A group of WWII survivors and Tiong Bahru residents gather for an emotional morning by recounting their trials and tribulations under the Japanese Occupation, 73 years after the fall of Singapore.
On 15 February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese Imperial Army, marking the start of an arduous period for the people of Singapore. Seventy-three years after, one sunny morning on 14 February 2015, seniors gathered at the Tiong Bahru Community Centre to share their wartime memories of Tiong Bahru, one of Singapore’s oldest public housing estates.
The session, titled Remembering World War II in Tiong Bahru, was jointly organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore (URA).
For two hours, participants old and young alike were glued to their seats, fully absorbed by the war-time stories of five seniors—Mr Donald Wyatt, Ms Lam Mun Yin, Mrs Tan, Mr Peter Lim, Ms Mary Pereira—which enthralled, horrified and amazed them. While each story was unique and personal, together they spoke of a shared experience held together by common themes.
Air raid bombings was one such common theme among the stories shared. Mr Peter Lim, a 77-year-old survivor, described the bombing of a nearby hospital (Singapore General Hospital today) that shook his block so violently that his doors and windows could not shut properly after. This deadly blast also robbed several medical students of their lives.
Peter also recounted, with a wry smile, how as a very young boy, he was sensible enough to obediently don his clothes, pick up his shoes and sit by the door, so his mother could lead him out of the apartment whenever the air-raid siren went off. He, and other residents, would scurry to seek shelter in the sandbag-padded stairways of their Tiong Bahru blocks, whenever the air-raid siren sounded. As the first concrete buildings in Singapore built with solid brick and metal bars, these Tiong Bahru flats were sturdy enough to withstand aerial attacks.
Should a second siren sound, residents would dash from these stairwells to designated air-raid shelters, like the Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter along Guan Chuan Street. The shelter, the last remaining pre-war civilian air raid shelter standing today, was designed to accommodate over 1,000 persons and had its own clinic. This was also the very shelter that gave 73-year-old Mary Magdeline Pereira life, as it shielded her pregnant mother at a critical period, and provided a safe place for Mary’s birth during the wee hours of 22 January 1942.
The seniors also shared stories of deep personal loss. Mary proudly paid tribute to her father, Mr Callistus Raymond Pereira, who joined the Straits Settlement Volunteer Force to defend Singapore when the threat of war grew close. On 21 January 1942, he was called to serve at the Beach Road area after the Japanese blitzed the area the day before. Unfortunately, the area was bombed again, and he was fatally hit by shrapnel.
That was not the only loss Mary suffered. Intruders broke into her family home at Tiong Bahru, changed its locks, and stole the apartment as well as the family’s stock of rice and milk powder—critical resources in war time for her young widowed mother who had to feed her hungry children. “Resilience was the game”, Mary declared, fixing a steely look across the hall as she described how her family shuttled from relative to relative in search of shelter, and to survive the war.
Like Mary, 80-year-old Donald Wyatt lost a parent in the war. His mother was a nurse working in Pahang. When the war broke out in Malaya in 1941, his family fled to Singapore, but his mother stayed behind to fulfill her duty as a nurse.
“I never saw her again”, he told the silent audience in a solemn but matter-of-fact voice.
Hair-raising stories of encounters with Japanese soldiers was a common theme in the pioneers’ stories. On 3 March 1942, Japanese soldiers dragged Donald’s father from their home, tortured him and then chucked him out on the streets, naked. Thankfully, a kind rickshaw puller brought him back to Tiong Bahru, to his family, shaken and scarred but still alive.
Madam Lam Mun Yin, a current resident in Tiong Bahru, also witnessed the Japanese soldiers’ brutality. During the war, she lived near the F&N factory in River Valley that was used by the Japanese as an internment camp for prisoners-of-war. There, Madam Lam witnessed the POWs being poorly treated by their captors. For instance, they were forced to cook meals with their night-soil buckets, as they did not have any cooking equipment. She shared, in subdued tones, how very sorry she felt for the emaciated POWs who grew skinnier and skinnier over time.
Taking risks and making sacrifices was another major theme in the stories told. Peter described how his mother was so determined that he should continue his education even during the Occupation, she risked life and limb to send him to an underground Chinese school run by the parents of Professor Cham Tao Soon, who would become the first president of the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. Clandestine lessons were held at the couple’s Seng Poh Road flat.
Mr Kelvin Ang, Director of Conservation Management at URA, also shared about how some in the neighbourhood chose instead to work with the Japanese. One such resident gave Japanese soldiers access to his flat, which allowed them to enter the other flats by climbing from balcony to balcony. For his actions, the community punished him by cutting his ears off.
While this story, and many others shared that morning made the audience wince, many shared a light-hearted chuckle at the story of how Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew courted his wife. Peter shared a delicious excerpt from Mr Lee’s memoirs, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, Volume 1, which detailed how Mr Lee developed a friendship with his future wife as she helped him make gum for the black market in her Tiong Bahru home.
“The gum turned a decent profit, and we made it in two centres. One was my home, with my mother and sister helping; the other was Nyuk Lin’s home, where he was helped by his wife and his wife’s younger sister, Kwa Geok Choo, the girl who had done better than me at Raffles College. I had seen her again when I first looked for Nyuk Lin in his flat in Tiong Bahru, riding my bicycle with its solid tyres. She was sitting on a veranda when I arrived, and when I asked where I could find him, she smiled and pointed out a staircase around the corner. Now we were meeting under different circumstances. She was at home, at a loose end, doing domestic chores as there were no maids. Making gum was one chore that gave her pin money, and my visits to check on production led to a friendship that developed over the months.”
Another notable Tiong Bahru resident was Mr Yu Da Fu, a writer who fled from China to Singapore after becoming a targeted intellectual enemy of the Japanese because of his anti-Japanese writing. Thanks to him, Tiong Bahru became a hub for Singapore’s local literati, who flocked to him when he lived there from 1938 to 1942.
After an intense immersion into old tales of war, resurfacing in a modern Tiong Bahru full of trendy cafés may have been a shock to participants. Nevertheless, one could not help but feel profound gratitude for absence of fear, hunger, or whistling bombs, on that sunny Valentine’s Day in Tiong Bahru.
Words and photographs by Chen Xinmin
Published by Singapore Memory Project