Location Scouting in British Newsreels made before the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1938-42) – Part 2

[continued from last post…]

The last post “Location Scouting in British Newsreels made before the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1938-42) – Part 1” had presented film-stills from British newsreels recorded at the Singapore Sembawang Naval Base and the Keppel Harbour, which were hives of activity in the build-up to the Japanese bombing and invasion of Singapore in 1941.

The second part of this “British Newsreels” series will present filmed locations and places in the city center of Singapore during 1941-42. Singapore was predominantly rural then and a high-density city center was situated in the southern parts of the island. That was also the area where the Japanese had concentrated their firepower when they bombed and shelled Singapore in the form of air raids and artillery barrages inflicted upon the colony between December 1941 and February 1942.

This is a British troop deployment map of Singapore in 1942. The grey regions represent the urbanised areas. The city center of Singapore is located in the southern parts of the island. The red circle marks out the Sembawang Naval Base in the northern tip, which was covered in the last post.

The Film Locations:

3. City Center of Singapore (or “The Downtown Core”)

What is now called the “Downtown Core” used to be the area in the Singapore city center where there was a concentration of civic institutions, administrative buildings, public spaces and buildings of commercial interests surrounding the mouth of the Singapore river, eg. the Municipal building, Supreme Court, Padang, Victoria Memorial Hall, the Esplanade, Raffles Place, etc.

Imagine newsreel filmmakers who might have been tasked to present an overview of the situation in Singapore, in anticipation of an attack by foreign adversaries. They would probably first head for the city center “Downtown Core”, where there would be iconic buildings and places, or in Singapore-Tourism-Board-speak: something “Uniquely Singapore“. What they would behold in front of them were in danger of being obliterated if there were to be bombings and destructions due to the outbreak of war. They would feel obliged, as a filmmakers, to visually document those places and the events that they accommodate, to consign them to filmic memory.

After watching various examples of British newsreels made in Singapore, I have a sense that the newsreel filmmakers seemed to have a preference for aerial views of the city center. I will highlight a few examples. First of all, the view from the tallest building in Singapore in the 1940s — The Cathay Building — looking out towards the sea.

Most of the landmarks in the civic district were within sight – the spire of St. Andrew’s Cathedral on the left; the dome of the Supreme Court in the distance; the dome of the Raffles Library and Museum (now National Museum of Singapore) in the foreground.

The view from another tall building then — The Fullerton Building — offered another aerial perspective of the Civic District, one looking towards the interior of the Singapore island.

More landmarks — the iconic clock tower of the Victoria Memorial Hall, The Government Offices in the left foreground (now Empress Place Building), Supreme Court (partially hidden), Municipal Building (later renamed the City Hall), Singapore Cricket Club, and in the distance, the spire of St. Andrew’s Cathedral on the right and the Cathay Building on the left.

From the top of the Fullerton Building, the filmmakers could also capture a view of the Singapore River, South Boat Quay and the Cavenagh Bridge, the oldest bridge in Singapore that is still standing today.

Again from the top of the Fullerton Building, looking out towards the harbour, one could catch sight of the Clifford Pier, and the mounts of adjacent buildings — Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building and The Union Building (both demolished, with taller skyscrapers in their place now).

In contrast to the limited choices filmmakers had for aerial views, we now have the luxury of mounting countless skyscrapers and the Singapore Flyer to feed ourselves with bird’s eye views of the Downtown Core landscape. Nowadays, this act of mounting tall buildings for aerial views is especially popular with Singaporeans on our National Day, 9th August. Not to contemplate the urban landscape and reflect on the changes and evolution that have taken place, but to watch some kitschy fireworks set off during the equally kitschy National Day Parade.

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The newsreel filmmakers had also paid significant attention to the statue of Stamford Raffles, the “founder” of the British colony. Being British, would the filmmakers feel a sense of pride or suppress their cynicism as they put together these propagandistic documentaries of British colonies? Sometimes, I imagine myself in a similar predicament — if I have to film a short documentary with a shot of Lee Kuan Yew’s statue — I foresee the erection of one — what would drive my creative decisions, nationalistic pride or cynicism?

Anyway, the newsreel filmmakers of 1941 would locate this only statue of Raffles in front of the Victoria Memorial Hall — in 1972, a white replica would be erected at the speculated first landing site of Raffles on the Singapore River. In 1941, this black statue fronting Victoria Memorial Hall was complimented with a semicircular colonnade.

In 1970, someone threw something into the face of the Raffles’ statue, as this image from the National Archives will testify:

The description offered on the National Archives’ PICAS website: “A LONE VANDAL THREW A PLASTIC BAG FILLED WITH WHITE PAINT AT THE STATUE OF SIR STAMFORD RAFFLES IN EMPRESS PLACE. WORKERS FROM THE PUBLIC UTILITIES BOARD REMOVING THE PAINT WITH CLOTH AND TURPENTINE”. The vandal must have been one active cynic.

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Many of us are always inclined to celebrate the firsts, the oldest, the pioneers, the record-holders. They set precedents and are important benchmarks in the continuum of evolution witnessed in many phenomenon or processes. This applies to the urban landscape as well, and fortunately, we have conserved many of the “firsts” in our Downtown Core district. A significant example is the Cavenagh Bridge, which newsreel filmmakers of the 1940s had kindly filmed and documented for our benefit.

The Cavenagh Bridge spans the lower reaches of the Singapore River and was built in 1868 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Crown Colony of the Straits Settlements held in 1869. It is the oldest surviving bridge in Singapore today. As you can see in the “animated” film-stills, it was open to access by rickshaws or “any vehicle of which the laden weight” do not “exceed 3 cwt” (152 kilograms or 336 pounds). These days, it is restricted to pedestrians only.

This film-still above was shot facing South Boat Quay. The bridge remains but the activities on the bridge and on the river have undergone much changes since. The rickshaws and river tongkangs (or twa-kows) have been retired. Once trading offices and warehouses, the shophouses lining the river have been “adaptively reused” as pubs and restaurants these days.

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Another of the “firsts” that newsreel filmmakers have documented in their mini-documentaries was the Central Fire Station located along Hill Street. It was the first proper fire station in Singapore and now the oldest existing fire station. The film-still below presents a view of the station from Hock Lam Street (福南街). Hock Lam Street no longer exists. In its place now stands The Funan DigtaLife Mall.

Hock Lam Street, flanked by shophouses, used to be a popular hangout for shoppers and foodies in the 1950s to 70s. Street hawkers thronged the roadsides. Its popularity led to over-congestion and it became an “urban pest” in the eyes of the authorities, eventually leading to the demolition of the shophouses and a redevelopment of the site in the 1970s.

A disgruntled street hawker showed her displeasure at being photographed. The PICAS website’s description: “HOCK LAM STREET HAWKERS WHO WILL SOON HAVE TO MOVE OUT TO MAKE WAY FOR URBAN DEVELOPMENT” (1974).

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Hock Lam Street may have been a victim of urban redevelopment, but significant parts of the city center have been conserved or re-adapted for contemporary use. For example, the Padang — the large green field fronting the Old Supreme Court and City Hall (soon-to-be National Art Gallery of Singapore) — has been conserved and is still happily staking its place as one of the very few open green spaces in the city center.

The newsreel filmmaker of 1941, however, will find the Padang undergoing some changes. Workers were found digging trenches into the Padang, as Singapore, the impregnable fortress, prepared for a Japanese invasion. The trenches were probably dug by the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) unit active in Singapore during World War Two.

In the film-still below, you can see The Cenotaph in the background. This war memorial was built in memory of the soldiers resident or born in Singapore who perished during the first World War. Little would the Singapore residents in 1941 anticipate that this memorial would be dedicated to the war dead in World War II as well.

In 1944, during the Japanese Occupation, in a bid to curb inflation following embargo by countries of the Allied Powers, the Japanese government started a “Grow More Food Campaign” to encourage Singapore residents to be self-sufficient and grow their own food. All available open spaces were used for planting common crops such as vegetables, tapiocas and sweet potatoes. And the Padang was not spared. Tapioca plants were grown on the Padang, according to this account here. The image below from the National Archives shows the defeated Japanese soldiers repairing the Padang field in 1945:

Perhaps, the state of the Padang and its usage is an indication of the governing inclinations of the incumbent powers-that-be. Stamford Raffles had insisted that the Padang field be reserved for public use and disapproved of William Farquhar’s plans to sell the space for private mercantile purposes. The colonialists used it for exclusive recreational activities and built the Singapore Recreation Club (SRC) and the Singapore Cricket Club on the flanks of the Padang. The Japanese paraded their victorious armies round the Padang after the surrender of the British, but were in desperation when they ploughed the Padang for farming in the last days of the occupation.The post-independence PAP government held National Day parades at the Padang and allowed other public events that are non-political in nature.

Pre-independence and pre-Malaysia, the PAP government had even allowed a mass gathering of protesters at the Padang — the “Mass Rally to Demand Compensation for the Blood Debt from Japan” (追讨血债群众大会) held on the 25th August 1963, attended by a 120,000-strong crowd.

The mass rally was organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, to bring attention to atrocities — eg. Sook Ching massacre — committed by the Japanese imperialists during the occupation and demand compensation for the victims of the atrocities.

The stage from where political and community leaders gave speeches and addressed the massive crowds. The backdrop for the stage was for another upcoming event — the declaration of the formation of the Federation of Malaysia on 16 Sep 1963.

Even Lee Kuan Yew stepped forward to address the crowd and lead them to raise their fists. Nowadays, they don’t really raise their fists anymore… maybe… except for one up and coming politician – Chan Chun Sing. Watch his “arm-raising” act here.

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Well, I seem to be digressing here again. But, the intent was really to bring attention to some of the historical places and events that may have been hidden or forgotten in the current public sphere. To use the process of “location scouting” in film images from Singapore’s past as a primer for further (personal) research and (offbeat, tangential) explorations into the histories of those places. It is a blog after all, and not an academic essay…, so I shall be pardoned.

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[to be continued… in the next post, I will present film-stills from WWII newsreels shot in Clark Quay and of course… other related but “digressive” images… ]

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