15th Feb ’42

February 16, 2012

They are not making much of it in Chicago, where I now live, but today is the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese.  By the same token, and according to his notes at least, it is also the seventieth anniversary of my father’s first day as a POW at Changi.  Except, as I noted in a prior post (May 10, 2009) copied below, it wasn’t.  As he used to put it, he had a “grandstand view” of the invasion from his vantage point on Pulau Tekong.  It would be several days before he (and what I gather could only have been a handful of others) were picked up by boat and ferried back to Singapore.  He had been lucky up to that point and in one respect at least would continue to be.  By that I simply mean that he was spared the horrors of the railway.

A quiet anniversary then.  But no less heartfelt for that.


My father’s drawing of Singapore island prior to capture
showing Pulau Tekong and Pengerang (on the mainland)
where he had been posted to do anti-malarial work.


“Taken POW”

Allied forces in Singapore surrendered on February 15, 1942 with food and water supplies running out and amidst scenes of  destruction and  mayhem in the city.

My father was still on Pulau Tekong which had been completely bypassed by the invasion.  As he told the story to me, it was some days before the Japanese came to pick them up though he may have been dating that from the invasion of the island rather than the surrender.  In any case, the Japanese finally made contact with them.  “Should we come over to Singapore?”  the British inquired. “Good heavens, no!” the Japanese replied, or at least words to that effect.  “You stay put until we get you.  It’s a hell of a mess over here.”

And so it was.  About 50,000 allied personnel were told to move at once to the vicinity of Changi, the British military complex situated in the northeast corner of Singapore island.

My father said nothing of this in his notes at the time though he described the general chaos from a sanitary point of view in an unpublished paper he wrote after the war.  I’ll come back to that in a later post.

The images were certainly graphic.  A year or two before he died he recalled the shock of returning to Singapore after the surrender.

The mind was suddenly concentrated — focused starkly — at the horrendous sight of the island’s civilian administrator tied spreadeagled to a tree in full sun.  He was responsible for the distribution of food (rice) to the small community of people living permanently on the island.  But apparently supplies had been withheld to be released in the event of a siege.  This was resented by the people.

As can be seen, below, his entry for that day is simply: “Taken POW 15th Feb ’42”   I don’t suppose that he had much opportunity to elaborate.

Taken POW

Malay for colonials

September 24, 2011

malay grammar inside cover by Brian Spittle

A nice illustration of Changi POW humour on the inside cover of Maxwell’s Manual of the Malay Language, one of the Malay primers my father brought back from Singapore. Books were widely circulated in the camp and in this case it’s clear that at least three others had taken a crack at Maxwell — there’s another name on the facing page — before passing him on.

As I surmised in the previous post, the intended readership of these language primers would have been the British colonial elite. But I’ve only just pieced together how important this must have been in Maxwell’s case. As indicated on the title page, he had been both a barrister in London and Assistant Resident in Perak, northern Malaya. Reading this I couldn’t help forming the stereotypical image of a Victorian gentleman-scholar somehow transplanted as colonial administrator. And for all I know that may have been the case. But there’s a little more to it than that. Perak was a pretty volatile place in the early 1880s when Maxwell took up his post. The previous Resident had been assassinated only a few years previously, his local unpopularity magnified by a spectacular disinterest in learning Malay. Pointedly, the resident who replaced him was fluent in Malay, as was Maxwell clearly. Presumably he represented a new breed of administrator.  If so, his book was not simply the work of an amateur linguist but part of a concerted strategy to instill the administrative class with at least a basic knowledge of Malay.

All the same, expressions such as “Bring me my hat and riding whip” and “Are you deaf? Can’t you hear what I’m saying to you?” would seem to indicate that this more enlightened approach to colonial relations still had its limits.

I’m not sure when my father decided to learn Malay though my sense is that he didn’t get down to it in earnest until the move to Kranji in May 1944.  At any rate, most of his Malay language notes date from his last dismal year in captivity.

Not that he did date them, or many of his other notes for that matter.  But everything was carefully numbered which in itself became an index of his changing condition and state of mind.  Paper, along with just about everything else, was in very short supply at Kranji and he was reduced to writing on every scrap he could find.  Such was the new state of parsimony that each side of an envelope would now be counted as its own page.

Still, the Malay language primers he was using must have given him some puzzling moments.  They had obviously been written for the pre-War colonial elite and didn’t try to disguise it.  Expressions such as: “What an idiot you are!  I tell you to bring water and you bring oil!” and “Does Madam know that dinner is ready?” would have had limited applicability in a POW camp.

Or anywhere else for that matter.  When my wife and I visited Singapore a few months ago I took a look at these books to see if they might be helpful but had much the same problem.  Foreign language phrase books are almost completely useless in real life situations it seems to me but when was I ever going to tell someone that “People say that he is a great opium-smoker” or that “The cleverness of Europeans is very great indeed”?  Not often presumably.

My father was quite proud of his working knowledge of Malay.  As a child I remember him breaking into it from time to time and being greatly amused by our puzzlement.  No doubt he quite enjoyed asking us whether his dress shirts were finished.

Changi Village then and now

January 22, 2011

Changi Village is quite a bustling little place these days.  There’s a hawker center, a hotel and a golf club.  You can also watch Premier League games in at least three or four restaurants along Changi Village Road though of course at any one time it’s going to be the same game.

It would have been a much sleepier place in 1942, just one of several kampongs or hamlets dotting the Changi coastline.  Still, though the pre-war photograph my father brought back doesn’t indicate it, changes must have been evident even then given the construction of the British military base.

What I had not expected is that quite a few of the old army buildings are still standing.  Take a stroll up Netheravon Road past the sailing club and you suddenly come across the old army hospital half hidden in the trees.  Turn left up Hendon Road and you’re in the heart of what I take to be Kitchener Barracks.  The buildings seem deserted now but look essentially as they must have done when they were part of the POW camp.   Which immediately raises the question:  how much, if any, of Roberts Barracks is left?  Inexplicably, I had neglected to find this out before the trip.  Now it becomes the burning question.

Changi Village pre-1942

Changi village today

Changi hospital


April 11, 2010

An extract from a two-page note.

Prostitution in Singapore was formerly a well-organized business, being practiced chiefly by the French and  Europeans.  The former were connected with hotels which used (prostitution) as a sideline to normal business.  The French girls had their own licensed quarters.  The government later refused to license brothels and turned the prostitutes out.  This change of policy coincided with the arrival of the military & these factors were directly responsible for setting up the present deplorable state of affairs.  Coffee houses, cafes and small dance halls run by the Chinese sprang up in Lavender & other streets all of which were little more than brothels. The health authorities tried to stop it but were more or less powerless in view of the fact that none of the prostitutes were now licensed. The local European population were up in arms. But the army did nothing except to place certain places out of bounds (a measure that was soon defeated by, say, the ‘Blue Circle Cafe’ changing its name to something else) and publishing a list of the prostitutes known to be diseased.  This was also quite ineffective as the average man who frequents such centres is usually three parts drunk, not particularly interested in names, and in any case not prepared to check a long list of names even if he should have the latter with him.

The army, however, have a pretty thorough system of self-cleansing & preventative precautions & VD is of course notifiable in the army.  Venereal disease is treated by all classes as a common sort of complaint any respectable person might contract, such as influenza in England.  There is no moral stigma involved and it is regarded as reasonable excuse for refusing an appointment or not accepting a drink.

Book B, 73-75

The Singapore Grip

March 20, 2010

Singapore pre-1942. Note Malay policeman,

Chinese rickshaw puller and Indian pedestrian.

I’ve just finished reading J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip. You might say that it has taken me a while as I started it about seven years ago. But then it is 568 pages long and not the quickest of reads as might be expected from a novel that includes a bibliography with citations such as K.M. Stahl’s The Metropolitan Organization of British Trade (1951) and P.T. Bauer’s Report on a visit to the Rubber Growing Smallholdings of Malaya (1946).

Farrell’s subject is Singapore during the two or three years before the Japanese invasion. But in selecting characters from the business elite he is able to situate events within the wider context of British imperial policy and decline. In fact, the novel is the third in a trilogy that explores other dimensions of that decline, in Ireland and in India. All told it is a remarkable work.

Farrell is strong on detail and atmospherics. Both come together in his haunting depiction of the panic that gripped the city in the final days before the surrender.

Of course, the Singapore Farrell describes is long gone. I’m not even sure how much my father saw of it.  But the old city certainly comes to life in these pages.   Sometimes you can almost see it or, as in the following passage, smell it.  “There, too, when you staggered outside into the sweltering night, you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of honey and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood and heaven knows what, a perfume like the breath of life itself.”

I found The Singapore Grip on my father’s bookshelves a year or two before he died. My sense is that he acquired it very late in life when he was perhaps finally coming to terms with his time at Changi and Kranji. It’s unlikely that he read it from cover to cover — the only novel I ever saw him read was Jerome Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat which had him convulsed in silent mirth for a couple of days.  As a young man he’d known that stretch of the Thames like the back of his hand and not so many years after Jerome had described it.

Perhaps he’d dipped into Farrell from time to time.  Certainly, that’s how I approached the book for several years.   So intense were some of the passages that I often had to put it down for a while.  Sometimes I put it down for several months at a time but always came back to it sooner or later.

Farrell tells us that the ‘Singapore Grip’ can mean many things.  Perhaps this is another.

These recipes appear in a section on Indian food  The recipe for Ding ding is worth repeating in full given its complexity and the fact that it took several days to prepare, depending on the weather.  It was eaten (providing it hadn’t been forgotten about) with rice to which a little mulgatannie (pepper water), or sour milk had been added.

The recipe for pepper water follows on the next page of his notebook and was made from a tablespoon of black pepper, “1/2 tennis ball full of tamberind” (sic), 2 teaspoons of salt and a pint of water.  My father would have been unfamiliar with most of the spices, of course, and his spellings varied accordingly, especially in the early months.

Presumably one full tennis ball could only be measured by two halves.

Ding ding

This is made out of  4 lbs of beef or mutton.  Slice 1/2  inch thick say 4″ x 6″ without the bone.  Do not touch water (don’t wash it).  Then powder finely a tea cup full (1/4 lb) of pepper (black Indian pepper).  Buy 2 cents worth (1 tablespoonfull) of loose cloves and cinnamon & powder finely.  Also buy 2 cents (1 tablespoonfull) tumeric (or saffron) & powder finely with 1 tablepoonfull of  coriender & a teaspoonfull of mustard.  All the above to be finely powdered & mixed together.

Now you take each piece of meat & chop finely with a blunt knife to smash the pieces up without cutting up the slices completely.  Mix the meat with salt at the same time, rubbing the salt well in.  Place the meat cutlets in a bowl one on top of the other, reversing the heap after the first half hour.

After that hour take each slice of meat & rub it well with the above powder which has previously been mixed with 1 pint of English vinegar & place it on an iron sheet or cement in the sun.  Reverse the pieces occasionally as drying takes place.  Do this for a week (the slices become small & hard with drying) or less in really fine weather.

When dry, place the slices in a gunny (jute bag) or earthen pot and place same near a warm place such as close to an oven.

When required for use, take a few pieces of meat, wash them in equal parts vinegar & water (just a little), & fry it in ghee or butter or olive oil..

Beef usually gives a better taste, the best parts being the rump & loins.

On the second day of drying if it is found that the slices look too bare (lack of dark colour) it is possible to powder some more pepper with a little cloves, then mixing the latter with salt & vinegar.  Then rub the meat & dry as usual.

The recipe for coconut curry strikes me as somewhat misnamed given that the main ingredient was sardines or herring, the ratio of coconut to sardines being 1/2 coconut to 50 sardines.  The principal spices were temeric, cummin (sic) and green chillies.  My father put a question mark after cumin as he wondered whether it really meant caraway.

Book C (pp. 234-237)

Malay house

August 18, 2009

This drawing was done soon after arrival at Changi, probably in March 1942.  In the early weeks of captivity the prisoners were permitted to move quite freely about the Changi promontory.  Given this and the detailed measurements included, it seems likely that the drawing was done then rather than from memory.

Malay house

Book C page 80

Government offices

August 15, 2009

According to my father’s notes on the reverse, this postcard includes the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall with the the Supreme Court and Cricket Club to the right — a delightful juxtaposition if ever there was one — and the Anderson Bridge in the foreground.  The picture was taken from the Fullerton Building, Singapore’s first ten-story skyscraper completed in 1928.

Singapore Government offices and Town Hall

Indian and Chinese houses

August 15, 2009

My father brought back several dozen postcards of Singapore as he would have known it, as well as from Colombo and Cape Town which were both ports of call on his return voyage in 1945.  Here are a couple of photographs of Indian and Chinese dwellings both of which were cut out from a larger postcard.  His notebooks also contain a number of drawings of typical living arrangements, mostly from Tekong and Pengerang.  On the reverse of the photographs he noted that Indian houses tended to be distinguished by their ‘rectangular’ plan and verandahs.

Indian houses

Chinese houses