Japanese present in Singapore long before WWII

Visitors view a multimedia display at the Bicentennial Experience in Fort Canning Park.
Visitors view a multimedia display at the Bicentennial Experience in Fort Canning Park.PHOTO: ST FILE

My wife and I enjoyed the multimedia sensory experience of the Bicentennial show as it took us on a journey of Singapore's transformation over the centuries.

While the journey included the Japanese Occupation of 1942-1945, we felt that the exhibition missed a piece of history about Japan's presence in Singapore from Stamford Raffles' era to the 1930s.

Raffles had a vision for Britain to resume trading directly with Japan. Although he did not succeed, Singapore had a Japan Street from the 1820s and merchants imported Japanese goods through Dutch vessels from the 1830s.

While several Japanese families lived here from the 1860s, Singapore's predominantly male population attracted Japanese prostitutes from the 1870s. In turn, other Japanese businesses - rickshaws, department stores, coffee shops, photographers, dentists, shoemakers and insurance firms - contributed to Singapore's history.

By 1911, the 1,409 Japanese in Singapore had overtaken the Arab population of 1,226.

During the 1915 Singapore Mutiny, when Indian soldiers killed British and local residents, 200 special Japanese constables joined sailors from Japanese, Russian and French naval ships to quell the revolt.

Between the 1920s and 1930s, Japanese fishermen lived here, increasing the Japanese population to about 3,600.

The fishermen lived in the East Coast area and started the Japanese Fishing Pond in Changi.

Some of the Japanese landmarks have disappeared - Japan Street became Boon Tat Street in 1946, and the "Little Japan" area bound by Malay, Malabar and Hylam streets is now the Bugis Junction shopping mall.

Other Japanese landmarks remain. The cemetery created in 1891 in Chuan Hoe Avenue to bury members of the Japanese community in Singapore is now the Japanese Cemetery Park.

The Jinricksha Station built in 1904 stands at the corner of Neil and Tanjong Pagar roads. The Trengganu Street area has a panel indicating that it was also Yap Poon Kai or Japanese Street.

Archival records remind us of Raffles' vision for Japan trade: His 1817 book, History Of Java Volume II, had an appendix on Japan trade. A 1929 publication, Report On Japan To The Secret Committee Of The English East India Company, contained letters between Raffles and stakeholders on trading with Japan.

While there were atrocities during the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese had also contributed to Singapore's rich history from Raffles' era to the 1930s.

Peter Ling (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2019, with the headline 'Japanese present in S'pore long before WWII'. Print Edition | Subscribe