150 artefacts from three private collectors showcase new perspectives on WWII

Comprising about 150 never-before-seen artefacts from three Singaporean private collectors, the event is titled "New Light on an Old Tale". ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
A standard Japanese Imperial Army issue ointment for treatment of sexually-transmitted disease. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Pages from a record book containing a complete list of local detectives who served in the Syonan Police Force raided from the Syonan Police HQ after liberation. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - The British and Japanese may have been on opposing ends during World War II but the relationship between the nations was not always adversarial.

In fact, soldiers from Britain and Japan fought alongside each other just four decades prior to their battle in the 1940s, as members of an eight-nation coalition that invaded the north of China in August 1900 to relieve foreign legations during the Boxer Rebellion.

A Japanese sake cup serves as evidence of the two nations' friendship in the 1900s, and will be on display to the public for the first time on Tuesday (Feb 15) as part of a new exhibition commemorating the 80th anniversary of Singapore's fall to the Japanese on Feb 15, 1942.

Comprising about 150 never-before-seen artefacts from three Singaporean private collectors - Mr Dave Kan, Ms Cheng Lai Yee and Mr Sng Siak Keng - the event is titled New Light On An Old Tale.

Housed in the National Archives of Singapore (NAS), next to Fort Canning Park, it captures many stories of individuals who fought in the war, as well as lesser-known aspects of life during the war years.

Among the items on display is an inconspicuous metallic tube that tells of the atrocities and realities of the Japanese Occupation.

The tube held a standard Japanese Imperial Army issue ointment for sexually transmitted diseases, a reflection of the availability of young girls and women in comfort centres to Japanese soldiers.

Also on show is a publication with a photograph of a Japanese soldier lunging at local children with a bayonet in 1945. The children were reportedly cheering the Japanese surrender, which marked the end of the Occupation.

Mr Gabriel Seow, an exhibition tour guide, said some artefacts offer a different perspective on certain events during the war. Others reinforce known narratives.

For instance, two porcelain medals shed light on why the battle of Bukit Timah between Feb 10 and 12, 1942, was especially hard fought by the Japanese.

Pointing out that Feb 11 is Japan's National Foundation Day, Mr Seow noted that it is believed that General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who led Japanese forces in their fight for Malaya, had intended to capture Singapore by that day as a gift to his nation.

The two porcelain medals on display serve as evidence of this. Both dated Feb 11, 1942, they were gifted to General Yamashita by German dictator Adolf Hitler to commemorate the capture.

The two porcelain medals on display serve as evidence of this. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Mr Ng Cher Pong, chief executive of the National Library Board (NLB), which manages NAS, thanked the three collectors whose loans made the exhibition possible, adding that he hopes more partners will step forward to help tell Singapore's stories.

Mr Seow said curators had a few weeks to put the exhibition together after NAS approached the collectors to explore potential areas for collaborations and they agreed to loan their artefacts for display. 

National Archives of Singapore exhibition tour guides, Gabriel Seow and Grace Ho (both on left) presenting the New Light on an Old Tale exhibition. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The artefacts' stories told at the exhibition are based mostly on research by the three private collectors, while NAS complemented them with oral history interviews and images from its collection.

Ms Cheng said: “For a long time, private collectors like myself have been accessing NAS resources to corroborate historical facts and details on the artefacts we collect.
“This exhibition is an excellent showcase of the synergistic relationship between a public institution and local history buffs sharing a common mission – to reclaim Singapore’s heritage.”

The Japanese sake cup serves as evidence of Britain and Japan's friendship in the 1900s. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

In conjunction with the exhibition, NAS has organised programmes including a talk in March by one of the collectors, Mr Sng, on some of the significant artefacts and the stories behind them.

A full list of talks is available at this website.

There will also be screenings by the Asian Film Archive that trace and present the historical development of World War II. More information is available at the Asian Film Archive website.

New Light On An Old Tale opens on Tuesday and is free to the public. It closes on June 30, 2022.

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