How War Enemies Collaborated to Save Singapore’s Treasures During WW2

The experience of war is one of destruction and plunder. This is why countless artefacts, ancient sites and libraries have been levelled across the world during war. It is a quest to erase the cultural markers and identities of the defeated and replace it with one moulded by the victors. We’ve seen it happen in Europe perpetrated by the Nazis, and more recently in Syria by ISIS. Closer to home, during World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army’s policies of achieving dominance through violence and destruction led to the loss of 10 million books and between 2000 to 2500 libraries in China. Similarly, in the Philippines, the Japanese looted valuable scientific and other works, and then burned nearly every collection in the country. Manila, for example, had lost its National Library, religious archives, and many private holdings. Similar things could have happened in Singapore, if it weren’t for the collaboration of two war enemies: Hidezo Tanakadate and Eldred John Henry Corner.

Two Scientists

Corner (third from right) and Tanakadate (fourth from right). Source.

Eldered John Henry (EJH) Corner was a renowned botanist and the Assistant Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1929 to 1945. During this period, the man extensively travelled the Malaysian Peninsula to study its flora and fauna. The resulting book, “Wayside Trees of Malaya” drew critical acclaim and propelled him to prominence both in Malaya and Japan. As the clouds of war were gathering on the horizon, Corner decided to stay in Singapore to protect the Gardens’ collections from what was to come (although his son and wife both fled). He was lucky to some extent as a serious monkey bite disabled his right arm, exempting him from serving in the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force. This saved him from being interned in the notorious hell-hole that was Changi Prison during the occupation. 

Hidezo Tanakadate, on the other hand, was a volcanologist from Tohoku Imperial University, Japan. He had been sent to Singapore to investigate the conditions of Raffles Museum and other scientific institutions on the island on behalf of the Emperor of Japan, who as a biologist was “deeply concerned” of the effects of war on science. The Professor, as he was called by Corner, was slightly more westernised than his peers. He had travelled to London, Oxford, Cambridge and lived in Italy as a lecturer. While little can be found about his prior life or work, there is certainty that Tanakadate saw academia as a universal endeavour that transcended the boundaries of war. “The Japanese researchers came to the aid of their British counterparts because they looked beyond enemy lines and saw them as scientific colleagues in distress,” said Sharon Lim, the assistant curator of the National Museum of Singapore. 

Establishing Acts

On 18 February 1942, Tanakadate and Corner were introduced to each other in a municipal office. The Professor, who would be known by the British to be orderly, punctual and calm mannered, was shabbily attired at this point – presumably because of him rushing to Singapore from his previous assignment in Saigon. The two take an immediate liking to one another – with the Professor almost having a paternal concern for Corner or ‘Kona-san’. Inside the office, Corner passes a letter from the former Straits Settlements’ Governor, Shenton Thomas to Tanakadate. In it, a plea to the Japanese to protect and safeguard Singapore’s natural, scientific and cultural history. After reading this plea and listening to Corner speak, the Professor sweeps his hands upwards in urgency and reportedly says: “We must conserve”. It must have crossed his mind that “civilization in Southeast Asia was on the brink of collapse”, said Corner in 1982. 

For the next few days, the two go around various important institutions (such as the Raffles Museum, the Fisheries Office and the Fullerton Building) to devise ways of deterring troops from ransacking precious artefacts. To do so, Tanakadate exaggerated his military ranking of sub-lieutenant to the Japanese soldiers. This allowed him to put up handwritten ‘do not enter’ signs outside the buildings.

The Professor also had connections with people holding high office. General Yamashita, whose conquering of Malaya and Singapore in 70 days earned him the sobriquet “The Tiger of Malaya”, was Tanakadate’s friend from university. This allowed the Professor to be more ambitious in his plans for the preservation and revival of science in Singapore. 

Saving Raffles

Zoological collection of the Raffles Museum. Source.

After some general housekeeping was done in the Raffles Museum (now known as the National Museum of Singapore), Corner alerted the Professor to the looting of books which was happening in other libraries across Singapore. Thus began their greatest task: compiling a list of government offices, law offices, and house of private individuals where valuable libraries were to be expected, and then retrieving these collections. At the end of this exercise, the museum’s collection of books actually grew to 40,000.

Among the retrieved material were records of the Eastern Bureau of the League of Nations, as well as books from libraries of civil service departments, attorney-general’s offices and private collections. Besides books, there were also efforts to preserve works of historical value at the museum. Valuable materials, like the letters of Sir Stamford Raffles and the golden kris of Malacca, were also safely hidden to keep them protected. Speaking of Stamford Raffles, his statue was removed to the museum as well. Some later suggested that the Japanese had intentions to melt it for the war effort.

The Botanic Gardens

Within a few days of the Japanese occupation, Tanakadate assumed control of the Botanic Gardens. While some of the staff members were sent to work on the infamous Siam-Burma Death Railway, Corner and other senior staff were asked to resume work in the Gardens. A month later, much of the reparation work on the house and grounds were completed. This allowed the Gardens to once again become a centre of research activity.

Later in December 1942, Kwan Koriba, Botany Professor from the Imperial University of Kyoto, took over as the Director of the Gardens to further research on the growth habits of selected Malayan trees. Corner, relieved of his administrative functions, devoted his attention entirely to further research. Both the Gardens’ staff and their captors’ efforts during the turbulent years of the Japanese Occupation allowed the preservation of the Gardens. 

When the British returned to Singapore, Corner decided to return the favour. He requested Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert Archey, who was from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives division of the British Military Administration, to allow his Japanese colleagues to continue their research.

War-heroes? Collaborators? Oppressors? Colonisers?

Corner posing with a Japanese soldier who had taken an interest in botany and received Corner’s encouragement, though he otherwise hated the military. Source.

As with most figures in history, these two aren’t without controversy.  While Tanakadate seems to have admired the British, his views of the locals were less positive. “As for the Asian people of Malaya, the Professor had little care: they were to be tolerated and used… Like so many of his race whom we encountered, he had a predilection for the fair skin,” said Corner about Tanakadate. The man was also said to have a dislike for most Indians and Indian soldiers, calling them “ration-soldiers”. 

Corner too raised eyebrows due to his close working relationship with the Japanese and his relatively luxurious lifestyle when compared to those interned at Changi and Maxwell prisons. His fellow countrymen labelled him as a Japanese collaborator when he signed an oath, submitting himself to the authority of the Japanese. In fact, while stationed at the gardens, Corner might have come across Allied Prisoners of War being forced to do manual labour. Today, you can still see a set of brick steps leading down to the Plant House in the Botanic Gardens. They were built and installed by these prisoners and have arrows engraved onto them by the soldiers. The significance? It was the steps that the Japanese state owned, not them. 

There’s also a bit of contradiction in their motivations for preserving the literature and artefacts. While both claimed to act in the name of protecting the scientific and social history of Southeast Asia, they were also a part of the colonial machinery. One that subjected a people and controlled their destiny. 

Thus, while considering these men and their legacies, it is important to be holistic. They aren’t saints, nor are they tyrants – they are somewhere in between. We leave it up to you to draw that value judgement. 

The End 

The two men’s working relationship ended abruptly in June 1943, when the Professor was called back to Japan. He had been accused of being too pro-British and anti-Japanese. A letter from the Professor to Corner in 1949 tells how all his books and scientific work over 35 years went up in flames during an air-raid in Tokyo in July 1945. It also expresses the profound respect and appreciation that the Professor had for Corner. “I would like to express my sincere gratitude for your painstaking earnest collaboration with me which I as a member of the enemy did not deserve,” he said in the letter. The man later passed away on 29 January 1951. 

E.J.H. Corner returned to England after the war, and was eventually appointed as a lecturer at Cambridge University. Even though old age led to multiple health complications, Corner’s mental faculties remained sharp until his death in 1996. By that point, he had generated over 2200 printed pages of accepted publications. His former residence in the Botanic Gardens, is still standing. Called the Corner House, it has now been transformed into an upscale, fine dining establishment. 

In peace, prepare for war. In war, prepare for peace

A Japanese saying repeated multiple times by Hidezo Tanakadate to E.J.H. Corner during the occupation

Credits

American POWs of JapanNational Library BoardNParksStraits Times, The Marquis: A Tale of Syonan-to


Author

Vanessa Ng

Contributor

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