Friday, November 14, 2008

WWII: The Japanese Storm Singapore by Bicycle (It’s Freezing in This Future – Ch. 3)

One of my Singaporean friends was a guy named Dhany, who’d been in the gifted program at Mel’s high school. He talked about it with a sly, sleepy smile, insisting he’d only gotten in as a test of the system, because they were all convinced he was actually slightly retarded. Now he was back from UCLA, producing some punk bands from around Southeast Asia. It was an easy-going schedule, which got interrupted by his annual National Service: apparently his Malay half made him a threat to national security, so he did his conscription with the police rather than the armed forces. For a few weeks, he amazed me with stories of things he’d seen on patrol. Human turds in flophouse stairwells! Not in squeaky-clean Singapore. Of course there was no way I could tag along—but then he saw something he couldn’t keep to himself.

Off the south coast of Singapore, facing out to Indonesia and the sea, is a resort island called Sentosa. Today it’s thick with five-star hotels, artificial lagoons and amusement rides, but the jungle there hides other things. Dhany’s unit had been up a hill where archaeologists had started excavating the ruins of a British fort. Rumour had it that there were escape tunnels leading all the way under to Singapore’s main island. One Saturday morning, three of us struck out upland from a Sentosa tourist beach: Dhany, a band mate from “Doomcock”—a side project of his—and myself.

The scenery changed the higher we went, from tiled pools with tame monkeys, to manicured golf greens, to a moonbase of satellite dishes, to a side road slipping up into the damp understory. We ducked past police tape at the first trailhead and scrambled to the spur of the hill, where massive concrete platforms marked former artillery emplacements, which once would have had a sightline clear across the ocean to Batam. These guns had been part of the Empire’s strongest fortifications, meant to make Fortress Singapore untouchable by sea. Japan had had other ideas in 1941, though, and they’d attacked from behind instead, choosing to strike far up the Asian mainland and fight their way south through a thousand kilometres of rubber plantations. Their soldiers charged forward on bicycles, wearing pith helmets and knee shorts. Britain never regrouped. It took 50 days for the Japanese to reach Singapore’s inland coast: so far and so fast that each man arrived about 20 pounds thinner. The big guns on Sentosa were cranked around to fire back on the invaders, but the ones we saw here likely got just a few shots off before they were bombed from the air.

We found the fort’s command post at the top of the hill. Vines around the doors, no light inside—and at the centre, where the hallways met, a steel floor hatch. We heaved it open. A slim shaft, just big enough for one man, dropped straight down beyond the reach of our flashlights. Our pebbles took forever to hit bottom. If there were escape tunnels here, this was it. Dhany was the one who finally started down the ladder.

His voice carried back to us: “Man, it just keeps going ... Okay, I can see the ground!” And then: “I made it!”

“What do you see?”

“There’s another tunnel going off sideways, but it’s too dark from here! Come on!”

Twenty metres inside the earth, we followed trailing electrical cables down a horizontal passage. The worst we’d seen so far had been two-inch house centipedes, which froze under our lights. Little sign of life. We came out in a half-collapsed chamber, where we had to navigate across boulders of concrete that had caved in from the ceiling. Here, our beams caught a flash of glass. We climbed up to it, at the crook of a pillar rising out of the rubble. It was a toy treasure chest, small enough to fit in one hand, its sides all transparent panes. Inside—a stack of modern-day business cards. Local treasure. Way to burst our bubble. The first card belonged to the Singapore GPS club … the others, presumably, to enthusiasts who’d tracked down this room before us.

A second passage led out the far end of the room, gradually growing tangled with roots at our feet. It hit a push-bar door, like you’d find in a gym—and suddenly we were out in the sun. Our tunnel had brought us barely down the side of the hill, nowhere near the shore between Sentosa and Singapore, which still glimmered far below us through the leaves. We trudged back down to the beach, stripped down to the shorts we’d had on under our gear, and went swimming with our girlfriends. If you look for the fort online today, you’ll find a few accounts of night-time expeditions by local paranormal clubs, who’ve gone up looking for the ghosts of Chinese comfort women from the years of the Occupation, when the Japanese used Sentosa as a camp for prisoners of war.

* * *

McGill University lies on the downtown slope of Mount Royal, the low peak of parkland at the heart of Montreal. At McGill, the higher up the mountainside you are, the more serious the studyies you do. When I did my language degree here at the end of the 90s, for example, my classes were clustered on Lower Campus, or sometimes in office buildings even farther downtown. Now that I was taking something with an -ology in the name, though, I was proud to have a tougher slog up the hill. The cinder-block halls of the psych and bio building are lined with specimen freezers and eye-flushing stations—monuments to the arcane, important work being done there. I threw myself into it: lab hours one day, research questionnaires at a suburban primary school the next, organizing talks by the odd activist professor, TAing for an online psych course at the underground Bahá’í university in Iran (Bahá’ís are banned from State schools over there), pulling all-nighters during exams to do the copywriting that paid—just about—for my tuition, gym three times a week for the first time in my life. I’d bike back to my apartment in the wee hours of the morning, bent under my books, carrying my exhaustion like a medal of honour.

In the fall I applied for a student fellowship at McGill’s new Institute for Health and Social Policy. The director was supposed to be a genius, an MD–PhD who had just been hired away from Harvard. She’d founded the Institute to build bridges between research and action, which was the point of this whole gruelling exercise, for me—to get back from this mountaintop to the rest of the world, better, more prepared—and there was even a chance they’d pay me to travel over the summer. I’d be useful, and on my way to becoming even more so. Maybe this was the mentor for me to believe in. In the event, it seems the position was poised at the precise outer limit of my capacity: I didn’t get rejected or accepted, just wait-listed, on the off chance that someone more qualified would end up dropping out. Which, after a few weeks, was what they did.

That January, the Institute welcomed me into a 100-year-old house about as high up the mountain as you can get at McGill: any higher, and you’d either have to be interned in one of the consuls’ mansions that overhang the city, or in a tower at the Ravenscrag psychiatry building. Along with the five other fellows—a master’s student in anthropology, a PhD candidate in epidemiology, two law students and a whiz kid doing her bachelor’s in psychology and international development (who all made me wonder if the Institute kept me on so they’d have at least one guy in the program)—I started what amounted to another part-time job on top of everything else, writing shaky policy reviews and attending the graduate course on global health that the director taught herself.

I heaved myself into the classroom each week, sweaty and hockey-haired from the hike, and there she’d be: a diminutive woman from a Boston medical family, wearing her hair down to the seat of her pants and her pants up to her waist. She struck terror in us. Too accomplished, and at the same time too damn kind. When I was working late, I’d run into her on her way to catch a flight for Mongolia or Capitol Hill, and she’d be having a heartfelt exchange with the janitor, in good Spanish. I promptly had a dream where I was chatting with her online:

NATHAN: I think we could be best friends some day

JODY: why some day :)

We all wanted to impress her. Adding to the tension was that only half of us would actually get to do research abroad that summer. At a meeting, one of the Institute staff wrote in a notepad she thought we couldn’t see: “Fellows to stay in Canada—Nathan? Emma?” In the director’s course that semester, I responded by churning out more PowerPoints than I had in my entire life. I interviewed contacts at the Indonesian sex-trafficking NGO for the class essay. By spring, a fellow named Adrienne was finding me hunched over my computer when she opened the lab in the morning.

“Nathan! Did you get any sleep at all?”

“I slept for, um, two hours. How’s it going.” At that point, I was officially looking rough enough to worry the people who saw me. I flashed Adrienne what was left of my smile, and that put an end to the conversation right there. I was driving myself around the bend, but it worked: PowerPoints, Batam and insomnia got me an A. The Institute decided to send me to Barbados.

Barbados. 13°10' N by 59°32' W, warm winds from the northeast. The same history of slavery as Haiti and Brazil, but turned on its head in an inconceivably hopeful way: for once, the goal of my trip wasn’t urgent do-gooding—it was simply to witness how they had overcome. On this tiny Caribbean island, flanked by white sand and blue sea, black political leaders maintain civil debates in widely read papers, and black professors get stopped by eager black students at their own breezy hilltop university. These descendents of slaves have built one of the most highly developed countries in the New World, third only to Canada and the States … and in June and July 2007, I was being paid to poke around in their labour laws, explore how they approached the right to decent work for the poor, so that other countries might be able to learn from their example.

During the day I put on dress shirts and interviewed government officials, law professors, at one point a former Prime Minister whom I was told I could address as Sir Lloyd. Lots of air conditioning, and a lot more work on my handshake than on my tan. In the evening I did my social tourism, looking for people to inspire the burnt-out spirits I’d brought down from Montreal. There was a pair of beautiful Bahá’í sisters who’d started a weekly supper for homeless men in the capital, and I lent a hand with that throughout my stay—the first night, they took me to their after-party in a slick clubbing district, and I gamely joked around with them, but maybe because my questions weren’t fun enough, or maybe because there was something blasted about my eyes, I wasn’t invited out to any of their social events again. In the downtown slum where I did some interviews with workers, there was a Guyanese grandmother who’d invite me into her little house to watch bootleg Pixar DVDs with her family, for no other reason than simple hospitality—but when she asked if I could pass on some of the fishcakes she sold, to try and find new clients, I realized I knew no one who I could approach in that way. Even when I tried the crowd at the nightly basketball game outside my room, I got no takers: “We don’t do things like that in Barbados. You don’t know where food like that is from.”

I was staying at a McGill field school: a clutch of scruffy seaside buildings breaking the otherwise solid wall of fine hotels that screen the beach, its grounds half-surrendered to a covey of cooing island doves. Most of the students there were marine biology majors, bronze, physically perfect, outwardly untroubled, going on daily dives among the reefs, spear-fishing for lobster on Sundays. A policy researcher would have had to work overtime to look any doughier next to these people. I ended up feeling my biggest jerk of kinship with a Messiah College kid who came through to look at virus loads in the doves. He trapped them and drained vials of blood from under their clenched, outstretched wings. I watched the extractions with sick fascination.

In retrospect, I should have spent more time at a particular community centre called the Pinelands Creative Workshop. I liked the intelligent director, in his glasses and embroidered African shirt, who’d grown up in the surrounding tenements. I liked the way neighbourhood moms and dads brought their kids, attracted by the buzz of activities: theatre, mask making, bike repair, small business development. I liked how, while I was waiting for a meeting there, I ended up bowling cricket balls to a little boy and girl on the front stoop. Instead of all that, though, I began retreating more and more to my close-aired room and its lazy fan.

Barbados was the last place I wanted my fatigue to catch up with me, but my mind and body were finally rebelling. I all but shut the door on the palm trees, the coral beaches and polite Barbadian “Good evenings,” losing myself whenever I could in a wireless cloud of distant people, places and Flash sites. I fretted over an early draft of this letter, which I sent Mel during one of our chats—and, oh look, she just e-mailed me a picture of herself in New England, grinning next to a 33-inch sea bass that she’d reeled in.

By my last few weeks, I stirred myself at least to end my trip with a diving course. It would be an easy story to tell the other fellows, hopefully make me look like less of an ass for wasting my time in the Caribbean: “It was great! I learned to scuba dive!” I spent one morning drifting under the water among grey-blue sponges and pipe worms—then was called back out by the Institute before I completed my lessons. As my final task, they wanted 50 interviews with low-income hotel workers, and I had a week and a half to get them done. I buckled down one last time. Interview No. 50 got finished the night of my departure home, as I followed a security guard on his graveyard-shift rounds. I got a single hug goodbye—from a Catholic woman who helped serve the homeless men in the capital—and I got back on the plane.

* * *

On January 17 and 21, 1761, the Royal Society posted replies to Charles’s letter. There was no question: he and Jeremiah should do everything to reach Sumatra as planned, whether or not their damaged ship had any hope of arriving in time for the Transit of Venus that June. Charles lay sick in his Plymouth lodgings. The illness dated from before his first sailing, and it was made worse by the knowledge that the Seahorse would be unfit for at least another week, and then only to return to deadly waters. He pored over his charts in search of alternate solutions.

On January 25, Charles and Jeremiah excitedly informed the Secretary of the Society that they could observe the Transit from the Ottoman port of Scanderoon: “We find no place on the Globe which we can reach to be of as great consequence as one made at Scanderoon; to which place if the Council of the Royal Society will please to send us, we shall with the greatest Pleasure obey their commands; but shall not proceed from this, to any other Place, where it is impossible for us to perform what the World in general reasonably expect from us, and therefore shall wait for a Line to inform us of their further pleasure.”

Having received no reply, two days later the young men pressed with a letter to another Society member: “we shall, be very sorry to proceed from this Place, to any other, where the Society (as time stands) can gain no Honour, or we any Reputation; and to go to India merely for the Premium is an Intention far from our first design.”

They finally provoked a response on the last day of the month: “Resolved unanimously, That the Council are extremely surprised at their declining to pursue their Voyage to Bencoolen and which they have solemnly undertaken; and have actually received several sums of money upon account of their expences, and in earnest of performing their contract.

“That their refusal to proceed upon this voyage after their having so publickly and notoriously ingaged in it, will be a Reproach to the Nation in General, to the Royal Society in particular, and more especially and fatally to themselves … their declining it at this critical juncture, when it is too late to supply their Places, cannot fail to bring an indelible scandal upon their character and probably end in their utter Ruin.

“That in case they shall persist in their refusal, or voluntarily frustrate the end and disappoint the Intention of their Voyage, or take any steps to thwart it, they may assure themselves of being treated by the Council with the most inflexible Resentment, and prosecuted with the utmost Severity of Law.”

Fatal … Ruin … utmost Severity of Law. Four years prior, a British admiral had been executed for pulling his ships from the Battle of Minorca rather than fighting to the end. This was the nature of the contract that Charles and Jeremiah had signed for King and Country. A postscript in another hand tried to soften the Royal Society’s threat: “The Councils do absolutely and expressly direct and require Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon, to go on board and enter upon the voyage, be the event as it may fall out.” It didn’t matter where they ended up, so long as they were seen to have set out.

So chastened, on February 3, 1761, the two men returned the only possible reply: “We hope to sail this Evening.”


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