A brush with Changi

by Listener Archive / 20 December, 2012
In the 70th anniversary year of the Fall of Singapore, Judith Doyle visits Changi Museum in memory of an aunt who left a poignant legacy.
One of Gladys Tompkins’s paintings of Changi at night
One of Gladys Tompkins’s paintings of Changi at night.

Some people are there for the Orchard Rd shopping strip. Some to enjoy a singapore sling at Raffles Hotel. Some just to relax by a swimming pool while taking a break from a long flight to Europe. Me? When in Singapore, I go on a pilgrimage. My journey takes me to Changi Museum, which is not far from the airport. It commemorates those who were imprisoned during World War II after Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942. As 2012 is the 70th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, it felt especially appropriate for me to revisit this little museum in memory of a long-dead family member who was interned in Changi Prison.

My aunt Gladys Tompkins (1893-1984), from Hamilton, left a poignant legacy of water colour paintings from her three and a half years of internment. Our family donated copies to Changi Museum when it opened in 2001 (the originals are with the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington).

My aunt nursed in Malaya (as it was then) during the first three years of the war when the conflict seemed a long way away. But everything changed when Japan attacked. There was shelling and bombardment day and night. My aunt, with many others, rushed south to Singapore, where the bombing continued until the fateful day of capitulation in February 1942. She went into internment in March 1942. Among the few possessions she managed to take with her was a box of watercolour paints. They became her lifeline.

The museum is small and it focuses on those desperate times leading up to, and after, the Fall of Singapore. Black and white photos, letters, personal possessions, drawings and paintings are a reminder of the grim lives of the men in the military prison at Changi; the horror of the Thailand- Burma Death Railway; the shocking treatment meted out to the civilian population; and the tough day-to-day experiences of the civilian internees in their separate male and female prisons over those years.

Gladys Tompkins’s painting of the Changi prison walls
Gladys Tompkins’s painting of the Changi prison walls.

A special corner is devoted to paintings and drawings by both civilian and military prisoners. The lives of these artists are also outlined here, including that of well-known artist Ronald Searle, who was in Changi Prison before being sent to work on the Death Railway.

Several of my aunt’s watercolours are displayed in this section and I’m shown many of her other works, mounted on board, behind the scenes. She painted the prison building in both daytime and night-time; the view through her prison bars; the different angles of the prison roof; a sentry box; the prison courtyard and the “clothesline dormitory” where the women draped their mosquito nets over an outdoor clothesline and slept beneath them.

Several paintings show the attempts she and her friends made to grow fruit from pips or seedlings – papaya and banana were especially successful. Fruit was so precious in the prison that when it was ripening, she or a friend would sleep beside it to guard against theft. One of her works, Moonlight Scene, won her a “medal” in a prison exhibition (the medal was a piece of tin, carefully engraved).

She even painted the prison dustbins, which provided a bizarre meeting place for husbands and wives or friends. Although meetings or communication between men and women were permissible in the very early days behind bars, it was soon banned. However, by careful rostering for “rubbish duty” in the camps, a couple could enjoy a few moments together.

Most often my aunt painted the Crypt – the basement room where she and seven friends lived and slept for nearly three years. Later paintings showed Sime Road Camp, where they spent their last year of internment.

Among the most touching exhibits in the museum are the replica Changi quilts that the women got permission to make as gifts for the male internees. Individual squares were embroidered and signed, their signatures giving the vital information to their men that they were alive. My aunt, who was unmarried, created many of the designs.

In a quiet peaceful part of the museum is a replica of the Changi Murals – religious scenes painted by a prisoner on the walls of a chapel in the men’s prison. After the war, they were plastered over and forgotten, but during renovations in 1958 they were rediscovered and restored, with replicas reproduced in the museum.

Gladys Tompkins many years before her internment
Gladys Tompkins many years before her internment.

Also in the museum is my aunt’s book, Three Wasted Years: Women in Changi Prison, which was published in 1977 when she was 82 and almost blind. It is dedicated to my father. In it, she describes her working years in Johore; the mayhem and chaos as the war caught up with them; the flight to “Fortress Singapore”; and her long years of internment.

My last stop in the museum is at the adjoining chapel. This little building is a reconstruction of the one prisoners built in prison. It always has tributes from descendants of those who suffered in Changi. I add my aunt’s name to the tribute board.

On a previous visit, I experienced first-hand the respect present-day Singaporeans have for those commemorated here. Chatting to the taxi driver on the way back to my hotel, I told him why I had been visiting Changi Museum. When I offered him the fare, he shook his head. “No money, thank you. In memory of your aunt.”
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