Monthly Archives: February 2010

MUSEUM OF HELL – Changi, Singapore

Tribute messages to POWs, Changi Museum


My father sometimes mentioned of his dear friend John that ‘he was in Changi, you know.’ He found it remarkable that John could remain so gentle and generous, with a successful family and professional life, after over three years in hell.

These days Changi is the site of Singapore’s state-of-the-art airport, but not far away is a small museum dedicated to those who suffered under the Japanese occupation of the island from 1942-45.

I hesitated to visit it. I wasn’t sure how I’d cope with hearing the details of the horror, and indeed visiting Changi Museum is a confronting experience some of the time. There are the unavoidable photos of emaciated workers on the notorious Burma-Thailand railway, of a blindfolded Australian soldier moments before his execution, and of the heads of decapitated Singaporeans that were displayed around town to intimidate the local population.

Changi Museum

But overwhelmingly the museum tells a positive story of courage, friendship, ingenuity and survival, and stands as a symbol of how things have moved on.

The museum is a simple, white rectangle, enclosing an open-air chapel, a replica of one of those formerly used by the prisoners. It was moved here in 2001, so it’s no longer on the site of the former prison camp, which during the occupation consisted of seven separate compounds, spread over 25 square kilometres. Some 15,000 Australians, as well as many more British troops and civilians were interned there.

Just inside the door is Ray Parkin’s drawing ‘Two Malarias and a Cholera’, which has become the museum’s emblem. It depicts an incident Parkin witnessed on the death railway, where able-bodied men were forced to work, leaving only the sick to tend the very sick. The malarias are two skeletal figures supporting the cholera, so weak and thin that his shorts have fallen down around his ankles. It is an image of pathos and cruelty, but not without some black humour.

The museum’s first corridor tells a roughly chronological history of the occupation of Singapore in February 1942. In just 55 days the Japanese overran the Malay peninsula, surprising even themselves. They took Singapore having made no provision for housing prisoners, so they hastily ordered all soldiers and alien civilians to march out to the British barracks at Changi.

Conditions were overcrowded and uncomfortable to say the least. A diagram on the museum floor shows the dimensions of the tiny cell where four women lived for three years. A raised concrete slab was considered the most desirable ‘bed’ while the others slept on the floor beside it. A squatter toilet in the corner was the only source of water.

Singaporean civilians were treated particularly brutally as the feared kempeitai, the military police, enforced harsh discipline and the island was given a Japanese name, ‘Syonan-to’.

The true horror began when prisoners were taken to work on the Burma-Thailand railway. After a year and a half of disease and atrocious forced labour, those well enough to return to Changi felt they were ‘coming home’. But they still lived in harsh conditions, with meagre rations and of course, no idea of how long it would last.

It’s the museum’s little artefacts that give a sense of how Changi prisoners attempted to make the best of their impossible situation. There are secret radios hidden in a matchbox and a broom, a children’s book (“The Happiness Box”), sandals of recycled rubber and a quilt incorporating women’s names and hidden symbols, which women hung over the wall of their compound as a message to their loved ones in the men’s quarters.

Programmes from the concert parties that entertained prisoners at the Coconut Grove Theatre, and descriptions of the ‘University of Changi’, where prisoners shared their expertise with others, tell of their spirit and inventiveness.

Changi Chapel

In a chapel are replicas of the murals painted by Bombardier Stanley Warren. He was an inmate of the dysentery ward above St Luke’s Chapel and nobody expected him to survive. But as he listened to the hymns coming up from below he started to recover and offered to paint the chapel.

He had a limited colour pallet. Warren crushed billiard chalk to get his blue and terracotta pots to get his russet colour. Although the paintings appear quite conventional, our guide tells us that faces of the apostles were those of Warren’s mates who had died.

A gallery is devoted to work by other interned artists, eloquent watercolours of sky glimpsed over walls, and clusters of hollow-eyed prisoners in rags or loincloths. I didn’t know that Ronald Searle, later famous for his hilarious illustrations in the St Trinian’s School and Molesworth books (my favourites as a ten-year old), had been a Changi POW. It was extraordinary that he retained his sense of humour.

A display tells the story of the notorious Selarang Incident, when after an attempted escape and the execution of a group of soldiers, including two Australians, POWs were forced to sign undertakings not to escape.

In the open-air chapel, visitors can light candles or leave crosses and poppies with their messages. There are lots of ‘lest we forget’ notes and many which are more specific – ‘In loving memory of Joe, who despite much suffering went on to become a wonderful Australian’.

Chains of paper cranes

Significantly, there are also strings of Japanese paper cranes, and a Japanese visitor has written in the visitors’ book, ‘If we do not study history, history repeats itself.’ Our guide tells us that staff sometimes find apologies left by descendants of Japanese soldiers. The world has mercifully changed for the better, in some places and in some respects at least.

Of course many died in Changi, and others lived on with the scars inflicted there. But my father’s friend John, and thousands like him, showed us that humanity can survive almost anything.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: SBS buses (number 2) run regularly to Changi Museum from the centre of town. Cost is $S1.60 (about USD1) each way.

Staying there: Reasonably-priced hotel accommodation is the Hotel 81 chain. http://www.hotel81.com.sg Prices start at around $S70 a standard double. The five star Crowne Plaza at Changi Airport has rooms from $S283. Go to http://www.wotif.com and search ‘Singapore Changi Airport’ for other options.

Further information: Entry to the museum is free. Audio guides cost $S8. http://www.changimuseum.com

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MALACCA IN PICTURES – Melaka, Malaysia

Malacca. It’s one of those names, like Rangoon, Timbuktu and Mandalay that conjures up the glory days of the British Empire, when chaps went about in safari suits and pith helmets, swishing malacca canes. Travelling to Malacca should involve a steamer, a bullock cart and leather suitcases.

Since the old town is so small, everywhere is walkable, but riding in a beca (trishaw) is a joyride.

They've painted every old building 'heritage' red and white. This is the old Dutch Christ Church.

Shophouses along Jonker Street become a busy market at night

Santiago Gate is all that's left of the old Portuguese fort. The British demolished the rest.

Not old, but the reconstructed Forbidden Gardens of the reconstructed Sultan's Palace are the nicest place in town.

Old houses (and run-down) houses along the Melaka River

Most people were excited to see this girl miming playing this Chinese instrument in the street. Was she famous or just pretty? No-one could tell me.

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RETAIL TERRORPY – Singapore shopping

Bugis Street

I’m sure they have shopping in Hell. In fact, if it turns out there is an afterlife, God may punish me for my unbelief in Her by making Eternity nothing but shopping.

Singapore’s Bugis area is famous for its great shopping, but this assumes you like shopping. I had a list:

1. Hiking shoes.
2. DVD of Mad Men III.
3. New laptop.
4. Watchband.
5. Lunch.

Bugis has the lot. I start at a shopping complex called Bugis Junction. Walking in there makes me feel like the narrator of Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. In busy places everything overwhelms him.

Somewhere here are hiking shoes, but there is also Guess Citigems 70% off G Factory Accessorize in perfect time Slurplife in cinemas from February 25 while stocks last SALE Crabtree and Evelyn Billabong RED HOT SALE tops $19.95 instant lucky dip Levi’s Converse Everlast spring into love this Chinese New Year silver books Kinokuniga…and nobody has hiking shoes in my enormous size (45).

Let’s get that watchband out of the way, I think. Across the road is Bugis Street, Singapore’s largest street market, with Treasure Boat handbags leather belts handbags t-shirts t-shirts t-shirts Who killed Kurt Cobain? Earrings skirts shoulder bags mobile phone accessories hair extensions postcards baseball caps VALUE BUY wallets Flaire Beauty Girls stiletto heels and…watches! Yes! “We Specialist in Watch bands and batteries” says the sign.

“One leather watchband, please,” I ask. The salesgirl looks mystified, “You no want watch?” “Just the band please.” “Oh, no can do. Only watches.” “But your sign…oh forget it.”

Back to fridge magnets Consex Shop sugar cane juice 3 for $10 WOMAN WANTED – MUST LOOK LIKE SUPERMODEL AND COOK LIKE MUM cd’s t-shirts t-shirts…and a watchband stall. $5 for a nice leather band. Phew!

Sim Lim Square may be the best place to buy electronic goods in the world. Six floors of it. Maybe I’ll just look at a laptop or two and if the price is okay…JVC Sanyo ACER Technics Nokia bring your entertainment to life SAMSUNG add texture to your life family computer accessories W&E Global PTE LTD Hai Chew Electronics VAIO Motorola no obligation Nikon…

Laptops probably aren’t much more expensive at home. I’ll order one on line. Or get my son to do it.

Can’t see MAD MEN III anywhere. Hard to explain to a Singaporean DVD shop assistant why it’s such a great series that my wife absolutely has to have by next week.

My shoes are wearing out. The new watchband feels a bit tight. Maybe I should take it back and ask them to…no, that’s plenty for today. Three fifteen, time for lunch. There’s a food hall in the basement …

Pastamania Souperlicious Fulfilling Moments Bread Talk Starbucks Old Chang Kee Chewy Junior 3 scoops $3 Yoshinova Ya Kun Kaya Toast limited period only Japanese octopus balls Polar Cakes Hip Diner USA Crystal Jade please wait to be seated…sigh!

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TEACHING IN PARADISE – Telunas Beach, Indonesia

Children at Riau Islands village school

I’m just back in Singapore after five days in one of my favourite places, doing one of my favourite jobs – running a writing workshop at Telunas Beach, in Indonesia’s Riau Islands.

Everybody should go there. I have to declare an interest – I’ve been a guest of Telunas eight times, running writing classes for school students from international schools in Singapore. But the Telunas people don’t pay me to say nice things about them in my free time. I do that anyway, because I’m so impressed by their achievement.

About ten years ago, three young Americans, Brad, Mike and Eric, were bumming around Indonesia, ‘rocking up to villages and saying ‘mind if we hang out here for a while?’ When they found an idyllic beach with dense jungle behind it, they bought it, with money borrowed from family and friends. They engaged local builders, negotiated the minefield of red tape and potential rip-offs, then recruited and trained staff from the surrounding fishing villages.

In 2004 they opened for business. Telunas Beach Resort now has accommodation for up to 100, though typically they cater for groups of around 20-40, with separate cabins for families and couples. It’s perfect for the sort of school camp we’re doing, though increasingly popular with independent travellers who want a secluded getaway.

It’s easily accessible from Singapore. Ferries shuttle regularly across the one hour trip to Batam, a booming, popular, colourful city but made slightly seedy by the ‘golf and girls’ tourism it attracts from Singapore. From there it gets nice though, as we board Telunas’ open pacung boats to zip across the South China Sea for 90 minutes, past dozens of little islands, most uninhabited, some with villages and fishing boats clinging to their shores.

Telunas Beach Resort is intentionally ‘rustic’. The huts have thatched roofs, ceiling fans but no air conditioning, all have modern bathrooms and comfortable beds, but most rooms have no hot showers. But the weather is mild, the sea inviting and I love to hear it gently sloshing under my bed at night.

Meals are all included and are at (loosely) set times, marked by the ringing of a bamboo gong and eaten off plastic plates. But the food is good, healthy and varied, with a mix of Asian and western styles. Beer and softdrinks are available, but there is no bar, and no canned music.

All that suits me fine. We’re here to do a writing camp, and there’s no shortage of inspiration. On Day One we explore a deserted island opposite the camp. That afternoon, the kids write stories, tall tales about shipwrecks and survival.

Taking the boat through mangroves

Next day we take the boat up a river, then hike into the jungle for several hours to a waterfall where we can swim. Jungle survival guide Selena shows us how to find berries and edible termites. ‘You can squish them first, otherwise they crawl round on your tongue too much.’

The highlight is the day we take the boat to a local village. Arrangements with people on nearby islands allow Telunas guests to spend a few days living in a village, eating, sleeping and working alongside a host Indonesian family, sharing their culture. See my other post about that: Among the Village People.

With the school students we just go to a village for half a day. Selena spends some time giving the kids the drill. ‘People here may have customs you are unfamiliar with. This is their place and we need to respect muslim codes of modest dress and behaviour. Try not to speak or laugh too loudly…’

Armed with a few Indonesian greetings, the apprehensive students go ashore in small groups, respectfully hanging back behind their interpreters. But in the village they are mobbed by children wanting to give them high fives. Everyone else smiles and waves. People are delighted with their visitors, but there are no souvenirs for sale, and no pestering hawkers saying ‘Hey where you come from? I give you special price on batik/blowpipe/taxi tour…’ The villagers seem pleased to meet westerners who have a genuine interest in their lives, who are willing to listen and learn and share.

I’m going back to Telunas next week too, with a group from the Swiss School of Singapore. They’re native German speakers, so we may have a few communication problems. But there’ll be plenty to inspire them at Telunas.

TRIP NOTES:

For information and bookings: www.telunas.com

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SIGNS OF SINGAPORE

Sept 11. Nice to be back in Singapore, just for the night this time, en route to a writing camp in lovely Telunas Beach, in Indonesia’s Riau Islands, about which I’ll write more through the week. But here I’m staying in the Lavender area, close to Little India. It’s most notable for a huge range of cheap eating possibilities. I passed on the pig organ soup above, but maybe it tastes better than it sounds.

And if you’re eating amphibians, make sure they’re eminent ones, not from a subsidiary branch…
We cyclists are not too keen on signs like this one either, though fortunately it’s not a city-wide ban in Singapore – only at a particular point.

This was upstairs in the bus taking me from Melaka to Singapore. Maybe it doubles as a school bus sometimes.


I’m sure I’ll find plenty more such signs, in other places around the world too, now I’ve thought to look out for them. I’ll add more to the post as they turn up.

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RIAU ISLANDS, INDONESIA – ethnotourism with the Telunas people

Fishing boats, Pecong village

This week a poor Indonesian fisherman will become rich. The two brothers say it happens to someone every year, so they’ve left a bowl of sticky rice on the ground, hoping their offering to the gods will make them the lucky ones. The dingkis fish are running now, and if they swim into their trap, the pair may catch hundreds of kilos of them, worth a fortune in nearby Singapore.

I hear the fishermen’s story through my interpreter Idaman, as I sit cross-legged and uncomfortable on the floor of their rough wooden stilt house over the sea, drinking sweet tea. The setting is unfamiliar, but the people are like any other fishermen, dreaming and lying about the big catch.

I’ve joined the end of a two-week trip organised for American college students and a group of friends from New Jersey. Island Connections International (ICI) runs these ‘ethno tours’, bringing visitors to stay in fishing villages in the Riau islands, south of Singapore.

Tonight we’re on Pecong Island. Pecong normally has no tourists, being just a few hundred metres long, with no visitor accommodation, no restaurants and no souvenir shops. It’s also beautiful, with brahminy kites soaring above coconut palms and mango trees, and the South China Sea lapping gently at its shores.

Pancung boat

But we’re here to meet its people. We divide into small groups to live in village houses for 2-3 nights. Men stay with one host family and women with others, even married couples being split up. My host is Pa Udin, son of the village leader and assistant to the government administrator.

He has hosted six ICI groups over a period of three years, so although Pecong people are used to visitors they’re certainly not overrun. ‘We were nervous about foreigners here,’ says Udin, ‘but now we know they are interested in us, so we are excited and proud when they come.’

It’s a two-way street. ICI tourists work on community development projects, which in Pecong has meant digging a well and building garbage incinerators. Host families are paid small amounts to cover guests’ food, but not enough to give up their day jobs to become B&B operators.

ICI interpreters stay with us. They teach us basic greetings and polite phrases, as well as cultural etiquette like pointing with the thumb rather than the finger, using the right hand when eating and sitting with legs tucked in (not easy for flexibility-challenged westerners!)

Breakfast is served.

We sleep on rubber mats, wrapped in sheets or sarongs. Meals are taken sitting on the floor and eaten with the hands. We men eat alone, served by Udin’s wife Ibu Melati, while his children watch shyly through the doorway. They’ll eat after we’re finished. ‘Back home we only get fish without bones,’ a student from Ohio tells me, ‘and kinda breaded. But this is great.’
Our food is indeed good – rice with spicy prawns or coconut fish curry, green beans and hot sambal on the side, and slices of green mango. There’s a touching incident when one host fisherman, having caught no dingkis fish all day, buys some at great expense for his guests to try.
Any awkwardness is broken when tourists join the locals in raucous games of soccer and badminton. Wrestling coach Tom and his friend Mike give a demonstration of their sport, which causes much amusement.

Wearing shorts or sarongs, we take open-air ‘mandi perigi’ showers with buckets at the communal well. Toilet facilities in the houses are just a small hole in the floor over the sea – tricky for all of us, and especially for corporate executive Callen, who somehow drops his passport down there. He has to dive into the water to retrieve it and comes ashore with a soggy passport and an excellent story.

In the village there’s no shortage of people wanting to talk to us. A mother thrusts her children at me – ‘Photo! Photo!’ I line up a shot and the kids immediately burst into terrified tears. It’s a knack I have.

The warm sense of community is obvious and impressive. No doors are locked and there is no police force. Pecong is a relatively prosperous village for the area and is changing, says Pa Udin. A new concrete road, paid for by the government, runs around the island and already seven motorcycles use it; surprising to us, since the road is barely a kilometre long. A teacher proudly rides his motorcycle 200m to school each day, ‘To save time,’ he says.

Mrs Ajiza’s shop sells snacks, drinks and household items. She tells how she teased a tourist last year – ‘He was 33 years, with no hair, and you know, he was not yet married!’

At night a band performs with the volume turned to levels endangering eardrums and sanity. A keyboard player and singer belt out Indonesian joget music, while eight bored girls brought from Sumatra sit in a row on plastic chairs, waiting for a daring village boy to pay 40cents for a dance. The bands know fishermen will have money when the dingkis run and it is considered unseemly for local girls to dance in public.

Next morning we’re woken at 4.30 by the roosters and the amplified call to prayer from the village mosque. After breakfast of chilli noodles we pile into a long flat-bottomed ‘pancung’ boat to visit fishermen working out at sea.

Raising the fish trap

Pecong fishermen build a ‘kelong’, a funnel of poles and nets, which corrals fish towards the narrow end. We help to haul up the traps and find that no-one is rich yet, though most have caught enough dingkis to keep them smiling. They smile easily on Pecong.

Too soon we have to leave these generous people with heartfelt thanks and a few small gifts, and ride the boat to a debriefing session at ICI’s resort at Telunas Beach, an hour away. We’re still in paradise because the white sand is backed by hillsides of dense jungle (‘just like a screen saver!’ says a student). In the thatched huts are comfortable beds, flushing toilets – and chairs!

Chatting about what we’ve learned, the man from Kentucky sums it up, ‘Our lives are about what we’re doing and where we’re headed; village life is about who you’re with.’

Richard Tulloch was the guest of Island Connections International

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there:

Ferry from Singapore to Batam Island takes one hour and costs $S40 (about US$30) return.

Further information:  ICI group ethno tours cost about $150 a day for 10 days or more, including transport from Batam, and all meals, guides and accommodation. School groups, families and individuals can stay at Telunas Beach Resort, from which shorter village visits can be arranged. www.telunasbeach.com.

First published, Sun-Herald. Sydney

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