Small Town Stories: Chinese in the Small Towns and Rural Areas of Southeast Asia
Sabah Museum, Malaysia
Part of the Kota Kinabalu Festival of Theatre and Storytelling 2015 Supported by SPArKS, DemoCreative Space, Sabah Museum and Valentine Willie
This is the second iteration of my ongoing work, Small Town Stories: Chinese in the Small Towns and Rural Areas of Southeast Asia. I will like to thank Susan Orchid Bansin for the invitation to showcase my work at the museum in conjunction with the festival.
Introduction to the Exhibition
The histories of the rural Chinese communities in Southeast Asia have yet to be written, despite their longstanding presence. And this may affect the legitimacy of their place in the region, cautions political scientist Mary Somers Heidhues.
This project takes Heidhues’ work as the starting point. It aims to collect/aestheticise stories and artifacts of these Chinese communities using photography, text and video. Broadly speaking, I am interested in the Chinese who live in places that are no longer considered the primary cities of the region, including places in the countryside. At the same time, I remain mindful that there is encroaching change, even in these places. Only a generation ago, the Cina Benteng (Chinese of the Fort) of Tangerang, West Java, lived off the rice fields that they owned. Today, as these areas get developed for commercial and residential purposes by Chinese investors from Jakarta, the Cina Benteng are being displaced, making it harder to retain their unique cultural practices.
The images selected for this exhibition form an evolving edit. As I revisit them, I see the photographs being marked by the desires and expectations of the photographer and the sitters. I see the images as documents of our collaborative encounters.
Despite the re-emergence of China, this work is not an attempt at Chinese triumphalism. Instead, the project unravels the unmistakable trend of how Chinese arrivals in the past have tried to “fit in” and localise in Southeast Asia, fashioning identities that differ from people in their ancestral lands today. Their experiences remind us of the popular Chinese idiom—入港随弯，入乡随俗 (when entering the pier, follow the bends; when arriving in a new place, follow the customs).
(written on April 2015)
Download exhibition brochure here