The Sunday Magazine

How a Canadian woman's imaginary feasts helped starving WW II prisoners

At the height of the Second World War, trapped inside a Singapore prison, Ethel Rogers Mulvany gathered fellow starving women to dream up imaginary feasts. The CBC's Alisa Siegel speaks with Ottawa historian Suzanne Evans about how the women's make-believe dishes became their tool for survival.

Ethel Mulvany dared fellow PoWs to dream of home. Their shared recipes brought them solace in Changi Prison

A portrait of Ethel Rogers Mulvany done in Changi Prison in 1942. Mulvany dreamed up imaginary feasts with other prisoners of war who were sent to the overcrowded prison after the British lost the military battle for the island that year. (Submitted by Suzanne Evans)

At the height of the Second World War, 40 female prisoners on the brink of starvation gathered around makeshift tables in Singapore's Changi Prison for a daily feast. 

There was no food on their table. Instead, they traded recipes and dreamed up dinner party menus. They savoured the idea of flavour.

These imaginary feasts were the brainchild of a wildly energetic and creative Canadian woman named Ethel Rogers Mulvany. 

Born on Manitoulin Island, Ont., in 1904, Mulvany was a social worker, arts event co-ordinator and teacher. During the Second World War, she and her husband moved to Singapore, where he was posted as a military doctor. She became a Red Cross ambulance driver.

In 1942, in a battle described by British prime minister Winston Churchill as "the worst disaster" in British military history, the island fell to the Japanese. Mulvany — along with thousands of other civilians — was marched into the notorious and overcrowded Changi Prison.

The feasts became a tool for survival, Ottawa historian and writer Suzanne Evans told The Sunday Edition's documentary producer Alisa Siegel.

Evans is working on a book about Mulvany to be published in the fall of 2020.

Mulvany on Pulau Shorga Island off Singapore in 1941, before the war. (Submitted by Marion King)

"This was not taking their appetites away. This was taking the women away from their hunger. They were leaving that world," Evans said. 

"They were escaping their prison right under the noses of their jailers, and there was nothing that the jailers could do about it. They were going into an imaginary world — together."

'Their own table in the sky'

Mulvany was inspired by a poem called The Depression Ends by Newfoundland poet Ned Pratt, which was written during the Great Depression. 

"He imagined a feast at a table in the skies that would be for all the world's destitute and starving, and he imagined that it would be so big that it would take light years to get around the table. It would be centred around a barbecue with all kinds of fish and fowl and meat," Evans said. 

"Ethel saw no reason why she and her fellow prisoners couldn't have their own table in the sky."

The women planned their imaginary feasts down to the smallest detail. There was a centrepiece of daisies with sprigs of fern, dreamed up by Mulvany's friend Euphemia Redfearn, alongside beloved objects from the women's memories. They recounted how to churn butter, step by step. They swapped recipes and added modifications. 

"Your saliva would flow, and you'd swallow the saliva. Believe it or not, you had a meal. You always felt better," Mulvany told Maclean's magazine in 1961.

Eventually, Mulvany insisted they start writing their recipes down.

Mulvany, before being presented to the emperor and empress of Japan, in 1933. After the war, which involved her being tortured and banished to solitary confinement in prison, she found it difficult to record what she remembered. (Submitted by Marion King)

"Paper was in very short supply, but she found old newspapers in the dungeon of this jail and she cut off the edges of them, which are blank," Evans said.

"She eventually gathered together all these little floaty bits of newspaper with recipes written on them, and she badgered the Japanese to give her some proper writing paper. They gave her a couple of old logbooks, and people transcribed the recipes into these logbooks."

Evans described the collection of recipes as a "book of longing."

"I think Ethel is a woman of longing. I think she longed for her family. Of course, she longed for a good meal. She longed for love. She longed to make the world a better place," she said. 

Dreams and reality

At the imaginary feasts, the table always had butter and salt. The guests feasted on orange chiffon pies made with five eggs, and sausages dripping with fat. 

"The only wartime cookbooks that I had known about before I came across this one was how to make do with less, and how to scrimp and save, and how to live under rationing — Depression cakes that have no butter in them. That's not what this was about. They gave full rein to their dreams," Evans said.

But their dreams stood in stark contrast to their reality. There was never enough to eat, and the prisoners were steadily losing weight. Mulvany's friend Redfearn, who brought make-believe daisies to the feasts, got sick and died. So did many of the older prisoners. 

Australian prisoners of war inside Changi Prison, Singapore, in 1945, during the Second World War. (Australian War Memorial)

On Sept. 27, 1943, six Japanese ships were destroyed in the Singapore harbour. Convinced the prisoners were responsible, the Japanese authorities retaliated harshly. On Oct. 10, 1943, in what's known as the Double Tenth incident, they arrested and tortured 57 civilian prisoners. Fifteen people died. 

"After that point, the food dropped precipitously ... and that's when people really suffered," Evans said.

Mulvany was put into solitary confinement and tortured with electric shocks. Her prison camp number was branded into her arm. She remained in solitary confinement for six months, until the prison was liberated in September 1945.

Raising money for former PoWs

After liberation, Mulvany struggled to write down her memories of the war. 

"She just couldn't get it out, [but] she had her recipes, and she thought, 'Well, that will tell part of the story,'" Evans said.

She brought the logbooks full of recipes to a print store in Toronto's east end, and asked the man at the counter to make her 2,000 copies.

Inside Mulvany's logbook of recipes from the women prisoners at Changi Prison in Singapore, on display at the Central Manitoulin Pioneer Museum in Ontario. Ottawa historian Suzanne Evans describes Mulvany's collection of recipes as a 'book of longing.' (Submitted by Suzanne Evans)

"He asked her if she wanted the names of all the people who had contributed the recipes, and she said, 'No, I don't, because a lot of them are gone, and it would be like calling back the dead,'" Evans said.

Reluctant to claim authorship, Mulvany used her initials, E.R.M., instead of her full name.

Mulvany visited churches and community groups with a briefcase full of cookbooks, and sold them to raise money for former prisoners of war. At the end of each night, her briefcase was always empty.

The suitcase Mulvany carried into and out of Changi Prison in Singapore during the Second World War. It now rests in the Central Manitoulin Pioneer Museum in Ontario. (Submitted by Suzanne Evans)

"She told people, 'There are starving people out there, and there are still hungry ex-PoWs in England, and if you buy one of these cookbooks you can learn about what we experienced,'" Evans said. 

With the $18,000 she raised by selling 20,000 copies, Mulvany ordered food from Eaton's and shipped it to former PoWs still hospitalized in England and living on rations. Fresh oranges were at the top of her list.

"She wanted to send [oranges] to those ex-PoWs, because they had dreamed of them in prison camp," Evans said.

'Enjoy your homes. Enjoy your food' 

In late summer 2019, Evans gathered a group of women artists together in Hillier, Ont., to introduce them to Mulvany and her remarkable cookbook — and to hold their own imaginary feast.

"Thank you all very much for agreeing to come to this imaginary feast, so that you can imagine what Ethel Mulvany and other prisoners of war in Changi [Prison] might have experienced when they sat around and talked about the food that they dreamed of," she told them. 

Mulvany in 1966 with a quilt made on order for Maryon Pearson, wife of former Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson. (Submitted by Marion King)

Mulvany may not have foreseen her cookbook being used at another imaginary feast nearly 80 years later. But in a foreword, she spoke directly to readers who would make these recipes with ingredients they could smell and touch, rather than with the powers of their minds.

"Remember, cooks, when you are using this book, that the individuals who wrote the recipes were starving prisoners of war. I hope that you may enjoy the recipes. I also hope that you will never know what starvation or even real hunger means," she wrote. 

"From one Canadian who survived the horrors of war and prison camp, may I just say, enjoy your homes. Enjoy your food. There is nothing that can take their place."

Click 'listen' above to hear Alisa Siegel's documentary, A Woman of Longing. Written by Pauline Holdsworth and Alisa Siegel.


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