SINGAPORE: Growing up in the early 1940s, Mrs Leow Oon Geok fondly remembers how her father would take her and her siblings down High Street every Sunday.
“We would have cake and ice cream at Polar Cafe, and he would also take us to Ensign Bookstore and a music shop, where the owner was his friend,” recalled the 85-year-old Mrs Leow. “He was always interested in music and reading, and he even made me learn the piano.”
Her father was none other than war hero Lim Bo Seng, who was synonymous with the legendary Force 136 guerilla task force during World War II.
“Although he was very strict, he was a very good father and loved all of us,” Mrs Leow – the eldest in a brood of seven – told Channel NewsAsia.
RARE GLIMPSE OF A WAR HERO
In September, Singaporeans will get a rare glimpse of the father behind the war legend, when Lim’s personal diary will be shown as part of the National Museum of Singapore’s (NMS) big exhibition to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.
Titled Witness To War: Remembering 1942, it will run for six months beginning Sept 23. It will feature rare artefacts as well as never-before-heard stories from World War II survivors, including Lim’s children.
Lim Bo Seng’s war diary is already displayed elsewhere, but this will be the first time his children have agreed to show his personal diary to the public. A digitised version of the entries will be available for visitors to read.
“The stories about our father have been well documented over the years, but it’s been some time since his story was retold so it’s quite important for the younger generation to know about the war efforts and what happened to the so-called pioneers of Singapore,” said 80-year-old Dr Lim Whye Geok, another of Lim’s children.
Written for his wife, Gan Choo Neo, Lim’s personal diary chronicles his life as he left Singapore in 1942. From Sumatra, he later went to India to help set up Force 136 to fight the Japanese. He passed away in 1944, a couple of months after being captured in Perak.
“There were accounts of when, while he was in India, he would remember us every time he saw young children, and wished we could be with him,” said Dr Lim, who added that one memorable entry chronicled his father’s first attempt to ride a horse.
THE CONTEXT BEFORE THE FALL
Aside from Lim Bo Seng’s diary, the NMS exhibition will also present new artefacts from the national collection and those on-loan from 10 overseas museums, such as the Australian War Memorial and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
Another highlight is a 25-pounder gun, the standard field artillery weapon of the British and Commonwealth armies during the War. Recently acquired under the national collection, it will be displayed with a sound-and-light show.
Aside from the exhibition, there will also be an academic conference on the Fall of Singapore. War-time recipes will also be recreated and sold at the museum cafe.
While there are already other museums, as well as gallery sections within NMS, that deal with the war, the new show is angled as a historical prelude focusing on events and personal stories from the 1930s to 1942.
“It’s important to let visitors understand that the war didn’t happen just like that, so we are providing the context that leads up to the outbreak of the Fall of Singapore,” said museum curator Priscilla Chua.
The exhibition will also look at the different communities in Singapore prior to the war, and the personal stories by survivors.
“The Japanese community had come here during the late 19th century and was already thriving before the outbreak of the war,” said Chua.
Meanwhile, the Chinese community were actively getting behind anti-Japanese activities during the Sino-Japanese War. “There were many anti-Japanese resistance films that were brought in by the Shaw Brothers from Hong Kong, and they were screened in Singapore as part of fund-raising efforts.”
LIVING IN SINGAPORE DURING THE WAR
Prior to Force 136, Lim Bo Seng, along with his wife, had actually been active in the fundraising efforts for the Sino-Japanese War in Singapore, which was the reason why he had to leave the country in 1942.
But his wife and kids remained behind – and some of his children will also be sharing their stories in the exhibition.
After their father left, Mrs Leow said they moved around, even temporarily staying at St John’s Island, before coming back to the mainland and staying at their father’s family house on Upper Serangoon Road.
Dr Lim was only four when his father left. “During the war years, it was difficult to get food and we all had to share everything – there were seven of us! But somehow we managed. My older brother would plant tapioca and papaya in the garden,” he recalled.
Ironically, near the end of the war, the Japanese army would use his father’s family compound as a camp.
“They were preparing for the British to come back and were digging trenches under the house. Every day, there were hundreds of soldiers in the compound,” he said.
COLLECTING WAR STORIES
Dr Lim and Mrs Leow’s stories aren’t the only ones included in the exhibition. Long-time Pulau Ubin resident Ahmad bin Kassim will also be sharing his own experience.
Said Sarah Yip, museum manager for curatorial and outreach: “He grew up in Johor and was 10 when the Japanese arrived at their kampong. His father was stabbed but survived, and he later brought the entire family through the jungle, and took a sampan to Pulau Ubin.”
To help bring out even more stories, the curators reached out to students, and encouraged them to interview their grandparents and neighbours, who were also war survivors.
The result was 47 such interviews, which have been passed on to the National Archives. Six of these will be featured in the show as part of an archive booth.
For Lim Bo Seng’s children, who had gone through the war as children, it’s a chance to connect the past with the present.
“The young ones today haven’t experienced war, so they don’t know what was life like when Singapore fell and how people suffered,” said Mrs Leow.