Remapping Remembrance onto Memory Lanes: The Sydney-Canberra Remembrance Driveway and Mt Ainslie’s Kokoda Trail

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Hume Highway
The Murray buses plying the Sydney-Canberra route take 3 hours each way. 3 hours during which the bus – adhering to a strict policy of producing a peaceful environment for the passengers – does not allow music or radio to be played during the ride. As I arrived with just a few minutes to spare before the bus journey was to begin, I had no recourse but to slot myself into the front of the entire bus – located closest to the bus driver, a very friendly driver who had “Derek” written on his name tag.

All the other passengers seemed to immediately settle into various sleeping positions, but I was forced to sit bolt-upright because of the massive bag of books I was carrying on my lap, wide awake and at attention, contemplating the prospect of having 3 more hours of this. Besides the driver’s introduction and farewell at the start and end of the journey, there were basically to be no other sounds except the sounds of the bus being on the road. So I began a conversation with Derek. “Isn’t it boring to drive for 3 hours without being able to listen to anything?” “What do you think!!” He chuckled.

I found out he had been driving this route for over 17 years, and after he learnt that it was the first time I was taking this bus, he began pointing out some of the invisible “landmarks” of the Hume Highway. The old highway. The old river. Trees that had been specially planted in Australia to be used to make matches. Lake George. And of course, he pointed out the endless VC stops. I assumed at first they were just rest stops which were perhaps abbreviated to as Visitor Centres, until Derek explained they were memorial rest stops named after war heroes who were Victoria Cross recipients from the WWII period onwards!

A couple of the rest stops:

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Kibby VC
Sergeant William Henry Kibby
Conflicts/Operations – Second World War, 1939-1945
VC Citation

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Derrick VC – Lieutenant Thomas Currie Derrick
Conflicts/Operations – Second World War, 1939-1945
VC Citation

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Badcoe VC / Major Peter John Badcoe
Conflicts/Operations – Vietnam, 1962-1975
VC Citation

That was the first time I heard about the Remembrance Driveway, a 320-km memorial driveway spanning the main highway connecting Sydney (Australia’s largest city and the state capital of New South Wales) and Canberra (the national capital of Australia). The road begins in Sydney’s CBD at Macquarie Place and ends in Treloar Crescent at the Australian War Memorial.

Excerpt from the documentary “For Valour” – “The Australian stories of the Men And Actions worthy of the Victoria Cross, Australia’s highest Military Honour”

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Road Sign for Treloar Cr Australian War Memorial / Remembrance Park

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Remembrance Driveway Symbol
The official Remembrance Driveway Website notes that the very idea could be traced back to the time right after World War I when in the UK, the office of the King’s Highway isued a pamphlet entitled “Roads of Remembrance as War memorials”.

It appears the main argument was to combine memorialisation together with improvements to local infrastructure, allowing monuments to be both functional as well as dignified commemorations of war heroes. I haven’t had the chance to locate or read the booklet in person, but from the British Library Social Science blog there is an extract here:

“It seems to us that the first principle of a war memorial should be that everyone can participate in any benefits which it confers; Secondly and hardly less important, that it should be of a permanent character-something that will last of all time. Roads and bridges comply with these two conditions.”

Interestingly it seems that the actual building of memorial avenues and roads of rememberance was largely taken on by Britain’s former colonies rather than in Britain itself. An article on Canada’s WWI memorials:

“In November 1918, Canadians turned from waging war to the duty of commemorating the dead. This traditionally meant statuary: thousands of statues, obelisks, cairns, steles, shafts, cenotaphs, and crosses were erected in Canada in the years following the war. There were those, however, who believed “the time when it was the custom to place bronze effigies of soldiers on granite pillars as an excuse for forgetting deeds of valour is happily past.” They promoted instead practical memorials such as hospitals, schools, halls, and libraries. These memorials were “designed with a view to their being of service to the communities in which they will be erected.” From this school of thought came the idea for Roads of Remembrance.”

A lot of these booklets and websites about roads of remembrance also speak of these roads being lined with trees and the significance of the tree as the symbol of life triumphing over death; that bombed-out splintered tree on the battlefield springing back to life amidst human conflict”, although for the most part I find that if you’re a driver on the road, one’s eyes are glued to the road; that hard tarmac road as memory lane itself.

Likewise, perhaps this is how the Kokoda Trail makes sense. Early on in my trip, I climbed to Mt Ainslie’s Lookout point via the Kokoda Trail, a beautiful and scenic pathway up the mountain which has been mapped over with waypoints telling the harrowing story of the Kokoda Trail 1942 World War II battle between the Australians and the Japanese.

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The real Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea is apparently really hard and harsh, consisting of a track that can only be walked single-file. Even without the horrors of war, the conditions of the track are already trying – “hot, humid days with intensely cold nights, torrential rainfall and the risk of endemic tropical diseases such as malaria make it a challenging trek.” Its obvious that Mt Ainslie with its easy footpath and gorgeous scenic viewpoints looks nothing like the original Kokoda Track that has been mapped over it.

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Kokoda Trail, Mt Ainslie, Canberra

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“Kokoda Village” (note the YOU ARE HERE arrow on this plaque, and all of the other plaques on this walking trail)
So how is a trip down a modern road/trail and the memory of war related? I suppose if I had to rationalise it, there is something to be said about the road trip – the long car/bus/road journey – as something which forces the traveller to take the time and space to reflect and remember things from the past. The journey is punctuated by the appearance of these road signs telling us of the names of war heroes (although on an aside I do wonder, if we remember the names of war heroes, then why not the names of prominent scientists or artists or people in other occupations who have also contributed to nation building?); and as one clocks more and more mileage and progresses closer and closer to one’s destination, there is an idea of having to find closure or to mentally ‘complete’ that internal journey into the past.

Another significant place located on the side of Mt Ainslie is the Aboriginal Memorial Plaque, a memorial (established privately by local residents rather than by any govt) which pays respects to the important yet oft-overlooked contributions of Indigenous service personnel in Australia.

Perhaps one of the most complex and difficult challenges for the Australian War Memorial today is to help reconcile Australia with Australia’s long and dark history of rendering Aboriginals and other indigenous people invisible in its military and in its histories.

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For could you not also describe the colonisation process from 1788 as a kind of war waged by the white settlers against the black Aboriginals? – which has ultimately been the deadliest and longest ‘war’ that has been running throughout Australia’s history?

“The Cut” and the fruit trees of Kampong Chai Chee

THE CUT

Recently I chanced upon Koh Hong Teng’s THE CUT on the SingaporeMemory project, a beautifully illustrated comic about kampong living in Chai Chee. When I got to the end of the comic, I suddenly realized that it was, rather coincidentally, about the area I was living in. I recently moved to Kembangan, and have been taking afternoon walks around the neighbourhood (see the Lengkong Empat blog for more). One of my goals on my walks has been to locate the overhead bridge over the PIE (Pan Island Expressway) so that I can walk to the other side of Bedok and maybe even walk to Bedok Reservoir.

The other day, while in search of the bridge, I walked to a dead end from which I could see a big portion of the expressway behind the trees that lay behind, but there was no human access or bridge at that particular end. And after reading THE CUT, I feel compelled that the jungly dead end point I walked to was probably very close to the area described by the narrator — the part of the PIE next to Bedok North, on the side of where the alleged site of the former Chai Chee Hill ought to be.

For me, walking to that fenced-up dead end felt a bit like Koh’s childhood self peering through the fences, except instead of seeing the exotic remnants of the soon-to-be-rendered-obsolete pig farming industry, behind the fence there is just a big steel highway that I can’t cross, in place of it.

I wonder if any of the many fruit trees illustrated in THE CUT have survived the massive changes to the area.

Read Koh Hong Teng’s THE CUT on the Singapore Memory Project


View Kampong Chai Chee in a larger map

Abstract McDonalds Floats in the Void of Time and Space

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A new Mcdonalds outlet opening up at Bugis advertises itself with the strangest image ever – an empty image of a generic building – floating in space! This was found on a huge signboard outside Iluma, facing the busy Victoria Street.

I’ve always struggled to explain why I am drawn to empty shopping malls, although every last shred of poetry and meaning and history seems to have been wrung out of these sort of places. Perhaps because I have the experience of sitting in quiet, empty public areas like that after all the shops are closed (that being the only time when they are tolerable), and although these places and spaces which have been created without any architectural thought or merit, they are somehow still capable of becoming the repository of one’s experience of the city. I suppose in that, even the most generic and undesigned space can become special through personal experience.

Smelling your way through a city: Lush

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Today, I went to Kinokuniya to find some old maps of Singapore; blithely, and without having checked the Internet if such materials actually publicly existed. Naturally, when I got there, i discovered there were no antique, vintage, or even slightly older maps. All the maps at Kinokuniya were maps of the present moment in time – 2011/2012 – and nothing else. If Singapore’s largest and most vast bookstore doesn’t have any old maps of Singapore, then where else would one access such things? I found this rather disappointing; why hasn’t anyone thought to produce something like a series of Ordnance Survey maps through the ages, but for Singapore? I just wanted to find out the route of the old canals from an old map of Singapore… Doesn’t every country treasure its old maps? Do we not have any old maps in Singapore that are celebrated or iconic?

After this abortive excursion, I was returning to Orchard MRT through the route I have always taken underground for all of my life. I was about to get to the MRT when I thought I smelled something sweet and oddly familiar while passing through Wisma Atria. I could not quite place my finger on it at first, I couldn’t recall why it was so intensely familiar and why it was attracting me. The overpowering scent seemed to come from a shop I have always avoided on principle but am nonetheless visually attracted to. This offending store was called “Typo” which sold “nerd glasses” without lenses and “campus notebooks” with old generic western map symbols all over it. It was even more ridiculous to see so many “old maps” masquerading as wrapping papers there because one could probably safely say that the entire Orchard Road shopping strip would not have a single store that sold historically meaningful maps. And there were no real places that these maps were showing us; these “old maps” were simply the accessories and wallpapers for a “designer lifestyle”.

Anyway, thankfully, the bewitching smell had not originated from this abomination of a store. Walking right through this shop, I emerged on the other side of the corridor and there it was: a… LUSH outlet. Yes, LUSH, of pungently fragrant soaps piled up like haystacks, gleefully puddling in tubs like chunky half-melting ice cream. Of intense jasmine sweetness, creamy honey swirls, and crinkly yellow paper bag goodness. I am a true sap for the sweeties and LUSH is a store that hasn’t been in Singapore for virtually a decade, having quietly slinked away from its units at Suntec after what appeared to be some tougher economic times. I was too young and too poor to afford the soaps back then, so my main encounter with LUSH was at Liverpool Street Station in London, where the soaps were not so overpriced when one was earning pounds. But the soaps still overpowered the nose and seeped into everything around it. More recently while travelling from Cornwall to London last year, I had picked up a bar of Godiva at Paddington Station (or was it Victoria?). So at Wisma Atria, I found myself gaping at a mountain of Godiva bars on the counter. The girl tending to the store seemed well familiar with this type of response, cooing: “Yes, its been a long time, hasn’t it?” Suddenly, I realised that this smell of soap has already coloured my memory of places. Like when a track happens to be playing in the background when something serious happens, and subconciously it begins to take on more significance than it expects to.

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And now! Remixing these smells and memories! Taking the MRT, jostling with pimply singaporean teenagers, imagining the light filtering through the trees on the train right, the cold rush of wind through the Tube station, the emergency crisps! Help! And all this, because I found the exact same soap in another country with a consistency that is all too predictable.

I have to admit that I do enjoy the consistent comforts of modernity; for example, it can also be said that most of my wardrobe has consisted on generic plain tailored dresses from Muji or Uniqlo, both of which I have visited in multiple countries. The consistency of the plain “no-brand” generic is something that I find comforting despite the knowledge that it too exists and operates within that same (and slightly sinister) postmodern economy; where traces of memory and culture often appear to have been utterly erased and replaced by the same modern effects all around the world. Shopping malls look the same all around the world, void of interesting architectures and real communities – replaced instead with distorted representations of people and manipulated desires.

Similarly, I am aware that even the little “organic handmade soap” that I have been so fond of over the years could quite very well be not very much different from a mass produced, global commodity, with this bar of soap travelling vast distances to get to me no matter where I might be residing. You might imagine that a sensible response might be to seek out that which is different or unique within a sea of endless repetition. Yet perhaps by dint of having grown up here, I also feel at home at shopping malls overseas because they remind me of Singapore in particular. I wonder why it is that I feel so nostalgic for things. If I keep on buying soaps or things because I am trying to “recapture” a moment in the past, then life would be really boring or artificial I kept it up for too long. I would be stopping myself from exploring new things if I got comfortable with old, sentimental favourites. So I guess this time around I’ll allow myself to roll around in a nostalgic soap – but next time we’re going out to find new smells that we’ve never smelled before!

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There are other reasons why the very word “lush” warms the cockles of my silly little heart but we’ll leave that for another story time.