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.
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.
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’.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.
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