Sunday, May 10, 2015


  • Issue 33 - 2000
    Australian War Memorial

    Kevin Blackburn

    {1} From the 1970s to the 1990s, south-east Asian countries, principally Thailand and Singapore, received an increasing number of visitors interested in seeing historic sites associated with the experience of the prisoners of war (POWs) captured by the Japanese during the Second World War. This has resulted in the construction of several major museums in the region representing the POW experience - the Jeath Museum (opened in 1977) and Hellfire Pass Museum (1998) along the Burma-Thailand Railway, and Changi Prison Museum in Singapore (1988). Individuals visiting these historic sites have included ex-POWs on personal pilgrimages of commemoration, but most visitors have been tourists drawn to the locations by curiosity about Japanese atrocities committed against the POWs.[1] Their interest has stemmed from the prominence of the POW experience in popular consciousness in the West and in east Asia. Stereotypical images of the POWs as human skeletons toiling under poor conditions, supervised by brutal Japanese guards, became etched in the public imagination during the postwar period and produced a perennial interest in a human tragedy.[2] Critical studies of the lives of the POWs under the Japanese, however, have long suggested that conditions varied according to what camp the POWs were held in. The popular image of "horror camps" never accurately represented conditions at every one of the POW camps in south-east Asia.[3]
  • {2} These studies raise an intriguing question about how the POW museums of south-east Asia have narrated the experiences of the POWs. Have the museums commemorated the variety of individual experiences, or have they reproduced public stereotypes in an attempt to commodify the past? In order to investigate how these conflicting interpretations may have shaped the public representation of the POW experience in these museums, it is best to examine Changi Prison Museum as a case study, because the creation of this museum has been the best-documented in government records.
    {3} David Lowenthal has suggested that historic sites of human tragedy frequently become commodified by being turned into atrocity exhibitions which are meant to pander to the preconceptions of the tourists. The central thesis of Lowenthal's work is that the past cannot be re-created. All that modern re-creations of the past do is produce a representation of history that is shaped by present-day concerns. If tourists want to see a gallery of horrors, that expectation will influence those who attempt to re-create the past for the tourists.[4] John Urry and other writers on cultural tourism have corroborated Lowenthal's thesis.[5] Theorists on cultural tourism have noted that both tour operators and owners of tourist attractions who try to re-create the past do so according to what they think tourists want to experience or what they believe their intended audience thinks might have happened there. They deliberately package the past for their visitors' brief stay. The visit becomes a non-durable consumer commodity, if an intangible one, in which the tourists pay for the time they spend surrounded by exhibits selected, packaged and presented for them. This process means that, in representing the past, aspects of it are emphasised, while other events may be downplayed or left out entirely of the narrative presented for the visitors' consumption.
  • Kanchanaburi as a "commodified-tourist site"
    {4} Museums and historic sites in south-east Asia that have been built on the POW theme offer good case studies in which to test Lowenthal's thesis. Work done by Annette Hamilton on the Kanchanaburi historic site along the Burma-Thailand Railway suggests that the area has become what she has called "a commodified-tourist site".[6] The Kanchanaburi site, which has come to mark the beginning of the Burma-Thailand Railway for tourists, has been manipulated by the local community to attract tourists to the small town in order to show them the past that they want to see. The 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai (based on a novel of the same name by Pierre Boulle) had, by the 1970s, brought many tourists to the town, all wanting to see the "real bridge on the River Kwai"; they met disappointment because both film and book were fiction. Ronald Searle, who worked on the Burma-Thailand Railway as a POW, wrote in his recollections: "as for the Bridge on the River Kwai, it crossed the river only in the imagination of its author", because the two "big bridges" were viaducts that did not cross the river, but hugged the impassable cliffs along the river's east bank.[7]
    {5} In his novel Pierre Boulle took "Kwai" from the name of the Kwae Noi (meaning "little tributary"), which ran alongside the Burma-Thailand Railway. There was close to the Kwae Noi both a wooden bridge and a steel bridge, but these bridges were over the Mae Khlaung, a river that the Kwae Noi flowed into. Both these bridges over the Mae Khlaung were part of the Burma-Thailand Railway built by the POWs. The surviving steel bridge was the only remaining fixture that the locals could have designated as the "bridge on the River Kwai" to satisfy the demands of the mass influx of tourists to see the "authentic" bridge. How this was done had more to do with artifice than a regard for historical accuracy. Kevin Patience, an amateur British military historian, writing after he visited the location in 1979, noted that "although the film title was incorrect (there was never a bridge constructed over the Kwae Noi .) the locals not wanting to disappoint the booming tourist trade created by the movie, soon adopted the little-used name of Kwae Yai (Big Kwae) for the Mae Khlaung. Thus there is now a bridge over the River Kwae!"[8] The impact of tourism and fiction had overwhelmed historical and geographical truth.
  • {6} Annette Hamilton, studying the site in the early 1990s, has critically assessed the intensive commercial activities taking place near the bridge. There are numerous souvenir shops which sell every conceivable commodity that can be connected with the historic site, from T-shirts to miniature bombs and bridges. There are also festivals, such as the "River Kwai Bridge Week", with its fireworks display over the bridge, held every November-December to simulate Allied bombing of the bridge during the war. Ice-cream and drink stands and hawker food stalls dot the area to cater to the busloads of tourists and guests staying in the nearby luxury hotels, such as the "River Kwai Hotel". There are even "Bridge on the River Kwai" restaurants on rafts flanking the bridge. From this, Hamilton concluded that "the conversion of 'history' to tourist attraction is carried here to its extreme: the site of the famous bridge is a monument to consumption, against which the narratives and relics that give it meaning are trivialised into mementos, souvenirs and snapshots".[9]
    {7} At Kanchanaburi, amid the hawker stands and souvenir shops, and conveniently alongside the river, stands the Jeath Museum, which narrates the POW past. Its name has been sometimes taken by tourists for a misspelling of "Death", but its operators insist that "Jeath"came from "J" for Japan, "E" for England, "A" for Australia and America, "T" for Thailand, and "H" for Holland.[10] Nonetheless, this convenient confusion adds to tourist curiosity. The museum, which is a replica of the long bamboo sleeping huts that the POWs slept in, uses gruesome artefacts and pictures to convey the horrors of the POW experience. When it was established in 1977 by a local Buddhist monastery, a ticket costing the equivalent of fifty British pence bought visitors the sight of a re-creation of the miseries of the POWs as they walked down the bamboo hut, which was dimly lit to create an eerie atmosphere. Ticket-holders could gaze at a long gallery of gruesome images. Hamilton has noted that such has been the unrelenting nature of the depiction of human horrors that sometimes the eagerness of the tourists in seeing the atrocity exhibition has led to their curiosity turning into shock and tears.[11]
  • {8} Even less has been left up to the imagination at the Hellfire Pass Museum further up the Burma-Thailand Railway. This museum was opened by the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, on ANZAC Day 1998. The project had been funded by the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce. In the dimly-lit chambers of the Hellfire Pass Museum, life-size dummies representing the POWs as living skeletons move the wooden ramparts of the railway. This museum has had the blessing of the Australian government and ex-POWs. In comparison with Kanchanaburi, the Hellfire Pass Museum appears to be more a site of commemoration than a site for tourists. This is perhaps because not so many tourists are willing to go far up the Burma-Thailand Railway beyond the more easily accessible Kanchanaburi.
    {9} The Jeath Museum and the Kanchanaburi site have provided a reference point for the development of other POW historic sites in south-east Asia. When Changi Prison Museum was created, Harold Payne, President of the Federation of the Far Eastern Prisoner of War Clubs in Britain, referring to what had occurred at Kanchanaburi, remarked: "I am all for having a museum provided it doesn't turn into a commercial playground with native stalls. That's one of my biggest moans about a certain bridge in Thailand, which has turned into a tourist fairground with light and sound shows".[12] These sentiments, also expressed by other representatives of ex-POWs, hint at their desire to preserve historic sites associated with their life histories as places of commemoration rather than as tourist attractions manipulated by tourist businesses.
  • {10} The commodification of the Kanchanaburi site in the 1970s invites questions about how Singapore tourism authorities in the 1980s handled the Changi Prison historic site, which had Kanchanaburi as an obvious example to follow if commodification of the place was desired. Did the tourism authorities of Singapore in the 1980s set out to commodify the POW experience by perhaps trying to create an atrocity exhibition of horrors that would draw tourists? Before examining this question, it is necessary to outline how the Changi Prison site had been used before the Singapore tourism authorities intervened to create the Changi Prison Museum. The prior uses of the site may well have exercised considerable influence over their decision-making process.
    {11} When vacant land next to Changi Prison was chosen by Singapore tourism authorities to be transformed into the location of a POW museum for tourists, the prison already had a long history as a site of commemoration, dating back to the end of the Second World War. At Changi, in contrast to Kanchanaburi, the ex-POWs and their military units had exercised considerable control over what happened to the site. Changi Prison was surrounded by British military bases until the British withdrew from Singapore in 1971. These have since been occupied by Singapore Armed Forces personnel. These bases housed ex-POWs still serving in the armed forces, as well as military units who had members imprisoned in Changi by the Japanese.[13] Prison authorities, even after Singapore's independence in 1965, still included former colonial officers who had been interned at Changi as civilians and POWs, or, in the closely-knit British expatriate community of the time, mixed with individuals who were ex-civilian internees or ex-POWs.[14] William Goode, Singapore's Chief Secretary, who help dedicate Changi Chapel as a POW commemorative chapel in 1957, had been incarcerated at Changi and had worked on the Burma-Thailand Railway.
  • {12} Soon after the war Changi Prison functioned as a site of commemoration at which former civilian internees and ex-POWs returned regularly to remember a common experience. The prison chapel, originally meant for Christian prisoners and constructed inside the prison in 1953, was made into a chapel for commemorating the POW experience by returning ex-POWs, who began placing the plaques of their military units on its walls in the 1950s. Ronald Searle, a popular cartoonist and artist, who had been a POW at Changi and on the Burma-Thailand Railway, donated some illustrations for the chapel. The prison authorities sent Searle's personal secretary a letter of thanks: "we only wish Mr Searle could make a trip out here to Singapore and visit the Chapel. ... I'm sure he would be pleased with the setting of his work".[15]
  • Changi as "POW Heaven"
    {13} The occasions for commemoration of the POW experience at Changi in the postwar years were not grim affairs at which only the horrors were remembered. There was a good reason for the ex-POWs not to commemorate such horrors: atrocities did not occur at Changi. Out of the 87,000 POWs who passed through the camp, only 850 died.[16] Many of the fatalities at Changi were the result of battle wounds the men had suffered before being taken prisoner in 1942, not because of conditions at the prison. Compared with other POW camps, Changi did not have a high death toll. Instead of marking atrocities, in the early postwar years the ex-POWs celebrated the friendships they had made there. In January 1948, Brigadier Frederick J. ("Black Jack") Galleghan, Australian commander at Changi, on the way to take up a military post in Europe, stopped off at Singapore to meet former POWs who had been under his command. At the airport he was met by three former members of his 2/30th Battalion, who jokingly presented him with his former Changi rations as dinner with a note on which was written, "Memo: Black Jack - your ration, sir". His "rations" were one egg, soya, a tin of bully-beef and two "doovres". They then had two "quick drinks" at the airport before taking him on a tour of Changi Prison.[17] Ex-POWs visiting Changi in the postwar period were conscious that, while Changi brought back pleasant thoughts of their old friends, it was other places, particularly the Burma-Thailand Railway, that evoked painful memories of death and loss.[18]
  • {14} Ex-POWs themselves have not seen Changi as a site of horrors. Some have expressed bemusement at such descriptions in the media. In the introduction to his published POW diary, Stan Arneil wrote: "the portrayal of the 'dreaded Changi' camp brings a smile to the faces of many former prisoners of war who longed for Changi as almost a heaven on earth compared to some of the dreadful places to which they were taken".[19] Likewise, Lionel De Rosario, a Eurasian POW who was imprisoned at Changi and worked on the Burma-Thailand Railway, concluded: "when compared with the life and working conditions on the Siam-Burma railway work camps and other camps in the East Indies, Changi Camp was more like a low budget holiday camp". Writing fifty years after the POWs were freed, De Rosario looked at the reputation that Changi had gained in the public imagination and assessed it in light of his own experience as a POW:
    Changi became known as the most notorious camp in Asia, and in the minds of many people in England, Australia, and America, the Changi prisoner-of-war camp would invoke visions of atrocities, starvation, bad living conditions and emaciated men. It was the place where prisoners-of-war were reduced to a physical state more looking like living skeletons. As a prisoner-of-war, not only in the Changi Camp but in various camps in Singapore and Siam [Thailand], I cannot understand how Changi had earned such a reputation. My memories of Changi have never been unpleasant. Prisoners-of-war in Changi did suffer deprivation and loss of self-esteem, but conditions were not appalling. Although food was rationed, it was provided every day. The camp was also provided with amenities, such as electric lights and piped water, which contributed to our cleanliness and good healthy conditions.[20]
    15} Ex-POWs' descriptions of their time in Changi as relatively pleasant are so numerous that the conception of Changi as a "horror camp" seems untenable. Even ex-POWs with an abiding hatred of the Japanese have recalled that their time at Changi was pleasant. Hank Nelson's and Tim Bowden's collection of interviews with ex-POWs conducted in the early 1980s revealed that most of those surveyed did not view Changi as a place of atrocities. In this collection, Russell Braddon, an Australian ex-POW who particularly hated the Japanese, described Changi, like De Rosario, as a "holiday camp".[21] Changi was semi-autonomous and run day to day by the prisoners' own military commanders, not by the Japanese. This relative autonomy meant that the prisoners could arrange many leisure activities. POWs held concert parties, had a library, and even conducted educational courses at an educational centre referred to as "Changi University".[22] In Nelson's and Bowden's collection of interviews, Fred Stringer described Changi as "like heaven" when he expressed how he felt about coming back to Changi after being on the Burma-Thailand Railway.[23] Nelson and Bowden felt that this feeling was representative enough to have it as the title of a chapter dealing with Changi. This image has not been a recent development as the passage of time has mellowed the ex-POWs' antagonism towards their captors: a similar impression is recorded in Rohan Rivett's Behind bamboo (1946), the first account published by an ex-POW.  Rivett noted that after coming from the harassment and persecution of the tightly controlled POW camps in the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies, "Changi appeared to us like POW heaven".[24]
  • King Rat and re-creating Changi's past
    {19} By the early 1980s the practice of taking visitors inside the prison had been turned into a lucrative activity by bus tour operators because they were bringing not just small groups of returning ex-POWs, but many paying tourists. Individual tourists could not just turn up at the prison gates and walk in; they had to arrange a visit inside Changi Prison through the tour operators, who charged a fee for their bus tours. The increasing commodification of the site was highlighted when tour operators expanded their schedule to include a visit to the roof of the prison complex, where according to their brochures, "from here", Lord Louis Mountbatten addressed freed POWs after the Japanese surrender.[29]
    29. Changi Prison and East Coast Tour, 67, PD/PRJ/45/88, vol. 7.
  • In 1986 Changi Prison was being visited by an average of "two hundred tourists or five coach loads" of people each day, but in late 1986 "prison authorities had found it increasingly difficult to handle the large volume of tourists going through its prison gates, as it affected its security".[30] The chapel was then moved into a modern building in the prison area, but outside the gates of the prison complex. Tour operators immediately reported to the STPB that many tourists were unhappy with the new arrangements because they could no longer experience the atmosphere that being inside Changi Prison evoked.[31]31. Pamelia Lee and Bajintar Singh, 23 September 1997.
  • {21} Clavell's fiction has been the text which has had the most influence in shaping public perceptions of Changi. The novel represents the prison camp as a chamber of horrors. Clavell himself spent almost all of his time as a POW at Changi and was not sent to places like the Burma-Thailand Railway, where conditions were far worse. Many POWs who only experienced Changi have felt unease at being spared the terrible conditions on the Burma-Thailand Railway, while their comrades were taken away and often worked to death.[32] They have tried to rationalise their guilt. Clavell did this by portraying Changi in a harsher light than those who experienced a variety of camps have described it. The frequent blurb on the cover of King Rat has perpetuated the myth of Changi as "the most notorious prisoner of war camp in Asia", where "only one man in fifteen had the strength, the luck, the cleverness to survive".[33] Clavell himself always maintained that his book was fiction, although it had a historical setting.
  • {25} The principal members of the STPB project team on the Changi site, Robbie Collins, Pamelia Lee, and Bajintar Singh, still saw a re-creation of the POW past at the Changi as the most viable way of restoring the place as a tourist attraction. The opportunity of cheaply re-creating the past came when the prison chaplain, the Reverend Henry Khoo, showed them pictures from Lewis Bryan's, The churches of the captivity in Malaya (1946).[38] According to Collins, the prison authorities "showed us a book on Chapels in Malaya during the war put out in 1946", which contained photographs of makeshift chapels constructed in Changi prison exercise yard and outside the prison's walls. The members of the project team were particularly struck by the rustic simplicity of the outdoor chapels. The chapel that most caught their attention was one that had "just a small corrugated zinc roof shed just over the altar area while the pews are in front in the open". Collins then proposed that "the chapel as shown in the book be re-created in the open field" outside the prison walls. The prison authorities completely endorsed this proposal, and offered the use of prison labour to build the replica chapel in order to make the project affordable. The proposed chapel went ahead because it cost very little-only $18,500.[39]
  • Representing a masculine POW experience
    {31} The selection of objects to be put on display by the creators of Changi Prison Museum reflected the infatuation of the Singapore tourism authorities with the image of Changi, largely deriving from King Rat, as a place where only the fittest men survived. They decided to make George Aspinall's photographic collection the central feature of the museum's displays. These photographs, which had been published as a popular book,[48] included many showing the very bad conditions on the Burma-Thailand Railway, as well as those of the POWs at Changi. In the display the experience of the Burma-Thailand Railway was thus mixed up with that of Changi, suggesting that conditions in the two places were much the same. The second most prominent display at the museum was Max Haxworth's water colours of the male section of the civilian internment camp. From 1942 to 1944 civilian internees occupied Changi Prison, while the POWs were kept outside the prison walls in camps surrounded by barbed wire. In May 1944 the POWs were moved inside the prison, and the internees were moved to another camp in Singapore. The male image of Changi was strongly projected in these two displays. Haxworth's water colours, painted while he was an internee, depicted male figures tackling the problems of very basic living conditions inside the grey prison walls. The collection reinforced the images of King Rat. The seven hundred women and children in the civilian internment camp in Changi Prison were ignored, despite the availability of material to depict their experience.

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