Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 33

Commemorating and commodifying the prisoner of war experience in south-east Asia: the creation of Changi Prison Museum

Author:  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]

{16} Despite the perception of Changi as a "POW heaven" among ex-POWs, this has not been the image of the place held by tourists, who began to visit the site in growing numbers during the 1980s, when Singapore was promoting itself as a stop-over point for flights between Britain and Australia. The differing perceptions of the tourists and the ex-POWs visiting the site from the 1980s to the 1990s can be gauged by examining their responses in visitors' books and on cards that they left behind. These comments, recorded for over a decade, reveal that tourists have erroneously perceived Changi as a place of human horror, while the ex-POWs themselves have seen it as a place where enduring bonds of friendship were made. Even close friends and relatives of ex-POWs visiting the site have believed that Changi was a place of atrocities. A card from 1997 reads:

To our friend and mate, Jimmy Anderson, who tried to beat Changi and its horrors, but lost his leg but not his life thanks to Dr Weary Dunlop. You all were the greatest. Your mates from Auburn, Australia, 1997.

The card suggests a perception in the public imagination that the harsh experiences of the POWs on the Burma-Thailand Railway can be assumed to have occurred at Changi as well. This conflation is illustrated by the mistake made by the writers of the card in stating that "Weary" Dunlop was a medical doctor at Changi: he was on the Railway, not at Changi. Another common response from tourists at the Changi site is represented by a message from L.A. Whalroos of Finland made during a visit on 14 February 1993:

As a young person I am thankful that I have not had to experience such suffering. I have great respect and compassion for those who did, especially those who held onto their humanity despite facing inhumanity in others.

The writer mistakenly assumed that crimes against humanity were committed at Changi by inhuman captors for no reason other than because it was a Japanese POW camp in south-east Asia.

{17} A comparison can be made between messages left by tourists and those left by ex-POWs. In contrast to impressions of the tourists, the comments made by ex-POWs do not indicate that harsh treatment by their captors took place at the POW camp. They recall dreadful experiences on the Burma-Thailand Railway and in the Indonesian POW camps, but none has mentioned that Changi was where many of their comrades perished. A common remark is that of P. Klassen of Bridlington, England, who wrote during his visit on 17 June 1988: "In memory of all our comrades who perished on the Thailand/Burma Railway 'For your tomorrow, we gave our today'." The ex-POWs have also emphasised the importance of the bonds of friendship formed at Changi. Lieutenant P.G. Symington of the Scottish Gordon Highlanders, during a visit on 23 April 1990, simply wrote that his return was an occasion for "remembering comrades who stayed here". Despite differing perceptions over whether Changi is a place of atrocities or a place where life-long friendships were made, it is clear that Changi has had strong emotional resonance for both the ex-POWs and tourists.

{18} For the tourists, however, the attraction to the site has been to engage with the ambience of Changi as a place with a terrible wartime past. Research done by the Singapore tourism authorities in early 1987 confirmed that this was what drew tourists to the place. They found that tourists were excited when visiting the chapel inside Changi because "visitors had to go through an army of guards and a large gate to visit the Chapel".[25] The large, ominous dark metal gate through which visitors had to pass to enter the prison featured prominently among the photographs of attractions found in tourist guidebooks to Singapore.[26] Going into Changi provided a satisfyingly eerie atmosphere, much like the dimly lit bamboo hut of the Jeath Museum, that tourists wanted on a visit to what they imagined was a place of "unspeakable horrors".[27] For the tourists, the experience of being inside Changi was more important than having an accurate knowledge of the history of the site or even being aware that (because of major renovations) little remained as it had been during the war. In March 1987 Robbie Collins, the consultant who had originally appraised the Changi site for the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB), observed: "there was a certain amount of novelty about getting admitted through the array of guards and large gates, but the visitors saw little else of the prison and the Chapel was not authentic".[28]

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] 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]

{20} Collins' report mentioned that "international visitors" were "disappointed and a bit angry". He noted that the new chapel outside the prison in a modern building did not conjure up the images given in James Clavell's novel, King Rat. This was originally published in 1962 and has never been out of print. In 1965 the novel was taken as the basis for a dark suspense movie, shot completely in black and white to emphasise the bleakness of conditions at Changi. Both the book and the movie showed the POWs at Changi as having lost their humanity because of the poor conditions provided by the Japanese. POWs were depicted as obsessed with surviving death and starvation in the camp, even at the expense of their comrades' welfare. Others killed fellow POWs who broke the rules that governed the camp's food supply.

{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.

{22} Collins' appraisal of Changi in March 1987 concluded that "this stop is a failure" and "worse, it fails to tell a truly moving story of an internationally known incident. This is the locale of the novel 'King Rat' of James Clavell . and numerous other novels and personal memoirs".[34] The reference to King Rat illustrates how fiction has had a greater impact on shaping popular perceptions of Changi than historical truth. When the STPB intervened to re-establish Changi as an attractive tourist stop for Singapore's tour operators, Collins proposed that the site be completely refashioned according to the novel. Just as Kanchanaburi was changed to follow Pierre Boulle's story, Collins' proposals for Changi reflected the same line of thinking: that the site should cater to public perceptions in order to make it a more attractive tourist destination.

{23} Collins outlined how the atmosphere tourists wanted could be restored by creating a spectacular audio-visual show under a big army tent seating up to 120 people. He suggested that the tourists in their buses "drive on by the main gate" in order to "let them photograph the entrance arch, then walk out over the grass area to the tent for the show, then go to the display area and exit through the salesroom to their buses". Collins added: "this way we can tell the Big Story in the audio-visual show and then can be more specific with the displays". He wrote that the STPB should do everything possible to create the attraction that the tour operators wanted. "These men know the subject and we are merely there to help them make the best possible presentation of their story," he urged. In his report, Collins asked a question which indicated his intention of completely commercialising the Changi site: "Do we sell a 'Prisoners' Tea' with prison plates and forks?" Other consultants on the Changi site also unsuccessfully proposed a thorough exploitation of its tourist potential with T-shirts for purchase at the salesroom. The proposed T-shirts had captions such as, "My goal is to get out of gaol". A T-shirt with a picture of a cake carried the caption, "If only he had put the file in, I wouldn't be in the jam". The consultant also proposed a white T-shirt "with or without [a] collar" and "in front, there will be a small drawing of bars, with a silhouetted figure behind the bars" whose "hands are wrapped around the bars". The caption was to read, "I made it from Changi Prison".[35]

{24} Collins was alone in believing that Changi could attract the large numbers of people that would warrant the cost of a "high tech" re-creation of the past that he desired. The management of the STPB thought that the Changi site was frequented mainly by British, Australian and New Zealand ex-POWs and their relatives, and it appears to have been unaware that Kanchanaburi was experiencing a tourist boom.[36] The decision reflected STPB's priorities in developing Singapore's tourist attractions. Changi was considered a marginal tourist attraction, even though it was one of the projects that came under the billion dollar Singapore Tourism Product Development Plan, approved by Cabinet in 1986. Peggy Teo's and Brenda Yeoh's research on cultural tourism in Singapore during the 1980s and 1990s has demonstrated that the STPB was focussed on addressing what it felt was a perception among tourists that, because Singapore had modernised so rapidly, there had been a "loss of oriental mystique". Singapore tourism authorities were prepared to spend over $53 million to turn Haw Par Villa, a Chinese heritage centre, into "Singapore's answer to Disneyland", with its laser shows based on Chinese myths and its water dragon rides.[37] Such concerns were a brake on the commercialisation of the Changi site that several consultants to the STPB advocated. Without the finance, little could be done.

{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]

{26} A museum was planned to complement the chapel. The modern building that housed the chapel was to be converted into a museum, but because of the limited budget, the tourism authorities found that they had nothing to put into the museum. The STPB project team then decided to appeal to ex-POWs for mementos and photographs. Paradoxically, the commemorative functions of the Changi site were strengthened by the attempts of the tourism authorities to re-create the past for tourism. The STPB project team envisaged that the proposed replica of the Second World War POW chapels would be used by ex-POWs for religious services to remember their fallen comrades. Establishing a POW museum by asking ex-POWs to contribute mementos entailed greater significant involvement of the ex-POWs in how the past was represented at Changi. The development of the Changi site contrasted strongly with Kanchanaburi, where ex-POWs were largely left out of the decision-making process, and they have since resented local tour operators for being primarily interested in making money from tourism.[40]

{27} The members of the STPB project team were able to get the endorsement of ex-POWs for construction of Changi Prison Chapel, which began in August 1987. They received many letters of thanks from ex-POWs for building the chapel; one Australian ex-POW wrote: "I know I speak with the support of all ex-POWs when I say we are pleased to learn of this effort to record a dark period of our lives for prosperity".[41] At this time Australian ex-POWs were erecting one of Changi's outdoor chapels, which had been salvaged and brought to the Australian War Memorial in 1946, in the grounds of the Royal Military College, Duntroon. They supported the STPB's parallel efforts to re-create an outdoor chapel at Changi itself. The STPB project team asked Ian Gollings, National Secretary of the Returned Services League, to present the views of the ex-POWs at the meetings which determined the details of how the chapel should appear, as well as the landscaping of the grounds around the chapel. Gollings had only been passing through Singapore, but he was kept informed of the major decisions made about the finishing of the chapel.[42]

{28} In September 1987, after completing the chapel, the STPB turned its attention to the museum that was planned to be next to the chapel. Because it was operating on a small budget, it was forced to rely heavily upon the contributions of ex-POWs in establishing the museum. The tourism body made a public appeal "to servicemen and prisoners of war, most of whom are now in Britain or Australia, to donate mementos of their years of imprisonment in Changi Prison during the war". The STPB mentioned that it was "looking for photographs, personal letters, old uniforms, rationing cards, medical records, utensils and other relevant artefacts". A spokesman for the board added that "these items will be properly displayed and credit will be given to the donors".[43]

{29} Approaches to the ex-POWs by Singapore's tourism officials were warmly received. Asking the ex-POWs for objects associated with their personal experiences made the ex-POWs feel that an important part of their lives was at last being recorded for prosperity. One British ex-POW, who volunteered his army kit bag and its contents for the museum, commented: "it has been in my mind for some time to approach a military museum in this country but interest in the Far East campaign and our imprisonment is not great and perhaps it should go back to Singapore where I found it".[44] A statement by T.H. Stede, an Australian ex-POW, when he came to Singapore to donate his POW memorabilia to the museum, embodies similar sentiments:

After I've passed on, these mementos will have no meaning for anyone else. They would just end up on the rubbish dump. I have brought them here because part of me remains here [45].

Stede, like many of the ex-POWs who gave the museum pieces from their memorabilia, donated simple objects. He gave some of his letters when he was a POW, old insignias and a piece of Perspex, taken from a Japanese plane at Changi, out of which he had carved a map of Australia.

{30} The high level of involvement in the creation of the museum by ex-POWs meant that many of them became active promoters of the new chapel and museum. In contrast with Kanchanaburi, at Changi a good rapport was established between ex-POWs and the tourism officials. H.K. Mawby, of the Burma Star Association, wrote to the STPB project director, Pamelia Lee: "I feel we are old friends." Mawby informed the STPB that he had "tried to promote the project as much as possible via public relations work with Ex-servicemen's organisations I belong to in Australia and the U.K".[46][ Ken Joyce, Vice-President of the Burma Star Association of New South Wales, also wrote to the STPB representative in Sydney, stating that "you can be assured that none of our members will visit or pass through Singapore without visiting the Changi Chapel and Museum".[47]

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.

{32} Because the images presented by the creators of the museum did represent Aspinall's and other POWs' experience from Changi to the Burma-Thailand Railway, many ex-POWs saw the museum as their very own museum. Aspinall praised the efforts of the STPB project team:

I think about the work that was put into Changi Prison Museum and Chapel, and your group should be very proud of what you have achieved in this project.
It is unique in itself, although we in Australia have a large War Memorial and Museum at Canberra which covers a large number of places around the world with only brief reference to specific areas, whereas the display at Changi is very detailed and shows a true and precise record of the events that occurred in the lives of the P.O.W.s in the Asian areas, and also the Chapel itself is more like what we as P.O.W.s built and used for religious worship and to many of us our religious beliefs were an element in our survival. .
I cannot help thinking about the feeling I experienced when I first walked up to, and entered the Chapel. For a brief moment, my mind was taken back some forty odd years, and it appeared to be very real.[49]

{33} Ex-POWs such as Aspinall warmly embraced the chapel because it was an obvious indication that the refurbished site was meant for commemoration rather than a money-making tourist enterprise. The STPB gave the ex-POWs clear signs that they wanted the site to have a religious and commemorative role for their return visits. An elaborate religious dedication ceremony on 15 February 1988 marked the opening of both the chapel and the museum. Present were tourist and prison officials, as well ex-POWs. Aspinall was specifically invited, though unable to attend because of health problems. Soon after the opening the commemorative function of the site became prominent. Visitors to the chapel were invited to pick a flower from the garden around the chapel and place it on the altar of the chapel. Cards for messages to be placed on a notice board in the chapel were also provided. "As the messages pinned on a small notice board show it has quickly become a place of homage," a reporter from the British press noted only two months after the chapel had been dedicated.[50]

{34} The lack of representation given to the seven hundred women and children among the civilian internees in Changi from 1942 to 1944 was one area where several representatives of the ex-POWs and the tourism officials did not agree. Harold Payne, President of the Federation of the Far Eastern Prisoner of War Clubs in Britain, lobbied the STPB on behalf of Mrs Freddy Bloom, a representative of the former female internees, who wanted a corner of the museum be devoted to the women's experiences. Bloom made several offers of material, and Payne protested on Bloom's behalf, but these offers and complaints appear not to have been taken up by the STPB officials working on the project.[51] In the mid-1990s Bernice Archer, a historian working on civilian internment in east Asia, on a visit to the museum with a group of British war widows, noticed that there were women in wartime Changi but that they appeared to have been deliberately left out of the displays. Archer thought that the reason for this was the stereotype that "prisoners of war and wartime internees are a still predominantly masculine concept in the minds not only of the general public but also of museum creators who are, among other things, the keepers and exhibitors of the public memory".[52] The omission suggests that Singapore's tourism authorities wished to convey to the tourists the images found in King Rat.

{35} Archer's point has been confirmed by the occasional use of the King Rat theme in publicity promotions by the STPB; in these, wartime Changi is presented as a hard masculine world where only the strongest men could survive. In April 1989 the STPB invited Geoffrey Venning to the museum; he was one of the doctors who parachuted into Changi immediately after the Japanese surrender to attend to the POWs. When Venning visited the museum, he was given the title of "King Rat Doctor" in a publicity exercise which included a quotation from the novel describing a young doctor's appearance in front of the POWs. The episode climaxed with a lone doctor, smartly dressed in a green uniform, beret and parachute boots, looking bewildered at the ravaged bodies of the POWs. The bodies of the POWs at Changi were definitely emaciated, but this was usually not because of their time at Changi, but because of their labour on the Burma-Thailand Railway. The impression given in the publicity shots was that the POWs' time in Changi had been responsible for their condition. Venning became the fictional doctor of King Rat. Press accounts of the media event described how "this flamboyant character stepped out of the pages of James Clavell's best-selling first novel King Rat last week to revisit the scene of his wartime adventure, Changi Prison".[53] The images of the museum, shaped by themes found in King Rat, proved to be a draw card. Within a year of the museum's opening, a total of 108,000 visitors, at an average of seven busloads a day, had visited the new site.[54]

{36} Both the Kanchanaburi and Changi sites illustrate how works of fiction (in these cases Pierre Boulle's Bridge over the River Kwai and James Clavell's King Rat) have shaped public perceptions to the extent that the re-creations of the past at the sites have reflected such fictions. The sites confirm David Lowenthal's point that when tourism authorities go about re-creating the past they try to represent what they think their visitors want to see. The STPB's work at revamping the Changi site demonstrates that both commodification and commemoration of the past can proceed together, though not without some difference of opinion. By involving male ex-POWs in the process of representing the POW experience, the Singapore tourism authorities won support from many ex-POWs, who saw the Changi Prison Museum as their own, one that embodied their own experiences. On the other hand, the creators of Changi Prison Museum appear to have decided not to include female civilian internees in the process of creating the museum because such images would conflict with the themes of King Rat. The result has been that while male ex-POWs have had little problem with the museum's main theme - a hard masculine world-former female internees have felt that the selection of material has excluded their experiences.

© Kevin Blackburn

The author

Kevin Blackburn is Lecturer in History at the School of Arts,Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is currently researching the conflicting national memories of mourning the war dead from the fall of Singapore.


1. See Annette Hamilton, "Skeletons of empire: Australians and the Burma-Thailand Railway" in Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton eds, Memory and history in twentieth century Australia, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 92-112, and Kevin Blackburn, "Changi: A place of personal pilgrimages and collective histories", Australian historical studies 112, April 1999, pp. 153-73.

2. Hank Nelson, "Measuring the railway: from individual lives to national history", in The Burma-Thailand Railway: memory and history, Hank Nelson and Gavan McCormack eds, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1993, pp. 22-3.

3. For recent critical studies of the conditions of the POW camps see Humphrey McQueen, Japan to the rescue, Melbourne, Heinemann, 1991, p. 265 and pp. 295-337; and Sibylla Jane Flower, "Captors and captives on the Burma-Thailand Railway", in Prisoners of war and their captors in Second World War, Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich eds, Oxford, Berg, 1996, pp. 227-52. That the Japanese were not consistently brutal has been suggested by critically reading POW diaries, such as those of Stan Arneil, One man's war, Melbourne, Macmillan, 1982, and E.E. Dunlop, The war diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway, 1942-1945, Melbourne, Penguin, 1990.

4. David Lowenthal, The past is a foreign country, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 347.

5. John Urry, The tourist gaze: leisure and travel in contemporary societies, London, Sage Publications, 1990, and Consuming places, London, Routledge, 1995.

6. Hamilton, "Skeletons of empire", p. 111.

7. Ronald Searle, To the Kwai and back: war drawings 1939-1945, London, Collins, 1986, p. 104.

8. Kevin Patience, "The death railway", After the battle 26, 1979, p. 12.

9. Hamilton, "Skeletons of empire", p. 106.

10. Patience, "The death railway", p. 14.

11. Hamilton, "Skeletons of empire", p. 106.

12. Times, 1 December 1987.

13. Straits times, 19 August 1957.

14. Interview with the Reverend Henry Khoo, Changi Prison Chaplain since 1967 and son of the first Singapore Prisons Chaplain, the Reverend Khoo Siaw Hua, 2 October 1997.

15. Searle, Kwai, p. 35.

16. Straits times, 7 September 1945.

17. Straits times, 9 and 10 January 1948; Malaya tribune, 9 January 1948.

18. Hank Nelson, "Travelling in memories: Australian prisoners of the Japanese, forty years after the fall of Singapore", Journal of the Australian War Memorial 3, 1983, p. 21; Straits times, 14 September 1995 and 24 April 1998.

19. Stan Arneil, One man's war, p. 3.

20. Lionel De Rosario, Nippon slaves, London, Janus, 1995, p. 45.

21. Hank Nelson, P.O.W. Prisoners of war: Australians under Nippon, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1985, p. 34.

22. Russell Braddon, The naked island (1952), London, Charnwood, 1982, p. 269.

23. Nelson, Australians under Nippon, p. 68.

24. Rohan D. Rivett, Behind bamboo (1946), Ringwood, Penguin, 1991, p. 158.

25. Bajintar Singh's Report, 3 March 1987, Project Activities: Changi Prison Chapel: A Plan to Redesign the Changi Prison Chapel, in Changi Prison Chapel & Museum, serial number 57, file reference number PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 1 (MFL AJ024), STPB Records (National Archives of Singapore).

26. For example, Papineau's guide to Singapore, Singapore, MPH Magazines, 1981, pp. 190-1.

27. Interviews with Pamelia Lee and Bajintar Singh, who worked on the STPB project team to create Changi Prison Museum, 23 September 1997.

28. Robertson E. Collins, Project Report, 8 March 1987: A Plan to Re-Design the Changi Prison Stop on the East Coast Tours, 57, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 1.

29. Changi Prison and East Coast Tour, 67, PD/PRJ/45/88, vol. 7.

30. Tourist Product Development Working Committee (TPDWC). For TPDWC Deliberation, Changi Prison Chapel Background, 21 March 1987, 57, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 1.

31. Pamelia Lee and Bajintar Singh, 23 September 1997.

32. Stanley Warren, Reel 2, Oral History Interviews, A000205/08 (Singapore National Archives).

33. James Clavell, King Rat, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.

34. Robertson E. Collins, Project Report, 8 March 1987: A Plan to Re-Design the Changi Prison Stop on the East Coast Tours, 57, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 1.

35. Ball Partnership, 15 January 1988, 60, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 4.

36. 103/88 20, 70, PD/PRJ/57/88, vol. 1; and Paper II Project: Changi Prison Chapel, 58, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 2.

37. Peggy Teo and Brenda S.A. Yeoh, "Remaking local heritage for tourism", Annals of tourism research 24 (1), 1996, pp. 192-213.

38. For the actual chapel the tourist authorities wanted to re-create, see J.N. Lewis Bryan, The churches of the captivity in Malaya, London, Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1946, p. 65.

39. Robertson E. Collins, March 14 1987, Chiangi [sic] Chapel-Revised Plan; and Paper II Project: Changi Prison Chapel, 58, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 2; and For Managerial Approval, Battle of Singapore Project, Management Paper 139/37, 27 May 1987, 57, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 1.

40. See the August 1991 and June 1994 issues of Barbed wire and bamboo, an Australian ex-POWs' magazine, for examples of the reaction of ex-POWs to the increased commercialisation of Kanchanaburi.

41. Desmond Battery, South Australia, to Mr Quek Shi Lai, Director of Prisons, 7 September 1987, 57, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 1.

42. Memorandum of Meeting 25 July 1987, and 29 August 1987, 57, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 1.

43. Straits times, 9 September 1987; and Second World War Chapel and Museum: Changi Prison, press release, 8 September 1987, 57, PD/PRJ/45/87, vol. 1.

44. R.D. Evans, Cleveleys, Lancashire, 9 January 1988, 65, PD/PRJ/45/88, vol. 5.

45. Sunday times (Singapore), 24 April 1988.

46. Ken Joyce to Roney Tan, Director STPB, Sydney, 12 May 1988, 65, PD/PRJ/45/88, vol. 5.

47. H.K. Mawby to Pamelia Lee, 8 August 1988, 66, PD/PRJ/45/88, vol. 6.

48. Tim Bowden, Changi photographer: George Aspinall's record of captivity, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1984.

49. George Aspinall to Bajintar Singh, 5 November 1988, 67, PD/PRJ/45/88, vol. 7.

50. Guardian, 23 April 1988.

51. Harold Payne to Pamelia Lee, 3 May 1990, 67, PD/PRJ/45/88, vol. 7.

52. Bernice Archer, "A patchwork of internment", History today 47 (7 ), July 1997, pp. 16-17.

53. Straits times, 25 April 1989.

54. Heritage and Culture Awards: Changi Prison Chapel, 20 January 1989, 61, PD/PRJ/45/88, vol. 7.