Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Battle Box at Fort Canning

It was known as Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill), then Government Hill, and now Fort Canning Park. Built in 1938, the Battle Box of World War II lies under within. Now that the historic bunker has been refurbished and reopened, we strolled by to take a look at its changes. Check tour timings online and just turn up to grab tickets. A tour can probably take up to 30 people.

Instead of NParks as administrator, there's a new private operator in Singapore History Consultants. They cleaned it out, rectified leaks, and installed new generators and updated the air-conditioning system. All spruced up. Your S$18 admission fee is worth it in this heat and humidity. The bunker certainly smelt a lot better! Our one-hour tour with 25 adults totally over-ran to 90 minutes.

Apparently, instead of focusing on going through the rooms in the bunker, the new operator wished to tell the stories surrounding the British's decision to surrender and ultimate fall of Singapore to Japanese forces. We were shown two short videos of interesting war footage with rather bad narration. In the future, there'll be more multi-media 3D ambient soundscape thingamajigs. Right now, those aren't up and running yet. It was a guided tour, and we weren't given time to wander through the rooms on our own. Sure, there's no cellphone signal down here except at the 'cat ladder'; we might get lost, but if the directional signs are clear enough, we'll be fine.

"No photo-taking," they said. "No note-taking." Zzzzzzz. No note-taking too? Thought I heard things! That no photography rule again. My bugbear. If museums, galleries and art fairs allow photo-taking (without flash) of their beautiful million-dollar paintings and sculptures, what this new operator's problem? It's a bunker. There's nothing to hide. I understand it could be a tactic to have no photos and have people come and see for themselves what's changed, and buy the books at the Visitors' Centre. BUT REALLY? In this day and age?! Pfffft.

It's a great effort. Always, it's about how we can do better. Like I said, this is a bunker. Its 27 rooms (previously 29) and what used to be in it are still the attraction. Tell all the stories you want, but if there isn't a strong curation of focus in the vast content available, we're better off reading a book, for example, Romen Bose's very informative 'Secrets of the BattleBox'. An excerpt from the early part of the book,

Jim Howard, an Australian military photographer during the war, parachuted into Singapore on 28 August 1945, days before the official Japanese surrender, and entered the bunker complex, where he saw Japanese soldiers occupying these rooms and using the communications facilities. Obviously, the equipment was not sufficiently destroyed by the surrendering British as the Japanese were still able to use the signals equipment. Howard noted the rooms nearby were barely furnished and the Orderlies Room had bunks and were occupied by Japanese guards who also cooked there, with the stench of ammonia in the air, the result of someone using the inner recesses of the bunker as a public latrine.

Grinned when our guide mentioned about communications operators in the bunker taking 45 minutes for a phone call to be placed through to Kuala Lumpur back then. I wasn't smirking at the horrible speed just 70-odd years ago, but at how the guides have probably been trained with nuggets of information for use on these briefings. And they probably have to read Romen Bose's book (and a few other historical texts), which mentioned the same snippet of information.

We have a suggestion for the guides who have to wear a tie and a jacket in this heat even though the bunker is nicely air-conditioned- do not use "fun fact" when describing torture of civilians under the Japanese regime. I almost gagged when our guide said that, twice. The friends picked it up too. But we didn't feel like being confrontational. Maybe he was nervous. Perhaps guides should consider using 'interesting' instead. I was really keen to know more about the latrines. Still am! Any information on that would have been really fun facts.

There were latrines provided in the underground bunker, one for the use of officers and the others for non-commissioned officers and men. There were no facilities for women as the majority of the bunker's personnel were male and there were no female clerks working in the Battlebox. Because they were heavily used and constantly clogging up, by the time of the Battle for Singapore in February 1942, the facilities were no longer useable and the stench from the toilets was making it hard to work in the Battlebox. Much of the toilet remains intact with the toilet bowls and urinals still standing. 
At the junction in front of the latrines is a concrete pedestal. What this was used for is still unknown. 

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