New book tells of hardship in Malayan jungles for 3,000 from Singapore during Japanese Occupation

A photo of Ms Maureen Angus as a baby and her mother Thesie in the Bahau settlement and a 2010 photo of them (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF FIONA HODGKINS
A photo of Ms Maureen Angus as a baby and her mother Thesie in the Bahau settlement and a 2010 photo of them (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF FIONA HODGKINS
A photo of Ms Maureen Angus as a baby and her mother Thesie in the Bahau settlement (above) and a 2010 photo of them. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF FIONA HODGKINS
A photo of Ms Maureen Angus as a baby and her mother Thesie in the Bahau settlement (above) and a 2010 photo of them. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF FIONA HODGKINS
Mrs Fiona Hodgkins. -- PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Mrs Fiona Hodgkins. -- PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Settlers trying to grow crops in the Bahau settlement (above) during the Japanese Occupation. They soon found that the soil was so bad, it could not sustain farming. -- PHOTO: EURASIAN ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE
Settlers trying to grow crops in the Bahau settlement (above) during the Japanese Occupation. They soon found that the soil was so bad, it could not sustain farming. -- PHOTO: EURASIAN ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE

Eating snails and pets to survive Poor sanitation Threatened by wild animals Malaria and malnutrition

Lured by the promise of a better life, a group of about 3,000 residents here moved to an obscure part of the Malayan jungle during the Japanese Occupation.

To alleviate the food shortage in Singapore, the Japanese military administration had touted the settlement in the state of Negeri Sembilan as a beautiful, idyllic rural setting where people could grow crops and rear animals.

But a rude shock was in store. What greeted them instead was a malaria-infested swathe with soil that could not sustain farming.

After the crops failed, some resorted to eating snails, snakes and even their pets to survive.

Sanitation was also poor, and some succumbed to malaria and malnutrition. During their two years there, from 1943 to 1945, an estimated 500 settlers - or one in six - died.

This little known wartime episode of hardship and suffering is the subject of a new 269-page book, titled From Syonan To Fuji-Go, which will be launched on Wednesday. Syonan is short for Syonan-to, Singapore's name during the Japanese Occupation, while Fuji-Go is the settlement's Japanese name, meaning "beautiful village".

It is also known as the Bahau Catholic Colony, after a nearby town in Negeri Sembilan, and took up about 100 sq km, or about one-seventh the size of Singapore today.

People were persuaded to leave for the settlement, which was painted in newspapers then as a safe haven from the war.

Once there, however, the settlers, who were mostly Eurasian and Chinese Catholics, had to struggle for survival.

Besides having to build their own homes, roads and bridges, they also faced a severe lack of medical facilities.

At one point, supplies such as antiseptic solutions, cotton wool and bandages ran out, and the settlers had to use sheets and clothing, which were not sterile, as bandages. These soon led to infections.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the settlement was abandoned. Today, it is a palm oil and rubber plantation with no evidence of its wartime inhabitants.

The new book documents why people left for Bahau, what life was like there and how they were affected by their time there.

It is written by British national Fiona Hodgkins, 48, a tutor and educational consultant whose Eurasian mother lived in the settlement as a child. Her Caucasian father is British. About 60 per cent of the settlement's residents were known to be Eurasians.

Mrs Hodgkins, a Singapore permanent resident who has lived here for 14 years, started work on the book in 2008 in a bid to learn more about her Asian ancestry to share with her three children, aged 21, 18 and 15.

In the course of her research, she soon felt there was a broader story to be told about the settlement.

She says: "This is an important, largely unknown story in Singapore's social history. I felt I had to write it now as many of the settlers have died or are very old." Her mother died in 2004.

To put the book together, she pored over newspaper articles, private journals, memoirs and oral histories of the inhabitants.

One of her sources was the 2004 memoir Flavours Of Change, written by Mr Joe Conceicao, a former Singapore Member of Parliament and ambassador to Canberra and Moscow, who had lived in Bahau when he was about 20 years old.

In his book, Mr Conceicao, who is now 90, recounted his encounters with those who were sick and dying in Bahau.

He wrote: "We hadn't a chance... Hundreds died... in some instances malaria hit the brain, in which case the unfortunate expired, raving."

He added: "In the Bahau hospital, the burial detail appeared to be busier than the nurse or doctor, who tended to the few living who remained."

Mrs Hodgkins also interviewed 60 people connected to the settlement, some of whom have since died.

For example, Mrs Thesie Angus, then 18, lived in the colony with her newborn daughter Maureen.

They lived in a house made mostly of attap which doubled as a cafe serving Malay cakes.

The sense of isolation was what affected Mrs Angus the most.

Although she knew of social activities such as dances and get-togethers in the colony, she could not attend any. She was quoted in Mrs Hodgkins' book as saying: "I was just a housewife with a young baby, how could I go out?"

When Mrs Hodgkins interviewed them in Singapore four years ago, Mrs Angus was 85 and her daughter was 67.

They gave her some old photos of their time in Bahau, but said they had got rid of many others because they did not want the memories.

Both died about a year ago. The cause of their deaths is not known.

Many other residents, Mrs Hodgkins noted, are in their 80s or 90s and could no longer remember much of what happened.

Ms Sim Wan Hui, 47, a deputy director at National Heritage Board, which provided a grant to the book, says: "The book provides an insight into a lesser known part of Singapore's history from the perspective of settlers."

SundayLife! managed to interview two former residents, now in their 70s, who were about five years old when they lived in Bahau.

Many of the settlers later emigrated to countries such as Australia and Britain for work or studies. Some also wanted to get away from the traumatic memories that plagued them.

The stint in Bahau had clearly left some of them with emotional scars.

"In fact, some were unwilling to talk to me as they did not want to relive their painful memories," says Mrs Hodgkins.

One former resident, Mr John Chua, now in his 70s, was willing to communicate with her only in writing.

He was quoted in the book as saying: "The stay in Bahau was a very terrifying period for all of us... We were very frightened of the wild animals.

"In the daytime, we saw wild elephants, wild boars roaming in the jungles and monkeys on the trees.

"There were wild animals growling in the night as well as the hissing of snakes and other insect noises."

bang@sph.com.sg

The book launch, which is by invitation only, will be held at the National Museum of Singapore on Wednesday. The book will then be available for $28 (excluding GST) at the museum shops at the National Museum and Asian Civilisations Museum as well as at some bookshops. For more information, go to www.ellipsislearning.com