Japanese British history in Penang: a chilling torturous past brought back to life

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ June 6th, 2011. Updated on October 5th, 2013. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » Malaysia.
Grave of British solider Sgt John Wolf in Penang

Grave of British solider Sgt John Wolf, now apart of Japanese British history in Penang

When Penang fell: the guns went silent and the screaming started

The impressive War fort built into Bikit Maung by the British in Penang, during WW2, was designed to prevent invasion by sea, and included anti-aircraft artillery for defense. It was to become a place of little known facts and secrets.

Manned by British, Malay and Sikh soldiers, Bukit Maung fell during a cohesive and decisive strike by the Japanese. Under strict orders from HQ in Britain Penang was ordered not to fall. The balance of power in the region depended on them.

But moral was low after months of sea bombardment. The British Navy was preoccupied elsewhere, and supplies were frighteningly low in the fort.

December 17th 1941, to be outflanked

Execution chamber in the open air museum Penang, Malaysia

Execution chamber, bullet holes still mark the wall …

However, there comes a time when everyone must say, “enough is enough.”

The British did this in December 1941 as they learned the Japanese had managed to outflank them and were approaching from the mainland.

They knew they would stand no chance.

What’s more, they knew of their fate at the hands of the Japanese should they stay and surrender in person.

Taking down and dismantling the big canon barrels, they disappeared from history. The reason for this was to prevent the big guns being turned on them. With that, the British, Malay, and Sikh troops mounted bicycles and left the area.

When the Japanese arrived they found whole rooms intact. Military maps were still on the wall and ammunition still ready in the anti personal turrets. Small quantities of food was found on plates. But not a soldier could be found.

The Japanese British history in Penang had not ended though.

The horrific crimes that took place once the Japanese took over Bukit Maung fort in Penang

The fort was now going to be used by the Japanese as an internment camp and interrogation center for prisoners of war.

The reality was truly horrific as the previous barracks was now used as torture and execution cells by the Japanese.

Local Chinese were sent here to be executed brutally. Torture was the true act of terror here. Used mainly to frighten indigenous people into obeying the Japanese.

Moreover; to simply put the fear of a near unimaginable death into them.

Horrific old Thai couple story

Horrific old Thai couple story – click to read

Burning oil story

Burning oil story (click to read)

One Japanese officer, Suzuki was particularly brutal and would execute without a blindfold by way of a beheading. Then he would drip the blood of the executed into his brandy and drink it.

Writings from the past

Today the cells are littered with the scrawling memories of terrified prisoners. Printouts tell of horrendous stories involving sheer human brutality you will not likely come across in many other places.

“Oil burning local villagers until their fingernails turned black”

Then from the Death railway

“A 70-80 year old Thai woman being paid for sex by a platoon of soldiers”

A historic photograph is worth a thousand words

However, perhaps the most horrific thing I saw was a single photograph of the British surrendering Penang (officially) in Singapore.

Sitting at a table, the British on one side, the Japanese on the other. The British looked quite jolly, a little awkward, but still quite proper. Not bad for a losing side.

Photograph of the British surrendering Penang to the Japanese

Victorious in battle, the Japanese officers look soulless, while the British officers in defeat still look to have character …

Yet, on the other side of the table; the Japanese looked on without a hint of emotion. To the point I would say that they looked soulless. Or if a soul did exist, it had no compassion for life at all.

This look scares me to this day, as I see it from time to time when I travel in East Asia today.

History lost on Asian visitors?

I met up with a family visiting here a little later when buying water. They were Korean, and very bored. Apparently the paint-ball area was not open today. And, apparently the whole place was “boring“. This coming from a man in his 40’s.

Curious, I spoke with a Malaysian couple sitting nearby. Again, a similar train of thought. The place was boring, and not very clean …

Asking about the history of the place, they didn’t know much about it. Nor did they seem to want to.

When waiting at the bus stop to leave I asked another young Malaysian man about the place. He laughed and said:

Torture device used my the Japanese in Penang Malaysia

One of many tourture devices used by the Japanese in Penang – Politically incorrect sign? Would a “western” museum get away with this?

“People think the place is haunted. We don’t want to remember the bad things here.”

Back at my guesthouse, I asked a few international travelers if they’d been.

Most had not even heard about it.

Those that had, mentioned words like “Chilling,”  “Must be an amazing place to visit,” and “Never knew that about Penang.

But few had actually found it interesting enough to visit!

So maybe it’s not just an East Asian thing, maybe it’s to do with what tourists are looking for?

I asked the tourist office. Yes, they recommended it … but, for the paint-balling.

Lost until found

Following World War Two and the Japanese surrender Fort Bikit Maung disappeared into the jungle to be forgotten.

Then a Malaysian, Johari Shafie who used to play there as a child, bought the land and opened the museum. Apparently researching over 20 other open air museums with his wife, he set about what is now restoring what is today considered one of the worlds largest open air museums.

So yes, at least some people do have a passion for history in Asia, or is there something else motivating his work?

I only write this due to how the place is run. See part one of my article to get an idea on how the open air war museum in Penang is run, and kept.

History lost due to East Asian customs?

So at the end of all this, I left myself to think about this query for a long time. The only conclusion I can come to is this.

Bed from Penang's open war museum

Least we forget those that died

People in parts of Eastern Asia are often still tied to old beliefs. Example being – Don’t talk about being sick, because you will bring sickness upon us.

Is this the reason the Penang open air museum seems to be remembered as a paint-ball area more than a place of historic value?

Yet, this is a politically correct answer. One that does not press the buttons of further truths. Buttons which I’ve pressed internally many times over in trying to understand this:

  • Perhaps East Asians visiting here are just not interested in history while on holiday? Preferring a lighter style of entertainment instead? And so, do not think about promoting it to international tourists? (why then the two tier price system?)
  • How is World War 2 taught in East Asian schools? Could this be an indication of why there is little interest?
  • Perhaps the people running the museums in Asia have not been trained well?
  • Some people in Asia have mentioned to me, strongly, that it’s because it was never their war? So they have no interest in it today.
  • Or maybe it’s just me? I like history, maybe few others, foreigner or local, likes to visit these places when traveling?
  • It’s not really a tourist site, but a historical one. But as such, it needs finances to survive so hence it’s promoted more for paintball than historic value?

Like many an answer, mine seems to have brought up even more questions.

I do, however, think it’s important to ask these questions rather than shuffle them under the “it’s just the way it is carpet.”

For if we don’t question, we don’t understand, and we can’t progress.

No matter where we are from, nor what we like to see.

Learning from the past to save what’s happening today

Remains of the secret German U-Boat base under the fort's hill

Remains of the secret German U-Boat base under the fort’s hill – there was a reason why this location was so important after all

I’ve had many conversations with people from East Asia about the wars fought here. And, few have been interesting.

Bar from scholarly types, few people I’ve spoken with have had knowledge, nor interest, in such sights, or history.

To me, personally, this is a shame. I find such places of enormous value both historically and in terms of human nature.

It also reveals things that could have changed the course of history, right on ones own backyard:

Penang became the first German U-Boat base that led Germany, and the Japanese into the Pacific.

In today’s world of wars over oil, freedom, and strategic locations, it’s a shame many people don’t learn from the past.

It’s here, in the past, we can all learn a lot about what’s happening globally today, its ramifications, and where we are heading in the future.

Perhaps the world would be better off if we actively promoted our past history. Rather than opt for easy profits and fun times paint-balling over graves?

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Coming Soon:

Something a little lighter! Snakes on a temple, Hindu’s on photography, and hippies invading Penang

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24 Great responses to Japanese British history in Penang: a chilling torturous past brought back to life

  1. ciki says:

    I am not sure why the couple did not know much, but we were taught very thoroughly in school about the atrocities of war (WW1 WW2). Definitely know about the atrocities of the Japanese occupation. My grandfather himself worked on the north south railway. He was lucky, after a spell, they moved him to work as post master, otherwise he would hv died on the lines – no future generation.. NO sons (my father).. then, no ME! haha:P English came and ‘educated’ the lot – my father’s syllabus in school was in English.

    • You might find some of the other comments interesting. People seem to be siding on the “culture” aspect of Asia not holding history in a practical form with high importance rather than an educational one.

      Liv’s point about not “questioning” in Asian culture is something I pick up as well.

  2. Anna's World says:

    This is amazing! So many things. I cant answer about why Asians dont care much about this side of history. But, if i were to guess I would say due to lack of a good education.

    The story of those prisoners is at least being told here. Thank you

  3. Harold Manning says:

    Thank you for bringing the history of World War 2 to us. Many people have no idea about the war in the Pacific. This was an interesting read by all accounts.

  4. Kenny T says:

    Just wanted to say thank you. Our history is not remembered as it should be. In answer to your question it’s to do with our desire to become a “developed” country. We think we are. But we are not. Many problems. And you are right, we have forgotten out past. Even our own ethnic tribes have disappeared.

    • If the problem in cultural, then history is indeed lost for the next few generations. Hopefully international historians will have done their job for the future generations.

  5. Raymond says:

    It’s such a shame that so many cultures gloss over their past, especially when it comes to those who sacrificed their lives for their country. Thanks for the very thorough post!

  6. John Wilson says:

    Good blog, David. I remember visiting the Holocaust museums when I traveled Europe – unbelievable what horror man can do to his fellow man.
    That is why I always argue against the idea that man is inherently good.
    I think most people do NOT want to visit or know about history due to their mental condition that if it is out of mind, it does not exist. If the reality of history was truly understood by todays younger people ( 20’s 30’s) they would be shaking like a leaf on a tree.
    Entertainment is the drug that is used to nullify any true sense of reality.
    Avoid the horrors of the past, ignore the realities of today, play with your Ipod and watch TV. If you do that, the world, in general, look pretty good. :)
    One way or another it is always the system keeping the masses looking elsewhere. The system does NOT want an educated, well informed citizenry. Much more difficult to control.
    Good questions, good thoughts and good read.
    John D. Wilson

    • Nice points about the ipods etc John. In west Africa I picked up the term “Shiny and New”. For if something is not shiny and new many people simply are not interested in it. Kind of like buying a new computer. Instead of buying something for their needs, today people buy the “latest and greatest.” So a lot of computers are far too over powered and most of their power remains untouched. Even so, the people are happy.

      So yes, the fault does lie firmly on our own feet. And so, knowing this, the companies etc keep producing our fodder to keep us distracted.

      It’s a lot nicer to play paintball than to feel guilty about doing nothing.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

  7. Jason says:

    Another good report Dave, and lets hope by you putting this out there, that more younger people get to visit. Visiting places such as this are often hard, definitely depressing and down right somber, but still it’s a story we must learn and never forget.

  8. sometimes, it is easier to read about it than to SEE it. i wasn’t able to bring myself to see the concentration camps when i’ve been in europe, yet i have read about them. my dad went, though – maybe it is personal? some can’t face horror (like me) and some can (you, my dad)? i don’t know. it is important to learn from the past, and learn OF the past.

    • Good points Jessie. Sometimes people don’t like to look at things that disturb them. I think it’s important we do things we don’t like. Almost like forcing ourselves to take bad tasting medicine. It ends up being for out own good!

  9. This museum would be the first place I would visit; however, I am a history teacher. I love visiting museums, battle fields, and other historic places. Great post and thoughtful analysis on why people prefer not to comprehend history.

    • Good to find out you are a history teacher Ted! And, very glad to hear you enjoyed the post. I hope this history will not become forgotten.

      • Did you ever visit Corregidor Island when you were in the Philippines? That is a really cool place to learn about World War II.

        • No, at the time I wanted to go there was some sort of ferry dispute, so I missed out. I did however visit some of the caves further south where some Japanese soldiers had been found a decade after the war had ended. Still thinking the war was happening!

  10. PalawanMartin says:

    The British army got their revenge on the Japanese in Burma later in the war, this was a “forgotten war” (notably by USA) , Japan tried to invade India with the help of some Indian independence “rebels”, and had to fight on 2 fronts , and this helped America win in the Pacific.
    The British Army won several victories in 1945 and captured many many Japanese, my grandad was there and he told me how he mistreated the “Japs”
    He always used to talk about the war and how we should be grateful to British and American soldiers for our freedom, it was very boring then, but ……….. He Was Right

    • Revenge is a dish best served cold. I think many “bad” things happen on all sides of this, and other wars. Such is it’s nature. I wonder how many of these stories get out? What certainly rings true is that to many people history is boring, I think educational systems lag behind when it comes to history. I always like the idea of making it personal. Instead of this date, this person. Relate it to a name, a place, a family then a date an even and so on. Make it personal, and people will listen. If they did that in Penang, I think it would be a much better place.

  11. Liv says:

    I believe, fundamentally, it’s the treatment of the story. It’s about having the expertise to tell the story sensitively and appropriately – and it’s not there at this particular museum, it seems.

    And though terribly difficult and potentially, heck, is probably, controversial, I’d like to see a war museum that’s unbiased in their portrayal of the story. The two 20th century war-type museums I’ve been to (War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the A-Bomb Memorial Museum in Hiroshima) both presented one view. One told the story better, using some incredibly emotive language and imagery, but at the end of the day, they told only one side of the story.

    Have you noticed that hard questioning, by the way, is not a very strong cultural trait in Asia?

    • You may have hit the nail on the head Liv. The story is no where to be found in Asian museums. And as you point out, very few people question anything in Asia. And while some argue that point, they are missing what is meant by that term. They know the facts, figures, and even take it personally. But, to rationalize into what other people when through, and question why? There is a definite lacking!

  12. I think what you’re seeing is common in many parts of the world. People want to relax on their vacations and have fun, and not necessarily be reminded of a grim, horrific episode in history. That’s why beaches and casinos are so popular. I’m assuming the locals learned about this time period in school or from their family members who suffered through it, no? I visited several war museums in Vietnam and of course the famous Phnom Penh memorial in Cambodia, and there were certainly no paintball attractions nearby. Seems kind of strange to attach an arcade-type feature to a war memorial.

    • Good points about people wanting to relax and not be reminded of bad time Leslie. I am reminded of that when a post about Roti Canai gets more people talking than something like this!

      Such is human nature. Some people want to read lovely “this and that”, forgoing realty. Shame that this seems to bring on an apathy for war and violence that streaks through our planet at the moment.

      Perhaps another reason the owners of the war museum but a paintball attraction there, it was the only way to bring people there!

  13. Jerm says:

    Thanks for the post. My gf and I was just there last week. Had a good time. Learnt a lot and felt really proud and thankful to the soldiers defending the fort from attacks.

    i personally did feel afraid with the places where it was obvious death had happened. Superstitions played a part. Btw, my gf and I are Malaysian Chinese and we kinda believe that this whole month is the Chinese Ghost month where the gates of the underworld open and ghosts are allowed to wander on earth. that kinda explains the fear.

    anyways, most of the tourist spots in malaysia charge the two-tier pricing system because they believe international tourists are richer… lolz. neways, when we visited the place last week, the price for locals were rm20 and if not mistaken for foreigners, the price was rm40. price has increased.

    neways, great blog.. :)