The year is 1996, and a 15-year-old boy goes down to the police station after school because he has to appear in person to collect his newest purchase: an original bayonet produced for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War Two. Trying to understand the incongruity of a teenager collecting the 20–30 cm blade, the customs officer asks, “What are you going to use this for? To cut chickens, is it? Boy, next time you try not to order this, okay?” Fortunately for the boy, the bayonet gets cleared by the authorities. Wrapping it up for him, the customs officer gives him with one last piece of advice, “Don’t take the MRT home ah – better take the bus!”
Since that first encounter, Alvin Lee – now one of Singapore’s renowned collectors of World War Two weapons, uniforms and material history – has been a regular visitor to the Police Cantonment Complex at Outram, where imports related to weaponry are detained for inspection. Lee notes the irony of these checks. “The knives and bayonets are real, and they get cleared very quickly. But though the guns are all replicas, they usually take a longer time.”
The devil is in the details
At a glance, Lee’s hobby seems like a childhood fascination taken to the extreme. Over 16 years, he has accumulated more than 30 sets of German and Japanese soldier uniforms, more than 10 bayonets and even a prized replica of an MP40 submachine gun, as well as personal items such as soldiers’ identity booklets. “I started off by building those small plastic model kits in primary school. Somehow, my curiosity grew and I tried to purchase a German helmet,” he recalls. “There was no Internet then, so I had to look for advertisements from vendors selling war products at the back of industry magazines and then snailmail the vendor in the US to get the helmet.”
Starting a collection was one thing, but the teenage Lee quickly realised that he had to learn to also judge the authenticity of such items. “I later found out that my German helmet was not ‘real’ since it did not match some pictures of German attire in the reference books I picked up. Many of the products these vendors sold were also inaccurately labelled or identified, and this spurred me to do my own research.” Lee chuckles sheepishly. “And, well, the thing about me is that once I start, I can’t stop.”
Lee certainly shows no signs of stopping today. He has built a reputation (and business) out of an obsession with getting it right, and fellow collectors in Singapore consider him one of the key local authorities on historical military garb and equipment. Lee is also well-regarded among the small international community of collectors with whom he has corresponded over the Internet, on collectors’ forums such as the Axis History Forum, and through his blog about his collection, Alvin’s Bunker (and Syonan Reflections). He has met collectors in Australia and Hong Kong, and his trips abroad have also been opportunities to forage in military clothing and equipment shops. One of the most memorable of these was a trip in 2006 to Tokyo’s Nakata Shoten, a shop that has clothed actors such as Ken Watanabe in World War Two Japanese army militaria for numerous war films. “Shopping in Nakata Shoten was, to me, like a trip to the Louis Vuitton flagship store along the Champs-Elysees,” he recalls.
In the room that he shares with his wife Michelle in his parents' flat, Lee has dry boxes containing weaponry, uniforms and other effects, all lovingly protected in acid-free wrapping. Lee is hard pressed to choose a favourite item out of the lot and finally decides on a Japanese katana. Aren’t you worried about the ‘spirit’ of these things? I ask. Japanese swords are strongly associated with spirituality and katanas were often family heirlooms as well; after the Japanese surrender in 1945, it was common for Japanese officers to also surrender their katanas to the corresponding British officer of equivalent rank (one such sword is on display at the Changi Museum).
“Luckily my katana is only a replica!” Lee says with a laugh. His attitude toward these items is respectful, yet practical; he seems to associate them with a sense of history and functionality, rather than drama or tragedy. Lee goes on to elaborate on the brown stains he sees on certain items, but quickly attributes them to rust or soil. “Are you sure it’s not blood?” I shudder. In his characteristically easy-going manner, Lee says, “A lot of this [suspicion toward war items] stems from people’s imaginations. Though I must say, some of them smell strange, like crayon.”
I wonder if his wife, Michelle, shares his interpretation. She gives us a look, a hybrid of resignation, horror and affectionate amusement.
There is a deeper layer to Lee’s fascination with militaria: he regularly dons uniforms and shoulders weapons from his collection, and he prefers to dress up as a Japanese or German soldier – the proverbial “bad guys” in World War Two. I can’t help wondering out loud, isn’t it strange for an Asian to dress up as a German soldier? Doesn’t it seem insensitive to our local history, even a little perverse to enjoy dressing up as the bad guys? Lee deftly counters my first concern with the little known fact that East Asians did serve in the German army, either as recruits or volunteers. On his blog, he has published rare photographs of Chinese- and Japanese-looking faces in German uniform among Caucasian soldiers; some of these images are from his reference books while others were provided by fellow enthusiasts on online history forums.
What about the broader issue of choosing to put on the clothing and gear that have come to symbolise what Hannah Arendt termed the banality of evil? The German and Japanese armies were, after all, responsible for large-scale genocides such as the Final Solution in Nazi Europe and the Rape of Nanking in China, as well as the sook ching massacre in Singapore.
But Lee refuses to be drawn into this debate. His reasoning is consistently personal and straightforward. “When I built the model kits, I started with the so-called ‘bad guys’ simply because I thought that their uniforms and equipment looked very nice. The Germans were the most technologically advanced army at that time. They also had the most diversity in terms of their uniforms, and the most sophisticated weaponry. On a practical level, it is also easier to collect German items. They are the most readily available and popular.” He notes that many American historical re-enactors have also chosen to focus on German military units (while explicitly rejecting right-wing political ideology).
At the same time, Lee takes pains to emphasise that the soldiers who participated in the German or Japanese atrocities were also individuals, “normal people like you and me”. I concede the point, acknowledging that psychological studies back him up. For example, the experiments undertaken by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961 showed that normal, decent human beings will perform actions incompatible with their personal sense of morality if they are exposed to situational factors that increased individual compliance and obedience. The war machine, in that sense, could turn every individual soldier into a cog in its relentless system of destruction.
For Lee, therefore, his personal hobby has expanded into an opportunity “to dispel any stereotypes and misconceptions the public may have about the soldiers.” Referring to my example of the Nazi atrocities, he clarifies that it was the Schutzstaffel (more commonly known as the SS), the political arm of the Nazi state, which committed the atrocities against the Jews. People often overlook the differences between the two. Lee notes that the army that fought military battles did not wear the distinctive all-black uniforms of the SS, yet for convenience, popular media depictions often resort to the most simplistic war images as a kind of cultural shorthand. In the same way, many Singaporeans who grew up on a diet of local TV productions about the Japanese Occupation have come to associate the Japanese foot soldier with caps with ear flaps. However, Lee informs me that this is a misconception: the flaps were in fact removable and soldiers could choose to wear caps without the flaps, or even wear helmets instead of these soft caps.
As a self-proclaimed “living military historian”, Lee has formed an informal company, Syonan Reflections, with fellow enthusiasts in Singapore to communicate the nuances and details of wartime soldiering life to the wider public. In 2009, he got a very fleeting taste of what Japanese soldiers in Malaya must have experienced in World War Two, when the company provided British and Japanese uniforms and kit, as well as acted as extras, for the docudrama Black Friday. While filming with director Wan (Idzwan Othman) at a lalang field in Punggol, Lee realised how exhausting it was to charge repeatedly across the field and nearly suffered from heat exhaustion. Even carrying minimal gear, despite the supplies of Milo and 100plus, Lee was soaked in the humidity and heat. He wondered how the Japanese troops managed to fight with little water and such heavy equipment.
The group’s other public appearances are tamer. They have become fixtures at the war commemoration sites Reflections at Bukit Chandu and Memories at Old Ford Factory, and it is easy to understand why museum-goers take to the group’s interactive approach. Visitors get to “play soldier” by trying on the uniforms and taking up the weapons, both real ones and replicas – a step beyond the usual experience of an exhibition where the interesting items are sealed off in a glass display. Lee’s group is also all too keen to share their wealth of technical and historical knowledge about the equipment and uniforms.
Yet their message has sober undertones: they never underplay the severity of the uniform’s history by pretending to kill each other, nor do they play the fool while in uniform. Even at as colourful an event as the Singapore Toy, Games & Comic Convention in 2010, Lee and two members of Syonan Reflections cut serious figures, dressed up respectively as a Panzergrenadier officer, Russian officer and Heer enlisted man amidst a sea of anime characters. Wasn’t it strange to mix this dark episode of Japanese history with the popular Japanese hobby cosplay? Lee says matter-of-factly, “At the end of the day, I just want to spread an interest in war history. I thought this event was a great way to reach out to a different group of people, other than the school kids or the regular museum-goer.”
Ultimately, Lee’s desire is to get the public to look past the vast numbers that make up World War Two casualty rates or tactical achievements, and focus on the one soldier and how heavy his uniform, army kit and equipment hung on his shoulders. People understandably dwell on the millions of civilian casualties in war, but Lee doesn’t want to forget the other victim on the battlefield. “War films tend to depict soldiers as either heroic or devilish, while ignoring the private life of the soldier. But these men were also brothers, fathers and husbands.” Through his hobby, he says, “I just want to let people learn more about the story of the ordinary soldier.”
Images Wan (Idzwan Othman) & Alvin Lee