The contrasts could hardly have been greater.  My father arrived in Singapore on a troopship after several weeks of dodging German U-boats and bombers across the Atlantic and a meandering circuit that took in the West Indies, Capetown and the Indian Ocean.  I touched down three minutes ahead of schedule in a Qantas airbus.  His accommodation consisted of attap huts and stifling, overcrowded barracks buildings; mine included hotels that were (at least in my experience) practically the last word in friendliness, efficiency and comfort.  He lived on near starvation rations and worse; I was lucky enough to sample some of the delicacies that make Singapore one of the foodie capitals of the world.

I was very conscious of these things, particularly as my reasons for visiting Changi were as much meditative as investigative.  In part, I was hoping to get a little closer to my father’s experience.  Of course, you don’t do that just by standing in the same place seventy years later, particularly a place that has changed so much.  But some things do start to get a little clearer.

In his memoir Basil Street Blues the biographer Michael Holroyd writes of the space that was left after his parents died and of his need to fill it with a story.   Many of us have the same experience, he suspects, leading us “to ask questions when it is apparently too late for answers, and then to be forced to discover answers on our own.”

That’s what I was doing in Singapore.

First letter from C.A. Gibson-Hill, Raffles Museum

On returning home from Singapore my father focused his attention on finding a job, getting married and writing up his Changi bird notes, though not necessarily in that order.  I cannot say to what extent and on what level the notes continued to be a refuge for him but he certainly devoted a considerable time to them.  Within eighteen months he had completed a 112 page manuscript which included, as can be seen from the extract on the left, a detailed section on camp vegetation

He sent the manuscript to Frederick Chasen in June, 1947.  Chasen had written the definitive study of Singapore birds and had been curator of the Raffles Museum.  But in July he received a reply from C.A. Gibson-Hill, who was to be the last British director of the museum, with the news that Chasen had been killed just before the fall of Singapore.  A fairly lengthy correspondence then ensued with Gibson-Hill concerning the publication of the manuscript which eventually appeared in much shortened form in the Raffles Bulletin in January 1950. Both the delay and the aggressive editing were in part due to paper shortages brought about by the ‘Malaya Emergency’ (or the ‘Anti British National Liberation War’ depending on your point of view).

And that, for all my father knew, was that.  About a year or so ago, however, I noticed that his article — Nesting habits of  some Singapore birds– was still available as a pdf on the web site of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, now part of the National University of Singapore.  Given that I had the original carbon copies of the manuscript I thought it just possible that someone there might like to see one of them.  Still, I was not prepared for the enthusiastic reply.  Not only is the article still read; it apparently also remains one of the few in-depth studies of Singapore birds. There was therefore genuine interest in seeing the original manuscript, which was no longer in the museum’s records, as well as copies of the field notes (if you could call them such).

We spent a delightful day with the current ornithologist at the museum who somehow made time for us having only a few days between trips to the Sarawak interior and Christmas Island.  We visited the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (just down the road from the Kranji camp would have been), enjoyed a leisurely meal and talked about the bird notes, Gibson-Hill and Singapore.  I passed on the copy of the original manuscript that I had brought with me.

Clearly, the journey had just taken another turn.

Block 151

February 7, 2011

I never thought seriously that I would one day find myself standing inside the building where my father had once been a prisoner of war.  Singapore was a very long way away from the England of my childhood, both in imagination and geography.  Working on his notes over the past couple of years has brought it much closer in imagination at least.  But I now live in Chicago and in terms of miles that is about as far away as you can get.

My reasons for coming to Singapore were to finally get a sense of the place for myself.  The use of the word sense is deliberate; I wanted to see, hear, touch, smell and taste it.  Of course, the island has been transformed — many times in fact — since my father’s day.  But hints of its wartime past remain.  As it turned out they were sometimes rather more than hints.

I did not realize, even by the time of my arrival, whether any of the old Roberts buildings were still standing.  Had I known more about the Changi murals I would have learned quickly enough that Block 151 had been preserved as that is where they were housed.  But my interest in that building had more to do with the dysentery wing.  This is where my father had been (both as an RAMC orderly and patient) from the establishment of the hospital facility in March 1942 until he was moved to Selerang in the summer of 1943.  His early notes on camp sanitation,  deficiency diseases, drainage systems and ottway pits would have been written here.  He knew Block 151 very well.

It was Jeya, the director of the Changi Museum, who told us that the building did indeed still exist but that as it was on the air force base, a high security area, it was not accessible to the public.  Still, he encouraged us to contact the public affairs office at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) as exceptions were sometimes made for families of former POW.  This we did though without any great confidence that there would be a reply let alone permission to visit.

We were wrong.  The staff at MINDEF were more than helpful and bent over backwards to arrange a visit even at such short notice — we were due to return to Chicago a week later.  True, passport numbers and other information had to be provided for security purposes.  A car also had to be hired from a company acceptable to MINDEF as taxis were not allowed.  But these things were quickly sorted out as they tend to be in Singapore and permission was granted within a couple of days or so.

And so at the appointed hour we presented ourselves at the west security gate at Changi Air Force Base.  A military vehicle would escort us the rest of the way.

The building stood on a slight rise with open ground to one side of it and trees on the other.  I was certainly aware of the enormity of the moment as we approached and yet before I knew it we were inside.

What we had been given permission to see was the old chapel containing the Changi murals.  The story of the murals is both remarkable and inspiring (go to http://www.petrowilliamus.co.uk/murals/murals.htm to learn more) but it was not what had drawn me to this place.  I listened as the history of the murals and their rediscovery was explained but what I wanted more than anything else at that moment was to explore the building and the grounds outside and to be alone with my thoughts.  For security reasons that would not be possible.

Still, half way round the world and nearly seventy years later I was standing in the very place I never thought I’d see, a place my father and so many others had been forced to know so well.  That was more than I could have hoped for even days beforehand and I am enormously grateful to Jeya at the Changi Museum and Simon Soh at MINDEF who did so much to make it happen.