Culture Cul De Sac

Published: Sunday December 14, 2014 MYT 12:01:00 AM
Updated: Sunday December 14, 2014 MYT 8:53:39 AM

The incidental lives

THE more I read about it, the more I felt compelled. To reveal the other side of reality, one that history so often misplaces.

A quarter million conscripted Asian coolies. At the end of the Second World War, 50,000 to 100,000 were claimed dead. No confirmed figures, neither were records formally kept. No blowing of trumpets or heartfelt memorials to pay tribute. 

The Death Railway was built by the Japanese to connect Thailand to Burma, aiding their territorial expansion. Allied Forces’ prisoners-of-war and forcibly recruited coolies were coerced to build the railway with their bare hands; battling weather, disease and torture.

Initially I was hesitant to accept the assignment, a film script for a Malaysian production. I have never written a script before. But as I researched the subject, taking into account the plot treatment, I became intrigued. The script is based on a young man’s search for the truth about what happened to his grandfather, who never returned from the Death Railway.

In 1943, the young man’s grandfather was one of the 250,000 Asian coolies conscripted to work on the Death Railway, only with their bare hands, without enough food or water to sustain the energy and strength needed for the back-breaking work. 

Lack of hygiene and sanitation further hastened the deaths of thousands of these men. Disease and torture did the rest. 

Although I vaguely knew of the Death Railway, it was only when I had to research the subject that I discovered the full information. 

The 2014 Man Booker Prize-winner, Australian Richard Flanagan, in The Narrow Road To The Deep North, offers one perspective. The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, weaves another view. Equally gripping were articles and video clips. 

Forty percent of the Asians were claimed to have died in the building of this folly, though official records vary according to the storyteller’s viewpoint. Lured by false promises and facing the threat of instant death, these young men were indiscriminately plucked from their villages and towns. Under extreme conditions, with impossible deadlines and without machinery or any concern for their welfare, some of them survived to tell their tales. 

It is said that the Japanese treated the Asians far worse than the other prisoners. In a YouTube clip, a Malaysian survivor commented that, when a coolie reported sick, his treatment was to get beaten. 

If he didn’t stand up and eventually died from the blows, it proved that he would die anyway. 

If he did stand up and staggered to work, it proved that he was malingering. The ex-railway worker also added that not only the sick one was beaten; all in the group were treated just as badly. 

Even the exact numbers of deaths are sketchy. No conclusive death records, monuments or memorials stand to remind us of all those who died in our honour. Only a small gallery in the JEATH War Museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand is devoted to the Asian coolies, as well as a negligible cemetery commemorating their deaths. 

Sadly, unlike their fellow “railway men”, none of the Asians kept records, drawings or diaries. What really happened lies in the failing memories of the last few survivors of the infamous railway. 

Now that I look back, perhaps there’s a reason why my history lessons passed in a daze of daydreams. Naturally, not of the lessons at hand. The history we are fed with is always written from the victor’s point of view. It is the conquerers’ version of their triumph over policies, battles and wars.

In his regular As I Please column in Tribune, George Orwell wrote in February 1944: “In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners.” The only claim to victory, he writes: “Is that if we win the war we shall tell fewer lies about it than our adversaries.” 

The influence of politics on memory is seen in the way history is written, influenced by political and cultural forces. It is the political means by which events are remembered and recorded, or discarded. Which can differ completely from the truth of the events as they happened.

Which is the reason I always find accounts of people around the periphery of events so much more riveting. Unedited and unbiased, these stories tell the truth. That is reason enough for this film to be made, not only to tell an almost forgotten version, but also to record the event from our point of view for future generations. 

So that they’ll know where they came from. And what stock they are made of. So many of our people were made of sterner stuff and never gave in, even when their bodies were buried 71 years ago in a foreign land. 

They are the ones to praise and admire and whose stories must be told. I, for one, intend to tell them.

Delighting in dead ends, Jacqueline Pereira seeks unexpected encounters to counter the outmoded. Find her on Facebook at Jacqueline-Pereira-Writing-on.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, POV, history, railway, World War II

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