Tales of a Memory-Keeper

Zhuang Wubin is a collector of stories and a keeper of memories – even ones that their original owners have forgotten, discarded or had to leave behind for one reason or another. Travelling to villages and small towns in the rural countryside in various parts of Southeast Asia, Zhuang seeks out his special people – the almost lost and forgotten descendants of the Chinese diaspora who settled in pocket communities and fashioned their own unique identities and cultures, far different from their ancestral origins.

In a solo exhibition that is being shown currently at Yeo Workshop, Zhuang Wubin: 小城故事 | Small-Town Stories, the artist-researcher presents the 4th iteration of his ongoing work, Small-Town Stories: Chinese in the Small Towns and Rural Areas of Southeast Asia, that has been his passion-project since 2010.

U, P, the artist and L, in front of his 2011 work, Wedding (more on this below).

Starting, as many journeys do, from a desire to explore and unpack his own personal history as a “not-completely-pure-Han-Chinese” and to trace the migrant journey of his own grandfather (this, he promises, is a future project in the making), Zhuang visited the rural hinterlands of Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, getting to know his sitters, listening to personal and family stories over many a cup of coffee, meal, game of billiards and even a wedding or two and, eventually, photographing his subjects. As he describes the people in the photographs and the stories behind them it is clear that, for Zhuang, this project is deeply and intensely personal, transcending mere reportage. In his own words, “The portraits document the performative encounters between the sitters and me, seared by our desires and expectations.”

A wedding invitation and other memorabilia and artefacts collected by Zhuang on various field trips are contained in two found boxes, which serve as “portable museums”, and are displayed in the exhibition
Zhuang Wubin, Wedding, 2011.

A bespectacled stranger walks into town with his 1950s Rolleiflex Automat K4A camera, a red, white and blue Cambodian Krama scarf draped around his shoulders, asks a lot of questions, goes around taking photographs of people and places … and ends up being invited to a wedding! Yes, that’s what happened to Zhuang when he visited Tangerang in West Java on Boxing Day in 2011 – the invite’s in the top pic and, above, is his photograph of the bride, Sim Sian Moy.

In his research into the histories of people of Chinese descent in the small towns of rural Southeast Asia, Zhuang came upon the Cina Benteng (Benteng Chinese) of Tangerang. Benteng is the ancient name for Tangerang and means fortress, or fort, in Bahasa Indonesia, after the fortress built on the banks of the Cisadane River by the Dutch colonists. There has been little documented research on the history of the Cina Benteng  but, according to some (unverified) accounts, there have been Chinese in Tangerang since the 15th century, with a second wave of immigration in the 18th century during the reign of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in China. It has even been said that some Benteng Chinese bearing the surname 王 “Wang” (or “Ong”, in the Hokkien dialect) are of royal blood, being descendants of an illegitimate son from the imperial family of the Qing Dynasty!

A Cina Benteng mass wedding ceremony (Image credit: Taman Renyah, https://commmons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22890709)

Royal blood or no, the Cina Benteng of today lead pretty ordinary (even humble or impoverished) lives, far removed from their ancient Chinese heritage. Their culture and customs are a mix of Betawi and Chinese cultures and most do not speak the Chinese language. Nonetheless they retain certain Chinese traditions, including the wearing of Qing wedding attire, which Zhuang so beautifully captured in his photograph.

Found box containing 20 small photographs, found family photographs and other artefacts collected by the artist during field trips

Besides Zhuang’s photographs, the exhibition also includes two found boxes, unearthed by Zhuang at flea markets. The boxes contain prints of Zhuang’s own photographs, as well as found photographs and artefacts such as identity documents, flyers, postcards and other memorabilia. We felt really lucky to have the artist take us personally through the show and, in the case of the boxes, to explain the significance of some individual items – how and where he found it, why it was of interest to him, and what he knows about it. Zhuang, and we, were struck by the poignancy of these photographs and memorabilia – traces of someone’s life, left behind while fleeing war or persecution, eventually finding its way to a flea market. One man or woman’s treasured memory becoming another one’s junk, only to be recovered by Zhuang and preserved for posterity.

Having had the good fortune of hearing Zhuang speak at a lecture for a class at school, and having also read his new book on Photography in Southeast Asia, I came to the show fully expecting to be informed, enlightened and engaged by his work. What I did not expect to find, however, was a link to a piece of my own personal history, in the form of a tiny found photograph of a family standing in front of the Administration Building and Library (now the Chinese Heritage Centre) of the former Nanyang University (南洋大学, abbreviated, Nantah, 南大).

Holding that photograph in my hand and seeing that building in the background took me back to my 17 year-old self, fresh off the boat (well, technically, it was a train) from Malaysia, come to Singapore to attend pre-University and deposited by the Public Service Commission, along with my fellow ASEAN scholars, at some pretty rundown hostel blocks in what was then a very ulu part of Singapore, the former Nanyang University. The place holds a treasure trove of happy and not-so-happy (A levels, the horror!) memories for me, and the photograph brought back an immediate wave of nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time in my life.

Zhuang speculates that Nanyang University, or Nantah (南大) could possibly have been “the first crowd-funded Chinese-language university outside China” – funded, as it was, by donations from members of the overseas Chinese community from all walks of life, from rickshaw pullers to tycoons.

This one, small, found photograph speaks volumes about the significance of Zhuang’s project. Encapsulated in it is memory upon memory and history upon history – the memories of the anonymous family who posed for that photograph decades ago, my personal memories of coming to Singapore as a young student, the history of an illustrious University and the community spirit and idealism that built it, and the history of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia.

The artist and his work (Image courtesy of Yeo Workshop)

The show ends in a few days’ time – the last day to catch it is New Year’s Day, 1 January 2017. We couldn’t recommend it more highly, so do try to catch it if you can. Yeo Workshop is at Gillman Barracks, at 01-01, Lock Road.

Written by: P

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