TwentyFifteen 19/20: Roots by Sim Chi Yin

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In the yellowed photograph, a tanned man with a high forehead and thick lips wore
a white shirt and trousers – and a twin-lens camera around his neck.

I was intrigued.

The man was my paternal grandfather, Shen Huansheng (沈焕盛) – the only other
photographer and journalist in the family, as I later found out. Relatives had rarely
spoken about him since his death in 1949.

All I had heard, vaguely, was that he had died in China, where there was
a monument to him. What had he done to have that, I wondered? How, in this
family so staunchly apolitical, did I have a granddad who was a Communist martyr?
The topic, though, was taboo in our family. No one wanted to reopen this old
chapter of history. The years passed.

It wasn’t until 2011 that I travelled back to our village and back in time, to start
piecing his story together.

A generation earlier, at the turn of the twentieth century, my great-grandfather, like
so many Hakkas and other southern Chinese, left the impoverished mountains of
east Guangdong to set sail for Southeast Asia or farther, becoming part of the
growing Chinese diaspora. (The Hakkas are now Singapore’s fourth-largest dialect
group, numbering 200,000.)

Granddad, who then grew up and spent most of his life in British Malaya, sailed
back in the opposite direction in early 1949. He faced a stark choice: be tried as
a Communist sympathiser in Malaya or be deported. He chose the latter after being
arrested and imprisoned by the British in Perak in late 1948, in the early months
of the Malayan Emergency. The exact circumstances of his arrest are not clear,
but from information I have been able to piece together, it was either for
having written anti-colonial editorials as the chief editor of the leftist Ipoh Daily
newspaper or on suspicion of channelling funds to the Malayan Communist Party’s
armed insurgency.

Soon after returning to China, he went up the hills near our ancestral village in
Meixian (梅县) to join a Chinese Communist guerrilla army unit. In mid-1949,
he ran into rival Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers when he was coming downhill. He was
imprisoned by them and later shot in a mass execution of prisoners-of-war as the
KMT retreated towards Taiwan. Granddad was killed in July 1949, just two months
shy of the Communist victory over most of China. He was 38.

The fate of our family turned on his death.

My grandmother, left to raise their five young children in Malaya, banned them
from talking about their father and China, and from being interested in politics.
She never seemed to really recover from his departure, believing that he chose
politics over family.

For most of us who grew up during or after the Cold War, Communism is a tainted
word – especially in what became present-day Singapore and Malaysia. But in the
times that Granddad lived, global politics and the personal were deeply intertwined,
and many, like him, made choices that might have seemed most natural to them.
He was part of a wave of overseas Chinese who went back to the mainland in the
late 1940s into the 1950s, eager to help build “New China” (新中国).

Two generations later, I unwittingly became interested in modern Chinese history
and spent much of my time at university focused on Mao’s policies. Without
knowing our family’s past, I became a journalist, and a foreign correspondent
and photographer based in Beijing, documenting a slice of the China that has
emerged from the ideological struggle that Granddad – and so many others –
died in, died for.

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