Memorial Modifications: Singapore’s Changi Prison Through the Framework of “Corrective Remembering”.

“To achieve a genuinely shared memory, rather than a common memory made up of assorted aggregates, communication is essential for opening up the process of remembering to a multitude of voices, instead of indoctrination”.[1]

In their monograph, Heritage, Memory, and Punishment: Remembering Colonial Prisons in East Asia, Shu-Mei Huang and Hyun Kyung Lee introduce the concept of “corrective remembering” to uncover the motivations and implications of post-colonial prison museum developments in East Asia.[2] The idea of correction is seen by the two authors as an attempt to modify, forget, or reimagine experiences of colonial incarceration in order to fit a political or ideological post-war narrative. For example, the heritagisation of Seodaemun Prison and its Independence Park formed part of a narrative of Korean victory and independence against Japanese. The authors argue that this rigid narrative was applied at the expense of other aspects of Seodaemun’s heritage, such as the Okbaraji neighbourhood, which was abandoned and demolished.[3] The concept of “corrective remembering” is chosen by the authors for three reasons, which they clearly reveal. Firstly, it pays tribute to the corrective form of punishment deployed in the prisons. Secondly, it aims to reveal the alterations made to the memory of the prisons when they were converted into museum pieces. Finally, the notion of correction can be used to describe the heritagisation of prisons which involves the removal and displacement of former structures and residents, where the “logic of punishment is reactivated” as part of a post-colonial ideology.[4] These three definitions of “corrective remembering” are valuable for an understanding of the construction of heritage in post-colonial states, where layers of obscurity and reimagination conceal the real force of collective memory.

These three definitions of “corrective remembering” can be applied to the case of Singapore’s Changi Prison and Chapel. The prison complex was constructed in 1933 but was converted into a prisoner of war (POW) camp at the start of the Japanese occupation of 1942. After the war, the prison was used by the British for the internment and execution of Japanese generals and prison officers.[5]

The reconstruction of the prison and its chapel into a museum was charted in the Straits Times Newspaper in 1987.[6] In this report, the memory of the chapel is described as a place of “spiritual solace and temporary refuge from the havoc of war”. This peaceful depiction contrasts with the reports of the Malaya Tribune from 1946, which describes the reality of the environment that Japanese POWs had to endure.[7] Within proximity to the church, prisoners lived in “specially erected gallows” where they “languished”, awaiting execution. The contrast in the reports exemplifies both the “corrective” aspect of POW punishment and the “corrective” remembering of the event. In modern memory, the church becomes the focal point of the Changi Prison complex as the newspaper description imprints an imaginative vision of peace which separates the environment of the prison from the realities of war. By contrast, contemporary reports suggest that the “havoc of war” still invaded the physical compound of the prison. The detained were subject to corrective policies of confinement, torture, and ultimately execution, which deprived them of their national identity by means of segregation from the outside world. This demonstrates that a psychological spatial reordering was implemented on the opening of the Changi Prison Museum and Chapel, whereby the “corrective” policies of the Changi Prison were obscured in favour of a peaceful remembering of relief from war- a removal of the “underbelly” of the past.[8]

“The historical museum…will also house a souvenir centre selling items made by the prisoners”.[9] This aspect of the 1987 report is demonstrative of the authors theory that punishment is “reactivated” upon the heritagisation of prisons. The prominence of the POW experience in popular consciousness is reflected in the sale of souvenirs which provide the tourist with a physical connection to the prisoner. The current-day Changi Museum even contains a box of sand from the nearby beach where the Chinese were massacred.[10] This consumption of horror legitimises the visitor experience by acting as physical proof, rather than psychological understanding, of the POW experience. It is, however, not exclusive to the modern-day experience. In the 1946 Malaya Tribute, two articles described, in graphic detail, the lead-up and execution of Japanese POWs.[11] One was entitled ‘How Condemned Japs Spend their Last Days: Appetite Good Even on Execution’. The other described in graphic detail, the hanging of the Japanese. These historic articles sensationalised the loss of human life, where the prison appeared as an observatory for cruelty, the act of which was somehow disconnected with life beyond the prison walls. The newspaper reports themselves, therefore, are reflective of the “corrective remembering” that Shu-Mei Huang and Hyun Kyung Lee speak of, as they form part of the rewriting of the Changi Prison’s history. The prison embodied “multiple and shifting identities”, which were amended and rearranged in the physical offerings of the Museum and its memorabilia, but also its presentation in contemporary newspaper articles.[12] As historians, it is important to uncover, acknowledge, and publicise these layered identities in order to revisit the past and its collective memory as accurately as possible. Shu-Mei Huang and Hyun Kyung Lee’s theory of “corrective remembering” is an excellent framework to begin the task.


[1] Shu-Mei Huang, Hyun Kyung Lee, Heritage, Memory and Punishment: Remembering Colonial Prisons in East Asia, (London 2019), p.155.

[2] Ibid, p.28.

[3] Ibid, p.92.

[4] Ibid, p.26.

[5] Joan Beaumont, ‘Contested Trans‐national Heritage: The Demolition of Changi Prison, Singapore’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, vol. 15, no.4, (2009).

[6] ‘STBP Builds Replica of Changi Prison Chapel’, Straits Times, Overseas Ed., 12 September 1987, p.24, <Newspaper Article – STPB builds replica of Changi Prison chapel, Straits Times (Overseas ed), 12 September 1987, Page 24 (> [accessed: 28 January 2022].

[7] ‘Jap War Criminals Hanged at Changi’, Malaya Tribune, 14 March 1946, p.4/1, <Newspaper Article – JAP WAR CRIMINALS HANGED AT CHANGI, Malaya Tribune, 14 March 1946, Page 4/1 (> [accessed: 28 January 2022].

[8] Beaumont, ‘Contested Trans‐national Heritage’, p.299.

[9] ‘STBP Builds Replica of Changi Prison Chapel’, p.24.

[10] Beaumont, ‘Contested Trans‐national Heritage’, p.308.

[11] ‘Jap War Criminals Hanged at Changi’, p.4/1. ‘How Condemned Japs Spend Their Last Days’, Malaya Tribune, 30 May 1946, p.2, <Newspaper Article – How Condemned Japs Spend Their Last Days, Malaya Tribune, 30 May 1946, Page 2 (> [accessed 28 January 2022].

[12] Beaumont, ‘Contested Trans‐national Heritage’, p.299.

The Transnationality of Prisons: A Comparative study of Japanese and British penal institutions

The study of labour as an integral element of empire is frequently underrepresented in academic literature. Labour is an integral element in fueling colonial capitalist enterprise and oftentimes enlightens the reader on the fabrics of how an imperial power was supported. The third chapter of Shu-Mei Huang and Hyun Kyung Lee’s work, Heritage, Memory and Punishment: Remembering Colonial Prisons in East Asia, engages with the experiences of Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese penal labourers under Japanese colonial rule between 1895 and 1945.1 It highlights the gruelling experiences of Korean and Taiwanese penal labourers, the conditions they endured, the work they were forced to conduct and the Japanese structures and rhetoric that supported the system. An enlightening aspect of Lee and Huang’s chapter is their argument regarding Japan’s desire to demonstrate its modernity to western powers by mimicking western practices of punishment. The intense study of western penal systems led Japanese penal institutions to emulate those practices in their penal settlements to expand their imperial holdings and demonstrate their modernity.2 I argue that efforts to mimic the west are most visible when comparing the rhetoric and conditions of penal labour usage of Korean penal labourers in Japanese colonies and South Asian penal labourers in British Southeast Asian colonies. Both structures, which were prevalent less than a century apart, hold distinct similarities that demonstrate the origins behind Japanese structures of correction.

Lee and Huang highlight how justifications for the use of Korean penal labour was to reform the prisoner through labour. The Japanese were endeavouring on a moral mission to change the attitudes of the prisoner and convert them to become ‘dutiful subjects of the Japanese emperor’.3 The rhetoric demonstrates how Japanese officials self-identified as their subjects’ moral educators and reformers. These justifications are quite similar to Indian experiences in Penang, Malacca and Singapore as John McNair, a former superintendent of convicts highlights how the use of convict labourers was so they ‘become useful members of society, and free themselves from the disabilities under which they labour’.4 From McNair’s account, he viewed himself as integral to the moralising mission of ‘reforming’ the convicts he supervised and making them into ‘useful members of society.5 Written in 1899, McNair’s accounts were logged not long after the colonisation of Taiwan and Korea. Although not displayed directly, the two accounts display the transnationality of penal ideology as both states utilised paternalistic rhetoric to uplift their own international image.

In addition to the justifications, the practices of penal labour usage beyond the rhetoric also falls upon similar lines. Structures under both imperial regimes expanded, assimilated, and maintained empires in their colonised territories. Both examples demonstrate the mobile nature of penal life as labourers were juggled between the military, engineering department, private enterprise and their labour was not restricted to any particular prison or space.6 However, one of the unique links I believe both examples hold is their use of their prisoners as skilled labourers. Lee and Huang highlight the profitability of Taipei prison by utilising convicts as skilled labourers that would construct furniture, consumer and military goods for department stores, railway hotels, railway museums, the military and even the royal family.7 This correlates strongly to accounts of South Asian convicts being used as skilled labourers for government and private usage. McNair accounts for convicts in Singapore being particularly skilled in brickmaking whose production capacity and quality surpassed any private business and heavily supported the construction of infrastructure for the engineering department.8 Statistical accounts of the Strait Settlements detail the revenue generated by ‘selling’ penal labourers to private institutions and other government departments, highlighting the commercialised nature of penal labour usage.9 South Asian penal labourers were primarily viewed in the context of their profitability, and as the account details, the eventual abandonment of the practice came primarily from their lack of profitability that provided no incentive to employ them.10 From these examples, the South Asian and Korean examples show strong similarities as both structures were enforced due to the highly commercialised nature of skilled labour supported by the rhetoric of reform.

Insights into the rhetoric and practices of penal labour usage across both empires speak to the profit-making nature of penal institutions that exist even to this day. As mentioned by Dr Huang in her discussion with the MO4971 class, the privatisation of the US penal system in the use of prisoners as a cheap skilled labour force holds legacies from previous systems of imprisonment, which guise their practices under the rhetoric of reform.

In addition to the above connection, the comparative analysis speaks to the transnational nature of penal history. Although spatial in nature, penal institutions are not isolated to a single compound or building. Rather, the institutions also uphold an ideological foundation that can be inspired, affected and influenced by foreign penal practices and institutions. Penal history also connects to the wider historical narratives of modernity and empire. As reflected in the Japanese example, the operation of Japanese penal institutions resonated with imperial desires to appear modern in the face of western powers, both by upholding a reformist image while sustaining an ever-growing empire. The examples above spoke to the contradictory nature of penal institutions, necessary as a signal of reform and necessary to expand private and imperial interests.

  1. Shu-Mei Huang and Hyun Kyung Lee, Heritage, Memory and Punishment: Remembering Colonial Prisons in East Asia (New York, 2020), pp. 31-52. []
  2. Ibid., pp. 35-37. []
  3. Ibid., p. 49. []
  4. John McNair, Prisoners their own Warders (London, 1899), p. 5. []
  5. Ibid., p. 159. []
  6. Lee and Huang, Heritage, p. 44-45; McNair, Prisoners, p. 66. []
  7. Lee and Huang, Heritage, p. 44. []
  8. McNair, Prisoners, p. 29; Ibid., p. 58. []
  9. Department of Statistics, Government of the Straits Settlements, Straits Settlements Blue Book for the Year 1873, 1874, pp. 38-46. []
  10. Ibid., pp. 60-76. []

The Exhibition of the “Concept City”: The Kyŏngbok Palace Exhibition of 1915

The kisaeng, with her outstretched hand, welcomed the visitors to Kyŏngbok Palace Colonial Industry Exhibition with the promise of entertainment, her vibrant dress and painted face the hallmark of an “ancient Korea”.[1] This “ancient past” formed a mirage in front of the visitors’ eyes, only to be interrupted by the dominant Japanese-built structures of the Machine Building and Special Forestry Building which offered up facts, statistics, and mechanical solutions to Korea’s progression into modernity. This was Michel De Certeau’s “concept city” in miniaturised form- the Japanese Government-General’s imaginative vision of Korea rendered into consumable and attractive exhibits whose attached discourse dismissed history in favour of the future.[2]

The 1915 Colonial Industry Exhibition was created with the purpose of spreading the ideology of progress and modernity on behalf of the Japanese Government-General. It included Korean and Japanese exhibitions ranging from sumo wrestling to agricultural and factory technologies. The intentions of the Exhibition were later summarised in the illustrated government publication Chōsen of Today, (1930).[3] The brochure aimed to highlight the agricultural, industrial, and cultural achievements of the colonial government. As De Certeau would suggest, it formed part of the imagined “spatial story” of Korean modernity in which technological progression was asserted through a linguistic narrative that dictated the public’s reaction to the exhibition.[4] The publication states that the Keijo Museum “preserved many treasures”.[5] This language suggests that the Korean displays belonged to a distinct historical past. In the exhibition, shamanic rituals and non-mechanical agricultural technologies were deliberately exoticized to create a sense of displacement because of their physical location next to statistical posters and mechanised technologies such as the rice-polisher.[6] This suggests that the Korean exhibits, or “treasures”, were valued for their juxtaposition with colonial exhibits and contributed to the artificial construction of Korean space and time. By suggesting that Korean culture belonged to an ancient and intangible past, the exhibition involved the temporal-spatial reconstruction of Korea’s historical timeline in order to bring the ‘new era’ of Japanese coloniality to the forefront. In doing so, the very space of the exhibition became an immersive lesson in the Government-General’s ability to immediately propel colonial Korea into modernity.

The concept of space-time reconstruction which pervades the Chōsen Today publication, as well as the exhibition itself, is evidential of the government’s anxiety toward the ideological cooperation of their Korean subjects. Fifteen years on from the exhibition, the brochure situates the Colonial Industry Exhibition in a similar juxtaposition between ‘modern’ and ‘ancient’. The description of the 1915 “treasures of ancient art” is paired with that of the “recent establishment” of the government library.[7] The library possesses an “efficient male staff” and “ancient and foreign” collection. The contrast in language concentrates the historical timeline, forcing the reader to jump abruptly from the static relics of the museum to the humanised and spacious library. This suggests that the ideology of progress in the Colonial Industry Exhibition had to be reinforced in multiple different forms. By consolidating the aims of the exhibition in written form it implies that Korea’s modernisation needed to be immortalised in text to reinforce the lived experiences of the population. This implies an artificial application of ideology to space, in contrast to De Certeau’s abstract acting out of the city.[8] It suggests that the government struggled to fully impart the messages of the exhibition, which is reinforced by reports of confusion and misunderstanding.[9] The attempt to transform the notion of ‘progress’ from a timely process into an immediate lived state connects with Michel de Certeau’s suggestion that it is discourse which makes space habitable.[10] In the report of Chōsen of Today, language of juxtaposition seeks to transform the empty and artificially constructed modernity of the Colonial Industry Exhibition into a lived experience, long after the event.

Consequently, the anxieties of the brochure reveal the failures of the 1915 exhibition. The preface states that change should be “manifest to even the most casual observer” and that “the aim of this brochure is to give readers at a glance some real idea of the progress…”.[11] The gulf between the “casual observer” and the “reader” is apparent on reflection. The “observer” would be far from the audience of a government-issued brochure, as the necessity of technological progress was largely aimed at small-town agricultural farmers and industrial labourers who would be unable to access such materials. In the same way, the ideological messages of the exhibition remained obscure to the observer. Patrol officers and cooperative community guides were placed to either physically steer the visitors through the new modernity exhibited in the Kyŏngbok Palace or narrate the transformation between the two distinct eras.[12] Despite this, the visitors were the people who occupied the missing space in between the ancient and the modern. Consequently, they usurped the narrative of the Government-General, simply through their personal interpretations of the exhibits and the way they both physically and psychologically navigated the space. As De Certeau would suggest, this spatial practice resulted in the creation of “singularities”- individual visions which disrupted the government’s singular, concentrated timeline of Korea’s progression with multiple space-time divisions formed from the moment of their individual exhibition experience.[13]








[1] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, (Korea, 1930), p.17.

[2] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, (California, 1988), p.96.

[3] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, (Korea, 1930), <> [accessed: 21 January 2022].

[4] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p.117.

[5] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, p.17.

[6] Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea 1910-1945, (California, 2014), p.107.

[7] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, p.17

[8] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p.98.

[9] Henry, Assimilating Seoul, p.108.

[10] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p.106.

[11] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, p.1.

[12] Henry, Assimilating Seoul, p.105.

[13] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p.100.