Friday, August 7, 2015

Tenko, Art and Women of WWII

Sikh guards a Changi watching a wagon of goodies go by. At the beginning, it wasn't so terrible for the internees. So long as they followed the rules set down by the Japanese they could go about doing their business unhinderedBut then the Japanese started losing the war and things changed for the worse, much worse.

I watched the first three episodes of Tenko yesterday, 30 years after the BBC production first aired and seventy years after the WWII siege of Singapore.

I hadn't seen the series before, but I had looked for a VHS copy about 10 years ago, when researching my play Looking for Mrs. Peel, about my grandmother's experiences at Changi.

At that time I had a copy of my grandmother's Changi diary  so I wanted to compare, to see if any incidents in Tenko mirrored what my grandmother, who died in 1972, wrote about in her 'secret' memoir.

I couldn't find a copy of Tenko then, but in the past few years a DVD version of Tenko has been produced.

Tenko tells the tale of British (and Dutch) Colonials who get shipwrecked fleeing Singapore and who end up in a small camp on some unknown Dutch Island.

That makes the production much cheaper. The barracks are small.

It's a kind of microcosm, a bit like a play.

Changi was huge.

There was a men's and woman's camp.

There were over 300 women on the women's side.

 My grandmother, Dorothy Nixon, was Commandant of Changi for a 6 month period and she kept detailed reports of the women's camp administration and a kind of diary about what came down during the Double Tenth Incident where she was taken away and tortured, with 3 other women and a couple of dozen other men.

But to produce that particular Changi story it would have taken a David Lean sized budget.

So, what comes to mind after seeing these three episodes?

Tenko appears to be a condensed version of my grandmother's Changi story.

The internees in Tenko wonder when to turn out the lights. At Changi, there were rules. Lights Out. (I think that's the hour.)

They wonder whether to elect a 'head' or spokesperson. At Changi there was a Commandant and Second Commandant and floor monitors. All very military style. And lots of Committees. My grandmother once joked to my mother (when visiting us in 1967) "When in doubt, the British strike a Committee."

At Tenko, the woman doctor says she is too busy to be spokesperson. At Changi the doctors, and there were six or so, became the 'natural leaders.'

My grandmother, a librarian and planter's wife, was the exception. She resented the special status the Japanese gave to the woman doctors, letting them roam about town.

But, in essence, Tenko gets it right. And that's what ART is all about.

 In fact, one of the lead characters, a woman who is older, and very stubborn and gets put in isolation for using a 'radio set' is probably drawn after my grandmother, who went to isolation for 5 months for her part in a 'radio racket' at Changi in 1943. (They were using secret wirelesses to hear BBC Broadcasts) as she called it. The Double Tenth Incident!

There's a Eurasion woman, and as my grandmother's memoirs reveal, Eurasions were, indeed, looked down upon. They were not wanted as cell-mates for one.

So, the Tenko barracks are small. Changi was huge and apparently the din was awful, nerve-wracking.

Oh, also, at Changi, the Japanese did not come into the women's barracks. That would be lowering themselves. They stayed away from the women as much as possible. Sikhs were used to guard the women.

My grandmother, as Women's Commandant of Changi, made a point of visiting the Japanese Commandant ever day. (She claimed the head of the Men was afraid of him.)

She believed the Japanese Commandant tolerated her because she was a  tiny woman. He, apparently, didn't like some of the bigger British women.

Anyway, I think comparing my play Looking for Mrs. Peel (based on my grandmother's diary) and Tenko, the series, would be an excellent exercise for a screenwriting class.

There is a book out: The Making of Tenko, and when I've finished watching the series, I will read it and see if they explain where they got the inspiration for the characters.

Renee Asherson as Sylvia Ashburton, a character like my Grandmother, below.

My Grandmother, Dorothy Nixon, Changi survivor.