“Pearl Harbor and More”, a great title for a great collection of stories, all focused on that fateful date in 1941 when the world changed forever. A date that marks the beginning of the end of the great British, Dutch and French colonial empires in the East, of the emergence of a whole new global powerstructure and a cold war as a consequence.
We, as authors, have tried to capture some of the pivotal events that happened on that day. Not only on the US Navy base at Hawaii but in many other places, like France, Germany, Ireland, the US … and Singapore.
My contribution to the anthology takes place in that seemingly impregnable bastion of the British empire. Here is the first chapter, introducing you to Singapore life on December 6, 1941:
…. Mike Murdoch made his way through the streets of Singapore on a quiet Saturday afternoon, trying to get a feeling for the town. He wandered slowly westward from his hotel in Queen Street and, after giving Raffles Statue in Empress Place a passing nod, he came to the Singapore Cricket Club’s grounds. There, a score of white-clad people were scattered all over the field and two of them were frantically running forwards and backwards, but to what purpose he did not know. Shaking his head he walked on; the rules of that game were beyond him.
As he crossed the bridge to Fullerton Road and passed in front of the General Post Office towards Change Alley, the character of the town changed radically. Within moments he was immersed in a bustling, noisy crowd that was haggling at market stalls and rushing in and out of shops. Content to drift on this human tide, he was slowly but surely carried towards Raffles Place, the heart of the old town and his destination for today. A glance at his watch told him he still had plenty of time before his appointment with the photographer, so he sat down with a beer in a small bar, took out his notebook and jotted down his latest thoughts.
“Europe has been at war for two whole years now but the conflict barely seems to have scratched the surface of life in the British and Dutch colonies in the east. The British ‘Raj’ still sedately rules large parts of Asia. Under the swaying punkahs at Raffles, curry tiffin is served daily to the Gentlemen and Ladies of the Empire who, despite the broiling hot and humid weather, are fully dressed in tropical suits complete with starched shirts, collar and tie plus the odd Panama hat, the ladies in summer cotton dresses and large, wilting straw bonnets. In the thriving markets and shopping streets of this city, the fact that half a world away a violent war is being fought seems to be unknown. And for the Dutch it seems to be business as usual, except that the war-induced demand for oil and raw materials makes for a brisker trade.”
Taking a sip of beer, he thought about his next lines.
“Whenever someone disturbs the complacent mood in the Singapore clubs and hotels by voicing his concern about the warlike rumblings coming from far-off Japan, it is met with derisive laughter. Never will the Japanese be foolish enough to start a war, if only because of the great Royal Navy!”
He closed his notebook with a grunt and inwardly cursed his editor-in-chief for sending him to this backwater where nothing was happening! Wondering if it meant the end of his career as a senior foreign affairs correspondent, he morosely drained his glass.
“Want a refill?”
Looking up he saw a skinny, youngish-looking guy smiling broadly at him. “Hi, I’m Helmut,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m supposed to be your photographer.”
“Hi, I’m Mike. And a refill sounds good.”
“Be right back,” Helmut said and he hurried off to the bar.
“What kind of work do you normally do? Sports, general reporting, studio?” Murdoch asked over a fresh glass of beer.
“Whatever work I can get. I’m strictly freelance.” And when Murdoch raised an eyebrow, Helmut explained, “I was ‘society photographer’ with the Straits Times for a while. They sent me to photograph gowned and flower-hatted lard tubs at Government House tea parties.”
“Are you still with the Times?”
“No, I must have set an all-time record there. I did not produce a single publishable ‘society’ photograph for weeks and in the end they sacked me.”
“Now I am earning a few dollars here and there by taking pictures of tourists. I hope you’re here to hire me for something better.”
“Doubt it; doubt it very much. Nobody seems to take things seriously here, there’s no sense of urgency. Not at all like the Dutch; I passed through Batavia and you should have seen the preparations there. They must be convinced something bad is gonna happen . . .”
The rest of the story covers the events on December 7 and beyond, of smugness and the unpreparedness of the British forces; of the underestimation of a very dangerous and ruthless enemy…
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