Visiting Memories at Old Ford Factory

On the afternoon of 4 July 2006, about 20 LAS members visited the old Ford Factory at Upper Bukit Timah for a guided tour conducted by the National Archives of Singapore. The building has a historic significance, as it was the venue where the defeated British Forces in Malaya surrendered to the Japanese Army on 15 February 1942.

Upon arrival, we were each warmly welcomed by Ms Irene Lim, Deputy Director, National Archives. Whilst waiting for the tour to commence, some members tested their knowledge in an interactive exhibit, History in Numbers, answering questions displayed on multiple monitor screens.

Mr Pitt Kuan Wah, Director of the National Archives then began the tour by providing a background on the project. He explained that while the Reflections at Bukit Chandu Interpretative Centre focused on the last battles in the defense of Singapore fought by the Malay Regiment, the Memories at Old Ford Factory Gallery would bring the visitor back to the fateful day of Singapore’s surrender by the British and the beginning of three years and eight months of hardship under the Japanese Occupation.

He went on to explain more about the factory and the restoration work. Originally built by Ford Motor Works in October 1941, the factory was Southeast Asia’s first car assembly plant. However, due to the war, it operated for just 2 months. As a result of urban re-development, condominiums now occupy the land where parts of the factory, which was 10 times larger in the past, once stood. Following many years of neglect, the building was gazetted as a national monument and restored at the cost of S$10 million. During the renovation, extensive reconstruction was required to rectify the poor condition of the hollow and porous walls. Waterproofing and insulation materials were also applied to the roof. A special effort was made to preserve the facade of the art deco building. Original mosaic tiles were also used for the floor with chairs and benches salvaged from the Supreme Court Building. All in all, the restoration took about 15 months for the buildings housing the Exhibition Galleries. In addition, a new two and a half storey Archive Repository was also constructed.

In line with its origins as a factory, the restored building adopted an industrial theme with extensive use of metal pegboards for the display panels. Furthermore, to assist in the recovery of recurrent costs, solar energy panels and a rainwater collection system were installed to provide electrical power and irrigation of the crop garden respectively. LED lighting was also employed as they require less energy and provide white light without heat or ultraviolet radiation.

The Exhibition Galleries were developed from over 300 oral history interviews, gleaned from 3,000 hours of recording. Despite extensive use of tunneling to increase space and to guide visitors through a virtual time tunnel, the small gallery space available meant that not all of the stories could be related via displays. As such, a publication, The Syonan Years – Singapore Under Japanese Rule 1942 -1945 and a series of twelve specially commissioned video documentaries were produced to extend the Occupation story even further. As space was at a premium, exhibits and artifacts could be found even on the ceiling itself.

Many of us accustomed to viewing the Surrender Chambers on Sentosa, replete with wax figures in full military regalia, would be surprised to find a rather empty room comprising of just a table, a set of chairs and a wall clock showing 6.10pm. This stark contrast is deliberate. Instead, silent archival film footage of the actual event from both the British and Japanese perspectives overlays the window of the Board Room to encourage stimulation, interpretation and to allow reflection.

After viewing the galleries, we were shown pictures documenting the “before and after” of the renovation works. It was clear that a lot of effort was expended to restore the building to its current state. Further down the corridor, a long flight of staircases brought the group to a comfortable 77-seat AV Theatre where a documentary of the War Crimes Trials by Kenneth Liang was screened.

Taking a short walk across to the Repository Building, we were shown the climate controlled rooms containing rows of compact shelving, sufficient to accommodate 20 years of archival materials. In an unexpected display, Mr Pitt proceeded to demonstrate the tensile strength of the metal shelving by standing on one of them which stood firm.

The entire group then entered the cabin of a cavernous lift for the second level. Upon exiting, we were treated to a generous display of desserts made from tapioca and pineapple; a prelude to a tour of the food crops grown during the Japanese Occupation. At the end of the tea, a token of appreciation was presented to Mr Pitt by Miss Sylvia Yap, President of the LAS.

The final part of the tour was the Wartime Garden situated at the rear of the building where important food crops during the war, such as rice, tapioca, bananas and even lallang were being cultivated. Of special significance were the rice plants whose seedlings were taken from Endau. This was one of the historic settlements where to allay the increasing food shortage in the city, civilians from Singapore were encouraged to emigrate by the Japanese. An interesting use of squashed bananas to support the Anti-Japanese Movement is documented in the story boards which I will leave the reader to discover.

Over at another part of the garden were 44 stalks of the national flower, Vanda Miss Joachim, each stalk signifying a month of hardship endured by the population. The tour concluded with souvenirs presented to the participants by Mr Pitt. All in all, the Memories at Old Ford Factory made for a very interesting visit. It is a fitting monument to how creativity tempered with the will to survive will see one through the most difficult of times.

Contributed by Kenneth Lim