I have not been able to find any surviving photographs of my maternal grandmother the main inspiration for my PhD project on portraiture patronage in Colonial Malaya. It was only recently that I found out why there were no surviving photos of my grandmother in her youth.

They were all burnt during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in  the Second World War (1942-1945)

My maternal grandmother’s youngest brother was a volunteer in the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force (The Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, SSVF, a military reserve force in the Straits Settlements, while they were under British rule. The SSVF took part in the Battle of Singapore in 1942, and most of its members were captured on 15 February 1942 when their positions were overrun. My granduncle was not spared, he was eventually caught by the Japanese Kempetai (the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army) arrested and executed. He was made to dig his own grave before he was shot. This was the Sook Ching massacre.The Kempetai managed to track down the family’s address and raided the family home. The women, including my grandmother, hid in the attic and burnt all their photographs, for fear of incriminating themselves as relatives and conspirators.

I did however, find this photograph:

Two generations of the Ang family posing in a group photograph with British soldiers at River Valley Road Camp, Singapore, 1946
Two generations of the Ang family posing in a group photograph with British soldiers at River Valley Road Camp, Singapore, 1946

This is a group portrait showing my paternal great grandparents, and grandparents posing in a photograph with a group of British soldiers, in what seem like a make-shift photography studio. It was revealed to me that my great grandfather, Ang Hock Yuan, owned a sundry shop opposite a British military camp at River Valley Road in Singapore. It was also in operation during the war. Running the sundry must have provided the soldiers with one of the greatest indulgence in war – a pack of cigarettes perhaps?

It was taken after the Japanese Occupation ended in 1946, before the soldiers returned to their respective countries and was probably taken to commemorate their friendship and a celebration of the end of the war. It was also taken after my grandparents got married. It tells a tale of love, friendship and hope.

This photograph is significant not only because it is nostalgic, it is also an important historical marker. A historical document.

In the wise words of George Orwell:

‘Who controls the past controls the future;
who controls the present controls the past’

Who collects objects from the past, hence holds the keys to framing the future.

‘The Portrait Project’ hopes to become a resource for the study of ‘visual art’ as historical and cultural repositories.

To find out how to participate, click here.

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