Changi stones and Prisoners of War in Singapore

My reader Hazel Bateman left a moving comment in my story of a British veteran who served in Singapore in 1955. Hazel’s eloquent comment made a compelling story of the World War Two:

“(…In Southampton), my mother went down to greet a ship bearing soldiers who had been Japanese prisoners of war. These men were in a dreadful state when they disembarked and were greeted with stunned silence. My mother never bought anything which had been manufactured in Japan for the rest of her life.”

From the comment by Hazel Bateman on 5 November 2013.

Former prisoners of war from Changi Prison board a hospital ship at Singapore on the first leg of their journey home. © IWM (CF 724)

Former prisoners of war from Changi Prison board a hospital ship at Singapore on the first leg of their journey home. © IWM (CF 724)

Through these words, the dreadful image of the allied prisoners of war prompted me to write about the infamous Changi Prison today.

The Fall of Singapore to the Japanese Army on the 15th of February in 1942 coincided with the Traditional Chinese New Year Day. To the British, Singapore was supposed to be an impregnable fortress. The Fall of Singapore was therefore probably Britain’s most humiliating defeat in the World War II. Singapore was soon renamed Syonan-to (昭南島 Shōnan-tō) by the Japanese, which means “Light of the South.”

Older people in Singapore still remember the hardship they endured over three and and half years under the Japanese occupation. My 80-year-old mother is one of them. Everybody remembers the black Chinese New Year day when the Japanese invaded. Many families did not even finish their New Year meal that day.

My mother left south China as a sickly 4-year-old and arrived in Singapore in 1937. She recalled she often ‘carried stones at the Changi area’ during the Japanese occupation.

I asked my mother to explain further, but she found it hard to remember many events in the chronological sequences. However, she often mentioned ‘the stones’ with exact details. She would walk from the 29th Lane in Geylang to the Changi area to work. My mother told me she worked for the Japanese and her task was carrying small buckets of stones to different places, and the stones were used to build roads near the Changi Airport.

Carrying stones at Changi for rice and cassava

My mother then was a malnourished 10-year-old. She said small children normally did not have to work for the Japanese, but she and her mother were often short of food, so her kind neighbours got her a small job as a stone carrier. My mother would work with adults, including some old people, and they all kept an eye on this little girl. “My job was very small; nothing important. I filled some stones in the bucket, then I carried the bucket from one place to another, and the adults would pave the roads near the airport with the stones.” My mother said.

Her reward was some rice and cassava to take home each week. I never realised cassava was so precious. I used to love eating cassava cake as a child – the cake is soft, chewy and fragrant, a typical Malaysian delicacy. However, during the Japanese occupation, due to food shortage and a lack of rice, cassava was a boring staple food for my mother’s generation. How was it cooked? Cassava was normally boiled, or sliced thinly and fried.

Every morning, the kepala (a Malaya word for foreman) would do a head count. My mother was very small and some adults would place some bricks under her feet so that she appeared taller to the kepala when her name was called.

I joked with my mother that she might have contributed to the construction of the first Changi Airport.

“Mum, you built Changi Airport! How amazing!” I exaggerated her stone-carrying task.

“Don’t be silly! I only carried some stones in Changi.” My mum is matter-of-fact. Well, for me, carrying buckets of stones was an achievement for a child.

Civilians in a Singapore air raid shelter during a Japanese bombing raid.© IWM (KF 102)

Civilians in a Singapore air raid shelter during a Japanese bombing raid. © IWM (KF 102)

To the Allied Prisoners of War and thousands of civilians, the name Changi would evoke an image of torture and harsh treatment. Kept in the notorious Changi Japanese Prisoner of War camp, many prisoners suffered in the overcrowded jails. Food was meagre. Death from dysentery and vitamin deficiencies were common.

British War Artist Leslie Cole from Swindon was sent to Singapore to record the state of the prisoners of war. Leslie Cole was also known for his war paintings from the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen.

Below are two of Leslie Cole’s paintings about the state of the prisoners of war in Singapore. This painting is titled Orderly On His Rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, With POW’s Suffering from Starvation and Beri-Beri. The emaciated men gather in a sparsely furnished hut, and one man on the bed has an incongruously swollen torso and legs.

Orderly On His Rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, With POW's Suffering from Starvation and Beri-Beri. Art. IWM ART LD 5618

By Leslie Cole: Orderly On His Rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, With POW’s Suffering from Starvation and Beri-Beri. Art. IWM ART LD 5618

The painting below is titled Singapore: The cookhouse, Changi Gaol. British POW’s prepare their main meal of rice. It shows the interior of a Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW) cookhouse. Emaciated men are stirring rice soaking in enamel baths, and some men are carrying heavy iron pans filled with rice.

Leslie Cole image: Interior of a FEPOW cookhouse showing emaciated men stirring rice soaking in enamel baths, with other men carrying heavy iron pans filled with rice.

By Leslie Cole: Singapore: The cookhouse, Changi Gaol. British POW’s prepare their main meal of rice. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5825)

There are plenty gruesome images with beheading and blood depicting the atrocities of war in the Far East, however, I cannot bring myself to publish those images on my blog. I feel the artist’s portrayal of the prisoners’ life is sad but powerful. Mr Cole sufficiently stretch our imagination through these poignant paintings. They also help us reflect on wars, and the sacrifices of many Service men and women, during the Remembrance Sunday.

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16 thoughts on “Changi stones and Prisoners of War in Singapore

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Your comment is so true. In the Far East, a lot of people choose not to talk about the painful 3 years and 6 months under the Japanese occupation as it was the most traumatic.

      Reply
  1. Nicki Chen

    Hearing the personal story about your mother carrying a bucket filled with stones makes the history of Changi Prison come alive. War is a terrible thing. If only the leaders who start them could imagine how much suffering they will be causing.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Hi Nicki,

      To be honest, I know so little about my mother’s war experience. She would not talk about it unless I asked her direct questions. A lot of people in her generation prefers remaining silent, burying their sorrow and getting on with life.

      The Fall of Singapore and its consequences were painful. If only history could be re-written.

      Reply
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  11. Addarline

    One morning, grandma steamed some cassava drizzled with caramelised sugar for me but I was reluctant as I was on diet. She encouraged homouorusly: “during wartime, we had cassava everyday but we never put on weight! Just eat it! No worries!”
    To me, the steamed cassava is a root, which tasted sweet with pounding calories. To grandma, that cassava was hope, life, energy! Which leaves a bitter nostalgic aftertaste…

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Addarline,

      Cassava drizzled with sugar is the best! I used to eat it that way too. I always find the Chinese ‘dessert’ is much easier to deal with — I can easily manage cooking cassave. I also know how to make a cassava cake too. I remember I spent lots of time grating the cassava.

      Cassava is the kind of thing that my mother (your grandmother) would say that she used to eat too much of them and she is almost ‘too scared to eat anymore now’.

      Thank you for your wonderful contribution to this post.

      Reply
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