Singapore: Joo Chiat and Kranji Commonwealth War Cemetery

20 Aug

We breakfasted yesterday at an original kopi tiam on Joo Chiat Road, Singapore, 50 metres from our hotel. Joo Chiat’s gorgeous old shophouses still operate as mom and pop grocery stores, just as they did decades ago.

Today karaoke bars, cupcake bakeries, nail spas and vegan restaurants (more on that lucky find later) have moved into the neighbourhood. For the predominantly Chinese Singaporean residents there is still a hell money stove on the street to burn fake bills for loved ones who’ve passed on to ensure they are solvent in the afterlife.

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We chose a table on the pavement and ordered our favourites. Part way through spicy masala dhosai and rota canai the sky darkened. The green canvas canopy was swiftly wound down with typical Singaporean efficiency and we continued our Singapore eight dollar breakfast uninterrupted by the sudden downpour.

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This stopover en route to Heathrow and our late summer six-week European sojourn is part of Stuart’s health risk management policy. Since his mid-flight stroke two years ago he dreads flying more than seven hours at a stretch and breaks the journey whenever possible. This time he has the added concern of an unexplained DVT (deep vein thrombosis) in his left calf. Flying Qantas to Singapore then BA to Heathrow seemed a good strategy.

No complaints from me. Nostalgia for South East Asia is as strong as ever. Smells, sights, and sounds of KL, Singapore, Jakarta, and Semarang flood back prompted by incense wafting from a tiny wall shrines, Mynah birds fighting over crumbs, or the sight of a contented bapak nursing his teh tarik reading ‘Berita Harian’.

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Venue Hotel was the right price, location, sparkling clean and had the requisite strong wifi signal. The only negative was the room size. With just 20cms clearance between the base of the bed and the wall careful manouvres were needed to navigate into and out of the bed. In future ’boutique’ will be read as code for teeny tiny rooms. Emma at the front desk worked both the evening and day shift. Her permanent smile and lots of helpful information made our visit more enjoyable.

The vegan restaurant, Loving Hut, was only a few shop fronts away. It’s one of 20 international vegan restaurants bearing the slogan ‘Be vegan, make peace’. A contented tummy makes for a more peacable person so there is truth in that. Certainly we were contented after our meal and slept deeply.

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Vegan Burger and Fries

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Rosewater and Lemon Cooler

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Vegan Nasi Campur

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Loving Huts international

With a full day before our second leg to London we made the pilgrimage by MRT and on foot from the southernmost part of Singapore island to its most northerly tip to visit Kranji Commonwealth War Cemetery. At this point I hand over to Stuart to continue the story.

My maternal grandfather served in the 1914-1918 war as a stretcher bearer/medical orderly. I can only assume he didn’t discuss his horrific experiences with his son, the uncle I never met. My Mother’s brother, Roy Hugh Smart, was a 21-year-old accountant with poor eyesight when he apparently talked his way into active service in WWII instead of the desk job he was qualified for. He became a Royal Artillery Gunner and died as a prisoner of the Japanese. His service record names Malaya as the location of his death however my Mother said it was actually New Britain (Rabaul, an island off the north eastern coast of Papua New Guinea). She was told Roy was taken prisoner following the surrender by the British in Singapore on February 15, 1942, transported to New Britain and died there. It’s believed the cause of his death on March 7, 1943, aged 22, was malnutrition.

The well-maintained cemetry lies on a ridge overlooking the city. It was the site of fierce fighting when the Japanese advanced via the causeway from Malaya into Singapore. Small (compared with military cemeteries in Europe) and simple on first examination, it soon becomes clear why there are not more headstones. Most of those commemorated do not have a grave. The thousands of the latter have their names engraved on the stone pillars of a memorial. The uprights represent the army, the supporting two wings represent airmen, and a short stocky spire depicts the turret of a submarine representing the sea men. Amongst them we located gunner Roy Hugh Smart.

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Fifty per cent of the names on the memorial are Indian; the rest are mainly Australian and British.

Passing the tiers of white headstones on our return walk we spotted several long rows of unnamed Australian soldiers. Further on Sharon was pulled up short by the grave of a 23-year-old British nurse who died just as the war was ending.

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As we returned to the hot, humid city in our air-conditioned taxi we tried and failed to imagine the extent of the privations and suffering they all endured. We honour them for their bravery and their sacrifice.

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