Everett, Anna, Prescott and I paid a visit to the Former Ford Factory on Sunday.
Had we thought more carefully about what were were likely to find inside, we might not have looked so cheerful upon our arrival. Because while this building served as a Ford manufacturing plant for the first year of its existence, churning out cars for the Southeast Asia market …
… the Japanese soon took it over, and the building soon became famous as the site of the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942. The building now houses a museum with the slightly unwieldy name: Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies. “Syonan” was the name that Singapore lived under from 1942 until 1945, and the gallery traces the history of Singapore from the British plans to protect the region in the 1920s all the way up to decolonization in the early 1960s.
In the 1920s, Singapore was a hodgepodge of immigrants — Chinese, Indian, Malay, British — who had little sense of themselves as a nation. They largely came to Singapore to make money and sent much of it back home. The British were in charge, and no one seemed to mind that all too much.
Starting in 1923, the British began to develop a large naval base in Singapore — they called it “The Gibraltar of the East.” Not long thereafter, Japan began its imperialist march into Manchuria and China. But Japan needed more natural resources, and some of these (tin in Malaysia, oil in Indonesia) could best be found in the lands surrounding Singapore:
That’s a pre-1942 Japanese map of the natural resources of the region. The key is in Japanese, so I can’t tell you what all of the black dots represent, but you get the point: it would be easier for Japan to control these commodities with the British out of the way.
So the Japanese attacked Singapore, starting with bombing raids on December 8, 1941.
The bombings intensified over the course of the next two months while the Japanese planned their real attack (as you can see from this very confusing map):
On February 8, 1942, the Japanese began their land and naval invasion of the island. And while this was supposed to be a British stronghold, the Japanese took Singapore in just one week. It turns out that the British had under-planned in many different arenas (among other things, they were short on ships, food, and ammunition). So on February 15, 1942, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival signed documents of surrender at this table in the conference room of the Ford Factory:
It was a surrender of 130,000 British troops — and all of Singapore and Malaysia — to about 60,000 Japanese troops. Winston Churchill called this “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in history.”
The museum covers all of this material in clear and concise exhibits. It then goes on to explain what life was like under the Japanese (in a word, it was terrible). Singapore was renamed Sonyan (“Light of the South”), and the Japanese immediately went about trying to weed out all possible detractors. Thousands of Chinese men were killed in mass executions (called “sook ching,” or “purging through cleansing”); thousands more were put in prison camps or forced to register with the armed forces. Chinese people who had been cleared to stay and live among the populace had to wear this stamp on their arms at all times:
The gallery gave some powerful glimpses into life in the prison camps. These drawings were secretly made by a former British police inspector, William Haxworth, who was interned at two different camps over the course of the war:
This is a letter that a young Australian girl wrote to her father while he was at a camp:
The museum then briefly walks visitors through the end of the Japanese occupation (their were 11 US bombing raids on Singapore before the Japanese surrender). The next room explores Singapore’s post-war years. This was a time of food rations, overcrowded housing, high birth rates, and disease (often from a lack of sanitation). The one bright spot was a rapid rise in the development of schools.
It is easy to see where the leaders of Singapore in the 1960s, who lived through all of this, might have been inspired to create a better nation. The museum also demonstrates the way in which the war years brought people closer together and gave them an increasingly strong sense of national identity.
Our final stop at the museum was the outdoor garden, where they show you what people might have eaten during the lean years during and just after World War II. Rice was scarce, so people began eating tapioca and sweet potatoes as their main starches. They also relied on fruits like coconuts, bananas, and papayas:
Fun fact: overripe bananas were sometimes used as glue for putting up posters by anti-Japanese protesters.
I would highly recommend the Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies. It’s a manageable museum in terms of size (we spent a little over two hours there) and offers a lot if you’re interested in how Singapore started to take its present shape.
After our visit, Everett, Anna and I walked to the Bukit Timah Food Centre. Our amazingly enthusiastic docent at the museum, Leon, had told us when describing the hungry years of the war, “eat what you want, but don’t waste your food.” So I greatly appreciated — and made sure to finish — my char kway teow (rice noodles cooked in a dark sauce), popiah (a Malay spring roll made with a wheat-flour wrapper), and soursop juice.