By: Verne Maree; photography by Michael Bernabe
The area of Sime Road in Singapore has a remarkable history as a former Second World War headquarters and camp. It was originally used by British troops, before being taken over by the Japanese military and used as a camp for prisoners of war.
In this three-part feature, we meet Karien Van Ditzhuijzen – an expat resident from the area – who has spent a lot of time compiling research into this fascinating period. Following our interview, Karien writes her own account of Sime Road’s past. Finally, we interview Jon Cooper, who is performing archaeological work on Sime Road Camp and the Adam Park battleground.
Interview with Karien Van Ditzhuijzen
What brought you to Singapore?
I lived in the UK for six years before moving here with my family in 2012. I’m an expat child myself and grew up all over the place; my father worked for Shell.
Why a black-and-white house?
We lived in a condo for the first nine months; but when I first saw a black-and-white I was wowed by its beautiful garden, so rare in Singapore.
I started looking at the website; then we put in an impulse bid on this three-bedroom one and got it. Black-and-white homes vary enormously in terms of their size and rentals, and these are some on the more affordable end of the scale. This one is neither huge nor fancy, but it suits us fine. For me, it’s really all about the garden. Surprisingly, there seems to have been little or no interest in the bidding on some of the properties in this road recently.
My husband and I have three children between the ages of three and six, and this is the perfect environment for kids to roam around in.
Black-and-white living is not for everyone, as it’s fairly adventurous. Though my friends find the idea interesting, some of them aren’t sure they’d like to live here.
Animals are plentiful: a four-foot python lives down the road, we’ve seen flying lemurs, and we even found two pangolins napping in a drain. There was a lot of interest from one of the universities, as such sightings are quite rare, and they even published some of my photographs.Actually, trees can be more dangerous than animals, with the constant hazard of falling branches.
What’s the history of these houses?
The military had started building them before the war, but didn’t finish them by the time Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942. They’d dug the drains and laid the platforms, but not much else. The first lot of POWs built wooden attap huts on the platforms, and only after the war were the current black-and-white brick houses built on the same foundations, again for British military personnel.
Where does your interest in history come from?
Unlike my husband, who is into dates and battles and political history, I’m not particularly interested in history per se: it’s the personal aspect of historic events that most fascinates me and draws me in. As an expat wife – although I’m equally interested in what befell the local people, too – I began to wonder what it was like to live here in the 1940s as the expat wife of a military officer? Reading novels and documentary accounts of the time, I realised that I was living in a place that played an important part in this history.
The history behind my neighbourhood, by Karien Van Ditzhuijzen
‘I always like a place with a bit of history. Shining marble, slabs of steel and concrete do not excite me much. I prefer old things, coloured with the patina of time, their cracks and scars telling their stories. With our current house, I got more than even I bargained for: it has an intriguing story to tell.
I had of course heard rumours that some of the black-and-white enclaves had been used to house POWs. One day, in bed with feverish flu, I was reading a novel about a woman interned in a Japanese camp on Sumatra. I started picturing myself lying in that same spot, perhaps on the floor, ill with malaria and a Japanese guard marching past the window.
After I’d recovered from flu, that image of myself held captive in this house haunted my thoughts. It made me wonder: had women like me perhaps been imprisoned here during the war, even perhaps in this house? During the occupation, a European “expat wife” would have been the enemy of Japan; I would have been interned.
What I discovered
When Singapore fell, both civilian prisoners and POWs were sent to Changi prison. Several black-and-white houses had held groups of military prisoners at different times during the war, but I could not find any details of what happened on Adam Drive.
My search led me to Jon Cooper, a British historian who has done a lot of archaeological research into the battle of Adam Park, another black-and-white enclave just across the motorway from us. When I met up with him, he explained that the reason I had not been able to find out more about Adam Drive was that the name of the road had been changed: during the War, this area was known as Sime Road Camp.
In the lead-up to war, the British armed forces started to build shared headquarters on Sime Road. I can see Sime Road from our back garden; in fact, I can hear its traffic from my desk. They also started building new houses for their officers; but the Japanese occupied Singapore before these houses had been finished. Only the concrete platforms and drains had been realised.
The commander of the British troops, General Percival, and his staff had to abandon their new headquarters and retreat to Fort Canning, not long before they surrendered to the Japanese. If I climb to the highest point of our garden, and stand on my toes, I can see the outbuildings of these British military headquarters during the war. They called it the Green House, and it became the headquarters of the Japanese Camp Commander in Singapore during the occupation.
Before long, both British and Australian POWs were moved from Changi Prison to Sime Road. They were set to work building a Shinto shrine in nearby MacRitchie Reservoir, to commemorate Japanese casualties. They lived in huts they built themselves from wood and attap, on the same concrete platforms that the British had build before the invasion. After about nine months, most of these prisoners were sent to work on the Thai-Burmese railway.
In the last years of the war, the Japanese decided to move all civilian internees from the overcrowded Changi Prison to the fresh air and greens hills of Sime Road. The road where these houses are is now called Adam Drive, and I live in one of them.
Not only that, but a map of Sime Road Camp shows clearly that our house was in the women’s camp; it stands where hut number 10 previously stood. My dream had not been far from the truth: European women like myself had been interned here during the war.
Diary of a Girl in Changi by Sheila Allen, a young Eurasian who was interned in both Changi Prison and Sime Road Camp, describes the relatively good circumstances in the Singapore camps compared to the Sumatran camps I have read about. There was electricity, and hot running water. The women busied themselves with organising concerts, a school, Christmas parties. Limited contact with the men was possible, and some babies were born. Still, life was extremely hard and uncertain, food rations were very low, and many died of malnutrition and disease.
Walking around Adam Drive now, I see it with different eyes. My mind erases the trees that now cover the previously open and grassy valley. Everywhere I look, I try to place the photographs I’ve seen of the camp and the settings of the accounts I have read. In place of the houses, I imagine wooden huts. I picture a farm at the spot where my kids play on the swings. I plot the image of the Flying Dutchman pub over the carport that is now in its place. The work of Jon and his team is ongoing, and they have found some new researchers in me and my family. Who knows what else we will unravel?
Interview with Jon Cooper
I previously interviewed Jon Cooper bout his fascinating archaeological work on the Adam Park battleground, artefacts from which are currently being sorted for display at Changi and other museums. When we meet again, Jon is hard at work on revising and relaunching the Changi Museum website. By the end of the year, it will feature a virtual museum that people can visit and contribute to online from all over the world.
Sime Road was the Command and Control Centre for the RAF in Malaya, explains Jon. Both Adam Park and Sime Road became work camps in 1942: “After dumping a load of Australian POWs in Adam Park, the trucks carried on up the road and left the Brits in Sime Road. They rebuilt the attap huts that had been used by the RAF for accommodation, as they’d been badly damaged in the fighting.”
As Karien says, only some of the houses had been built; others consisted only of drains and platforms. Jon explains that’s because there was such a rush to get the command centre up and running. “We’re not sure how many had been built in the first phase; but when houses are rebuilt, it’s always cheaper to rebuild them on existing platforms. So, while the platform of Karien’s home is pre-war, its construction is post-war.”
At the end of 1942, when the POWs were sent off to work on the Thai-Burma railway, it seems that Sime Road Camp stood empty for a while. The POWs who started coming back in 1943 stayed just long enough to rebuild the houses and build a chapel, before being moved to Changi Prison. On the interior walls of the Sime Road Camp huts, they inscribed a heart-wrenching list of the few men who had survived the work in Burma and Thailand, and another of those who had not made it.
The civilian internee story is a distinctly separate period that kicks off on 1 May 1944 and ends only with the end of the war in September 1945. A post-war account in The Western Australian describes the first 900 men arriving with “their wretched bundles”, taking possession of the 50-acre plot: “from the remains of destroyed RAF huts they built their communal dormitories and kitchens”. The women followed later.
There are a number of books by civilian internees – apart from Diary of a Girl in Changi by Sheila Allen, In the Shadow of the Rising Sun by Mary Thomas and Within Changi’s Walls by George L. Peet poignantly document the civilian internee experience, first at Changi and then at Sime Road.
Though the internees were primarily British and Australian, there were also French, Dutch, South African, Russian, Norwegian, Polish, Maltese, Irish, French, Greek, Indian, Iranian, Danish and other prisoners.
The women, having been captured in civilian dress, were then treated as civilian internees. But it was a different scenario for many of their husbands, who had joined the local volunteer units and were in uniform. Though in fact civilians in Singapore, they were treated in the harsher manner meted out to POWs.
By the end of the war, the population of the camp included about 3,000 men, 1,000 women and more than 300 children. And for a so-called “forgotten army fighting a forgotten campaign”, says Jon, life in the camp is actually very well documented.
Contemporary accounts of camp life make for fascinating reading: “You put 4,000 people into a place like this, and you get fighting, cliques, sexual liaisons and romantic intrigues, theft, comedy, musical and theatrical shows, gardening, escape attempts and everything else that humans get up to in communities.”
Interestingly, Sime Road Camp continued as a refugee camp for up to nine months after the end of the war, mainly for the local Eurasian and Jewish ex-internees who had been moved to the camp during the latter part of the war and did not immediately have homes to go back to.
The Green House
The Green House in Sime Road was built around 1938 for Air Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, but was soon taken over for administration purposes. “So, all those famously bad military decisions were made here at Sime Road, not at the Battle Box as some people tend to think!”
Since the 1950s, it has been painted white and has been owned and lived in by a Singaporean family. The outbuildings were where the guards, both Japanese and Sikh, lived.
“There are lots of concrete structures, bunkers and tunnels around it to be explored,” says Jon with a glint in his archaeological eye. “Archaeologically speaking, it has a similar pedigree to its neighbour, Adam Park.”
Singapore has an enthralling history that is continuously being added to by the work of both locals and expats, trained historians like Jon and the keen enthusiasts who contribute their time and effort to archaeological digs, museum guiding and the like. A visit to one of its outstanding museums is a great way not only to while away an afternoon, but to give you an added appreciation for the country and its people.