Culture & Thought -- Reflections: Chang's Great Contribution --- A
Historian's Job is Much More Than Just Telling the Facts
By Salil Tripathi
19 November 2004
The Asian Wall Street Journal
MY FIRST EXPOSURE to a Chinese victim of Japanese rule was in 1991, in the
form of an elderly taxi driver driving us along Singapore's Orchard Road. As
we crossed Bras Basah Road, he shivered, briefly losing control of the
steering wheel. I asked him if he was all right. He shrugged, speaking in
the Hokkien dialect that my colleague, a Malaysian Chinese, understood.
When we got off near River Valley Road, my colleague informed me that the
driver had remembered something terrible. We had passed the site where the
old YMCA building had once stood. The building was used as an interrogation
center by Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police. "He must have been jailed
there," she said.
I spent most of the 1990s in Singapore, but over the decade I heard few
stories of this kind. In their place I found books about the time when
Singapore was Syonan-to (as the Japanese called the island from 1942 to
1945, when they took the colony away from the British), that showed pictures
of Japanese atrocities. The consensus was that the British had not been
But in this official history raw experiences were hard to glean. While
researching a historically based novel I was writing at the time, I listened
to recorded interviews in Singapore's national archives and I came across
hints of women mentioning, almost in passing, the sight of decapitated
heads, and young boys referring to Operation Sook Ching of 1942, during
which many Chinese were killed.
I also found the contrast between the city's experience under Japanese rule
and the relative comfort in which the Japanese now operated in Asia
puzzling. They were everywhere: investing in factories, shopping in Japanese
department stores Sogo and Takashimaya, importing sushi and playing golf in
Batam and Langkawi. Was this collective amnesia? Or perhaps economic
necessity compelled many to forgive what could not be forgotten. Still, as I
struggled to understand life under Japanese occupation, I found a
disconcerting gap between this sterile context and the shudder of my cab
Then I read Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of
World War II" (Penguin, 1998). In that book, the young Chinese-American
author, who tragically took her life last week at 36, meticulously detailed
the horror of the 1930s Japanese occupation of China.
Even though the book was about mainland China, not Singapore, after reading
it I was finally able to imagine life under Japanese rule. Aware of the
Stalinist dictum that a single death is a tragedy, but a million a
statistic, Chang gave names to many of the dead, so that they did not remain
mere numbers: 300,000 deaths, 80,000 rapes.
Of course, though Chang described the violence of the 1930s in slow motion,
she also quantified the horrors:
"If the dead from Nanking were to link hands, they would stretch from
Nanking to the city of Hangchow, spanning a distance of some two hundred
miles. Their blood would weigh twelve hundred tons, and their bodies would
fill twenty-five hundred railroad cars. Stacked on top of each other, these
bodies would reach the height of a seventy-four-story building."
Chang resurrected little-known characters: She told the story of a curious
young boy who crept through a wall to see what Japanese soldiers really
looked like, only to be pulled out and taken to an execution area. There,
soldiers competed with one another to find out who could kill more Chinese
faster, and it was the boy's fortune that a body fell on him, and he
pretended to be dead, crawling out hours later.
There were children who hid under beds, children who were raped, those who
told their stories to members of relief agencies who came hours, sometimes
days later, looking for survivors.
Historians have accepted the broad thrust of Chang's work: there were indeed
marauding gangs of Japanese soldiers who picked civilians at random,
assaulting them, torturing them, decapitating them, bayoneting them, burning
them, and inventing unimaginably cruel ways to humiliate them. Some were
hung by their tongues, Chang revealed, others dismembered.
But some critics believe she overstated her case, by insisting that Nanking
be treated on par with the Holocaust. Historian David Kennedy of Stanford
University in California wrote:
"Accusation and outrage, rather than analysis and understanding, are
[Chang's] dominant motifs, and although outrage is a morally necessary
response to Nanjing, it is an intellectually insufficient one. Chang does a
much better job of describing the horrors of Nanjing than of explaining
Maybe. But Chang remained faithful to a larger truth. Facts can only go so
far, a historian's job is to interpret. Emotions and anecdotes don't hinder
understanding, and dispassionate and unbiased accounts reconstructed in the
passive voice lead to a passive history made up of dots, without
Mr. Tripathi is a London-based writer.