“12 September 1945, General Seishiro, along with four other Generals and two Admirals, entered the City Hall Chamber to formally surrender Singapore to Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia.” From Roots on WW II timeline.
So today marks Victory Day. But the joy and relief must have been short lived as people woke up to victory and at the same time came to grips with the loss and damage wreaked by three and half years of Japanese Occupation; Closer to the bone, came grieving for lives lost and unaccounted for.
Recently, I attended a talk by a researcher – delving into WW II history for next years commemoration of the 75 Anniversary of the fall of Singapore – who shared some memos she came across at the National Archives of Singapore which had sent the “hairs on her arm standing” . They were written by an officer under the British Military Adminstration BMA. The BMA was established in Singapore and Malaya during the period from the Japanese surrender to restoration of civilian rule on 1 April 1946.
The memos noted that reports of those missing during the war lodged by civilians to the BMA in the immediate aftermath of wars’ end, started to show a pattern of Chinese men missing from the dates corresponding to what we now know as Sook Ching. For a period of 3 weeks from 21 February to 4 March 1942, Chinese males between the ages of 18 and 50 were summoned to various mass screening centres and those suspected of being anti-Japanese were executed.
The full scale and nature of Sook Ching was certainly not known during Occupation and only painfully unraveled after the war. But there had been records handwritten and scribbled in secret by individuals of the names of the men who were taken and never returned. Some of these records came to light and later provided evidence needed for the war tribunals which took place a year later in 1946 in Singapore. A portal of the war tribunals held in Singapore launched at the end of August 2016 at the NUS Law Faculty and based on records from the British is an important initiative in documenting WW II history in the region.
In our own research into family history, descendants shared with us their oral records of those in their family who perished in Sook Ching, of which is captured in both our community driven book WW II@ Bukit Brown and also in this blog here and here.
Closer to home, and perhaps most poignant is a first ever record of the Sook Ching execution of two brothers on Punggol Beach documented in a poem by the late father of a family friend. The title of this blog post is taking from the anthology of poems and essays which are published in ” I Found A Bone and Other Poems” by Teo Kah Leng.
I reproduce here excerpts from the title poem:
I found a bone on Punggol Beach
Half buried in the sand,
And bleached by white by the sea and sun –
I picked it up with my hand
It was as brittle and as light
As coral in the sea
It has once an arm like mine
And a hope like me
But then they came a fateful day
To shatter hope and faith
’twas nineteen hundred forty two
A machine gun sputtered a deadly hate
A bullet whizzed through me,
And I was dragged down by the line
That dropped before the sea
I heard my brother groan and die,
I heard approaching feet,
And Ah! I felt the welcome steel
That stopped my heart to beat
I held the arm bone in my hand
And let my warm tears fall,
My brothers were slain on Punggol Beach
My brothers Peter and Paul
Teo Kah Leng
(Benedict) Teo Kah Leng was an English and Literature teacher who started his teaching career in pre- war Singapore. “Paul” in the poem is his younger brother and “Peter” his older brother. On Teo Kah Leng’s poems, Dr. Eriko Ogihara-Shuck, who co edited the book and who has researched Malayan modernism writing in colonial Singapore, writes:
Kah Leng’s writing style clearly reflects that he was a “teacher – poet” who saw a pedagogical value in the reading and writing of poetry. Like many other English teachers of the 1950s and 60s, he adored poetry as a means of teaching students basics about English skills including pronunciation. He also believed that rhythms and rhymes are primary attractions to both his pupils and an adult audience, and hence poetry is also an effective way of transmitting important values in life.
Values such as compassion and going beyond the call of duty. Teo, was a devout Catholic who taught and served as Principal of Montfort School from 1927 to 1969 . The school was located in a predominantly Teochew enclave, where families were often too poor to send their children to school. His daughter Anne Teo writes of her father in the book:
” My father’s love, care and concern for others extended beyond the family. He would visit parents of students with financial difficulties to persuade them to allow their children to continue studying. He assisted them to seek financial assistance For some weaker students, he would stay back after school to offer them extra coaching in various subjects……..There were times to when he returned home for lunch, hungry as a bear, because he had given his lunch money to poor students who had no money for break time.”
Teo’s “legacy” to his daughter Anne was an anthology of 50 poems, almost all of which has been printed in this book, fulfilling her father’s dream of publishing a book on his poems.
by Catherine Lim, co editor bukitbrown.com
In 2009, the Coopers arrived in Singapore from the UK. Jon’s wife had a job posting here and Jon was to be during the duration of her posting, a house husband taking care of their 2 young children and running the household. As luck would have it, on the morning after they moved into their home, Jon on a “reconnaissance” of his new neighbourhood spotted a National Heritage Board marker introducing the WWII history of Adam Park.
From that day onwards, Jon’s life took on a different direction. Trained as a battlefield archeologist, he was to spend the next 9 years, juggling his responsibilities as husband and father with his passion for battlefield history, Singapore after all is rich and fertile ground for the “digging up” of WW II history.
Jon and his family moved back home to Scotland in July this year. In the time Jon was here, his contributions to WW II history included the regular once a month “Battle at Cemetery Hill” guided walks for All Things Bukit Brown which started in June 2012, an exhibition co-curated by Jon under Singapore Heritage Society held at National Library in commemoration of the 70th Anniversary in 2012 of the Fall of Singapore –Four Days in February: Adam Park the Last Battle- over 20 archeological digs as part of The Adam Park Project (TAPP) capping it all by the publication of Tigers in the Park. Published just weeks before he left for home, Simone Lee attended the last of the Tigers in the Park tours held in conjunction with the book’s launch.
Jon Coopers Adam Park Project by Simone Lee
Adam Park is a significant place in Singapore’s history because it was where one of the last and fiercest battles was fought and was subsequently a prisoner of war (POW) work camp.
Located at the crossroads between Bukit Timah and MacRitchie Reservoir, Bukit Timah is the highest point in Singapore and where the British army supplies were kept. The Japanese captured Bukit Timah on 12th February 1942 and set its sights on cutting off the water supply to the city. The British troops guarding the Water Tower along MacRitchie Reservoir were ordered to move the defence line outward towards Bukit Timah, and engaged in battle with the Japanese troops at the halfway point which was Adam Park.
At Adam Park, Jon sets up the battlefield of engagement and from his research which includes oral interviews with war veterans, former residents of Adam Park, descendants and pouring over diaries and other private papers, Jon brings to life compelling stories of the people at Adam Park, igniting an important component of WW II , its social history.
The colonial black-and-white bungalows at Adam Park were built in 1929 for the European community. Generous lawns allowed for tennis courts and putting greens. The driveways had space for cars owned by residents and their guests. It is a beautiful, genteel estate away from the city and conveniently located close to the golf course which now belongs to the Singapore Island Country. Here are some highlights of the various houses with significant stories to tell in the book.
Located on top of the hill, and dubbed ‘Bachelor’s Mess’ during the war, the first family to occupy house was the Dutch Consular General, Mr.Hendrik Fein, his wife and their “celebrity” daughter, Concha. They lived there for a few months in 1938 before moving to Mount Alma. Concha was reputed to be a great beauty, young and vivacious who became popular for helping the Singapore Charity Cabaret and regularly entertained the Allied troops. Unfortunately, Concha and her family were in the plane which went missing on its way to Australia when they were evacuated at the onset of war. Their plane was one of 2 carrying passengers from Java. The other plane landed safely in Melbourne with one of its passengers being Lieutenant General Gordon Bennett, who relinquished his post as the Commander of the Australian Army’s 8th Division in Singapore to escape being captured by the Japanese when it fell.
The Seefelds moved into No.16 after the Feins’. They had escaped Hitler’s persecution of Jews in Germany to England and then joined their sons in Singapore in 1939. Seefeld Snr continued his practice as a dentist here, but when WW II arrived on our shores, his family were rounded up along with other Germans and deported. Leaving in haste, the family left all their belongings, including a complete set of what was considered high-end dental equipment then and, furniture that he had brought with him from Germany. The dental set was later used by the Japanese military during their occupation. To the Seefeld familys’ astonishment, the entire set was then shipped to them in Australia, intact, shortly after the war ended.
While the city was being bombarded with daily air raids which began in December 1941, the Adam Park estate was barely touched by the bombings. No.16 became home to the Morrisons after the Seefelds and a few other families had also taken refuge in the house after homes in the city were destroyed. It was a short lived refuge. On 31st January 1942, the Morrisons left their home to board a ship out of Singapore. Their ship, the Empress of Japan had docked 2 days earlier carrying British soldiers from the 18th Division. The Empress left Singapore with civilians escaping the war, and by the time it arrived at Liverpool, it had a new name, the Empress of Scotland.
As the city was besieged, allied troops retreated to Adam Park. House No.16 saw action in the battle between the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires and the 41st Regiments of the Imperial Japanese Army at Adam Park on 13 February 1942, 2 days before the British was to surrender Singapore.
Despite being one of the last residents to evacuate the estate, Philip Cooper Sands returned to his home at No.12 each day during the battle at Adam Park and gave vivid accounts of the bombardments surrounding the house in his diary, and letters to his wife who had left on the same ship the Morrisons were on.
Read more about their stories in ‘The Residents of Adam Park’ page 33 of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
A few metres down the hill from house No.16, a triple coil Dannert barbed wire fence had been erected in front of house No.20. While about 100 men from the 1st Battalion’s D Company held on at houses No.13 and 14, C Company joined them late in the night on 13th February and set their positions at the remaining houses surrounding the defense line. To their dismay, they woke the next morning to find some 23 Japanese soldiers in house No.20. Apart from being exhausted from combat at MacRitchie the day before, the men at C Company were not aware that D Company had shifted their positions and unknowingly left house No.20 empty. A battle ensued between the new “neighbours”
Read more about the battle at house No.20, and how Corporal Pearson and Lieutenant Clift earned their medals from this battle in ‘Adam Park: HQ, C and D Companies, 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires Regiment’ and ‘The West End of Adam Park Estate: C and D Company, 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires Regiment’ from page 140 of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
House No.17 – Regimental Aid Post (RAP)
Red Cross banners hung from the windows of house No.17 which became the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) for the 1st Battalion. It was the first medic point for injured soldiers before being transferred to a hospital in the city. By 15th February, the RAP was overwhelmed with Cambridgeshire casualties. The medics were working quickly to attend to every injured soldier brought in while some of those wounded but could still walk, helped out. Six medical ambulances had arrived that morning bringing some relief. But before they could be loaded and sent back to hospitals in the city, the vehicles were blown up, and the RAP was ruined. A British soldier had fired at a Japanese tank that was collecting their own wounded and in retaliation, the Japanese shot back. Rounds of bullets from their machine guns and tanks pierced through the walls of the house and the fuel tanks of the ambulances, setting them on fire. Everyone in the house scrambled out to the garden. Unbeknown to both sides, a ceasefire had already been called and received at No.7 to prepare for surrender.
Read Sergeant Len Baynes and Lance Corporal Cosford’s account of the attack on the RAP in ‘The Final Act’, page 191 of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
House No.7 sits at the bottom of the hill on the eastern end of Adam Park along Adam Road. It was thought since it was located on the reverse slope, away from sight of the Japanese troops at Bukit Timah hill, No. 7 was most strategic to house the battalion’s headquarters. The battalion held up at the estate for 3 days of battle. However, by the end of the fighting, the Japanese troops had managed to infiltrate the surrounding areas. The house was then in full view of the enemies and bombarded by Japanese artillery.
On the afternoon of 15th February, Lieutenant Colonel Carpenter who was in charge of the 1st Battalion sent a message to the 54th Infantry Brigade headquarters to explain about their dire situation and asked permission to move the battalion away from Adam Park. Minutes later, the message of the surrender arrived. It took Carpenter a few moments for the message to sink in before sending out the order to cease fire. It took more than an hour for the message to reach the units at the other end of the estate.
While the Cambridgeshires were stricken with the shame of defeat, General Arthur Percival was negotiating the terms of surrender with Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita at the Old Ford Factory.
Read ‘The Final Act’ from page 191 of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
The day after the surrender, the surviving Cambridgeshires were packed onto a tennis court at one of the houses. They dug a single latrine at the corner of the court. The stench from it, drove the Japanese soldiers farther away as days went by and the latrine trench overflowed when it rained. On 19th February, a week after the Cambridgeshires had arrived in Singapore, they marched to Changi Prison to join the rest of the POWs.
A month later, the fittest POWs were moved to Adam Park. It became a working camp for some 2000 Australian and 1000 British POWs from March 1942 to January 1943. They were chosen to help build a Shinto shrine at MacRitchie Reservoir. But the first thing they had to do was to repair the war torn estate and settle in. They organized the estate into barracks and life at the Adam Park camp was comfortable compared to Changi Prison camp. They got the electricity, even air conditioning and water heaters working and enjoyed proper sanitary and ventilation. They picked up some Japanese language from chatting with the guards. Work was not considered too hard and hours were not too long. It was no holiday camp but they were provided with ample rice to cook and bought bread rolls and sweets from the canteen at house No.11 with the little money they were paid from the ‘Shrine Job’. And because the camp was not fenced up, some of the men would sneak out after the lights are out at 10pm to trade in the city for other sources of food.
Read ‘Settling In’, the ‘Shrine Job’ and ‘Trade’ from page 230 onwards of ‘Tigers in the Park’.
House No.11 – The Prison Chapel
One of the major facilities set up by the POWs was the “mess hall” which also housed a chapel. It was the second POW chapel remaining in Singapore, the first being the St Luke’s Chapel in Roberts Barracks which has been reproduced at Changi Museum. Captain Eric Andrews took on the role of a ‘padre’ to the men who sought spiritual guidance.
The house was badly damaged in battle. The chapel was on the second floor of the house, above the canteen. Because of the damage, the only access up the chapel was via the fire escape staircase at the back of house. Captain Andrews and a few volunteers repaired the remaining part of the room for the chapel and worked on designing the altar. It was plain and simple and they scavenged for materials they could find around the area – pieces of glass and transparent paper for the stained glass windows above the altar, yellow clay and Reckitt’s Blue for paintings on the wall.
The altar cross was bought from the Mortuary Chapel at Alexandra Hospital. Mother Mary and a scroll with the Bible verse; “Lift up your heads, O ye Gates and the King of Glory shall Come in” were painted. However, Captain Andrews was not able to draw faces very well hence he cut the face of Dorothy Lamour from a magazine and fitted it over Mother Mary’s. According to an account by Lieutenant Colonel Oakes, “Backlit from the outside the final image looked very impressive”.
Jon’s research into the whereabouts of the chapel murals even when he had evidence of drawings from Mitchell, drew a blank when he interviewed survivors. He finally confirmed the location, when he realised, the men were more familiar with No.11 as the mess hall and canteen rather than the chapel. He was asking the wrong question!
Read more ‘The Prison Chapel’ from page 290 of ‘Tigers in the Park’
All 19 houses at Adam Park which belong to the government are intact after repairs and available for rent. Most of the houses have been fenced and gated for security and privacy. House No.7 previously tenanted by National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) Guild House is at present unoccupied. No.7 and No.11 together with a handful of others are awaiting for new tenants. Without live in tenants, the buildings tend to wear out faster. But it is prime rentals and the market is weak.
Jon Cooper hopes that the estate will be preserved and protected by authorities. He believes that it is a heritage site that still has much to offer in research, and a tangible reminder of the stories that he and his team has uncovered. And because of its historical significance, the site can still be kept as residences by promoting low impact heritage, such as the small groups he has been conducting walks for, which don’t encroach on the privacy of residents and respect boundaries.
Jon Cooper started The Adam Park Project (TAPP), organising residents and recruiting volunteers to do archaeological work at the estate. Over 7 years, more than 1200 World War 2 artefacts have been dug up following 21 metal detector surveys and two excavations. The artefacts are now with the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute and Singapore History Consultants.
The artefacts and the stories behind some of the items, such as artillery shells, military badges, gas masks, and 19th century coins, have also been catalogued in TAPP’s Virtual Museum: http://www.adamparkproject.com/virtual-museum/
Tigers in The Park
Jon’s book is divided into four section, -section 1 covers civilian life in the estate before the war, 2, the battle at Adam Park, 3 POW life, and finally Adam Park, post war – comes with icons and QR codes leading to the Virtual Museum , a website which also allows visitors to comment and interact hence, allowing updates and amendments to the book to be made at real time.
Tigers in the Park can be purchased at larger bookstores and also online:
“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love
only what we understand; and we will understand only
what we are taught.” (Baba Dioum, 1968.)
A quote by the Guest of Honour Senior Minister Desmond Lee (National Development and Home Affairs) in his address , captured aptly the journey of the Bukit Brown community leading to another milestone in what has been dubbed ” a movement” with the launch on 16 April, 2016 of the book WWII@Bukit Brown – a collection of essays, poems and stories from the community of Brownies and descendants.
In his speech, Minister Lee recounted his first guided walk at Bukit Brown Cemetery with his constituents :
“During the visit three years ago, we learnt about the history and heritage of our pioneers from the stories shared by the Brownies.
Over the years, we have all been very impressed by the passion demonstrated by the Brownies, as they have contributed so much of their personal time, personal energy and expertise to research, document and share the history of Bukit Brown with the rest of us in Singapore.
They are an example of what the community can do to connect with, and to celebrate our history. But if we reflect on it, although Bukit Brown is a cemetery, their work is so much more than just about the past. It is also very much about our future.
The research that the Brownies did led descendants to approach them for help to identify their ancestors’ resting places, and from there, an opportunity to open up conversations about their personal and family stories, which they then shared for the benefit of posterity.
I understand that some of the descendants are here. Some of your stories and stories of your forefathers have made their way into this book. This book is a testament to the hard work and effort the Brownies had invested over the years.”
It was an occasion for connections and re-connections.
Jon, captivated the audience at the launch with his stories of the descendants and survivors of POW camps he had met in the course of his research (photos of Jon’s presentation by Lawrence Chong)
And finally a pictorial thanks to our sponsors in no particular order :
And as previously mentioned Tan Ean Kiam Foundation is one of the sponsors.
You can support funds for the book by purchasing a copy or more here
If you would like to bulk purchase books to donate to community organisations, drop us an email firstname.lastname@example.org
And here’s a reminder of “who” this is all about:
To everyone who came, out heartfelt gratitude. To our official photographers, Lawrence Chong and Carolyn, thank you.
Look out for more stories about the launch and updates about the book in the blog under History : Books
Ethos Books and Singapore Heritage Society
Liberation 70 by All Things Bukit Brown
Publishers: Singapore Heritage Society and Ethos Books
Date Of Publication: 5 December, 2015
The Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and All Things Bukit Brown (atBB) are pleased to announce their plans to publish a collection of essays and poems, mined mainly from oral history and family archives, which looks at the Second World War (1942-1945) and the impact in Singapore from the perspective of those interred at Bukit Brown Cemetery.
The book commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Singapore under Japanese Occupation (Sept 1945) by offering new material and insights into the human tragedy of war, which adds another layer to the already vast literature on WWII in Singapore.
“The stories have taken us to the Endau Settlement in Johor, to Taiping (Malaysia) and to the beaches of Normandy in ways so unexpected they took our breath away,” said Claire Leow and Catherine Lim, co-founders of All Things Bukit Brown, a group of volunteers who work to raise awareness of the municipal cemetery. “It is a slow and at times painful unravelling of family history, lost in memory but for the persistence of descendants. It has taken seven decades for some of these fragments to be pulled together, and we see this not as a one-off book but a first step in the difficult journey of re-discovery and re-membering. The narratives also re-affirm to us Singapore’s place in regional and global historical narratives.”
It is a known fact that many who lived through the horrors of war and Occupation barely spoke about those days. The 70th anniversary of the Liberation, coinciding with an outpouring of emotion as Singapore celebrated the Jubilee of independence (SG50), unlocked the memory vaults of strangers who entrusted the editorial team with intimate familial stories and memorabilia. The compilation will span across the immediate pre- war, occupation and post-war years for the people of Singapore. It will also feature a poem of lamentation for soldiers lost in the battle at Bukit Brown, juxtaposed against recently unearthed official archival material on the battle that was fought at Cemetery Hill aka Bukit Brown Cemetery, with anecdotes from the diaries of soldiers, the pastor who bore witness to the aftermath, as well as memories of surviving prisoners of war who lived in the nearby Sime Road POW Camp. Most of this will be new, unpublished material.
SHS is pleased to support this ground-up project, as an extension of the advocacy the society encourages and the Bukit Brown cause that SHS has backed since 2011, when the cemetery came under threat of development first through a highway and later, housing.
“Bukit Brown has unexpectedly turned out to be a touchstone about the loss of heritage – tangible and intangible – in a Singapore eager to modernise and develop,” Chua Ai Lin, President of SHS. “The book is an important evolution of the civil society movement to uphold Bukit Brown as a site of national significance, and illuminate one of its more fragile narrative threads. It brings together at once the strategic and personal importance of the site, and SHS is pleased to once again support All Things Bukit Brown, which has evolved from a volunteer base guiding weekly public tours and regular customised tours, to hosting exhibitions and participating in arts programmes to reach as broad a support base as possible to save what is left of the site.”
The book, which now has the working title “Liberation70”, is ultimately a tribute to those among us, civilians and soldiers who laid down their lives. In the Ode of Remembrance read at most war commemoration ceremonies worldwide, the public repeats the key line, “We will remember them.” This is our collective act of remembrance.
The book will be co-published by the Singapore Heritage Society and Ethos with a partial grant from the National Heritage Board, under its Heritage Participation Grant. All proceeds from the book will be channelled into future Bukit Brown projects.
Singapore Heritage Society was founded in 1987 and is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation and registered charity with Institution of Public Character (IPC) status. It is Singapore’s leading organization dedicated to research, education and advocacy on Singapore’s history, heritage and identity. SHS is behind many significant publications on Singapore history including Syonan: Singapore under the Japanese, 1942-1945 (1992); Memories and the National Library: Between Forgetting and Remembering (2000); Spaces for the Dead: A Case from the Living (2011).
All Things Bukit Brown (atBB) is the banner for a community of volunteers who conduct independent research and guided walks on Bukit Brown Cemetery. Since they came together as a community in 2012, they have collectively organised public talks with partners such as the NUS Museum and Chui Huay Lim Club, two exhibitions and successfully nominated Bukit Brown Cemetery as the first site in Singapore to be placed on the World Monuments Fund Watch list 2014-2016. Claire Leow and Catherine Lim, co-founders of the blog, bukitbrown.com are the editors for the book, backed by a volunteer editorial team from within the community.
The Last Stand – relive the final hours before the fall of Singapore. Andrew will bring you to the site of the battle of Bukit Brown whereby the Japanese routed the British. You will walk the same paths where the combants have fought.
This guided walk starts at 7.00pm and ends at 9.00pm
Meeting Point: Bukit Brown entrance gates at Lorong Halwa. In the event that the old main Gate has been closed, kindly wait / meet at the new connecting road which is before the old road.
Difficulty: Average, some trekking required
Please bring umbrella or poncho / sun block / mosquito repellent.
Please wear covered footwear.
Please note: Disclaimer: By agreeing to take this walking tour of Bukit Brown Cemetery, I understand and accept that I must be physically fit and able to do so.To the extent permissible by law, I agree to assume any and all risk of injury or bodily harm to myself and persons in my care (including child or ward)
Please register at Peatix.
Update: For the latest on which library the exhibition has moved to please click on this FB page link
Becoming Bishan: A Heritage Exhibition
What is Bishan? A concrete jungle of million-dollar HDB flats? The futuristic, award-winning architecture of SkyHabitat and Bishan Library? Or even the bustling activity of Junction 8? These are the conventional perceptions of the young, vibrant town of Bishan – an ex-cemetery transformed into a heartland showpiece.
Our team, however, felt that there just had to be more to this rising area. Whether we were lifelong residents of the district or saw it as a mere part of our daily commute to school, we became increasingly curious about how this place came to be. Why was there even a cemetery in Bishan in the first place? Did people live in Bishan before the HDB flats were built? What was Bishan’s place in the Singapore Story?
Driven by overwhelming curiosity, we, in conjunction with the Raffles Archives and Museum, embarked upon the Becoming Bishan Project, hoping that the outcomes of our research would be able to provide a poignant contribution to our country’s jubilee celebrations.
Our first step was to analyse the development of Bishan through maps. One of our members, Yilun, is an avid map enthusiast with an especial interest in urban redevelopment. With gusto, he surfaced many old maps of the area, the oldest dating back to 1924. Through painstaking effort, he managed to highlight the stark changes in the landscape of the area, as well as match old landmarks of the area to more familiar present-day ones. The topographical studies revealed many details about the geography of the Bishan area. Today, the land that makes up Bishan is rather flat. However, the contours of old maps suggest that pre-redevelopment,
Bishan was covered by rolling hills. Many photographs also show the grave-covered hills with the HDB flats of Toa Payoh in the background. This explains the how the name “Bishan” (“Jade Hills” in Mandarin) came about. One of our interviewees even compared the view from a Toa Payoh flat to a green dragon, because of the undulating hills and the scale-like tombs on them.
There were several kampongs within the cemetery, the most notable one being Kampong San Teng, whose kampong association members still meet regularly today. Interviews with the old residents revealed a rather self-sufficient community, with a school, farms, a teahouse and a market. There was also a cinema, Nam Kok cinema, in the Bishan area that screened Chinese and Western films. A worker in the KPT coffee shop in Bishan North told us of how he used to work there, proudly showing us his old posters of Elvis Presley and actors from Hong Kong. But when we asked about people’s impressions of Bishan before redevelopment, the greatest fears were not ghosts and spirits, but secret society activity.
We also made several exciting discoveries along our research journey. One was that Bishan was once a World War II battlesite! Jon Cooper, who also runs the Bukit Brown battlefield tours, managed to surface the battalion diaries and hand-drawn maps of the Second Cambridgeshire Regiment. These documented the action at Braddell Road in the dying days of the Battle for Singapore (1942). Further research revealed that the battle positions occupied by the British troops are the present-day locations of Junction 8 shopping mall, Bishan Library and Raffles Institution. This story was corroborated by many residents, who recalled the sounds of gunfire through the rolling hills of Bishan. Another revelation we made was that the philanthropist Wong Ah Fook was once buried in the Peck San Theng cemetery and his ashes now lie in the columbarium, something that even those running the columbarium had been unaware of.
Along the way, our team has also met and befriended many diverse characters, who each have their own personal stake in Bishan. From the intriguing Mr. Molay, a Cantonese-speaking Indian man whose father once owned a hundred cows in Bishan, to the unabashed Mr. Loh, who once ate human flesh to survive the deprivation of the Japanese Occupation, it is the stories of these people who make the Bishan Story come alive. We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to talk to these individuals and learn more about the almost-foreign land that is the past. Later, we also spoke to current residents who told us about their thoughts and memories about this place. Though it is hard to say that the HDB dwellers of today have the same community spirit as kampong residents did, it was interesting to note how people develop, or fail to develop, attachments to Bishan.
We feel immensely privileged to have had the experience of exploring Bishan’s story and curating this exhibition, and hope that you might find meaning of your own in our fruits of labour and love.
The Becoming Bishan exhibition will be officially launched on 11 July (Saturday), from 9 am – 12 noon, at the Bishan Community Library. This event will be graced by Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo. The exhibition will run at the Bishan Community Library from 1 July to 23 August, Ang Mo Kio Public Library from 24 August to 30 September and Toa Payoh Public Library from 1 to 31 October.
This is a student project from Raffles Institution, as part of the South cluster schools’ contribution to the SG50 celebration efforts.
This blog post is a team contribution from the students of Raffles Institution involved in Becoming Bishan.
atBB visited the exhibition and we are struck by the sheer breath of the history and heritage the students have been able to uncover of Bishan and how it has evolved into what it is today. From the old to the modern, the curated posters capture more than a snap shot, but with carefully chosen quotes, it has emotional resonance such that, one can be transported to a different time and space in Singapore.
Of particular interest was the coverage on how the community coped with WW 2 and provided refuge for other residents in other areas in war torn Singapore.
The exhibits on WW II was an eye opener with artefacts from both Japanese and British sides.
Augmented with video recordings of residents interviewed makes this exhibition a exemplar template for exhibitions on other neighbourhoods to emulate. Accompanying the exhibition is a pictorial booklet which value adds the exhibition and makes for a treasured keep sake for those interested in history and heritage and the transition to the modern.
atBB has been following the development of this project since the students first approached us for help in understanding cemetery culture and symbolism. We are proud to have made a small contribution to this project and have to say that full credit go to the students for taking it so far from when they first began. Congratulations and well done!
Mdm Chng of the Pang Family – A Mother of Journalists, Educationists and Revolutionaries
by Ang Yik Han
Located at Hill 4 in Bukit Brown, the Teochew style tomb of Mdm Chng of the Pang family (方母莊太夫人) is simple and nondescript. A sharp-eyed observer will notice however that the calligraphy on the tombstone came from the hand of Lin Sen (林森), Chairman, of the ruling pre war Nationalist government in China.
Another sign of her family’s close connection to the Kuomintang was the fact in her obituary in the Nanyang Siang Pau, she was described as the mother of a martyr. This was in reference to her second son, Pang Nam Gang (方南岡), whose story was recorded in Feng Ziyou’s “Anecdotal History of the Revolution《革命逸史》” published in 1948.
Although two of Mdm Chng’s sons passed away before her, the names of all her sons were inscribed on her grave: Siao Cheok少石 (deceased), Nam Gang 南岡 (matyred), Chee Dong 之 棟, Huai Nam 懷南, Chee Cheng 之楨. Also present were the names of two daughters, though her obituary only mentioned one surviving daughter.
Pang Nam Gang had a good grounding in classical Chinese education. However, he spurned the traditional path of becoming a mandarin and chose to pursue his studies in Japan. There, he joined the Tongmenghui. Deeply committed to overthrowing Manchu rule, he devoted his time outside of studies to learning how to make bombs.
In 1905, Pang and eleven of his compatriots in Japan were ordered by Sun Yat-Sen to return to China to assist in the Huang Gang uprising in the Teochew region. Injured while preparing bombs, he was brought to Hong Kong and hospitalised, hence missed out on the action. When the uprising petered out, Pang decided to join his uncle who was a local governor in Gansu, with the intention of seeking opportunities to incite the local Hui people to rise against the Qing. His uncle was initially pleased to see his nephew, but flew into a rage when word reached him that Pang was a revolutionary. Locked up by his uncle, Pang escaped with the help of other relatives, stealing two horses and riding to Hankou, where he sold the horses and boarded ship for Japan to continue his studies. Eventually, he made his way to Penang where he became the editor of the Kwang Wah Yit Poh newspaper which was linked to the Tongmenghui.
The young revolutionary could not sit still for long. When news of the successful 1911 uprising in Wuhan reached the Nanyang, Pang rushed back to China where he raised a fighting force in his home county of Pho Leng. When Yuan Shikai was elected the first President of the nascent Chinese Republic, Pang felt that Yuan could not be trusted as he had too many links with the old regime. Disgruntled, he returned to Penang where he took up his old job at the newspaper.
Pang’s worst fears came true in 1915 when Yuan Shikai assumed the title of Emperor. This time, he could no longer abide the situation and returned to China again to fan the flames of revolution. Unfortunately, he was captured in Macau by Yuan Shikai’s agents and smuggled across the border and imprisoned. At first, he assumed a false identity and did not divulge any information even under torture. However, his fervent preaching of revolutionary ideas to his fellow prisoners gave him away and he was summarily executed. So perished a martyr of the Chinese Revolution at the age of 29.
Mdm Chng’s obituary also mentioned that her three surviving sons were active in the areas of journalism, education and social works. Her youngest son, Pang Chee Cheng (方之楨), was in the limelight as well for his involvement in politics. A journalist, he was a KMT cadre who actively canvassed support for the party as one of the main committee members of the Nanyang branch headquarters.
In 1930, Sir Cecil Clementi became the Governor of the Straits Settlements. He had a dislike of the KMT due to its instigations of strikes during his previous posting in Hong Kong. On the day that he arrived and assumed office in Singapore, it was unfortunate that the KMT Nanyang branch headquarters chose to hold its general meeting at the same time.
One of the first acts of the Governor was to summon the KMT representatives to his office where he told them in no uncertain terms that the KMT was not allowed to operate local branches in the Straits Settlements and Malaya. A few months later, the Governor upped the ante by issuing orders to deport Pang Chee Cheng and another KMT stalwart; well aware of the situation, they left on their own for China first.
Quiet diplomacy between the British and Chinese governments behind the scenes eventually led to the deportation orders being rescinded. In later years, Pang Chee Cheng was based largely in China where he was active in the Overseas Community Affairs Council (僑務委員會) set up by the Nationalist government.
Pang Chee Cheng often met with renowned personalities of the day. So it was that when the Indian poet Tagore visited in 1927, Chee Cheng arranged for him to travel to Muar and visit Zhonghua School (中華學校, a forerunner to today’s 中化), where Tagore was received by his brother Pang Chee Dong (方之棟) who was the principal then. A graduate of a university in Beijing, Chee Dong was successively principals of Chinese medium schools in Kajang, Muar and Batu Pahat. In 1933, he may have worked as editor of a Chinese newspaper in Rangoon as well.
After the Japanese invaded, he perished during Sook Ching in Singapore, leaving behind his widow and 2 sons.
The fourth son Pang Huai Nam (方懷南) was the first editor of Nanyang Siang Pau (南洋商報) established by Tan Kah Kee in 1923. Slightly less than a month into its publication, he left the newspaper as the Straits Settlements authorities found his writing too political for their liking. He was also a committee member of the Poit Ip Huay Kuan and principal of Choon Guan School. It was mentioned in Phua Chay Leong’s “The Teochews in Malaya” that he shared the same sad fate as his elder brother Chee Dong during Sook Ching.
Mentioned as well in Mdm Chng’s obituary was one of her grandsons, Pang Say Hua (方思法). Born in Singapore to her eldest son, he was “fostered” to his uncle Pang Nam Gang; his father was convinced that his second brother would come to no good end with his revolutionary ways and hence it was better that he had a son to his name. Pang Say Hua went back to China to study and subsequently became a signaler in the Nationalist Army. He was one of the many caught up in the tumult of the times. Due to his background, he suffered after the Communists took over, being imprisoned for over ten years. After his release, he worked at various jobs and retired in 1980. His story became known when a civic organisation in the Teochew region which sought to recognize veterans of the Sino-Japanese War found him and publicised his story.
Single for life, he attended church regularly and spent his last days in a Christian old folks’ home where his favourite pastime was to watch Teochew opera. He died in Jan 2015, a month after he celebrated his 104th birthday.
Researched by Ang Yik Han
Died in the year of the Horse, 19 July 1942 and survived by one son named Kah Bo (嘉謀), Hou Xiu Xi ( 侯秀西 )located at Hill 1 was said to be a good orator and a staunch supporter of the China Relief Fund led by Tan Kah Kee.
He spoke at public rallies and occasions such as temple celebrations to exhort the local Chinese to support the anti-Japanese cause. According to an account, he was beaten to death during the Japanese Occupation for refusing to cooperate with the Japanese authorities.
This weekend there is a preview of 2 specially curated World War II Remembrance Walks at Bukit Brown on Sunday 25 Jan’15 from 9.30am to 11.30am. Don’t miss this! You can choose between 2 routes and sign up for a spot at Peatix (follow the link below). Tickets are free by registration, maximum 25 pax per route.
Meeting point: Lorong Halwa gates at Bukit Brown cemetery.
Tour Report by Catherine Lim( Brownie safety marshal)
It was the last battlefield tour of 2014, and the “Commander-in-Chief” stood at the look out point of the Sime Road/Adam Rd pedestrian bridge for what has become the de factor lookout point for “hell fire corner” and held captive the 25 participants who had turned up for the tour.
The battlefield terrain included a golf course, graves, a nature reserve and came replete with maps and old photographs of landmarks some still in place in the last battle which took place the last day between the Japanese and British and Indian troops before the Surrender of Singapore on 15 Feb, 1942.
It was by far the longest this year ending past 12pm from the usual 11.30pm finishing time with very engaged group who never seem to flag despite the heat and humidity.
Some of the comments from the participants included:
” It was a fabulous tour! He’s (Jon) so knowledgable and enthusiastic” Shona Trench
“Absolutely! His enthusiasm and passion for the subject was captivating!” Jennifer Gadd.
We thank participants who came , especially to Jennifer who has graciously shared her facebook photo album publicly.
Your safety marshals were Catherine, Bianca and Beng.
For more photos which you may access if you join the group Heritage Singapore- Bukit Brown Cemetery
Sign up for this tour is limited to 20 participants. We are now using Peatix to manage the registration for this tour. The tickets are free by registration.