Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

King Rat

James Clavell


  and His Spectacular Bestseller


  “A magnificent novel … scintillating … vibrant … expert.”

  —Washington Post

  “A powerful, satisfying novel … fascinating … penetrating … provoking.”

  —New York Herald Tribune

  “A blockbuster of a novel … one of the best we have read, and we read every word.”

  —Boston Herald


  1600 SHOGUN

  1841 TAI-PAN

  1862 GAI-JIN

  1945 KING RAT



  Table of Contents



  Part One

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Part Two

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Part Three

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Part Four

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  About the Author


  For Those Who Were There

  and Are Not.

  For Those Who Were There and Are.

  For Him. But Most,

  for Her.

  There was a war. Changi and Utram Road jails in Singapore do—or did—exist. Obviously the rest of this story is fiction, and no similarity to anyone living or dead exists or is intended.



  by Michaela Clavell Richards


  This letter is number 205. We have had no news of you since your letter dated February 1, 1942, posted from Singapore. We’re praying for your safe return.

  I’ve started each letter off the same, so if you’ve read the above before, forgive me. But it’s difficult, not knowing if this one will reach you, if any of them have….

  When my father walked out through the gates of Changi prison to freedom, six feet tall, ninety-eight pounds, and twenty-one years alive, he was handed a small but bulky bundle of papers and the news that his beloved father was dead. For three years and eleven months my stubborn half-Irish grandmother had written weekly letters, via the Red Cross, to a son reported only as “missing, captured in Java.” For almost four years the bundle had grown, saved and collected by the Japanese. And never delivered. Without reply she had written to a prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore, where ninety-nine out of every hundred men died, courtesy of malaria, malnutrition, cruelty, and dysentery. Miraculously spared these, my father survived despite starvation, appendicitis, bullet wounds, jungle sores, and even a broken nose, received while defending his hut’s honor and its pregnant coconut tree.

  King Rat was born from the ashes of this experience.

  He wrote it during a screenwriters strike in 1963. Unable to work at his then trade, my mother suggested somewhat forcefully that instead of just lying about, he write a book on his experiences in Singapore. Six weeks later King Rat was completed. Expertly edited by Herman Gollob, it was published without the additional pages included in this edition. Pages that give a glimpse of seven women’s lives during the war—girlfriends, mothers, and wives of men in the camp. Perhaps, at the time, it was felt inappropriate for a harsh and groundbreaking novel of survival to include women’s equally harsh stories. But my father knew it was everyone’s war, and that no man, woman, or child was spared.

  When we were children, my sister and I were told and retold stories of our family’s experiences in the war. My mother, at sixteen, would sit with her mother on the rooftop of their London house at night, watching the bombs drop and burst rather than cower in the airless shelter below. If it had your name on it, it would find you wherever you were.

  Like many other women in England and around the world, my father’s mother went to work for pay and rations. Granny Clavell, shop steward, electrical engineer, and welder by day, volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver by night, delivering bomb victims, mainly women and children, through demolished and unlit streets to overcrowded makeshift hospitals. Aunt Joan, Father’s youngest sister, at eighteen a Wren with top secret clearance, served under Mountbatten in Ceylon, making her way from England by sea, enduring dengue fever and saltwater showers on a condemned Indian cattleboat while German U-boats patrolled the seas like hungry sharks. Aunt Meg in England, his eldest sister, sergeant at arms of a military transport yard at Boscombe Downe, a high security facility where experimental planes and bombs were manufactured and tested, drove through the black night without headlamps, maps, or street signs, delivering important personnel safely to their secret destinations. The stories were high adventure to us. No one had died. No lost limbs. We could see no scars.

  We were still too young to understand that the invisible terrors of war also ravage the soul—and that fear for loved ones, or oneself, can maim and imprison as surely as any bomb or barbed wire. At home or in Changi, villain or hero, man or woman or child, all fought to survive. To live. This, then, is their story, complete and as my father wrote it. Dedicated to his memory, and to all who have survived their own private Changi.

  Changi was set like a pearl on the eastern tip of Singapore Island, iridescent under the bowl of tropical skies. It stood on a slight rise and around it was a belt of green, and farther off the green gave way to the blue-green seas and the seas to infinity of horizon.

  Closer, Changi lost its beauty and became what it was—an obscene forbidding prison. Cellblocks surrounded by sun-baked courtyards surrounded by towering walls.

  Inside the walls, inside the cellblocks, story on story, were cells for two thousand prisoners at capacity. Now, in the cells and in the passageways and in every nook and cranny lived some eight thousand men. English and Australian mostly—a few New Zealanders and Canadians—the remnants of the armed forces of the Far East campaign.

  These men too were criminals. Their crime was vast. They had lost a war. And they had lived.

  The cell doors were open and the cellblock doors were open and the monstrous gate which slashed the walls was open and the men could move in and out—almost freely. But still there was a closeness, a claustrophobic smell.

  Outside the gate was a skirting tarmac road. A hundred yards west this road was crossed by a tangle of barbed gates, and outside these gates was a guardhouse peopled with the armed offal of the conquering hordes. Past the barrier the road ran merrily onward, and in the course of time lost itself in the sprawling city of Singapore. But for the men, the road west ended a hundred yards from the main gate.

  East, the road followed the wall, then turned south and again followed the wall. On either side of the road were banks of long “go-downs” as the rough sheds were called. They were all the same—sixty paces long with walls made from plaited coconut fronds roughly nailed to posts, and thatch roofs also made from coconut fronds, layer on mildewed layer. Every year a new layer was added, or should have been added. For the sun and the rain and the insects tortured the thatch and broke it down. There were simple openings for windows and doors. The sheds had long thatch overhangs to keep out the sun and the rain, and they were
set on concrete stilts to escape floods and the snakes and frogs and slugs and snails, the scorpions, centipedes, beetles, bugs—all manner of crawling thing.

  Officers lived in these sheds.

  South and east of the road were four rows of concrete bungalows, twenty to a row, back to back. Senior officers—majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels—lived in these.

  The road turned west, again following the wall, and met another bank of atap sheds. Here was quartered the overflow from the jail.

  And in one of these, smaller than most, lived the American contingent of twenty-five enlisted men.

  Where the road turned north once more, hugging the wall, was part of the vegetable gardens. The remainder—which supplied most of the camp food—lay farther to the north, across the road, opposite the prison gate. The road continued through the lesser garden for two hundred yards and ended in front of the guardhouse.

  Surrounding the whole sweating area, perhaps half a mile by half a mile, was a barbed fence. Easy to cut. Easy to get through. Scarcely guarded. No searchlights. No machine gun posts. But once outside, what then? Home was across the seas, beyond the horizon, beyond a limitless sea or hostile jungle. Outside was disaster, for those who went and for those who remained.

  By now, 1945, the Japanese had learned to leave the control of the camp to the prisoners. The Japanese gave orders and the officers were responsible for enforcing them. If the camp gave no trouble, it got none. To ask for food was trouble. To ask for medicine was trouble. To ask for anything was trouble. That they were alive was trouble.

  For the men, Changi was more than a prison. Changi was genesis, the place of beginning again.



  “I’m going to get that bloody bastard if I die in the attempt.” Lieutenant Grey was glad that at last he had spoken aloud what had so long been twisting his guts into a knot. The venom in Grey’s voice snapped Sergeant Masters out of his reverie. He had been thinking about a bottle of ice-cold Australian beer and a steak with a fried egg on top and his home in Sydney and his wife and the breasts and smell of her. He didn’t bother to follow the lieutenant’s gaze out the window. He knew who it had to be among the half-naked men walking the dirt path which skirted the barbed fence. But he was surprised at Grey’s outburst. Usually the Provost Marshal of Changi was as tight-lipped and unapproachable as any Englishman.

  “Save your strength, Lieutenant,” Masters said wearily, “the Japs’ll fix him soon enough.”

  “Bugger the Japs,” Grey said. “I want to catch him. I want him in this jail. And when I’ve done with him—I want him in Utram Road Jail.”

  Masters looked up aghast. “Utram Road?”


  “My oath, I can understand you wanting to get him,” Masters said, “but, well, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

  “That’s where he belongs. And that’s where I’m going to put him. Because he’s a thief, a liar, a cheat and a bloodsucker. A bloody vampire who feeds on the rest of us.”

  Grey got up and went closer to the window of the sweltering MP hut. He waved at the flies which swarmed from the plank floors and squinted his eyes against the refracted glare of the high noon light beating the packed earth. “By God,” he said, “I’ll have vengeance for all of us.”

  Good luck, mate, Masters thought. You can get the King if anyone can. You’ve got the right amount of hate in you. Masters did not like officers and did not like Military Police. He particularly despised Grey, for Grey had been promoted from the ranks and tried to hide this fact from others.

  But Grey was not alone in his hatred. The whole of Changi hated the King. They hated him for his muscular body, the clear glow in his blue eyes. In this twilight world of the half alive there were no fat or well-built or round or smooth or fair-built or thick-built men. There were only faces dominated by eyes and set on bodies that were skin over sinews over bones. No difference between them but age and face and height. And in all this world, only the King ate like a man, smoked like a man, slept like a man, dreamed like a man and looked like a man.

  “You,” Grey barked. “Corporal! Come over here!”

  The King had been aware of Grey ever since he had turned the corner of the jail, not because he could see into the blackness of the MP hut but because he knew that Grey was a person of habit and when you have an enemy it is wise to know his ways. The King knew as much about Grey as any man could know about another.

  He stepped off the path and walked towards the lone hut, set like a pimple among sores of other huts.

  “You wanted me, sir?” the King said, saluting. His smile was bland. His sun glasses veiled the contempt of his eyes.

  From his window, Grey stared down at the King. His taut features hid the hate that was part of him. “Where are you going?”

  “Back to my hut. Sir,” the King said patiently, and all the time his mind was figuring angles—had there been a slip, had someone informed, what was with Grey?

  “Where did you get that shirt?”

  The King had bought the shirt the day before from a major who had kept it neat for two years against the day he would need to sell it for money to buy food. The King liked to be tidy and well-dressed when everyone else was not, and he was pleased that today his shirt was clean and new and his long pants were creased and his socks clean and his shoes freshly polished and his hat stainless. It amused him that Grey was naked but for pathetically patched short pants and wooden clogs, and a Tank Corps beret that was green and solid with tropic mold.

  “I bought it,” the King said. “Long time ago. There’s no law against buying anything—here, anywheres else. Sir.”

  Grey felt the impertinence in the “Sir.” “All right, Corporal, inside!”


  “I just want a little chat,” Grey said sarcastically.

  The King held his temper and walked up the steps and through the doorway and stood near the table. “Now what? Sir.”

  “Turn out your pockets.”


  “Do as you’re told. You know I’ve the right to search you at any time.” Grey let some of his contempt show. “Even your commanding officer agreed.”

  “Only because you insisted on it.”

  “With good reason. Turn out your pockets!”

  Wearily the King complied. After all, he had nothing to hide. Handkerchief, comb, wallet, one pack of tailor-made cigarettes, his tobacco box full of raw Java tobacco, rice cigarette papers, matches. Grey made sure all pockets were empty, then opened the wallet. There were fifteen American dollars and nearly four hundred Japanese Singapore dollars.

  “Where did you get this money?” Grey snapped, the ever-present sweat dripping from him.

  “Gambling. Sir.”

  Grey laughed mirthlessly. “You’ve a lucky streak. It’s been good for nearly three years. Hasn’t it?”

  “You through with me now? Sir.”

  “No. Let me look at your watch.”

  “It’s on the list—”

  “I said let me look at your watch!”

  Grimly the King pulled the stainless steel expanding band off his wrist and handed it to Grey.

  In spite of his hatred of the King, Grey felt a shaft of envy. The watch was waterproof, shockproof, self-winding. An Oyster Royal. The most priceless possession of Changi—other than gold. He turned the watch over and looked at the figures etched into the steel, then went over to the atap wall and took down the list of the King’s possessions and automatically wiped the ants off it, and meticulously checked the number of the watch against the number of the Oyster Royal watch on the list.

  “It checks,” the King said. “Don’t worry. Sir.”

  “I’m not worried,” Grey said. “It’s you who are to be worried.” He handed the watch back, the watch that could bring nearly six months of food.

  The King put the watch back on his wrist and began to pick up his wallet and other things.

  “Oh yes. Your rin
g!” Grey said. “Let’s check that.”

  But the ring checked with the list too. It was itemed as A gold ring, signet of the Clan Gordon. Alongside the description was an example of the seal.

  “How is it an American has a Gordon ring?” Grey had asked the same question many times.

  “I won it. Poker,” the King said.

  “Remarkable memory you’ve got, Corporal,” Grey said and handed it back. He had known all along that the ring and the watch would check. He had only used the search as an excuse. He felt compelled, almost masochistically, to be near his prey for just a while. He knew, too, that the King did not scare easily. Many had tried to catch him, and failed, for he was smart and careful and very cunning.

  “Why is it,” Grey asked harshly, suddenly boiling with envy of the watch and ring and cigarettes and matches and money, “that you have so much and the rest of us nothing?”

  “Don’t know. Sir. Guess I’m just lucky.”

  “Where did you get this money?”

  “Gambling. Sir.” The King was always polite. He always said “Sir” to officers and saluted officers, English and Aussie officers. But he knew they were aware of the vastness of his contempt for “Sir” and saluting. It wasn’t the American way. A man’s a man, regardless of background or family or rank. If you respect him, you call him “Sir.” If you don’t, you don’t, and it’s only the sons of bitches that object. To hell with them!

  The King put the ring back on his finger, buttoned down his pockets and flicked some dust off his shirt. “Will that be all? Sir.” He saw the anger flash in Grey’s eyes.

  Then Grey looked across at Masters, who had been watching nervously. “Sergeant, would you get me some water, please?”

  Wearily Masters went over to the water bottle that hung on the wall. “Here you are, sir.”

  “That’s yesterday’s,” Grey said, knowing it was not. “Fill it with clean water.”

  “I could’ve swore I filled it first thing,” Masters said. Then, shaking his head, he walked out.