What on earth is that? A fancy quilt bought at some duty-free store at Changi Airport?
No! Changi is an old area of Singapore, and its name is derived from either a tree or creeper which was common there. Changi has two major landmarks– the Airport, which is among the world’s best; and the Changi Prison. The Quilts are associated with the latter.
On Feb 15 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the Allied troops surrendered. Civilians including over 400 women and children were marched to the Changi Prison and interned there. These were women and children who had either not been able to get berths on ships to leave the island before the surrender, or who had consciously chosen not to leave. While the majority of the women were English, there were also women from Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States. The group included doctors, nurses, secretaries, teachers, as well as home-makers.
The Changi Prison building was designed to hold about 600 inmates, but with this influx, was accommodating about 2,400. The women and children occupied one wing of the building, while the men were put in the other. There was no communication between the two wings, and separated families had no way of knowing if members had survived, how they were, etc.
While some schooling did happen, some of the women were concerned that the children lacked a structure to their lives, and normal activities that would have been a part of their daily schedules outside prison. Elizabeth Ennis, an Army Nurse, along with a young Dutch girl, Trude van Roode, decided to do something about it. They made a group of about 30 girls between the ages of 8 and 13, and started a Girl Guides unit. The activity gave a focus and provided the girls with a purpose and discipline. The girls obviously thought the world of Elizabeth Ennis. On learning of her birthday, they decided to undertake a group-project of making a quilt for her. Each girl contributed to the making of a beautiful quilt, scrounging out fabric, thread and needles—precious commodities—to make hexagonal patches. Each child also embroidered her own name on to it. They put all the patches together and presented the quilt to Elizabeth.
This inspired a Canadian internee, Mrs Ethel Mulvany, a Red Cross representative in Singapore and chosen to be the camp Red Cross representative for the Changi women, with the idea of getting the women to make quilts for the Red Cross. The idea behind this move was ostensibly to alleviate boredom and to boost morale, and to give blankets to the wounded in hospitals. But it was also a means of passing information to men in other camps that the women and children were alive.
Three quilts were made—one each for the British Red Cross, Australian Red Cross and the Japanese Red Cross. Each quilt had 66 squares.
Every woman who volunteered to make a square for the quilt was given a piece of plain white cotton– from various sources including flour bags and bed sheets–and was asked to put “something of herself” into the square, and also embroider her name on it. The squares varied in many ways—from the skill levels of the embroiderers, to the designs. While flowers were of course a common theme, there were animals, national symbols, and cartoon characters like Snow White and Pinocchio. Some were very poignant–Trudie von Roode’s square, for instance, shows a waiter and a table laid with lots of food and elegant cutlery, alongside the words ‘It was only a dream’. There were also messages, some which were very personal and understood only by the families concerned. For instance, one woman portrayed a baby rabbit wearing a blue ribbon—probably to inform the husband that a baby boy had been born. There was a level of censorship here too—for instance, the word ‘prison’ had to be unpicked before the quilts could go out.
The quilts survived the War. The Australian quilt was given to the Australian Red Cross and is on permanent loan to Australia’s War Memorial. The Japanese quilt too is with this War Memorial. The British Quilt is at the British Red Cross UK office.
And thus did some personal histories get recorded and preserved.