Most of us had studied History as a subject in our secondary schooldays and learnt about the Japanese occupation of Malaya and Singapore during World War II (WW11) but little did I realised how much emotions that this visit to the revamped Changi Chapel and Museum had evoked.
The Chapel and Museum have been here since 2001. The Museum honors Allied prisoners-of-war (POWs) held in Changi Prison camp during the Japanese Occupation in WWII. Their stories are told with an impressive collection of personal artifacts and news coverage. In 2018, the museum was closed for a complete revamp. It was reopened recently on 19 May 2021 with an expanded collection of artefacts, a more immersive experience to tell the heartwrenching personal stories of the POWs held at Changi Prison during WWII. The stories suddenly became a reminder of how much sufferings there was during the war.
Remember the atrocities of Japanese occupation and the treatment of the prisoners. Least we forget what occurred here. With objects that hold such riveting tales to tell, there was no dull moment in my journey through the Museum.
The overall look of entrance to the Changi Chapel and Museum.
The revamped museum features eight exhibition zones. The first zone, Changi Fortress, provides some context for how Changi became a place of internment in tracing how Changi developed from an area of swamp and forest, into a place for leisure and then into a military cantonment, setting the scene for the role that Changi played during the war. Here the visitor will be greeted by a projection that sets the context for the museum’s narrative as well as maps, and photographs related to Changi’s early days.
Zone 2: Fallen Fortress, looks at the Fall of Singapore and its aftermath. Among the artefacts of interest is a well preserved chronometer from the HMS Bulan, a cargo ship that was involved in the evacuation. It left Singapore on 11 February 1942 with a load of civilian evacuees, arriving safely in Batavia after steaming for four days during which time it was attacked.
Zone 3: The Interned looks a the stories of the men, women and children who were interned. Some 48,000 of whom were marched to Changi in the days after the surrender with the civilians interned in Changi Prison and the troops in various camps in the area.
Zone 4: Life as a POW recalls how life would have been as a prisoner. Changi Prison is a focal point with remnants of the prison — a place of civilian internment up to May 1944 when civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp. The prison served as the POW camp after this.
As part of the new immersive experience, visitors can also step into a recreated Changi Prison cell, which features an original Changi prison door from the 1930s. The small cell, intended to hold a single prisoner, held up to four prisoners during the period of internment.
The re-created prison cell (smaller than the size of a room in a Build-To-Order flat) includes speakers at various points at which historical recordings of conversations between the internees.
These artefacts tell is amazing. Such bravery, such heartbreak, but such stories of great humanity - despite all the fear and the terrible conditions people supported each other, and shared their meagre rations and tried to keep spirits up. The primitive drawings provide a sketchy illustration of life in the prison and the artefacts and utensils crafted by the inmates demonstrate the ingenuity of the inmates as they struggle to survive against the terrible conditions they had to endure.
Zone 5: Resilience in Adversity provides a look at the hardship that the internees faced and how they responded to it. Among the hardships recalled in this zone are the work camps that the POWs were sent away to, including those on the so-called Death Railway on the Thai-Burma border. Also recalled was the Double Tenth Incident which began on 10 October 1943, involving the interrogation of civilian internees by the Kempeitai in Changi Prison and the likes of Elizabeth Choy in the old YMCA. The incident occurred after the successful Allied commando raid behind enemy lines in the harbour known as Operation Jaywick.
A British internee returned to the museum decades after the war to recreate the murals he’d painted on the walls of the original chapel – a moving insight into how those held prisoner found hope and comfort in any way possible.
The replica murals.
Zone 6: Creativity in Adversity looks at how creative expression played a huge role in helping prisoners cope with their circumstances. Art and craft, theatrical performances, music, sports and even educational pursuits, played an important role in the process and the zone showcases some of the efforts in this area. The Changi University provided education for many POWs in the early days of internment.
Zone 7: Liberation which followed the surrender of Japan on 15 August 1945 and the subsequent British reoccupation of Singapore, brought a three and a half year chapter of captivity to an end. The zone is where the immediate aftermath and its impact on internees is looked at.
Zone 8: Legacies, the legacy of Changi as a prison camp, is remembered. Here, the names and stories of the internees call be called up on interactive screens. There is also a running count of internees and view some artefacts that were produced to remember how they had survived the internment.
This tranquil Chapel was originally in changi prison grounds and was moved to its present location. This has long been the centrepiece of the Museum, even before the makeover. It may be a replica of the original that was built by POWs within prison walls (the original was relocated to Australia after the war), it's still regarded as a sombre remembrance of the men and women imprisoned in Changi during WWII. The refurbished courtyard space now has a glass and timber canopy that not only adds a design element to the space, but retains the open-air environs of the original WWII chapels while providing shade.
Made from the casing of a 4.5” howitzer shell and strips of brass from camp workshops, the Changi Cross was a feat of the POWs’ resourcefulness and ingenuity. Designed by Reverend Eric Cordingly, it was made by Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden with Sapper Tim Hemmings using a sharpened steel umbrella spike to engrave the badges of the four regiments making up the congregation of St George’s POW Church. The cross has been loaned on a permanent basis to Changi Chapel and Museum by Reverend Cordingly’s family.
Today, the Chapel continues to pay tribute to the men and women who gave their lives during the occupation. The murals on the Chapel walls have been painstakingly recreated, and the Chapel also houses original artefacts from the period donated by POWs and their relatives. During those dark days, the POWs found comfort through religious expression. The Christians of different denominations in the prison became united under their hardship, erecting the chapel as a place of worship and embellishing it with murals as a symbol of hope.
The back of the Chapel.
Although it lies some distance away from the city centre, the Changi Chapel and Museum is a worthwhile point of pilgrimage for those who wish to honour the memory of these brave men and women who retained their courage in the face of overwhelming suffering and danger. The Chapel and Museum are stoic reminders of a bleak chapter in Singapore’s past, one that has left an indelible mark on the psyche of this modern nation. The Museum is also put together with dedication in order for those of today can understand what others in the past suffered. The personal stories of the suffering endured by some of the inmates under the Japanese occupation are quite poignant.
The Changi Chapel and Museum is located along Upper Changi North Road, just several meters from Singapore’s main prison. You will pass the high walls on the way to the Museum where the story will unfold. They have a website which you can browse online and to commemorate the reopening of the Changi Chapel and Museum, all visitors will enjoy free admission until 30 May 2021. Due to crowd regulation for safe-distancing, visitors are encouraged to pre-book your admission by time slots here to reduce waiting time.
Lucky for us, Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) does not enforce the closure of museums and galleries in Singapore. If you find yourself with some free time, and you are not quite sure what to do, I recommend a trip to the Changi Chapel and Museum, because not only will you come away with new knowledge, it is sure to be an unforgettable experience for you too!