Saturday, July 18, 2015

Singapore Botanic Gardens

click for more photos of steps built by Australian POWs
On July 4, 2015, Singapore's Botanic Gardens became an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Established since 1859, the 74-hectare Singapore Botanic Gardens is thrice the age of the Singapore nation-state. It joins the ranks of picturesque, historically valuable sites around the world such as Italy’s Cinque Terre, the UK's Kew Gardens, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and the Great Wall of China.

For this blog, its wartime history is what is fascinating. This history was included, unlike in Japan's UNESCO application, in Singapore's description of the site and its application.

On February 15, 1942 Singapore fell to Imperial Japanese forces. Within a few days of the Japanese occupation, Professor Hidezo Tanakadate of Tohoku University assumed control of the Gardens and Museums, and asked some of the senior staff who were not in uniform to resume their work in the Gardens. Other staff members were not as fortunate, and were sent to work on the Siam-Burma Railway, where many lost their lives.

The Japanese kept the Gardens as a center of research activity. This was made possible because the Gardens and Japanese staff shared a common goal and belief in preserving the cultural and scientific heritage of Singapore. Their motives were different, but both placed science above animosity. The result was preservation of the Gardens and its invaluable research properties.

Kwan Koriba, Botany Professor from the Imperial University of Kyoto, became Director in December 1942. With a background in the relations between plant behavior and climate, Koriba immersed himself in research on the growth habits of selected Malayan trees using both the Garden’s Rain Forest and the Nature Reserves and produced a scientific paper entitled “Periodicity of Tree-growth in the Tropics”.

During the war, a set of brick steps down to the Plant House were built by Australian POWs. In August 1995, upon the 50th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities, a group of veteran POWs from Australia came to the Gardens to examine the steps they had built with bricks marked with arrows. The POWs had made bricks at a brickworks in Changi Prison.

Marks of defiance 
As an act of rebellion against their Japanese captors, the POWs carved arrows into the bricks to show that the staircases belonged to the state instead of the soldiers. The bricks were state property, they were not.

The Japanese were likely not aware of the meaning of the arrows, and if discovered, the prisoners would probably have been punished severely. Today, the arrows serve as a reminder of their bravery at a time of great hardship.

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