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Smell the fear of Japanese Occupation at history exhibition

SINGAPORE — The horror and hardship of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore is not unfamiliar to those who have studied history, but a new project at the National Museum of Singapore is set to take it to another dimension — capturing the smell of fear in a bottle.

Perfumer Prachi Saini Garg created scents to evoke different chapters of Singapore’s history as part of the Singapura: 700 Years exhibition. Photo: Wee Teck Hian

Perfumer Prachi Saini Garg created scents to evoke different chapters of Singapore’s history as part of the Singapura: 700 Years exhibition. Photo: Wee Teck Hian

SINGAPORE — The horror and hardship of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore is not unfamiliar to those who have studied history, but a new project at the National Museum of Singapore is set to take it to another dimension — capturing the smell of fear in a bottle.

Designed to recall the smell of blood and sweat, the scent, called Fear, is one of 12 specially created to evoke different chapters of Singapore’s history featured at the museum’s Singapura: 700 Years exhibition. Fear will be featured in the exhibition’s Syonan-To section about the Japanese Occupation during World War II.

The exhibition opened in October last year, but the smell dimension — created in collaboration with perfumer Prachi Saini Garg — is a new feature that will be introduced from this Friday (April 17) until May 18.

Other scents include the Singapore Stone, which recalls the earthy smell of a sandstone slab that stood in Singapore river almost two centuries ago, and Rich Lavish Cloths, which features notes of jasmine, chocolate, blackberries and vanilla to transport visitors back the colonial era.

A “Scent of the Nation” workshop will also be held on May 2, where visitors can try their hand at creating a defining scent for Singapore.

Ms Saini Garg, a permanent resident who moved here two years ago, is the founder of Je t’aime perfumery. Speaking to TODAY on the creation of the scents, she noted that Fear alone took 34 tries before she was satisfied with the 35th.

The final creation, a reddish-brown liquid, looks none too pleasant, but Ms Saini Garg said it was a “more palatable” version of the scent. “I had initially developed two different scents called ‘death’ and ‘torture’, but the docents said it was too pungent,” she said, adding that one of the docents became worked up discussing it.

There were also concerns that too overpowering a scent will stick and even spread to other sections of the exhibition. “Even developing it was a disgusting process, my kids won’t come near me because all my hands are stinky,” said the mother of two daughters, aged seven and nine.

The final version comprises notes of ammonia, ketones and plant-based musk. The museum staff and Ms Saini Garg had decided against the use of natural musk — derived from animals like deer — for ethical reasons.

Ms Saini Garg noted not everyone would respond to the scent the same way. “Scents are very personal and subjective, and they are always tied to memories, which differ from person to person,” she said.

Another scent created was 8-cent Meal, created for the Road to Merdeka section. Comprising notes such as passion fruit, coconut milk, vanilla beans, it was meant to represent the meals provided by the Social Welfare Department during the post-war years. “More than a meal, this is an assurance that they could provide for themselves and their children, and a hope for a better tomorrow,” explained Ms Saini Garg.

For the exhibition, most of the scents were developed within a day, but research and discussions with the museum took more work. For each scent, she would first take pictures at each section of the exhibition, visit the landmarks showcased where possible, then choose roughly 50 to 60 ingredients based on several motifs she had shortlisted.

“I like to be organised, so I will set out the eventual scent I want to achieve first, pull out the raw materials that will lead me there, then start my series of trials,” said Ms Saini Garg, adding that perfumery is “as much an art as a science”.

Of the 12, her personal favourites are Singapore Stone and Green Singapore, as they mark the start and the present state of Singapore. “Besides, those are the happiest smells,” she said.

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