by Wong Chee Meng
The naming of Syonan Gallery was a concern among participants of an evening talk held yesterday (15th February 2017) to mark the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.
The talk at Nanyang Confucian Association, organised by Singapore's World War II Research Association, featured heart-wrenching stories as recounted by veteran journalist Ou Rubo. Her very first job 50 years ago happened to involve helping the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry to sort out wartime artefacts here, ranging from anklets of little children, broken spectacles, Japanese swords, to gold teeth from human remains.
The Chinese Chamber was then leading investigation of the remains of civilians unearthed in Siglap in 1962 among other places, and spearheading a community effort to erect a war memorial - an effort which soon led to the Civilian War Memorial being unveiled 50 years ago in 1967. It is estimated that the Dai Kensho operation (also known here as the Sook Ching Massacre), aimed at eliminating anti-Japanese elements, claimed the lives of between 25,000 and 50,000 ethnic Chinese in Singapore.
Madam Ou went on to share stories about buildings being hit during the bombing of Singapore, such as the Lai Chun Yuen Chinese opera theatre in Chinatown, which luckily had its show cancelled that day. The bombing of Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital on the other hand was so horrific that a man working there claimed he was haunted by voices of little children at night even years later.
She has interviewed victims whose families in kampung houses have been all but wiped out, in one case more than 30 members of a family, down to some infant so young that a name was yet to be given. One young chap returned home to find the dead bodies of his family strewn about, and was so devastated that he tried to commit suicide with his remaining younger brother.
She ended off her presentation with an anecdote of how the Kong Chow Wui Kun clan association in Chinatown - which eventually provided medication and free food during war - risked being bombed when the British army wanted to install a searchlight on its rooftop against Japanese aircrafts. Fortunately despite being a colonial government, the British were sensible enough to reverse the decision, upon feedback that it would put the building and its vicinity at great risk.
In reaction to comments among participants, she maintained that one should not make the mistake of associating the general public in Japan with militarism. She has known of Japanese institutions that would go so far as to come to Singapore requesting for wartime artefacts to be exhibited there in order to educate students back home.
A man who stood up identifying himself as a new immigrant expressed his displeasure at the naming of Syonan Gallery, posing the question: how is one to feel a sense of belonging in this country, if the authorities are unable to represent history in a satisfactory manner?
Among other topics, participants also discussed whether one could further explore the history of comfort women serving soldiers in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation. The origin of these women has not been clear.