SIM Chi Yin “One Day We’ll Understand”
15 June - 6 August 2019
Hanart TZ Gallery
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Performative Reading & Discussion Forum

Saturday, 15 June 2019, 2:00-3:30pm

Cocktail Reception

Saturday, 15 June 2019, 3:30-6:00pm

Exhibition Period

15 June – 3 August 2019

“One Day We’ll Understand”
Sim Chi Yin (b.1978, Singapore)
2015 – on-going

Photographic installation, variable dimensions

Two-channel video and sound installation,
16:9, sound, colour
Duration: 12:34 mins


Or will we?

Sim Chi Yin’s Remnants and Requiem take us on a cinematic journey through traces of hidden histories. The ethereal landscapes she conjures are an unspoken archive of an undeclared war. Evocative of memories long buried, these sites hold fragments of the twelve-year conflict between the British colonial government and the resistance led by the Malayan leftists (from 1948 to 1960).

Sim takes her family history as a starting point, and unearths contested narratives, embodied trauma and silenced memories. In excavating the story of her grandfather who had been taboo in the family for 60 years after being deported from colonial British Malaya and dying a Communist in China, the artist encounters a generation who fought — and sometimes died — for their political beliefs during the Cold War. In her first exhibition in Hong Kong, Sim presents a series of landscape photographs, still life images, and a video and sound installation, interrogating absences and erasures, multiple versions of memory and modes of spatial haunting.

This exhibition will be accompanied by a series of scholarly talks around the ideas and ideals of that time — Utopian or otherwise — and their resonance today. At the opening on June 15, Sim will be in conversation with scholars Xu Xiaohong and Hsu Fang-Tze, curator and gallerist Johnson Chang and performance maker Mark Teh.

About Sim Chi Yin

Sim Chi Yin is a photographer and artist from Singapore, currently based in London and Beijing. Her practice integrates multiple mediums including photography, film, sound, text and archival material and performative readings. Combining rigorous research with intimate storytelling, Sim’s works often explore issues relating to history, memory, conflict and migration, and their consequences.

Sim was commissioned as the Nobel Peace Prize photographer in 2017 and created a solo show for the Nobel Peace Centre museum in Oslo on nuclear weapons, using video installation and still photography. She presented a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore in 2018 and has also exhibited in the Istanbul Biennale (2017), the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art in South Korea, among other international institutions. Her video installation Most People Were Silent was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize 2019.

She joined Magnum Photos as a nominee member in 2018 and is currently also a doctoral researcher on scholarship at King’s College London.

Remnants and Requiem

Sim Chi Yin

Sim Chi Yin’s Remnants and Requiem take us on a cinematic journey through traces of hidden histories. The ethereal landscapes she conjures are an unspoken archive of an undeclared war. Evocative of the unknown or unknowable, these sites hold fragments of the twelve-year conflict between the British colonial government and the resistance led by the Malayan leftists (from 1948 to 1960).

Having just lost India in 1947 and Burma in 1948, and fighting to restore its moral authority in the region post-World War Two, Britain battled in the dense tropical jungles across the Malay Peninsula to keep its prized colony of Malaya — strategically important but also a key source of rubber and tin globally at the time. This was the longest conflict Britain fought in the post-war era, but officially it was called an “emergency.” The army of the Communist Party of Malaya had fought alongside Britain during the war against the Japanese but then turned to ousting the British. As the Cold War took hold near and far, what most leftists saw primarily as an anti-colonial fight was cast internationally as a Communist insurgency. Tens of thousands were labelled “bandits” and “Communist terrorists” by the state. Along with sympathisers, they were detained without trial, jailed or deported.

Sim’s paternal grandfather Shen Huansheng was among the more than 30,000 deported. He was a Chinese school principal and editor of a leftist newspaper in Perak state, northern Malaya. British Special Branch officers took Shen away in handcuffs from the family shop in mid-1948, an act witnessed by his two eldest sons — the last time they saw their father. Deported in early 1949 to Shantou (Swatow) in southern China, Shen then joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) guerrilla army unit in his ancestral village in the final months of the Chinese Civil War. Bad luck seemed to follow Shen as much as his politics did. Three months before the Communists declared victory in China, he was arrested and executed by soldiers of the Nationalist Kuomintang army who were retreating in defeat through those mountains, towards Taiwan. The mother, wife and five children left behind in Malaya did not hear about his death for another two years. For the next 60 years, he was never again spoken of in the family.

Just as this trauma has sat quietly within Sim’s family, it is also deeply embodied in society, along with many other ghosts from this war. These are the starting points in the artist’s on-going, years-long research and artistic project “One Day We’ll Understand” which takes its title from an inscription on a grave of a British planter killed by the Communist guerrillas during the war. Less certain than that affirmative line, Sim asks through her work if we will, in our politically polarised times, after all, one day be able to understand. More broadly, she questions if the consequences and legacies of colonialism have been reckoned with and reflected upon, and if global politics today is still (mis)informed by unfinished, unexamined dreams of empire.

Sim has been driven to study the circumstances people like her grandfather found themselves in, their ideas, ideals and the choices they made at that time when the geopolitical intersected with the personal and familial, sometimes with tragic results. She followed her grandfather’s deportation trail, returning to their ancestral village and house in the mountains of Meixian, Guangdong, where she found an obelisk built to commemorate Shen for his martyrdom for the Communist cause — while he had been written out of his own family history. A relative handed her a tattered photograph from Malaya, dated 1949. It was her grandfather’s British prison photograph bearing his detainee number and his Hakka name transliterated into English — likely the last photograph of him.

As the Malayan Emergency became articulated as a textbook example of a successful counter-insurgency campaign by the British who then granted independence to Malaysia in 1957 (and self-government to Singapore in 1959), the stories of the left were muted and disciplined, inconvenient histories that stand counter to the state’s truth regime and foundational national narratives.

Sim has sought out some of the unrecorded stories, songs, memories, artefacts and documents of the leftist foot soldiers, creating an assemblage that is an unofficial, alternate archive of that war. In Remnants, she shows unembellished photographs of 32 of the objects she has made still-life studies of from her visits with the old left across southern China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand.

These are juxtaposed with the intentionally aestheticised landscape photographs she made around sites where this war played out, where battles or ambushes took place, the jungles where the guerrillas had their bases, limestone caves where they hid, rivers “awash” with civilians killed by the Communists, a village where British troops killed 24 unarmed civilians in December 1948, a giant man-made lake created by a dam to flood the Communists out of the rainforest, and “New Villages” — barb-wired camps where the British authorities resettled more than half a million squatters to cut the supply of men, arms, food and medicines to the Communists. While grounded in historical and archival research, Sim’s aesthetic approach in making this landscape work evokes a sense of spatial haunting and the absent presences in sites of memories known and unknown. It is as if she projects onto the jungle, rubber trees, tin mines, limestone caves which were recurring motifs in the war, conjuring traces of the time. Her aesthetic choices here echo her work on nuclear landscapes in the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize commission, Most People Were Silent, slipping from the documentary into a different sort of imaginary, transcending the quotidian to prompt us to suspend our sense of place, reality, time, belief and, perhaps, moral judgment.

In another sort of palimpsest, Requiem, a two-channel video and sound installation depicts a number of now very elderly Malayan leftists reclaiming memories of political participation, war, deportation, exile and Socialist dreams, in the form of song — in their own voice. In some particularly poignant moments, they struggle to remember some lines of their anthem from 70 years ago, the Internationale, and Goodbye Malaya, which they once sang defiantly on the decks of the ship as they were being deported from their home land — and in many cases, country of birth. Like memory itself, their voices are sometimes fragile, fallible, but also resilient.

Emergency Is Normal  [PDF]

Chang Tsong-Zung

Sim Chi Yin’s photographic mixed-media project, ‘One Day We’ll Understand’, reminds us that we are living in a world shaped by emergency measures. Such measures have a long ‘modern’ history, and today they are freshly justified by politically motivated terrorism and random psychotic outbursts. Sim’s art tells us that along with the inconveniences of new societal controls instituted as a result of contingencies, historical memories are being quietly rewritten and cultural values reshaped.

The long-term effects of the so-called ‘Malayan Emergency’ (1948-1960),[1]originally intended to protect British colonial economic interests, have been the institutionalisation of ethnic hostility as the foundation of a new nation. This ensured the alignment of the post-colonial world in western terms long after the empire retreated. From the 1920s, there was a growing labour movement disgruntled at the exploitation of the British empire. But the Malayan Communist Party, founded in 1930 under the banner of anti-imperialism, fought alongside Britain against the atrocities of Japanese imperialism starting from 1941, before returning after World War IIto its original purpose of ousting the colonial British. Malayan communists consisted of both indigenous Malays and ethnic Malayan Chinese, but the British post-war agenda singled out the Malayan Chinese[2](who were the more numerous and recalcitrant) to pacify Malay nationalists, and justified colonial rule by identifying anti-colonial struggle as usurpation from the outside. At Independence of Malaya in 1957, political power was defined along ethnic lines and enmity between the ethnic groups was entrenched. To this day, defences against dangerous liaisons with broken dreams and haunted memories have remained in place, and deep-rooted historical links and cultural alliances across racial lines have become taboo.

Asia’s woes, regardless of our apparent economic or political success, are due to our having forgotten the original meaning of ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’ for which our forebears fought; the era of the Cold War has blocked our views to the past. Today Asia needs historians to tell the stories of its inextricable internal ties. Many societies even require the help of ethnographers and professional academics to read their grandparents’ ways of life and the particular knowledge that grew out of their own world. We are inheritors of a century of historical erasure.

The age of imperial expansion began to unravel with the First World War between European powers, and global struggles of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism quickened their pace in battles for independence. The centenary of 1919 should remind us we are beneficiaries of historical struggles on a global scale, and that the recent decades of relative stability have been purchased at the price of unprecedented violence.

However, imperialism has not left with the lowering of flags. The aftermath of the old empires trails a long shadow behind it; each and every Asian nation seems to have unsettled scores that continue to haunt, where unpacified ghosts cry for recognition. With independence, modern Asia has fallen instead into the colonialism of ideologies. Reviewing the 20thcentury’s political struggles, ‘anti-colonial liberation’ and ‘national independence’ had all been directed under the terms of western ideological movements. Couched in the language of ‘liberation’ or ‘freedom’, whether it be nationalist democracy, socialist revolution or communist internationalism, the ideologies of liberation have inadvertently come to mean an alignment with the political ideological framework of the modern nation-state, and always at the cost of forsaking traditional cultural alliances and abandoning historical cultural values. ‘Internationalism’ of both the left and the right are ultimately bound to comparable terms of modern economic production and technological acceleration, terms originally set by the imperial powers. The most sustained iniquities of empire are probably those of ‘ideological colonialism’, which, more often than not, were self-inflicted through ideological (and religious) conversion, and wrapped in the cloak of scientific and cultural ‘progress’. Colonialism conquers not just territory but also the mind;  its spoils are the victims’ imaginations and aspirations, and the subjugation of other cultural histories.

From her darkroom, Sim Chi Yin releases harrowing memories and heroic sacrifices. The clear political agenda of independence for which her revolutionary grandfather and his comrades had fought during the years of the ‘Malayan Emergency’ was later redirected, as he discovered upon his repatriation to China. He died in the spring of 1949 in China’s civil war, long after the expulsion of the Japanese invaders. The ideology of communism migrated immediately from the anti-imperialist war to battlefields of an internal civil war, before embarking on a programme of cultural conversion of the entire nation, with an arrogant disdain for China’s historical culture.

In post-Independence Malaysia, the divisiveness of the ethnic-based nation-state instituted by the British Empire through the Malayan Emergency mirrors the global ideological divisiveness created by the Cold War. If Asian struggles for national independence are taken to mean the recovery from foreign domination, they have instead been guided along a path that institutes a perpetual State of Emergency through ideological divide. China, India and Korea are but obvious examples.

De-colonising the histories and cultures of Asia is important for the purpose of self-knowledge and historical identity. But more importantly it holds the promise of new paradigms of knowledge that had hitherto been marginalised by the success of western modernity.

The Digital Age now enveloping us with information obscures the fact that broad spectrums of human knowledge based on cultural intuition are rapidly being decimated while archives of digital information proliferate. The complaint of modern alienation has not been healed by more information and better control of the world. What is lost is the deep sense of connectedness with both the human and natural world that all traditional societies took for granted. Technological evolution follows its own instrumental logic while modern paradigms of thought lag behind. The more meaningless the world becomes, the less controllable the power of ‘intelligent’ technology appears to be.

Human intuition provides this connectedness; intuition of the world is grounded on specific cultural knowledge, with each culture finding its own particular manner of connecting with the cosmos. The well-being of ‘information’ in the digital age is dependent on the diversity of ways human cultures manage to transform information into meaningful knowledge – this includes ‘technical knowledge’ grounded in the historical memory of cumulative experience.

However, the human world is rapidly being denuded of its rich resources of local knowledge that grew out of diverse ways of life. An ‘ecological disaster’ in the world’s cultural ecology has been created for the benefit of exploitative and narrowly focused political economic gains. To regain access to one’s own history where deep knowledge resides, and unlock the terms of knowledge shut out by the modern paradigm, is perhaps the most important task of the post-colonial generations. We can look forward to the liberation of colonised knowledge as one of the greatest hopes for fresh scientific forms of the future.

Sim Chi Yin’s project opens up the historical dimension buried within a personal requiem, and obliges us to confront the missing narratives surrounding a scratched photograph, a single prosthetic leg or a barrel-less pistol. Many of these fragments have been disowned and abandoned, but they remain monuments. They are bearers of ideals; hopes lost and found. Sim Chi Yin has presented us with closed archives that hold the secret of what lies beyond the politics of liberation and ideology.


[1] ‘Malayan Emergency’ is theBritish term for the protracted guerrilla war fought between colonial British armed forces and the communist Malayan National Liberation Army.

[2] Malayan Chinese came from southern China; they immigrated in large numbers between mid 19thCentury and WWI, to work the plantations and cultivate the border forest areas. At the beginning of the Emergency in 1948 Malaya had a population of 5.73 million, of which 2.15 million was Malayan Chinese, 38% of the total population, while ethnic Malayans were 49% of the population. At the end of the Emergency in 1960, there were still 570,000 Malayan Chinese living in ‘New Villages’, a form of policed camps with control measures.

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