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Art & Culture

The Adam Park Project: We chat to founder Jonathan Cooper about digging up Singapore’s history


As the founder and project manager of TAPP, The Adam Park Project, Englishman Jonathan Cooper has spent the past 36 months exploring the front gardens of the black-and-white estate in order to research and document its role in the February 1942 Battle for Singapore.

What brought you to Singapore?

This time, we moved here in January 2009 for my wife Alison’s career in corporate human resources.

I first came to Singapore 23 years ago, as a merchant navy cadet on MV Garala; we sat off the coast for a month, waiting to go into dry dock at Keppel, and I spent my anchor watches listening to the Channel 16 girls on the radio – rumour had it they were SIA crew – and staring wistfully across the water at the city lights.

Thirteen years ago, I came here again, that time on honeymoon with Alison to Singapore, Hong Kong and the Maldives. As you can see, there’s a ten-year repeat pattern at work here – I have no doubt that we’ll be back here in 2019, another decade on from 2009!

Alison is now on a local contract, so it’s up to us how long we stay. For the foreseeable future, Singapore is home.


Where does your passion for battlefield archaeology come from?

It was sparked while I was a schoolboy and got involved in my school’s Wargames Club. After I left the sea, completed a commission in the RAF, settled in Scotland with Alison and qualified as a project manager, I spent my spare time on the medieval re-enactment circuit for Historic Scotland.

I’ve written a couple of books: The Heart and the Rose is based on my research into the 1562 battle of Linlithgow Bridge in our home town near Edinburgh; the second, on Scottish Renaissance armies, paid for the MLitt degree in Battlefield Archaeology from Glasgow University that I completed in 2008. My tutor was Dr Tony Pollard at the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology; he was a great inspiration.

What aroused your interest in Adam Park, specifically?

While going around Labrador Park, the Battle Box at Fort Canning, Fort Siloso on Sentosa Island, and Changi Museum, I realised that all the war-related tourist sites – except for Reflections at Bukit Chandu – focused on buildings, structures, gun emplacements, big lumps of concrete.

But as a battlefield archaeologist, you look at where the fighting actually took place. I say: show me the bullets, the graves, the bodies! The area covered by the 19 colonial black-and-white houses that make up the Adam Park estate is the site of an intense three days of fighting in the battle for Singapore. It was here that, in February 1942, the men of the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment held off a series of attacks by the troops of the Japanese 41st (Fukuyama) Regiment.

When I think of archaeology, I think Pompeii, the pyramids or ancient Mayan civilisations. How old does something have to be before it’s officially of archaeological interest?

Interesting question! A simplistic answer might be: if the person who lost the artefact is dead, the item is of possible archaeological interest – otherwise, it’s just rubbish. A better answer is that the object needs to have heritage value.

A treasure trove has been buried in these gardens. Its heritage value lies in the story it tells, of one of only a few Allied units that stood their ground during the Japanese onslaught. They took and held positions here, fighting for three days without water and with minimal rations, under constant air attack and artillery barrage, inflicting hundreds of casualties and destroying numerous Japanese tanks.

After the Allied surrender, they spent three and a half years in captivity, which many did not survive.

Who repaired the damaged buildings, then?

A few days after the Allied surrender, the soldiers were marched off to Changi Prison, but that wasn’t the end of the bombed out estate’s role in the war.

Two months later, various colonial estates including Adam Park, Caldecott, Mount Pleasant, Lornie Road married quarters, Sime Road and other clusters at Bukit Timah became work camps for POWs, all tasked with building a Shinto shrine on the shores of MacRitchie Reservoir.

By mid-1942, most of the POWs had been sent out to these work camps; Changi Prison was mainly a control hub. Historians have concentrated on the misery of Changi, and the horrors of what followed later: the marching of POWs upcountry to work and die on the Thai Burma Railway. But their nine-month spell in Singapore work camps has been overlooked; it’s a missing link in the perceived history.

Describe what conditions were like at Adam Park and the other camps for those first nine months of the Japanese Occupation.

Each of the Adam Park houses was occupied by 200 to 250 men, and before long they’d fixed up the worst of the battle damage, installed electricity, sanitation and showers and made themselves as comfortable as possible.

I naturally approached battlefield history here from a British angle, and it took me a while to find out that Adam Park accommodated not just 1,000 British POWs but about 2,000 Aussies; the “Jap and Tommy” story took on a whole new dimension for me.

The Aussies did what Aussies do best: survive in hostile conditions. Each man was given 22 ounces of rice a day – too much to eat, in fact. They’d pretend to eat it all, but secretly barter it with the Chinese to supplement their diet; they also milked scarce petrol from the trucks to exchange with the locals, who of course were also suffering terribly under the Japanese Occupation.

To understand what happened in these camps helps us understand the kind of condition these men were in when they were sent upcountry. The prisoners’ diaries don’t go into great detail, probably because they thought their existence was boring,

Their workday at the Shinto shrine was generally from 9am to 5pm, they don’t seem to have been worked unduly hard, and they had access to medical treatment; Number 19 was the hospital. They were plagued by malaria, dengue and “Changi balls”, medically known as dermatitis of the scrotum, but that was to be expected.

Tell us about TAPP.

The Adam Park Project (TAPP) was established in 2009 to assess the site’s potential for World War II battlefield archaeology. It’s a collaborative venture between the Singapore Heritage Society and the National University of Singapore. Most importantly for us, it’s partially sponsored by the National Heritage Board.

Over a 21-day period, our teams undertook a wide variety of surveys: geophysical, aerial photography, topographic and architectural, as well as excavations and metal detection surveys. We unearthed a treasure trove of wartime material, including cartridges and bullets, ammunition boxes, anti-gas cream, primus stoves, a camp radio used to listen in to BBC broadcasts, a pair of British army boots, regimental badges, grave markers and so on – a total of more than 1,800 artefacts that tell the story of the battle and the human stories, too.

It’s fascinating how so many tales intertwine. Fourteen months ago, I took the kids for a day out to the National Arboretum in Cannock, England, where I grew up, and there I saw a memorial to the 18th Division. Halfway around the world, I saw the same names coming up.

Then, I took a trip out to Linton, near Cambridge, and saw a war memorial with the name of a man who died right here during the fight for Adam Park, one Sgt Orton Sydney Tofts; his name also appears on a grave at Changi, and I marvelled to myself: “I know the spot where he was killed… it’s under the condo we live in!”

Have you and the TAPP involved the residents of the Adam Park estate in your research?

As we needed access to their front gardens, we could not have done our research without the cooperation of the Adam Park residents. They have been very helpful and we’re lucky to have such good relationships with them. In fact, I’ve become the sort of informal entertainment at several dinner parties.

How can our readers find out more?

Visit the National Library’s Four Days in February exhibition, which was launched in February and runs through to June this year.

Not only is it the culmination of our final project publication, but it forms an important part of events to commemorate the fact that 2012 is the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore.

What comes next for you?

I’m looking forward to TAPP 2! During our investigations, this project has grown arms and legs and perhaps raised as many question as it has answered.

One particularly tantalising enigma is the location of the POWs’ chapel in an upstairs room of one of the 19 houses. Its main feature is a mural, of which a Captain Andrew was the artist, and a sketch of this mural was done by a Robert Mitchell, so we know exactly what it looked like. There’s every chance that it still exists, perhaps hidden under decades’ worth of paint.

Another point of interest is the Shinto shrine on MacRitchie Reservoir. Though it was bombed by the Japanese before they departed, its concrete steps and stone plinth are still standing. I wonder how many expats – or Singaporeans, for that matter – are aware that the stone steps up to the obelisk at Bukit Batok were also built by the POWs.

Visit the National Library’s Four Days in February exhibition, which was launched in February and runs through to June this year.