Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Sim Chi Yin at her exhibition "One Day We'll Understand", about the war against Chinese communist insurgents in Malaya, at the Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong. Photo: Kitmin Lee/Courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery

Legacy of colonialism: Singapore artist’s show on Malayan Emergency and its resonance for Hong Kong

  • Sim Chi Yin can’t wait to see how Hongkongers react to her work about war against Chinese communists given the anti-Chinese Communist feelings in city just now
  • Her exhibition recalls the suffering of both sides in 12-year insurgency that gripped Malaya Federation, and their failure to reckon fully with what happened

Singaporean artist Sim Chi Yin has brought her exhibition about Chinese communists to Hong Kong just when anti-Chinese Communist sentiment is running high in the semi-autonomous city.

“One Day We’ll Understand” is about the Malayan Emergency, the 1948-60 communist guerilla war fought in the Federation of Malaya before and after independence from Britain. Its opening in Hong Kong last week coincided with a protest march by record numbers of people against a proposed law change that would make it easier to send fugitives to mainland China and other places that don’t have extradition agreements with the city.

The fear that this would be open to abuse is linked to the protesters’ deep-seated distrust of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the challenges of implementing the “one country, two systems” framework for postcolonial Hong Kong 22 years after its return to China.

“A Hong Kong artist friend did say to me, jokingly, that her friends won’t come and see the show because they hate the communists,” Sim says. “But I am really interested in how people here will react to this show, since it is about grappling with the legacy of colonialism and thinking through the ideals of that generation.”

The exhibition is the latest iteration of a deeply personal project to which the former photojournalist has been adding for a number of years.

Sim’s grandfather was among the tens of thousands put in a detention camp by the British colonial government after being accused of being leftist guerillas, or of supporting them, during the communist insurgency. Shen Huan Sheng (as his name was rendered in pinyin) was later deported to China, where he was promptly arrested by the Nationalist authorities and executed.

A DIY prosthetic leg the Malayan communists used during the guerilla war. The jungle that borders Malaysia and southern Thailand was littered with land mines. The leg is in a museum at Peace Village, Banlang, Thailand. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Hanart TZ Gallery
When she first showed the project publicly in Singapore last year, its focus was on veterans of the guerilla forces, who she interviewed, photographed and filmed in their homes. Among them was Cen Yuan Zhi, an Ipoh native who moved to Hong Kong. (The 100-year-old Cen attended the opening of the Hong Kong exhibition and sang Goodbye Malaya, the song that the exiled sang on board the ships taking them away from their homeland for good.)

For the exquisitely lit exhibition in the darkened rooms of the Hanart TZ Gallery in Pedder Street, Central, Sim has added a series of atmospheric landscape photographs of sites that, on first viewing, seem of no particular interest.

She explains that each place photographed has deep associations with the protracted and bloody conflict – the limestone cave where the guerillas hid before they launched their very first attack, in 1948, in which three British plantation managers were killed, or the ruins of a 19th century French mission church where tin miners from the Chinese Hakka minority once worshipped.

While I am trying to balance the narrative, we have to acknowledge that it was a period of war and the communists were not soft and cuddly people
Sim Chi Yin

The church was abandoned when the colonial government cleared the Chinese population from the area, which was close to the jungle where the guerillas hid, to prevent them sending supplies to the fighters.

For Sim, the landscapes are significant because she is remembering history that most people have forgotten, and in a manner very different from the way she worked as a journalist.

“These are abstractions that are not attempts to authenticate history. There is something in this land that I cannot articulate. The land remembers more than we can see. These images are about imagining and transcending the facts of what happened,” she says.

Remnants #11 (2017). This is a baby elephant Sim Chi Yin encountered in a jungle where communist guerillas used to hide. Photo: Kitmin Lee/Courtesy of Hanart TZ Gallery

Memories and historical narratives are social constructs anyway, she says, and the official story of the period focuses on the triumph of the state over a minority insurgency, with little mention made of how the Chinese population was unfairly targeted or of the impact on the families of those who died.

“I am trying to complicate and disrupt that memory and problematise a one-tract narrative that post-independence Malaysia and Singapore inherited from the British,” she says.

There are also photographs that demonstrate the very real terror the guerillas inflicted on ordinary people and of the pain they caused. For example, there is a photo of the grave of a British plantation owned who was killed by the communists in 1950.

There is something in this land that I cannot articulate. The land remembers more than we can see. These images are about imagining and transcending the facts of what happened
Sim Chi Yin

“While I am trying to balance the narrative, we have to acknowledge that it was a period of war and the communists were not soft and cuddly people,” Sim says.

“Neither the colonised or the coloniser have really reckoned with what happened in Malaya, or [with] the memories of what happened. It will be interesting to see how Hongkongers deal with their much more recent transition.”

Sim Chi Yin – One Day We’ll Understand, Hanart TZ Gallery, 401 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Mon-Fri, 10am-6:30pm, Sat, 10am-6pm. Until Aug. 3.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: History in the frame: timely show of suffering on both sides of conflict