In this article, the author critically reflects on her long project One Day We'll Understand, a multichapter research and art work that complicates the historiography of the “Malayan Emergency,” the anticolonial war in the former British colony of Malaya (1948–60)—made in the context of a growing number of art works globally dealing with the ghosts of empire. In charting the project's various parts, the author discusses how she uses art and multiple modes of archiving to conjure the specters of colonialism and traces of resistance and generate a different form of knowledge and remembrance, and how that offers us possible paths of restitution and repair.
Some people say history moves in a spiral, not the line we have come to expect.
We travel through time in a circular trajectory, our distance increasing from an epicenter only to return again, one circle removed.—Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous
In Malaya, my Forces and the civil administration are carrying out a difficult task with patience and determination.—Queen Elizabeth II, 1952, in her first prorogation of Parliament
Beneath a row of stained-glass windows bearing the flags of Commonwealth countries, a pianist played a version of the Malaysian national anthem that reverberated across the chapel in London's Guildhall Yard. From the pews Malaysians and a few British veterans beamed with pride as they were gathered to mark sixty years of “Merdeka,” or independence in Malay. It was October 2017, just over a year since the Brexit vote, when accusations flew of Brexiters having romantic dreams of “empire 2.0.” Here in St. Lawrence Jewry, this event organized by the British Malaysian Society celebrated the anniversary of the successful counterinsurgency war against the so-called communist terrorists that led to Malaysia's independence in 1957, a bookend in the twilight of British Empire. The speeches that followed the piano performance thanked and congratulated the British for crushing the communist threat in Malaya. From my seat in one of the back pews, I took in the chest-thumping spirit of “great Britannia” that hung in the air. With this and the more recent global outpouring of sentiment over the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it is clear much in British imperial history has not been reckoned with. This unfinished business of empire is what gives my years-long obsession with the “Malayan Emergency” a quiet significance and relevance—beyond the fact that Malaya was a precedent for the more well-remembered Vietnam War. It was in Malaya that the British piloted the use of Agent Orange and population segregation tactics, which Americans later applied in Vietnam.
My search started with a single personal photograph. It was of a tanned man, not tall and with thick lips, a little like mine. He wore a white long-sleeved shirt and white trousers and stood with hands on hip—and he had a camera slung around his neck (fig. 1). That was my first encounter with my late paternal grandfather, Shen Huansheng, who had been taboo in the family since his execution in China in 1949. Intrigued by the photograph as much as this trans-generational silence, I started excavating the multiple narratives of his life and the hidden histories of his anticolonial compatriots in what was then British Malaya (present-day Malaysia and Singapore). This work expanded over the past decade into a multidisciplinary research and artistic project, One Day We'll Understand, which works to complicate the historiography of the Malayan Emergency of 1948 to 1960—one of the first hot wars in the global Cold War—through various modes of archiving/counter-archiving and art making. My work to reexamine, renarrate, and remember the Malayan Emergency and the record of anticolonial wars is part of a recent global wave of artistic and scholarly works looking at the ghosts of colonialism.1
I have made an assemblage of works on the traces of this conflict, its inherited histories, and memories, in order to probe broader questions of gaps, aphasia, and specters around decolonization wars in the Global South. The multiple chapters of the project—Remnants, Requiem, Interventions—have been shown as photographic and filmic installations, glass plates, as well as text-based performance and books, in solo exhibitions, biennales, and triennials in Europe and Asia. The latest shows include a solo in Berlin in 2021 and an exhibition at the Istanbul Biennale 2022.
Remnants contends with specters of at least two sorts—in the land and in objects.2
The first strand of Remnants, a series of large-scale (110.5 cm × 110.5 cm) landscape photographic prints, depicts sites of memory (tapping Pierre Nora's Les lieux de mémoire)3 from the Malayan Emergency and works with the notion that the land itself could be an unspoken archive of this never-declared war. The Malayan Emergency or anticolonial war—depending who you ask—was a bloody twelve-year conflict between the British and Commonwealth troops and the armed wing of the Malayan Communist Party. The British, in facing a series of ambushes and sabotage on the supplies of rubber and tin from its prized colony, declared a state of emergency and conducted mass arrests, followed by the deportation of more than twenty thousand mostly ethnic Chinese suspected leftists to China—including my paternal grandfather—and en masse population relocation to encampments to starve the Communists of men, medicine, and food. The conflict was the longest the British fought overseas after World War II but was never declared a war, in part to ensure that the rubber and tin supplies continued to be covered by insurance. It was a war in all ways but its name, brutal on both sides and fought on the plantations and jungles of Malaya.
The sites of known ambushes, acts of sabotage, and battles were among the places I sought out to photograph, as well as the spaces that local villagers still recall as “rivers of blood” or particular trees or parade squares where they had witnessed the murders of their family member by the Communists, their stomachs sliced open.4 Or the vast jungle complex that stretches across northern Malaysia and into southern Thailand, which the Malayan Communists made their base and from where they continued a low-grade insurgency until December 1989—making theirs a forty-one-year guerrilla war, second perhaps only to the Columbia FARC rebellion in length in modern history. Apart from a grand monument in the middle of Kuala Lumpur showing Western troops literally stomping on the prone bodies of Asian-faced soldiers wearing red-star berets, this war has not been memorialized much. As I drove through northern Malaysia on multiple road trips in 2016 and 2017, I went in search of traces of this war that people prefer not to speak about anymore. Photographically I worked with the trope of evoking a sense of absent presence. I made deliberate aesthetic choices about the sites, the time of day, and the lighting under which I photographed with the intention of creating an evocative image. The blue of dusk, along with a surreal, mysterious atmosphere, pervades the series of images, conjuring the spectral (fig. 2).
The second strand of Remnants is aesthetically antithetical. It is of a series of objects that former Malayan leftist guerrilla fighters and activists kept from the conflict, photographed in a forensic way and almost always installed as mosaics (fig. 3). These objects include prosthetic legs and eyeballs the guerrilla fighters DIYed in the jungle and hand-traced maps they used to navigate the dense tropical jungle to evade the British, as well as Marxist books they printed in the jungle and photographic mementos of their deportation journeys from Malaya to China. These came out of some thirty-five interviews I conducted between 2015 and 2018 across five territories—southern China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and southern Thailand—with former Malayan leftists who had fought in the war and became exiled or deported. These former leftists were very elderly by the time I got to them. I conducted hours-long filmed interviews with each of them and then asked if they had any objects from the war. Over time these photographs unwittingly became a (digital) counter-archive of sorts of the war. No museum in either the former metropole or colonies has a comprehensive collection of items from the “losers.” At best they have flags, berets, and insignia—and in one case a rumored skull—captured from the “Communist terrorists” as trophies. Each of the objects in Remnants, even if I could not physically collect them, contains a trace of the war, much like the landscapes—but when seen in concert with them, each offers another register of memory.
In most of the exhibitions on the project, viewers hear distant singing when they walk into the gallery or space. The singing gets louder and closer as one works through seeing a sequence of prints, glass plates, and reading texts before finally coming upon two TV sets at the end of the space showing Requiem, a two-channel video and sound installation of the leftist veterans singing two songs from their (failed) revolution, in Mandarin Chinese (fig. 4). I recorded these after the interviews with the veterans, with the intention of allowing them to reclaim their political participation in—literally—their own voice. The leftist guerrilla fighters and Communist activists of the Malayan war are absent in the colonial archive and muted or silenced within the postcolonial states, which are still vehemently anti-communist. Any attempt to humanize the former communists, even in present-day Malaysia or Singapore, is often taken as glorifying former terrorists and shut down. In Requiem the very elderly veterans speak and sing for themselves. The two songs they perform are “The Internationale” and “Goodbye Malaya,” both important in the Malayan leftist movement. The former is, of course, the Socialist anthem around the world, sung by Malayan Communists daily on their morning marches, and a song of solidarity in the prisons. Viewers everywhere, particularly of an older generation, would recognize the tune even if they don't understand the Chinese words being sung. The latter was composed and scored by two Malayan Communists in 1941 and became a song of wistful defiance sung by Malayan leftist deportees as they stood on the decks of ships pulling out of harbor in Malaya, taking them away to China to exile. I have spliced different people singing parts of each song to form a complete recording; the effect is a sense of a collective remembrance—and forgetting.
On camera the elderly singers mostly recalled the songs from their revolutionary youth but also often in parts forgot them, humming the tune or falling into silence. In the middle of “Goodbye Malaya,” the male singer Cen Yuanzhi, ninety-six years old when I filmed him, forgets the lyrics for a minute or so. I kept rolling and kept the footage in the final edit. He gestures in frustration and then is lost in his own mind, searching, before raising his hand and roaring back to finish the song. The silence, as much as the singing, is profoundly moving. Sound and, perhaps especially, song reach other affective registers that the photographic and textual work do not.
A row of glass plates leans from a slender wooden shelf. On the back wall, faint shadows hover beneath their originating images on the glass (fig. 5). Interventions, titled as such for the multiple meanings of that word, is my reinterpretation of British colonial photographs of the Malayan war, held in the Imperial War Museum archives in the United Kingdom. By photographing the archival prints from the 1940s through 1960s on a light table, I created an in-camera collage of the original image with the inscriptions and markings on the backs of the prints, to reveal the indexicality of the colonial archive. With the backlight, verso and recto of the prints are merged into one plane and create a new mise-en-scène, new compositions.5 I then transposed the images I made onto glass and cast light on them in displaying them, creating more layers of refraction while also referencing earlier photographic history—the glass negative or daguerreotype. The captions on the backs of the original prints are rendered in reverse in my remaking, introducing some illegibility to the colonial texts. In trying to renarrate this war, I have had to resort to using the colonial photographic archive as there is precious little on the other side. As we well know, it is fruitless to try to use the master's tools to smash the master's house, but I was seeking a strategy to reinterpret, reactivate, and repurpose the archival photographs, taking Ariella Azoulay's challenge to consider the moment before imperial violence.6 Not wanting to replicate the colonial archive or logic, I've always shown Interventions in the context of a long table of texts containing multiple perspectives, colonial and anticolonial, on the Malayan war—in part drawn from my oral history work—as well as the Requiem video installation, so the voice in the room is at least a polyvocal one (fig. 6).
She Never Rode That Trishaw Again
I'm also making three books from the project, the first of which, She Never Rode That Trishaw Again, I self-published in 2021. This book tells the story of an archetypal Cold War widow, my paternal grandmother, Loo Ngan Yue, left behind after her husband's deportation by the British from Malaya and his execution in China soon after (fig. 7). The 143-page book is designed to feel filmic; Loo's vacation photos carry readers chronologically through the happier side of her life. Scattered amid this “road movie” are excerpts from interviews with my oldest uncle, speaking of various exchanges and episodes with his mother that revealed how the trauma of her husband's political life and death stayed with her for the rest of her life. She was thirty-five years old when widowed and banned their five children from speaking about their father or China ever again. The texts carry an emotional weight in juxtaposition with the lightness of the snapshots. Between the Japanese folded pages of the book are hidden texts and postcards, suggesting an obscured layer of narration and history that has to be sought out—or remains trapped (fig. 8).
Methods of Memory
The overarching title of the project, One Day We'll Understand, is from an epithet on the gravestone of a Scottish plantation owner killed by the Malayan leftists in this war.8 I use it with all the ambivalence it contains. Whether it is a statement, a wistful hope, a question, or something else is uncertain. I've spent much of the past decade working on this project, starting from a personal place of family history and broadening far beyond. The gaps and silences in the archives and between the generations is a generative space for my renarrating this war and exploring the long legacies of colonialism and the unfinished project of decolonization. In the newest chapters of the project, I repurpose early 1900s magic lantern slides to time travel my grandfather and toddler son into an imaginary landscape, looking at trans-generational inheritance (fig. 9).8 In a new two-channel film titled The Mountain That Hid, I explore the idea of history and time unfolding in circles rather than in a line.9 Both of these take the work in a speculative direction, as increasingly I feel the past too needs somewhere to go.
For global projects on the specters of colonialism, as forms of resistance and unforgetting, see Demos, Return to the Postcolony; Abudu, Living with Ghosts; and Wendt, Beyond the Door. On Malaya specifically, theater maker Mark Teh of the Five Arts Centre has created a number of documentary theatrical productions about this conflict. Filmmakers Lau Kek Huat and Tan Pin Pin have made documentary films around the legacies of leftist activism from the Second World War and emergency periods, and artists like Ho Tzu Nyen have taken specific micro-histories and characters from the period and made work in a more speculative mode.
Nora's title refers to the quasi-ritual spaces to commemorate historical events erased in mainstream narratives.
The sites of memory were chosen from both research in secondary literature as well as in situ oral history interviews in the field in northern Malaysia, 2015–18.
The grave lies in a well-kept cemetery called “God's Little Acre” in Batu Gajah, Perak, today part of northern Malaysia, alongside those of other Commonwealth troops killed in the conflict.
See The Suitcase Is a Little Bit Rotten, available online at https://autograph.org.uk/commissions/sim-chi-yin.
The Mountain That Hid is available online at https://www.stage.tba21.org/detail/the-mountain-that-hid-2022.