‘Fearless and dignified’: Elizabeth Choy’s grandniece on the war heroine’s relevance today

‘Fearless and dignified’: Elizabeth Choy’s grandniece on the war heroine’s relevance today

Her grandaunt’s decision to talk about her torture experience during World War II – at a time when most survivors refused to – has added relevance in light of the recent #metoo campaign, says educator and author Karen Hoisington.

Elizabeth Choy
Singapore war heroine Elizabeth Choy stood out as a liberated Asian woman. (Photo: National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

SINGAPORE: Elizabeth Choy is best known for her courageous exploits during World War II, as well as contributions to politics and education during the postwar years.

But according to her grandniece Karen Hoisington, Singapore’s famous war heroine could have also played a role in the eventual creation of the Singapore Armed Forces.

Immediately after the war, she and her husband, both prisoners-of-war (POWs), recuperated in England for four years. There, she would be invited to speak with world leaders, and even give lectures all over Europe and the UK.

Karen Hoisington (Elizabeth Choy's grand-niece)
Educator and history buff Karen Hoisington, grandniece of Elizabeth Choy, will be giving a talk on her grand-aunt at the National Museum of Singapore on Oct 29. (Photo: Karen Hoisington)

“One of her main topics would be national defence. She was an early advocate of the Singapore Armed Forces, because one little known fact is she had been with the Singapore Volunteer Corps, which was a precursor of that. Lee Kuan Yew was also there at that time and he must have been hearing her (talks). I believe Elizabeth had something to do with that,” said Hoisington.

A LIBERATED ASIAN WOMAN

The 61-year-old educator, author and history buff will be giving a free talk about her famous grandaunt at the National Museum of Singapore on Sunday morning (Oct 29).

It's one of two events taking place this weekend, as part of the exhibition Witness To War: Remembering 1942. On Saturday afternoon, there will also be another talk on wartime recipes

“I think the Elizabeth Choy story is fascinating. She was really so unique and stood out as a liberated Asian woman who was very resolute,” she said.

While Hoisington had little contact with her grandaunt growing up, her late mother would share first-hand account as an 18-year-old working with the Choys, who had set up a canteen at Tan Tock Seng Hospital after the Fall of Singapore in 1942.  

“She would help them, wrapping medicine, cash, food, letters, and even radio parts in brown paper, which were (secretly) sent to Changi Prison. That canteen was kind of a conduit, a logistics base where people would come and dispatch whatever they wanted to,” she said.

Elizabeth Choy (National Museum of Singapore artefacts)
The National Museum of Singapore's Singapore History Gallery features, among others, the clothes worn by Elizabeth Choy during her detention, interrogation and torture by the Japanese Kempeitai in 1943, as well as photographs of Choy and her husband, Choy Khun Heng, and the former YMCA where she was interned. (Photo: National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

The infamous Double Tenth incident would change what had been until then a relatively uneasy peace. When Allied forces sunk Japanese ships on Oct 10, 1943, the Kempeitai sought revenge among the POWs. The Choys were also implicated – Elizabeth was interned at the YMCA while her husband was sent to the dreaded Outram Prison.

“It was a terrifying time for everyone, and it must also have been traumatic for my mother to find her aunt being dragged away,” said Hoisington.

DEMONSTRATING THE KAMPUNG SPIRIT

The horrific stories of Choy’s experience at dreaded Kempetai headquarters have been chronicled – how she was waterboarded, stripped half-naked and electrocuted – but what had happened after was almost equally dreadful.

“After she was released, everyone just avoided her. It must have hurt her (after all the things she had done) that everyone didn’t want to be associated because they feared they would also be interrogated. It was a very lonely time and I would think she would have stayed very much at home,” said Hoisington.

Karen Hoisington (World War II artefacts)
As part of her talk, Karen Hoisington will also be showing some World War II artefacts from her collection. (Photo: Karen Hoisington)

But at the same time, she added, there were stories of Choy continuing to help people.

“She demonstrated the kampung spirit – during the war she and her husband helped everybody. The whole neighbourhood would take refuge at their house on MacKenzie Road, and even after the house was bombed and looted, she still went back to find ways to help her neighbours.”

SPEAKING OUT ABOUT HER TORTURE

And while many survivors preferred not to discuss what had happened to them, Choy bravely came out to talk about her torture experiences, an act that Hoisington finds relevant today, with the recent #metoo campaign.

“It makes me think of the current movement around women who are assaulted, and how timely her story is,” she said.

Singapore’s fascination with their beloved war heroine continues today. A play, a dance production, and two television shows have been made. 

Sonny Liew (Elizabeth Choy comics)
Elizabeth Choy continues to live on in pop culture, including this recent story by graphic novelist Sonny Liew. (Photo: Sonny Liew)

Graphic novelist Sonny Liew has also done a story on Choy, which is part of the yet-to-be-released Femme Magnifique, an international anthology on female trailblazers that include former US First Lady Michelle Obama and the French war heroine Joan of Arc.

EMBODIES SINGAPORE’S QUALITIES

It would seem that pop culture continues to celebrate Choy, who passed away in 2006. But while another hero like Lim Bo Seng is commemorated with monuments, Hoisinger says she has yet to see a similar thing done for Choy.

“I think we’re missing a little Elizabeth Choy statue or something. For me, that would be a tremendous joy, because we’re still honouring her today.”

She added: “When I think of her, she embodied the qualities that Singapore desired post-war – she was independent, fearless, resolute, proactive, dignified. She held her own and even went higher. She helped her neighbours. These are national characteristics that Singapore wants to have, isn’t it?”

Source: CNA/mm

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