TwentyFifteen Interview 19/20: Sim Chi Yin speaks to Chan Tse Chueen
My mum showed it to me one day. Our family had virtually never spoken about him. I knew I had a grandfather who died in China, and I’d heard that some kind of monument was built for him – but it was all very vague. None of us had been interested to find out what it was about.
In my memory, it was when my mum showed me the photo that I got really interested. I was about to move to China at the time , I think. My parents had only a few photos of my granddad. There were many of him at my uncle’s and aunt’s, but this was the one my mum dug out to show me.
Would you have been interested in the story if the photo didn’t show him with a camera around his neck?
I think I still would have been. I was curious about what he had done to deserve a monument, especially since I come from such an extremely apolitical family. I wondered about the past and what led us to be so apolitical, and why my parents, especially my dad, were always ultra-conservative about life choices. Even without the photo, I think I still would have gone on to find out why there was a monument.
Just perhaps not at that moment?
I always berate myself for not having acted earlier. I started the project only after I quit my job at The Straits Times. If I had done so when I first moved to China, which was eight years ago now, I would have learned so much more. The typesetter at the Ipoh Daily who worked with my granddad was still alive then.
One other key person, my 姑婆 Gu Po (grandfather’s half-sister), also died before I got to interview her. She lived in Singapore for many years, but at the time I wasn’t sensitised to the need to quickly record history. She had spent over 30 years with my granddad – she could have told me so much about him! But I didn’t ask her anything. My uncle asked her some questions but not in detail.
Your uncle completed a 50-page history of your family.
He finished it in May this year. What we know of my granddad’s life came from there: how he was born in Hong Kong, was taken to Malaya by his mother to join his father when he was still very young, then grew up mostly in what is now northern Malaysia, in Perak. He was educated in Malaya and Xiamen, and graduated with a degree in politics and law from a university in Shanghai.
My uncle’s account was of course written from his perspective as a son, but in speaking to both him and my aunt in Penang – the two who were the closest to my Ye Ye 爷爷 (grandfather), of all his children – they speak very highly of their father. Their impression was of a virtuous, thrifty, socially engaged and honourable person. He was prepared to speak for his community, offering to negotiate with the Japanese himself during the war when the Japanese turned up at the village.
He was conscientious about everything. They do say he was not a very good father, though, in that he was always busy. But, in his community and in the school, he was a man whom everybody looked up to.
In the way you’ve had to piece the story together, this is probably no different than your other projects. But of course this concerns your family.
This is very personal and it cuts very close. There are some things I discovered that I don’t think the family wants to talk about. For example, my granddad had a tong yang xi 童养媳, a girl who was matchmade to him in our ancestral village in Guangdong, China when he was a child.
However, in searching for his story, I’ve been in much closer contact with my own family members. From the time I was a child, the family had never been very close. But because of the project, I’ve initiated a lot of contact with my eldest uncle. There was baggage between him and my parents that I don’t have, and that they have since put aside. My mum told me it was because I reached out to him.
This story is deeply personal, but every story is different, and others are moving too.
So how is this different from your other stories? You’re emotionally invested too – perhaps it isn’t that different?
It’s different. This one is very much in the past, so the emotions are not present-day emotions. The one part that has been difficult is my relationships with the relatives in the village in Meixian (in Meizhou, Guangdong), which are extremely complicated. We are such different people. Their expectations of my behaviour are cast in stone, so it becomes difficult when I defy these categories.
It also made me emotional and angry to see how they treat the memory of my grandfather. When my family and I went back in 2011, we asked the relatives for one room in the house in which to put up a charcoal drawing of my grandfather. They agreed to keep the room locked and clear of furniture. But when I went back to visit last summer, I found that someone else had taken the room. The portrait had been taken out and put in the so-called living room, which was really where they put their trash. I was very angry.
So it’s very complicated. There’s a lot of this ma fan (troublesome) stuff. Sometimes it’s difficult to extract myself and just be an observer, when all I want to do – all I need to do, for the purposes of the story – is to write and record.
The project has also been quite fun. I don’t want to come across as clichéd or pretentious, but I feel a spiritual connection with my grandfather. He died at 38 and I am coming up to that age. By all accounts, he was a man with a sense of social justice, who wanted to do something for his community. He was interested in politics and was definitely left of centre – what they called “progressive” in those days. I like this guy! I think I would have liked him. If only he had lived, I think he might have been the one person in the family who would not have discouraged me from what I do, with whom I could have conversations and to whom I could relate.
But, of course, if he had lived I wouldn’t be here in the first place. His death was the turning point for the family. If he had lived, he would likely have become some kind of official in Meizhou – the nearest big city to our ancestral village – and he would have brought the family there. My father would not have met my mother, then.
Would you have taken such an interest in him, if he had not been someone you liked?
Probably not. He seems to have been a really interesting guy! He had done a lot by the time he was 38. I’m in admiration of a man who had conviction, as far as I can tell. Because my family had been frowning on not just my career choices, but also my interest in social and political issues and my involvement in Singapore civil society, I feel a sense of vindication and that’s part of the meaning in this search for my granddad’s story.
People have asked me during interviews, when they look at my work, where my sense of social justice come from. A lot of it came from school – my secondary school teachers sensitised me to a lot of stuff, that shaped me and helped me find my purpose in life very early on. But having discovered my grandfather, I almost wonder if it comes from a deeper well. It’s a bit kooky to say so, but my relatives are convinced that the genes skipped a generation.
So if he had turned out to be a boring guy without all this history, I would have probably found his grave, paid my respects and that would have been it. But because he was this interesting, multi-layered person, and the only other journalist and photographer in the family, I am quite fascinated by him and his story.
You’re a fangirl.
I’m not a fangirl, I’m just fascinated that out of this apolitical family, there was someone who was so interesting, who stood up for his beliefs and acted on his convictions.
Someone like you.
It resonates with me. It makes me feel it is okay to be like this in this family, because someone had done it before – and he was my grandfather.
Let’s come back to the family. To tell the story, you had to rally the family for support. It became a family journey. How did that affect family relations?
Overall family relationships have been improving over the years, as I’ve gotten older and they’ve mellowed. Of course we still yell at each other when we spend a lot of time together. Because of my interest in my grandfather, I’ve taken the whole family back to Meizhou twice. So we’ve gone on trips together, which we didn’t use to do.
I think my father is quietly heartened that I’ve taken such an interest in this, but at the same time he kept saying to me, “This is all in the past, don’t spend so much time on this”. My eldest uncle and I have certainly bonded over this project. We used to see each other once every couple of years; now he emails me every week because of the project. He comes over for meals when I come back to Singapore for visits.
And the first trip we went back to Meizhou, in 2011, was very emotional for them. Especially on the day we went to my granddad’s monument and grave to pay respects, for the first time after 62 years. When they saw how run-down it has become, with the urn popping out of the ground because of erosion, they teared. Everybody cried on the trip, whether when they saw the urn, or when I interviewed them on the train ride back to Guangzhou from our village.
It was very emotional, my eldest uncle cried telling the story, especially when he recalled how my grandfather died quickly – he was executed soon after he was taken by the Kuomintang – but my grandmother suffered for the rest of her life. She never remarried and she had a very difficult relationship with her mother-in-law. She fell into dementia in her final years and died when I was 15. But the heartbreak she must have felt, and the loneliness she must have carried with her for the rest of her life, was something that my uncle was very upset by. My youngest uncle also started crying non-stop when we talked about this, because he had been the closest to his mother.
Was it the first time you saw them cry?
I’ve seen my eldest uncle tear up once before. It was in 2011, Chinese New Year. On an earlier trip to Meixian, I had collected all these videos and oral histories. I went from place to place to show them – to my eldest uncle’s place in Singapore, to Penang to show my aunt, to Kuala Lumpur to show my youngest uncle.
When I showed the material to my eldest uncle, I made a video of him and my dad. My uncle described how the British intelligence officers and policemen came to the provision shop to arrest my grandfather. He described the whole scene in very vivid detail, how the officers came and surrounded the house, how my father was just coming back from a haircut, and he saw my grandfather being handcuffed. That was the last time they saw his father. When he talked about this, he teared up, although that happened in 1948, a very long time ago.
How did it make you feel? Many of us rarely see our parents and uncles and aunts cry.
Ya … I don’t know, I’m a hardened journalist (laughs), I make a lot of people cry with my questions. It was a bit awkward, but I was relieved in a way, because I have always felt our family is kind of unemotional, very unexpressive, and the relations are cold. We’re not close, there’s no touch, it’s almost as if there’s no emotional investment in one another.
It’s a funny thing to say about a family. But my family is distant too, in a way.
My family is super distant. My mum and dad have not been close to their own families, either, and I feel a sense of regret that we’re not close to our extended family. That’s the change in me, I suppose, because when I was younger I didn’t think about the importance of family. In some ways I’m still rather neglectful of a lot of things about the family, but this story has helped me to reconnect and start to feel some sense of emotional investment and connection with some of the family. I never thought it was important to spend time with family before, but as I get older, and as I work on this project, I am valuing the relations and our time together a lot more.
The other dimension of this is my exploration of my relationship with China. Discovering that I have a grandfather who died in China for the Chinese revolution is a strange yet important thing for me, because I’ve been in China for eight years now and I have a love-hate relationship with the country and with my life there. I am fascinated by it, but at the same time, living there wears me down. So to have a link as close as my own Ye Ye, to the land, the country, and to the idea of the country, and the idea of communism in the country, is an important link for me to explore.
You were trained to be a historian, and have long been fascinated by Chinese history. Now you find a personal story that seems made for your professional interest.
Ya, it’s a confluence of things. That’s why I was really excited to discover him. It’s not just that I am a fangirl, it’s that it’s China, it’s my academic interest. It calls on all my training as a history student – archival work and looking up source material, piecing things together and doing different interpretations of things. Our home village is also quite a beautiful place to photograph. So it’s an exciting confluence of things.
As a journalist, you’re exposed to the negative side a lot, you’re always critical of the current political situation and critical of the government. Then to discover that my own granddad died for this government, this party, and died fighting for the ideals that this party purports to aspire to, it’s fascinating. And it’s something that I come back to when I’m fed up about being and working in China, dealing with the system. I tell myself I shouldn’t give up so easily because I have a personal link to this place. I want to try and dig deeper.
By sharing what you’ve documented, you’ve taken an intensely personal story into the public domain. What motivated you to do that?
I think this story is many things to many people. I have spoken about the project in a few places, including Asia Society in New York and the National Museum of Singapore, and I usually present it at the end of my body of work. It’s usually this story that fascinates people.
It has many layers. On the one hand, it is the story of how individuals were forced to make stark choices with grave consequences during the Cold War and they made sacrifices for their political ideology. It is also a story of the Chinese diaspora – the Hakka diaspora in this case – their departure for Malaya and what became of their lives. (Hakkas are Singapore’s fourth-largest dialect group, numbering 200,000.) Diaspora communities anywhere can relate to this.
On yet another level, it is a story of how families get caught up in politics. I think many families in Southeast Asia can relate to this. Many Southeast Asian Chinese of our generation had grandfathers, granduncles or people of that generation return to China in the 1940s and 1950s. Some even went back during the Cultural Revolution because they were taken with this search for leftism and Maoism. People met different fates – some stayed on, some were killed.
I know the project’s not finished yet, but do you think it has changed you in some ways?
I am certainly more aware of where I come from. I feel a sense of comfort knowing that I have a grandfather who did all these things and had a sense of conviction and sense of social justice. I feel comforted by that.
It has helped me in some ways to come to terms with my relationship with China, because I ask myself why I am still there after so long. My grandfather died for this new China, and by some strange coincidence, I am back in China trying to document what that revolution has become. It gives that additional layer of meaning to what I am doing.
I’m in a bit of a strange position. As a foreign journalist, I am in a privileged position – I speak Chinese and look Chinese, and get access to some stories that some other people don’t. I am officially an expat, but when I go to our town and village, they say, “You’ve come back” or “You’ve come home.” But is it really my home? It’s not really my home. I feel like something of an in-between. Obviously I am not mainland Chinese, I think very differently, and I see things differently. But neither am I a full-fledged expat with no familial ties to the place. I’m in between.
Chan Tse Chueen is a Singaporean journalist based in Hong Kong. She was with Chi Yin on her first trip to Meixian.
The portrait of Sim Chi Yin was drawn by Flee Circus;
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