense of disappointment, what had lay beyond the bridge, on a visit to the Lam Soon Building during the early days of my working life. Later – the road would be one that I would become familiar with, on the many visits made during the course of my work to the installation that stands at the top of Bukit Gombak. By that time of course, much of the area that had in fact been one that was home to many factories in my days of adventure, being where the likes of the Union Carbide and Castrol factories had been located – had been turned into an area where many new sought after private condominiums had sprung up.

The narrow passage under the girder bridge at Hillview Road always seemed to suggest what lay beyond it was a mystery.

On top of the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

The other side of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

A scene of what's left of rural Singapore ... found along the railway tracks in the Bukit Timah Corridor - just next to the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

Across the road from the Standard Chartered Bank, I was pleasantly surprised to see a very recognisable distinctive roof structure proudly stood atop a hill – one that I had been familiar with in my days wandering around the area close to St. Joseph’s Institution in Bras Basah Road as a schoolboy there at the end of the 1970s, and one that had hitherto remained unnoticed by me. It is of course the roof of the church that is part of the Trinity Theological College, and is identical to the one on top of the building that was church of the same college, that still stands today – at the original location of the college atop Mount Sophia, next to what had been the Methodist Girls’ School – close by the shortcut I had used to get over to Plaza Singapura as a schoolboy.

The roof of the Trinity Theological College church - identical to its predecessor on the top of Mount Sophia.

The buildings that used to be part of the Trinity Theological College on top of Mount Sophia.

Crossing back to the other side of the road to the Fuyong Estate area where Rail Mall is, we were able to get on the side where the tracks crosses Upper Bukit Timah Road over the first of the two black truss bridges that I have somehow always identified the area with, pausing again for some photographs of the bridge. What is nice about the bridge is the arched pedestrian passageway through the concrete supports of the bridge on the footpath below. Getting a first glimpse of the bridge – I was able to appreciate the beauty of the riveted steel structure that has given the area its distinct flavour for close to eight decades. What I was also able to appreciate was the amount of effort that it would take to maintain the bridge if it was to be conserved once the railway has no use for it when the terminal station is moved from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands – something that perhaps might prove prohibitive in any considerations taken be the authorities for their preservation – something that many of us would like to see.

The Rail Mall is close to the first of the black truss bridges on the southward journey down the Bukit Timah Corridor.

The view of the black truss bridge from the Rail Mall area.

The northbound view of the black truss bridge from the tracks.

The southbound view along the tracks from the black truss bridge.

Another view of the tracks up the black truss bridge.

The arched pedestrian passageway under the bridge.

Further along Upper Bukit Timah Road – we came to the area opposite the Old Ford Factory – I guess we would all be familiar with the factory and its significance in Singapore’s history as this is already very well documented. A lesser known fact about the area is perhaps the existence of a keramat – one that as some believers would have it, had a part to play in the cessation of fighting (prior to the surrender of the British to the Japanese at the Old Ford Factory) during the Second World War. That keramat, the Keramat Habib Syed Ismail, also popularly referred as the Keramat Batu Lapan – a reference to its location at the eight milestone of Bukit Timah Road, had laid in a clearing across the railway tracks, through a path into the seemingly thick vegetation that had existed in the area. The keramat was excavated several years ago and doesn’t exist today. The keramat, one that is of an Indian Muslim saint, was said to have been where Muslims had prayed for an end to hostilities during the Japanese invasion in early 1942 and fighting had as some would have it, stopped miraculously just across the road – making the keramat a highly venerated shrine for many years that followed.

Another view of the black truss bridge ... the bus is heading south towards the area where the old Ford Factory and the site of the former Keramat Batu Lapan is.

The ridge of the hill where the former Ford Factory, which was once an busy assembly plant for Ford Cars, also featured Hume Industries – a steel maker to the north – and it was these greyish structures that would come into sight on the southbound journeys in the backseat before one of my favourite sights along the way would come into view – the huge Green Spot bottle that stood at the entrance to the Amoy Canning Factory which stood next to the Bukit Timah Fire Station, close to what had been a traffic circus. The station was one that was in fact typical of the Fire Stations found in rural Singapore and much of Malaysia in the1960s and 1970s – one that had with it flatted quarters for the firemen and their families. Interestingly – there is also a crest on the station that I noticed passing by – one of the old Coat of Arms of Singapore – similar to the one that can be found atop Mount Emily at the entrance to Mount Emily Park – just next to Mount Sophia. Further along the way – where again private housing now stands across the road opposite the area close to where the entrance to Hindhede Road is – there was another factory on the ridge – one with a logo painted on the wall that was well known to me – from the many ice lollies that I had feasted on as a child, the Magnolia Factory.

The old Singapore Coat of Arms on the former Bukit Timah Fire Station.

Similar to the one that appears at the entrance to Mount Emily Park.

The former firemen's quarters next to the former fire station.

The rest of the trek took us to another another girder bridge, past Jalan Anak Bukit across a notorious shortcut to Rifle Range Road, past the other black truss bridge and onto our end point – Bukit Timah Station – something I guess I would have to find time later to prepare a post on.








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