Changi ‘greens’

September 5, 2010

The vegetables were grown to provide much needed vitamins though were not particularly appetizing to the POW.  In the end they essentially boiled down to a sort of spinach.

On the other hand, the growing season was year-round and plants grew rapidly; so rapidly, my father once said, that you could almost see them grow.  While everything was used, the leaves could be harvested most rapidly and regularly.

Here’s a note, I believe from early 1943, listing some of the more common vegetables that were cultivated.  As the plants were unfamiliar he draws on English comparisons to describe them.

Sweet potato

This is grown by inserting the ‘runner’ shoot into the ground – not the ‘seed’ as in the case of the English potato.  From such a shoot it takes about 6 months to produce a fairly large tuber.  The plant is of a rambling nature.  Its leaves are large and resemble that of an ivy in shape.  The tubers are produced  under the ground level in the same way as our English potato.  In addition to the tubers, the young growing shoots are snipped off at occasional intervals. They may be boiled as “greens.”


This plant has thin V-shaped leaves.  The fruits are either purple or green in colour; they resemble short cucumbers.


This plant has large heart-shaped leaves.  The stem, which is the part eaten, resembles celery.

Tapioco (sic)

This plant takes 1 year to produce a decent sized root or tuber.  The tuber may be boiled & has the appearance of, and tastes like, a floury English potato.  he young tender shoots are occasionally boiled as “greens.”

Edible spinach

This plant grows to about 2’6″.  The leaves are greenish purple in colour.  Flowers are produced, raised above the leaves in a dense bright purple spike.  The leaves of this plant are eaten.

Green Book 2, 6-7

Back again

August 11, 2010

Green Book 3

Two months after my father was discharged from Roberts Hospital he was admitted again due to a second bout of dysentery. This time, however, his stay was relatively short, from April 8 until April 21, though he would remain on a restricted diet until June.

Once again he recorded his condition and diet on a daily basis and included a number of notes on the causes and treatment of dysentery, as illustrated.

On his last day in hospital his diet was as follows.  As was often the case, the attention to detail blended the descriptive with the sarcastic.

21st April, 1943

Breakfast at 9 am

White rice

Brown rice

White rice and tomato stew

1/2 pint tea (no milk or sugar)


White rice boiled

Peanut rissole

Togay soup (no Togay)

No tea

Green Book 3, p.13

Roberts Hospital patient

August 10, 2010

My father worked in Roberts Hospital but was also a patient there on at least two occassions.  On November 9, 1942 he was admitted with fairly acute forms of pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease, and tinea cruris, a skin fungal disease otherwise known in Singapore as ‘Dhobi Itch.’   He would remain in hospital for almost three months before being discharged on February 5, 1943.  During this time he kept an almost daily record of his condition, diet and medications.  Many of the entries are too personal to be quoted here but I have selected a few from the weeks leading up to and following his discharge.  A more extensive account of his Christmas Day, 1942 appears in an earlier post.

10th January

Acriflavine painted on – not on gauze.  There is no sign of Tinea or Diphtheria. Pulse remains around 64.

19th January

Marmite replaced by 1/2 pint rice polishings.  Can now walk several hundred yards with no effect on heart.

February 5

Released from hospital.  Still rather weak on legs but otherwise quite OK.  Head swims after standing for half an hour or so.

13th February

1 week’s special diet.  Weight 9st. 8lbs. without boots. Feeling well except for rheumatic or sprained feeling in ankle joints & in neck.  The ankle feels as though it would give way when bearing weight of body. Cannot walk without stooping.

6th March

1 week’s light duty.  Off special diets. Weight 10 st. 0lbs.

Book D, pp. 13-14


May 1, 2010

I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly fond of Marmite, though I can’t help thinking that it’s a poor sort of pantry without it.  I quite enjoy it on toast even if I do wince a little every now and then.

My father swore by the stuff. True, I never saw him actually eat any but his brand loyalty was deep and unwavering. As indeed it should have been for it was a central part of his treatment for pellagra (he was also suffering from tinea cruris) at Roberts Hospital between November 1942 and February 1943.

Pellagra is a deficiency disease and as a yeast extract Marmite is very rich in B vitamins. Dissolved in half a pint of warm water it was part of his daily regimen.  Well, that and half an ounce of rice polishings.

“We wouldn’t have survived without this,” he used to say brandishing the familiar little jar. “Beautiful.”

Extracts from a two page note probably written in November 1942.

The fact that many people have been reported sick with bacillary dysentery immediately after eating coconut leads to the problem of how the infection is conveyed to the nut.

The possibilities which have been advanced:

(1) The bacillus, being water bourne, is conveyed via the roots & trunk via the sap which in the tropics rises rapidly up the tree. The fact that sap is conveyed upwards by osmosis and thus is most likely to prohibit the passage of the bacillus, appears to be ruled out as minerals are conveyed by this process.  The chief objection to the argument is that no sap would enter the nut when the latter is ripe as the vascular bundles are then severed.

(2) The bacillus is carried by the pollinating insects to the stigma of the flower & eventually finds its way into the  embryo by the same way as the pollen.  This seems even more unlikely particularly as the bacillus would need to live many weeks while the nut is in the process of developing before it could hope to come into contact with a human being.

(3) The nut when opened is contaminated with the dysentery bacillus, for example by dirty hands or houseflies.  This would seem to be the most likely explanation but it does not account for the fact that cases have occurred among people who have eaten only small portions of the nut, & immediately after the latter has been opened, so as to more or less exclude indirect contamination.

(4) There is no contamination of the nut at all.  All that happens is that the copra sets up an irritation of the bowel causing a form of enteritis.  Most people in the tropics harbour the dysentery bacillus in their intestines even when they are healthy but the latter are prevented from developing & setting up symptoms owing to the overpowering effects of the body’s antibodies….  But when enteritis is set up the germs find a medium in which to grow with the result that the usual dysentery symptoms are produced.  This would seem to be the correct explanation, particularly as dysentery patients treated and discharged as cured from hospital often have a relapse as soon as they are put on the coarse POW diet of practically rice bust (sic) after previously receiving a considerable proportion of European food.  In this case it was the enteritis set up by the change in diet; the dysentery bacillus could not have been present in the rice since this had already been boiled and in any case it would, if contaminated, have affected the entire personnel eating it.

Book B, 87-88


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

Diphtheria precautions

February 26, 2010

The following guidelines at Roberts Hospital speak for themselves but also to the conditions.  Cigarette stubs were a precious commodity.  I’m not sure who would have been smoking cigars.

Precautions to be taken against Diphtheria epidemic

(1) Cancel all entertainments & lectures
(2) Beds to be spaced so as to give sufficient headroom (sleep head to foot if necessary)
(3) The picking up of cigarette & cigar buts for reuse is prohibited
(4) All sore throats, however trivial, are to be reported
(5) Patients to be isolated
(6) Staff to be isolated from other personnel
(7) Staff to wear nose & mouth guards (made of gauze) when working in wards
(8) Patients to wear nose & mouth guards when being moved in vicinity of non infected persons
(9) All drinking containers to be sterilized in boiling water

Book B, p.56

There are several references to diphtheria in the early pages of Notebook B (the third notebook since arriving in Singapore but the second at Changi) though it is not until page 53 that an explanation is provided.


During August & September 1942 there was a diphtheria epidemic  at Changi.  Many men were affected & although comparatively few deaths occurred the symptoms appeared more severe than the type prevalent in Britain.  Chiefly the nose & throat were affected and membranes were produced in both areas.  Occasionally tracheotomy was necessary to facilitate breathing.  In many cases, however, men reporting sick with… Pellagra were found to be suffering from Diphtheria (K.L.B.) organisms.  Also in other sores, such as sores in the nose, although the usual symptoms of diphtheria were not present.

Book B, page 53

Earlier he had noted that a good gargle for diphtheria was potassium permanganate, 1 in 10,000, and that cardiac trouble seemed to be a complication of diphtheria presumably due to the increased exertion caused by the growth of membranes across the throat (page 3).

Peanut butter as a laxative

February 7, 2010

I doubt whether my father tasted peanut butter before arriving in Singapore, or even knew what it was.  It would have been a rarity in English shops before the War and for that matter some time after it.  Even at Changi he didn’t seem to know what to call it but wrote a note about its laxative properties, at least when on a rice diet.

On the following page he provided a recipe.  As usual, the language is more that of the scientific observer than the gourmand.


An appetizing way of serving these is to grind them up with a pestle & mortar until the oils are caused to form a vehicle for the remaining solids & a thick paste is obtained.  This paste may be spread, like butterscotch, on toast or bread & butter.

Book B, p.4

A Changi Christmas

December 23, 2009

My father was admitted to Roberts Hospital with pellagra on November 9, 1942 and not discharged until February 5, 1943.  He kept daily notes on his condition and treatment but the only time he permitted himself any observations of the world about him was on Christmas Day.  The following notes are reproduced more or less in full though a few unreadable words and passages have been omitted.  He crams a lot into them.  The one comment I’d add now is that they include the only reference I’ve been able to find to the Alexandra Hospital incident  in any of the notebooks other than the three eyewitness accounts that I suspect were written down near to the end of his captivity.

Xmas 1942

Roberts Hospital, a patient with Pellagra, the B1 vitamin deficiency disease – indulging in too much polished rice to the exclusion of cereals & other good things.  Complicated with Tinea Cruris & tertiary infection of Diphtheria & other odds & ends.

Passed a miserable night, having been tortured by the relays of bed bugs which have their homes in the crevices of the bed & mattress & which I am at present quite powerless to eradicate.  However, managed to get off to sleep during the early morning & slept soundly until about 8.30am when I was awakened by the sound of tea mugs being deposited on the tray. A lovely cup of hot milked & sweetened tea followed (the first “official” one for about 6 months)

Later had breakfast of cornflour porridge (sweetened) followed by Tomato (complete with skins & pips) & a thin slice of tongue (unheard of!).  Also 2 slices of rice bread (4” x 2”) the one with army butter (margarine?) the other with pineapple jam (v. good).  Somebody heard to say “You lucky patients”

At this time Ack Ack Williams Pte. popped in to wish a Merry (if possible) Xmas.  I reiterated that I would not add “many of em.”

Contemplating partaking of a noxious Kum Lan cigarette made of cherry leaves  & costing 15c in the Canteen (a rise of some 500%!) –  product of Godfrey Philips India Ltd. Victory V Cigarettes  (which incredibly depicts a V over the rising sun).

At 9.30 a service started over in the next ward accompanied by a rather unsteady accordion. Starts of with “Come Ye, Come Ye to Bethlehem” (rather impossible in the circumstances).  Preaches something about Peace on earth & goodwill towards men (somewhat ironical) & continues with Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread”(!)

Toffees (very sticky but very acceptable) distributed to each man.   Another 2 followed out of the blue given by Red X officer who wished me Merry Xmas.   A second pkt of Victory V cigarettes & biscuits followed.  Scoffed many biscuits & sweets.

Bill Sayer came in later in morning & said what an awful breakfast he had.  Couldn’t eat it.  Mabela (?) was full of maggots, biscuits were made of rice & like leather.  Coco  had no sugar & little milk.  Lent me a novel “The Arches of the Years” by Ethel Boileau (Hutchinson & Co London) which incidentally originally belonged to one Carlyle Morier  a sanitary inspector not residing at the POW camp Changi.

Bill’s visit interrupted by Company Officer & RSM Painter who came to wish me a Merry Christmas, a quick recovery & gave a pkt of 3 Castle’s cigarettes & smoked one each.

“Get ready for the first course”– pea soup, clear (& good) followed by the 2nd & 3rd courses.  Tiffin consisted of a slice of pork (tender & thin & easily cut with the spoon) sweet potato & local pumpkin set in thick brown gravy.  Somebody protested that the latter had been made with burnt rice but the server indignantly replied that he could assure him it was not & added that if this f—–g sauce hasn’t got some rum in it I’ve picked a (unreadable).”  This sauce was poured over a goodly block of excellent Christmas pudding.

After some reading of Bill’s book Williams came in said tiffin was lousy.  Consisted of a cup of bully beef 1 ¼ inch square, 2 thin slices from a small beetroot, & split pea soup & no sweet.  His temper was cooled down however by a piece of Christmas pudding given him legally for his ward, a couple of Cheroots for his Wardmaster.  I fed him on toffees & a cigarette.  Left later to attend a concert in his ward.  Talked of field kitchens, roast duck, boiled rice biscuits et. al.

Continued to read ‘The Arches of the Years” with breaks for toffees, biscuits & cigarettes throughout the afternoon.

Tea consisted of milk sweetened tea but with no bread.  Then there was also no Marmite or indeed treatment of any kind (the MO looked in about dinner time).

Dinner consisted of only one dixie, Cornish pastie (m & v in rice pastie) rice, a few long beans & a slice of Yorkshire pudding.  Also a mug of milk sweetened tea.  Took the rice to keep me in trim.

Read Bill’s book till Bill Batty came in.  Brought 2 tangerines (I asked for a couple of mangos for Christmas the last time he visited with no hope of seeing them.  Even now it is doubtful of their origin).  Also a promised book “Days of Our Years” by Pierre Van Paassen (?) (Angus & Robertson Ltd, London, 1940) also some peanuts to eat while we chatted.  Chatted of old times in Malaya, the war & the Alexandra Hospital tragedy & the loss of Arthur Collins & his pal Sidall who I relieved at Tekong.  Later conversation interrupted by Farrant coming in for his daily evening chat.  Conversation soon changed to watches, one Batty gave to F with hand missing.  Belonged to Bill Brandt who capped the lot by also appearing on the scene.  Soon left on pretext of Batty to go to the boreholes.  Farrant remained to eat part of tangerine, peanuts & a cigarette.  Talked of news – advance in Burma, 100 mile road with 50 bridges cutting off water. Later turned to architecture & chances of getting out of here.

After cup of coco made bed!  Later Ack Ack Williams came along & started to tell some jokes but was soon interrupted by McNeil (orderly) who came along with the red hot news that the Russians were moving south along the Polish frontier.  Lights out went soon after.

Book D, 17-18