Serendipity of Errors

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Singapore  ,
Thursday, April 3, 2008

Next stop Pulau Ubin, Tile Island. After hopping off the MRT and making the mistake of jumping on the connecting Number 2 bus the wrong way, I was treated to a scenic tour of Chinatown with its colourful shuttered windows and locals busy going about their business. The Jamae Mosque, tiled in sky blue and crowned with golden domes, is as pretty as a jewel. I crossed the street near the mosque and took the same number bus back the opposite direction. Nice way to see the city, though, from atop a double decker.
The next mistake occurred when the bus driver misinterpreted where I wanted to get off. I had asked for the Changi Village Pier, where I could catch the bumboat to Pulau Ubin. Instead, the driver dropped me off in front of the Changi Museum, fronted by the original wall of the Changi prison that interned thousands of Chinese citizens and British and Indian soldiers during the Second World War. My grandfather, a major in the British army, had narrowly evaded the Japanese invasion. He was stationed in Singapore for about five years, and was sent back to England just prior to 1942.
Singapore has a special significance for me. My father was born here and spent his first years living here with my grandparents and his older brother, my Uncle Eric, in the care of a Chinese nanny. I had grown up on stories of my father's first years in Singapore, and was fascinated as a child to see his birth certificate with Singapore as his birthplace. It seemed so distant and exotic.
I greatly admired my grandmother for having lived such an adventurous life of travel. Nana was a flapper girl from the glamour era of the 1920s, and I always loved the flamboyantly flounced, lacy dresses she wore up into her old age. She was a collector of fans, and always bought me fans from wherever she travelled, including one from Singapore, woven of palm fronds. I treasured these fans so much I still have them to this day, years after her death.
Dad told me that while living in Singapore he learned to speak some Chinese, but after so many years, he has forgotten it. I remember seeing a black and white photo of his nanny, a tiny Asian woman wearing a starched white uniform and a smile on her face standing in the middle of a dirt road, a muddle of jungle in the background.
"We were lucky," Dad said. "If we were in Singapore during the invasion, we would have been done for."
Inside the Changi Museum, on the site of the original internment camp, the black and white photos of the POWs-British army men, their wives and children in a separate section of the camp, bore silent testimony to this possibility. The camp was originally a prison built for about 600 inmates and ended up incarcerating more than 2,500 POWs and civilians. Perhaps if my Dad had ended up here, he wouldn't have become my father.
A huge rendition of a drawing by inmate Ray Parkin is chilling evidence of what the prisoners endured. Called Two Malarias with a Cholera, it depicts three skeletal men, backs facing us as they stagger away. The two malarial men are flanking the man with cholera, who is so emaciated his pants are hanging down to his ankles. The malarial men are just barely able to hold him up, and together they form a shaky tripod of illness and desperation. 
Visitors to the museum moved from exhibit to exhibit in hushed silence, viewing the ingenious ways the inmates dealt with their incarceration-a toothbrush rigged from parts of an old bomber plane, sandals fashioned from old tyres, and, my favourite, recreations of the original murals of POW Wally Hammond, who painted them in St. Luke's Chapel, in part with paint made from crushed billiard chalk. The original chapel is gone, but it has been faithfully recreated as part of the museum. Beyond it in the next room is the work of other artists, many of whom were women, who created other paintings depicting their cramped life in the camp; laundry flapping on the line and children running about, smiles on their faces despite such hardship.
I'm glad I saw this, for my Dad, Uncle Eric, Nana and Granddad. Though they escaped the fate of this internment camp, I have now witnessed what they had escaped from after years of imagining it. I'm thankful my family was able to remain intact.
In the gift shop I bought a package of postcards with Hammond's chapel paintings to send to Dad in Canada. He has always been a talented painter, and I knew he would appreciate them, just as he passed on his appreciation of painting and knowledge of art to me. He taught me about the proper use of perspective, something I have never forgotten. Part of that perspective is that sometimes when you end up going a different direction than you intended, you can find a new way of seeing things.
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