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