Changi Chapel Museum, Singapore

On our way to Australia from the UK we stopped in Singapore. I wanted to visit the Changi Gaol, where four quilts were made during WWII. I’ve written a song about them called “Time Flies” on the first quilting CD, and I’ve done quite a bit of research about the story.

It started with a quilt made by the Girl Scouts for their scout leader, Elizabeth Ennis during the first year of incarceration at Changi. Most of the prisoners there were civilians, caught in Singapore when the Japanese overran it and the Powers That Be in Singapore surrendered.  A Canadian, Ethel Mulvaney, also at the prison camp, thought quilting would be a good idea to keep the women occupied and perhaps serve as a way to get messages to their husbands, sons and fathers. Three embroidered signature quilts were made: one for the Australian Military Hospital, one for the British Military Hospital, and one for the Japanese Military Hospital. The thought was that if they were even-handed with their gifts, perhaps the Japanese commanders would allow the first two quilts to be delivered.

I have seen all three of these quilts: two are in Canberra, Australia (one at the War Memorial, one at the Treloar Centre), and one is at the Red Cross Headquarters in London, England. I have met Sheila (Allen) Bruhn, who wrote a book about her experiences called “Diary of a Girl in Changi” which I read as part of my research, at the Australian Quilt Study Group meeting several years ago in Canberra.  I have also met the daughter of Freddie Bloom, an American journalist whose perspective I used when I wrote the song. She published a book after the war based on her Changi journals, in the form of letters to her new husband, called “Dear Philip”. Freddie died a few months before I wrote my song.

So you can see why I was so interested in visiting the museum.

We were very very tired after our overnight flight to Singapore, and started the day with a bus tour around town. The heat and humidity struck us, and we were reminded of our 8 months stay in Darwin. There were palm trees everywhere, and lots of construction in the city. Singapore is a very modern city, and a beautiful amalgamation of several cultures. I was surprised to see lots of Hallowe’en decorations. They were putting up the huge Christmas tree outside the famous hotel: Raffles. There were also garlands celebrating the Hindu festival of Deepavali in Little India. It was a fascinating and exciting mixture.

Then we took a subway and bus out to the Changi Chapel Museum. The museum is just down the street from the new, still-operating, Changi Gaol (and, ironically, the Japanese School). The authorities tore down the original Changi Prison years ago, and re-built, leaving only a short portion of the original wall. Changi Prison is also famous for murals that were painted on its walls during WWII by an imprisoned artist. There are reproductions of the murals in the museum, because the originals are within the prison walls. Alas, I could not photograph inside the Museum, but the murals were very moving.

One panel in the museum is dedicated to the quilts, and the experience of the women internees. A local group has reproduced the Australian quilt, and there are photographs of the others.  They quote Sheila Allen, Freddie Bloom and Ethel Mulvaney in the exhibit.  These woman seem like old friends to me, and I’m glad they were mentioned.

It was very moving to see the reproduced chapel, which the internees built during the 3-1/2 years of incarceration, while they were starving, and suffering from many illnesses.  It was a fascinating visit, and I feel much closer to the story now that I’ve been there.

We returned to the airport, had a nap and a meal, and waited for our midnight flight to Australia.  The Changi Airport has been built by someone who wanted it to NOT look like an airport, I think. There are long stretches to walk, lots of high-end shops, inexpensive and expensive restaurants.  In Terminal 3 we were able to find a lounge where we could take a 3-hour nap in a darkened room, and a shower. They have built an enclosed butterfly garden in another part of the terminal, which was a mini tropical garden. Very relaxing to visit, and to rehydrate after the dry plane ride.  We were much refreshed when we boarded the plane for Adelaide, to continue our tour Down Under.

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4 Responses to “Changi Chapel Museum, Singapore”

  1. Karen O. Says:

    I haven’t checked your blog in a while, then realized how busy you’ve been! It’s been fun taking the world tour with you! Hope you’re having a great SUMMER in down under! Bring back some of the sunshine with you–it’s been awfully rainy and blustery here!

  2. py Says:

    Thank you for this post. I had visited the Changi Chapel Museum a few years ago, and was similarly moved by what I saw and experienced there.

  3. soubriquet Says:

    My father was imprisoned in Changi by the Japanese, his life afterwards was moulded by the things he endured there, and a lifetime full of care for others followed.
    He met, in Canberra, whilst attending a P.O.W. reunion as a guest of the Australian Government, Sheila Allen (nee Bruhn), one of the original girl-guide quilters, and author of “Diary of a Girl in Changi”, he spoke to me of how desperately the men hoped for news of the women and girls, not knowing if they had survived the brutality of the Japanese, of those who were on the last ships out of Singapore, struggling out to sea through a hail of bombing and gunfire.
    The quilts became a legend in the camps, the names on them listed, memorised, and passed on from man to man, a message of hope and defiance.

    My visit to Thailand and Singapore was to have been with him. He hoped to make one last visit, stand at the graves and memorials of the young men and women.who had been his comrades, who did not, like him, grow old, have families, live in freedom.

    We had a list of places to visit, flowers to leave on graves.

    I stood before the memorial listing the Alexandra Hospital nurses, and cried.

    Just before we were due to fly, my father had a bad cough. The doctor said he could not fly, a few days antibiotics and then, perhaps he could join us, his three sons, daughter and son-in law.
    Six weeks later, he was dead.

    My father’s message would be that in extreme duress, small acts of kindness can shine through, and make survival possible. We can all endure far more than we can ever imagine, if we just have hope, and faith in our fellow human beings.

    • singingquilter Says:

      Thank you for sending your experiences, and I’m sorry your father could not make his last trip to Singapore. This remains one of the most powerful stories I have encountered, where simple “women’s work” of making quilts had significant meaning for those who made them, and for those who saw them. The quilts survive, after many who were involved in their making have gone, and they remain as a lasting testament to the courage of the women in Changi.

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