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Commemorating The Hardship of Singapore’s Forefathers – How Do Singapore’s Television Series Remember The Japanese Occupation?

17 August 2020

Commemorating The Hardship of Singapore’s Forefathers – How Do Singapore’s Television Series Remember The Japanese Occupation?

On 15 August 1945, the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, bringing the end of the Second World War. For Singapore and Malaysia, the surrender also marked the impending end of four years of Japanese Occupation, with the island returning to British control in the following month.

Since 1984, Total Defence Day has looked to commemorate the hardship suffered by Singapore’s forefathers during this brutal period. Coupled with civic education, the Japanese Occupation has penetrated the national consciousness rather effectively. Still, it’s one thing to know about the atrocities, and another thing to feel it.

There is only so much that school programmes such as assembly skits and having green bean soup for recess can achieve in punctuating the key message. It’s perhaps with the help of entertainment media, such as through the journeys of characters in television series, where this could be supplemented.

While I would love to talk about the local feature films that depict the Japanese Occupation, the issue stems from how there just doesn’t seem to be many based around the period. Besides mentions in films, a notable exception is Kelvin Tong’s 1942, an atmospheric horror film set during the war. Also interesting to note is the collection of Australian productions set in wartime Singapore, such as 1982’s The Highest Honor and 2013’s Canopy. These, however, naturally take on a more Australian perspective. 

Together with short films, much of local media’s retelling of the Japanese Occupation comes from television series. Picking from Netflix and meWATCH’s extensive catalogue, these series shot not-so-long ago are not only entertaining throwbacks, but are also where the experiences of Singapore’s forefathers are best translated, appreciated and memorialised. 

However, it’s regrettable that most of these series – and local series, in general – represent a mainly Chinese perspective. This, despite the countless everyday and celebrated heroes of this period from all walks of life that should have their voices heard and echoed.

While there are definitely some historical liberties taken for entertainment and drama sake, these series serve as important portals to a critical time in SIngapore’s history – lest we ever forget to not take the country for granted.

The Little Nyonya (2008 – 2009)

(Yue Niang’s family under the mercy of Japanese soldiers / Image credit: Mediacorp)

Recently remade as the first China television series directed by a Singaporean, the original local production was a phenomenal success lauded by critics and the masses alike. The period piece spans seven decades from the 1930s onwards. It follows the trials and tribulations of the eponymous character while presenting several insights into colonial life.

Yue Niang, the series’s protagonist, has a Nyonya mother and Japanese father, illuminating the lesser-known fact that there were Japanese in Singapore during colonial times. In fact, the rickshaw – the hand-drawn taxis synonymous with colonial Singapore – were brought to the island by the Japanese. While early Japanese residents were mainly sex workers, more would arrive to take on several trades including tailoring and photography by the 1930s.

An early focal point of the series is the discrimination Yue Niang’s father, Yamamoto, faces. With Imperial Japan invading their motherland, the local Chinese are furious with the young couple, vandalising his photography studio and accusing him of being a spy. Yamamoto soon leaves for Japan to handle familial issues before returning years later just as the Japanese drop bombs over the island.

(Imperial Japan’s invasion of China since 1931 left overseas Chinese furious with the Japanese / Image credit: Mediacorp)

While brief, the series does an excellent job in portraying the brutality of the war for Singapore, with potent moments punctuated by the casualties of side-characters and graphic yet safe-for-TV scenes. The family’s suffering is sharply contrasted with the experience of the rich family that ousted Yue Niang and her mother before all escaping the war on a luxurious boat to London.

Overall, The Little Nyonya glosses over much of the Japanese Occupation. With a main character orphaned by the war, it uses this backdrop in the series’s first few episodes to develop Yue Niang as an immensely rootable protagonist. Still, what it doesn’t gloss over, including the locals’ thoughts and emotions in the war’s preluding months, are fascinatingly accurate – all told through a unique, largely Peranakan perspective.

Catch the series Netflix and meWATCH.

The Price of Peace (1997)

(The series features a dramatic account of Lim Bo Seng’s instigation of the 1938 workers’ strike at the Dungun tin mine / Image credit: Mediacorp)

Perhaps the event that is most emblematic of Imperial Japan’s atrocities in Singapore is the Sook Ching. With the death toll estimated to range between 25000 to 50000, the massacre continues to reverberate today with how it shattered countless families. 

There have been numerous Mandarin language series depicting this period, with none more massive in scale and depth than 1997’s The Price of Peace. From Lim Bo Seng to Elizabeth Choy, the series’s 32 episodes prominently features the exploits of Singapore war heroes while retelling the Japanese Occupation through the eyes of fictional characters.

Compared to the other series on this list, The Price of Peace’s sole dedication to the conflict allows it to dive into detail the various facets of life both just before and during the Occupation. The series goes far in detailing the savagery of the Japanese, with graphic scenes that probably wouldn’t be approved by the censors today; there is practically an entire episode gruesomely showcasing torture methods.

(The series goes the distance in showing Japanese atrocities during the Occupation / Image credit: Mediacorp)

While episodes are based around historical events, the series does take several liberties at points for drama’s sake. It also adopts an overwhelmingly Chinese perspective to the war with almost no minority in frame; similar Mandarin language series 2001’s In Pursuit of Peace does a slightly better job in this aspect. 

From the toothbrush moustache donned by the Japanese to the rah-rah speeches by the leads, The Price of Peace can feel heavy-handed and overwhelmingly propagandistic. However, its gripping drama and historical factoids could still keep viewers coming back for more. Certainly more importantly is how the series brings to life the resentment and animosity the local Chinese – particularly with the older generation – have about this dark period of time. 

Catch the series on Netflix and meWATCH.

Vyjayanthi (2010)

(Silver Ang plays the titular character / Image credit: Mediacorp)

Saving the best for last, 2011’s Vyjayanthi is the most unique and fascinating local series about the Japanese Occupation. Played by Silver Ang, the titular character was born right as the bombs fell over Singapore. After her parents were killed as part of Sook Ching, their Indian neighbours decided to adopt the mute child and raise her as their own.  

While its depiction of the war is brief, the Tamil language series boldly explores the uniquely local legacy left by the Occupation. Not only does Vyjayanthi have to navigate life with her disability, she also has to contend with drama and discrimination arising from the colour of her skin. Nevertheless, the care and support endlessly provided by her family would prove that there is no challenge too great for them.

While researching for this article, I couldn’t find anything on the Internet about stories similar to Vijayanthi’s. This, despite me knowing for a fact they are very much a reality. As much as we hate to admit it, most Singaporeans are insulated within their own cultural bubbles, and it’s exactly these stories of cross-culturalism that are at the greatest risk of being forgotten.

(Early on, the series captures the multiculturalism of colonial life / Image credit: Mediacorp)

Unlike most of the other, big-budget local productions, the series proudly showcases Singapore’s multiculturalism, while boldly tackling the tensions that have been the side effect of this dynamism. At its heart, Vyjayanthi is about overcoming the differences we are attributed with to reach out to a common identity; celebrating the differences alone every July may only perpetuate the divides. 

The Japanese Occupation may have shown the worst of humanity but it has also illuminated the very best of it. By reaching out to this past, stories like Vyjayanthi’s are essential in recapturing the elusive ‘kampung spirit’ and in propelling Singapore forward. 

Catch the series on Netflix and meWATCH.

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Presenting the 2020 Film School Graduate Productions: Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.