THE HOTEL WAS called Goodwood Park, in Singapore. When I think of it now I see rattan tables with glass tops and a pool of faded, milky glamour. I was twelve; it was 1979. I had just eaten my first papaya and felt my first ghost in a haunting at the hotel, which I have never been able to explain.
I was up and down the stairs in there that day, opening and closing doors, exploring on my own. I found a sinister old ballroom. These memories and others from the time have been constantly reassembled in my mind and now I can only think of them as incoherent.
Goodwood Park is there still. I visited it recently for an amateur exorcism that only partially worked. The original pool was the first at a hotel in Singapore, dug in after World War II. For a time it had the longest bar in South-East Asia. It was a playground for the rich in the ’60s. Cliff Richard and Acker Bilk performed in the ballroom, called the ‘Arundel’. It was a kind of equatorial fantasy land of pop and jazz, money and gin.
When the war came, and with it the Asian holocaust, the Japanese took over Singapore and issued their own money. Goodwood Park housed their officers, many of whom would have been leading what became known as ‘Sook Ching’, the ‘purge through cleansing’ – a three-week genocide in 1942 of seventy thousand people considered anti-Japanese.
Then, after the atomic bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the hotel became a makeshift war-crimes court where the same officers and their foot soldiers accused of atrocities were tried.
Untold ghosts in the shadows and eaves, then. I have never felt such a frightening place. French thinker Nicolas Abraham once said that hauntings are inherited. They span generations and hold secrets.
But memory is like a jigsaw. My thoughts of the papaya are almost clear – the shades of orange and the softer parts glistening, and the way the flesh melts on the roof of my mouth. The bitterness of a stray seed. Fruit-wise, things were no different at tropical hotel breakfast buffets in the 1970s so papaya was most probably eaten. But when I try to remember I’m mostly swimming around, bumping into symbols: the pool, the furniture, doors that shut and then open, ceiling fans slowly turning in browned-out rooms.
I fell off a hotel bed in the daytime and my father came in. ‘Bored already?’ he said. He twirled his cigarette into a conical point on the edge of an ashtray. The old Goodwood ballroom was boarded up. There was a strange wind in the wake of the ghosts.
I LIVED IN Singapore when I was ten, two years before the haunting, with my mother and father. But after a year my mother and I left. Why we hurried back home I’m not sure. My father didn’t come back with us and nothing was ever the same again.
In the years that followed I went back to Singapore alone to see him. Aged twelve, maybe thirteen. This was when I stayed at the Goodwood. Singapore photographs show me in a double-denim ensemble with light-blue jeans that had raised seams down the front. The brand of denim, I remember, was Reef.
The photographs are real but also suggestive because of the missing memories around them. What I take from the pictures – that there were awkward seams down the front of my jeans, the brand was Reef… Is that all? There is little other photographic proof of anything, so the rest remains incomplete.
In a Singapore mall there was a games arcade on the upper level, the floors infinite lines of disinfected white tile separating shops full of watches and clocks and gadgets and toys. I played coin games there by myself, driving a green cartoon car in circles until my father came to get me. Afterwards we would have root beer at a café table on a footpath.
For these trips I was deemed an ‘unaccompanied minor’ by Air New Zealand. My luggage tag and shirt sticker said so. When I arrived in the tropics to see my father, we stayed in hotels. He would take me out on day trips to water parks and cable cars, or leave me in malls to play games, or take me out for meals.
BEFORE THE FAMILY fell apart and we all still lived together in Singapore, we had a maid called Sally. We also had the same rattan furniture in our house that I remember from the Goodwood: seats with thick rectangular cushions, brittle couches that no one used, round glass-topped coffee tables.
The grass in the backyard outside the house was rough and unbending. The ceiling fans were always turning. The house was up a hill, in the centre of the island. A gardener came. In the street lived a Sikh boy with a turban and silver jewellery, and an American kid I wasn’t allowed to speak to.
I wore a white shirt to the International School and climbed a lot of stairs there and watched kids from places such as Hawaii or Hong Kong hit enormous hairy spiders with sticks in the schoolyard.
I don’t remember having any friends. I don’t remember learning anything. We went on holiday up into Malaysia one time that I recall because, again, there are photographs. I learned to water-ski at a place called Port Dickson and remember that it was fun.
But nothing seemed to fit. Everything was out of place. I played soccer and our colours were red and white but it was too hot and the grass was weird. These were very disconnected times, and there’s an image I’ve danced around for a couple of years now of me as a boy in the garden at the house and I am vibrating and standing alone, looking in.
After this image came over and over again I was eventually able to picture myself walking towards the boy and putting my arm around him. The vibrations became visible. They pulsed out from him and through me like waves of heat. Finally he put his head on my shoulder and I put my arm around him, and the vision stopped.
Was this lost frames of memory merging? Was it the first ghost, or another haunting? I can feel the sharp grass under my feet but I can’t remember the house clearly. I don’t recall what my bedroom looked like. I don’t remember mealtimes or early mornings or anything much. The only thing the house represents to me now is an emotional structure containing episodes real and imagined.
IN THE SINGAPORE hotels I later got to know so well you could open the windows, and my father and I would throw paper aeroplanes out into the heat. We watched them fall, and then he’d make some more. The humid air rolled in and the little planes spun out; sometimes they even flew.
My father and I also built plastic planes, wherever we were, and he hung them from the ceiling with fishing wire. They were Airfix models of the fighter planes he once flew. I can see the strings and wires and smell the glue and paint, and I can see his gnarled hands on a pair of pincer-pliers. After a time he left the painting to me in a gesture of trust. I think this to be true. For all the world I hope that it is true.
He flew in World War II in American Corsair fighter-bombers for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. His job was to lead groups of pilots looking for Japanese camps, fuel depots and airports in New Guinea and the Solomons.
His war ended in 1945 when his mother died and he was able to fly home to Dunedin to be with his family. He wasn’t transported home – he got in a plane and flew himself there and was able to fly over his family’s house near the Otago Peninsula and dip his wings as he did so.
He spent some time on US aircraft carriers in 1943 and 1944 teaching the Americans to take off and land. These ships were targets for Japanese kamikaze pilots, ‘kamikaze’ meaning ‘divine wind’. For the rest of his life he disliked the Japanese because they tried to kill him for two years in the 1940s, and succeeded in killing others whom he knew.
‘An interesting fact,’ he wrote in one of his war diaries, ‘I saw the age of those who have commissions this morning, out of the eight one is nineteen, two are twenty-one and the other five are twenty. Average age twenty.’
My father is dead now. I remember the car he had in Singapore – a Triumph, the ashtray always full. I remember the way he bit the end of the cigarette filter as he held them in his mouth.
On one of my last visits to him before he died I unplugged him from the respirator and we walked to a café. He came back home from Singapore eventually but was estranged from my mother and, by extension, from me. The nurses waved him off that day as if it were some great expedition. He wore his best shoes. In one hand he had a walking stick and in the other a bulging plastic bag. It swished against his slacks as we moved slowly down the road. He held it so tight I could see his knuckles turn white.
We didn’t talk on the way. He was doing well, except for the laboured in and out of his breathing.
‘Do you need anything?’ I asked him as he showed me his tiny room, with its narrow bed and oxygen machine.
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Just a couple of new lungs.’
This was when he began giving me things. It started with two batik shirts. We sat down opposite each other at the café. When the guy behind the bar turned the music down we looked up from our menus and raised a single eyebrow each. He got a chicken salad. He might have preferred some toast with it, I thought. The plastic bag he was carrying went under the chair.
When we finished eating he wiped his mouth and lifted the plastic bag on to the table. His hands trembled, but they trembled most of the time at the end of his days. He took a box of slides out of the bag that he had compiled neatly. A little box of truths. My birth. My father in his 1960s hats. A beach. My mother.
‘Here’s your mother,’ he said, ‘at the beach.’
She wore lipstick and smoked; he sat on the sand with his knees clasped up around his chest, his hair jet black against a solid blue sky. He was so small sitting there among the slides. He picked at his chicken salad like a wounded bird and left the tomatoes and didn’t finish his beer.
There were a lot of slides of his postwar work: excavations and mine sites and diggers and aircraft in Hong Kong and Sumatra. But there were none of Singapore in the late 1970s, just an occasional random image of me in those Reef jeans or drinking from a coconut.
A year or two after he died we threw his ashes into a river gorge where he loved to fish. The ashes caught in the wind and blew on my sleeves and small piles clouded up the eddying water and made ghost faces before drifting off toward the sea.
The river was pure melted snow, yet when we were done I stripped off and waded in and swam, everything heightened, unbelievably so, the water as cold as water can be, my wife and sons bewildered but tolerant and interested, my mother looking on from some distance away, sitting on river rocks.
THE DAY OF the haunting in Goodwood Park in 1979, I went wandering. Maybe I had been left alone again or had got tired of sitting by the pool.
I ended up in the ballroom, having passed through many doorways and past many mirrors. Inside the ballroom, the rattan chairs and tables with glass tops were toppled over. The smell of it was musty, the smell of a warm place that had been closed tight for a long time. I have a sense now of the room being witness to something awful. It was like walking into a crime scene that had been left behind, the bodies gone but everything else as it was.
The ballroom was on a mezzanine. The door was jammed but I wrenched it open. I saw a music stand, a drum kit and the piano. I pressed a key and it gave the soft, deflated ‘thud’ of a dead instrument with the wires and hammers shot – a soft muffle like a plastic bag that doesn’t pop when punched.
The piano’s pedals were spangled; pages of sheet music were scattered around, curled and yellowed. A fine red dust the colour of the Australian desert coated the white keys. A dark saffron, very fine. I took it to be dried blood because the room felt infected and old.
My memory may not be right but I think it is. I feel strongly that most of my recollections of this are true. The reason I started writing about it was because I was trying to understand memory and also false memories. St Augustine said memory is a ‘spacious palace’ hosting countless images that lived and died and could be resurrected when we needed them or when we called upon them.
I wondered what happened to me in the Goodwood. It had always seemed so vibrant and immense. I can see and smell the ballroom right now, a dank sepia picture in my mind. It’s not a vision or a sudden reveal, it’s always present.
I read more about memory. Books on neurology, books about lies and memoir, psychology books, reams of theory. Then I saw an essay by Creed O’Hanlon in the journal Wild Culture about bipolar disorder. In one section he was trying in vain to reconstruct a clearly shattered mind: ‘There are memories I have that I know are real,’ he wrote, ‘and there are those I suspect or know are not. Then there are the nulls, the unrecoverable blank spots, as dark and impenetrable as the dead screen of a television…whatever I come up with can only be a skeletal approximation of the real thing.’
O’Hanlon’s ideas spoke to me about my own memories and the trouble I have with them and, most of all, with the notion of memory itself. None of what I’d read previously had made much sense. More has been written on memory than anything else except war and Jesus, and most of it provides no answers. But this small part of his piece made absolute sense, and there I was again, in the abandoned ballroom of the Goodwood Park Hotel in 1979, terrified.
It was the piano that horrified me most. At my father’s funeral I decided the music should be Satie, solo piano. No idea why – he would never have heard of Satie. He liked light opera and tenors. All through the ballroom was chaos, things toppled over, dust everywhere, sheet music. An air of unbelievable fright. But the piano stood up, the last object standing, the keys long dead, the wires stretched, no sound.
I left a fingerprint on one of the keys. The room was large, its windows heavily curtained. It was dark. I began to panic. It didn’t feel part of anything real. I had never felt so alone. I am sure there was no one else there. I know there was no one else there. There were no shadows or visible ghosts.
Yet there was a presence so heavy I felt it pressing down on me.
I ran out, then…
Nothing, except being scared forever. I didn’t say anything to my father or to anyone else because it felt so monumental and so like walking into death or a place where you could die.
I DESCRIBE IT as ‘the haunting’. The haunted thing that happened to me, and by saying ‘to me’ I own it. But the question is, do I want to? I’ve hung on to it long enough so I must want it pretty bad.
At one level at least, memory is a story you can choose to embellish or edit. So why do I tell people about this one – why do I write this one – instead of other things I dislike? I think the uncertainty fuels it, the mystery. The chance that it might not have occurred. This elusiveness keeps me grasping for it even now.
I went to Singapore in late 2014 and paid a visit to the Goodwood. I’m finding that as I get older I’m attempting to get closer to events or people from my past. I guess in part it’s a process of stepping back into memory in order to take it apart, to see how it works.
It was something I meant to do years ago but never did because I was too scared. The haunting hovers and plays games still. From my uncle I’d learnt that a little settlement called Goodwood, near Dunedin in New Zealand, was where the first of my father’s ancestors settled in that country.
The Goodwood Park Hotel is in the heart of Singapore city – the facade is ornate and colonial but inside it is slick and new. A red carpet flows up the front steps.
All over the island in the residential compounds you can see old ‘uncles’ tootling around, picking up rubbish – and so it was here. ‘Uncles’ old enough to remember the ‘Sook Ching’. Concrete was being hosed, moneyed guests moved down the red carpet from the cooled air to the hot.
I was with my family; we decided to walk in. I was nervous and scared of either finding something or finding nothing. I tried to convince myself that memories can be deeply flawed and that most of us make up swathes of material after being prompted by photographs or by letters or those pernicious family half-truths that are palatable and easy.
I was reading Wild Palms by William Faulkner on the plane to South-East Asia: ‘Surely memory exists independent of the flesh,’ he wrote. ‘But it (the flesh) wouldn’t know it was memory…it wouldn’t know what it was it remembered.’
I had daydreamed about visiting the ballroom alone with tools to build an elaborate reconstruction of what I remembered, with sound effects, lighting rigs and a script. I had a clapper board and stool and willed it all to begin again in clearer focus. I installed a layer of faked vermillion dust on the piano keys and had staff make impressions of fingerprints. In the daydream, I thought that maybe another boy in 1979 had also stumbled across the ballroom and managed to play a good note from the same spooked piano after blowing harmless dust off the keys – red powder, circling in an indistinct wind like funeral ashes. He pressed a key and a single note rang on and on. The boy left the room unharmed and quite pleased with what he had achieved.
So we were looking for the ballroom, except it was no longer there. We rode in lifts, pretending to be guests. Me, my wife and sons, who were intrigued but also knew I was frightened. A lot of what was in the hotel seemed familiar but this was a trick of memory because most of the place had changed. It was unnerving and reassuring at the same time; I knew I might find something but I also hoped I might not find anything at all.
To pursue this exorcism and try to get it done, I had been digging around on Japanese war crimes in Singapore and the Goodwood’s role in it all. I found that one of the people who worked at the British war crimes court that was set up at the hotel, in a series of tents on the front lawn in 1946, was a Mrs Leonora Schmidt, a Eurasian–Indonesian married to a European. Her administrative job at the court was to find the war criminals charged with being complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Singapore during the occupation and to get them from whatever jails they were in to the hotel for trial.
But she was also a topless model and muse for the famed Russian kitsch artist Vladimir Tretchikoff, who specialised in idealised Chinese women; one of his paintings of her, which hung in the Goodwood throughout the swinging ’60s, was called Eastern Fantasy and showed her in a sarong and unbuttoned green jacket with a come-hither pose, breasts exposed, among tropical vegetation. Next to her is a kris, a traditional Malaysian weapon, lying on a Bible
The Russian painted her over ten days from 8 am until 6 pm while under the assumption that his wife had gone missing in the war. She was a secret, he worked in secret. The painting scares me.
I’d contacted an Australian associate professor of history, Kevin Blackburn, at a university in Singapore. I figured he might know about the hotel, and he sent me a booklet they produced for client marketing in 1990. Of the war crimes court, it said 135 Japanese officers, some of whom had stayed at the hotel when they were the hunters rather than the hunted, were sentenced to death by hanging after trials on the lawn in the tents.
He sent me a list of every Japanese officer and soldier tried for war crimes. Many of these were members of the Kempeitai, the secret police, the Japanese Gestapo. During the occupation, so-called enemies of Japan were rounded up and taken to beaches such as Changi, where the swank Sailing Club now is and where I took my kids to swim. Some of these enemies were taken out to sea and shot or beheaded and dumped. During this time all the clocks in Singapore were changed to Tokyo time.
The list of names was from the British National Archives: hundreds of Japanese names, many tried in Singapore and hanged in Singapore for crimes in Singapore. Torture and killings, mainly. Of the torture, with a little more digging within certain names on the list, I found transcripts from the war crimes court detailing horrific, haunting acts.
In one case, eight Japanese soldiers rounded up a group of enemies: ‘The acts of ill-treatment included water torture, hanging by the feet downwards, burning with lighted candles and paper of the stomach, thighs and private parts, beatings, tying husband and wife together and beating them and pushing red hot pins under the finger nails. As a result of the torture at least one victim died, whereas many others were executed by the Japanese on the confessions thus extorted.’
The ballroom was gone. The pool was in a different place. Conference rooms dominated the Goodwood’s first floor where I believed the haunting had taken place. No dancing now, no Cliff Richard, just video link-ups and blue-sky thinking.
We ended up standing near the foyer waiting for something to happen – and so I met Abdul Sattar, a concierge. He had worked at the Goodwood since the 1970s. He explained some factual things for me about renovations and relocations. I wrote down his name and checked the spelling as if what I was doing was somehow official. He explained that various sections of the hotel lay dormant for a long time throughout the 1970s as wings and facilities were added and removed and scaffolding gridded the facade.
But the old ballroom was grand once upon a time, he said. As he spoke he stood by a piano. I was staring at it, and asked if the old ballroom had a piano. He said that it did and in fact this was the very one next to him now. I asked if it worked and he extended a finger and played a note on a white key, then smiled.
I mentioned the year of 1979 to him. He said the ballroom would have been locked up and derelict, ‘not used for many years’. He said it had full-length curtains and rattan tables with glass tops and a music stand and drum kit.
‘Did anyone ever say anything,’ I asked, ‘about ghosts?’ Many, he said. Many. Mr Sattar called the ghosts ‘sightings’ and said the corridors and doorways hosted them. I came to think a sighting was more tangible than a haunting, more real. Someone saw something. It was seen. But never in the ballroom, he said. As far as he knew, he said, and as much as his memory would allow, no one ever went into the old ballroom when it was in ruins.
Chris Johnston is a senior writer at The in Melbourne.
All images and audio obtained from commons sources, except those of Robert Johnston’s photographs and memorabilia (taken by Penny Stephens).