The Forbidden Hill

We paid a visit to Fort Canning Park yesterday afternoon. It was once the home of Stamford Raffles when he built his residency there in 1823 and named it Government Hill. During the early years of Singapore's history this strategic location was the site of grand palaces protected by high walls and swamps. The Majapahit princes who ruled Singapura in the 14th century were buried there. (Archaeological excavations in the area have uncovered remains from the period - and it was rumoured that Royal spirits haunted the place). At that time Fort Canning was known as Bukit Larangan (The Forbidden Hill) because no commoner was allowed there. Raffles chose the site because it was a good vantage point for spotting enemy movements at sea. In 1936 an underground command centre was built there as the nerve centre for British Military operations in South East Asia. We entered this 30 ft. deep, bomb-proof bunker with its maze-like complex of 26 rooms and corridors, now called 'The Battle Box', for a rather haphazard tour of the place. It was here that Lieutenant General Percival, commander of the British forces, decided to surrender to the Japanese on 15th February 1942.

This wax tableau re-creates the event. Other life-size recreations are contained in more rooms.

This is a map of Singapore showing the military situation in the few days leading up to the surrender.

Wartime leader Winston Churchill called the ignominious surrender to the Japanese "The worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history". But contrary to what the history books traditionally purvey, the British military in Singapore and Malaysia were not caught napping by the Japanese. They'd even drawn up a detailed battle plan, code-named 'Matador' to stop the invaders who were expected to land along Thailand's eastern coastline at the isthmus of Kra and in north-eastern Malaya. But 'Operation Matador' was never launched. It was stalled repeatedly by Churchill who wanted the scarce resources of aeroplanes, troops, and other equipment diverted to his other priority areas, such as Russia and The Middle East.

As the 70th Anniversary of the fall of Singapore is imminent, several other events will be taking place. One of which was the launch of two special exhibitions at the National Library Building yesterday evening. My friend, Dahlia Shamsuddin, who is the President of the Singapore Heritage Society, invited me to this launch. The subjects were '4 Days in February - Adam Park, the Last Battle' and 'Images of Internment - The Eye and Art of William Haxworth'. Hundreds of poppies were strewn around the centre-piece and scores of the artist's sketches and watercolours were displayed. Of interest to me were descriptions of how he managed to obtain colours for his paintings and other materials for the drawings. Here's just a few:

It was a really good exhibition - and fascinating from an artistic and military point of view, as I was a soldier and artist whilst doing my National Service in Singapore. And I also knew several people who had been interned at Changi gaol during the War. Here I am at the exhibition.

This morning we decided to visit the Chinese and Japanese Gardens at Jurong on the west of Singapore. As it was quite early - we needed to get back for a special lunch - we took a taxi to avoid the rush hour on the MRT (Underground) - and almost had the place to ourselves. These gardens are styled after Beijing's Summer Palace. The landscaping, inspired by the Sung Dynasty, is a harmonious blend of natural elements.

I especially liked the Twin Pagodas.

And the steps leading up to the enormous 7 Storied Pagoda.

The Garden of Beauty is a Suzhou-style bonsai garden with more than 1,000 bonsai - one of the largest collections outside China.

After a while we walked over the Bridge of Double Beauty to the adjacent Japanese Garden and tarried awhile in the shade by this little red bridge.

So much to see, and with the accent on simplicity, the park exudes tranquility with its Zen rock gardens, stone lanterns, ponds and shrubs. Here's just a few of the many photographs I took during our wanderings.

And so on to the long walk back through the Chinese Garden to the MRT station and finally home to the Wheelhouse at the Tanglin Club for lunch with Sultana Nora of Johor and friends Jill and Jeff Allan. I've known The Sultana for over 35 years from the time when I became 'The Court Painter to the Sultan' Not an official title I might add. But as I'd painted many portraits of Sultan Ismail, both miniatures and large oils, and several of the two Sultanas (one died - he didn't have two at once) and various Princesses, the title stuck. In fact my very first painting accepted at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London was of the Sultan.

We had a very nice lunch, if a bit noisy with the enlargement of the Wheelhouse.

Now our holiday is just about at an end - we leave for England early on Saturday morning. It's been great - I've met many old friends, been to places I hadn't seen before, eaten some memorable meals, been entertained royally, and hopefully shown my young friend what great places Singapore and Thailand are. My next blog will be so boring - best not bother to read it!