“Small-Town Stories” at Yeo Workshop (2016)

27 Oct 2016 to 1 Jan 2017
“小城故事 | Small-Town Stories”
Yeo Workshop, Gillman Barracks, Singapore

This is the fourth iteration of my ongoing work, “Small-Town Stories: Chinese in the Small Towns and Rural Areas of Southeast Asia” (2010-ongoing), presented as a solo show at Yeo Workshop, Gillman Barracks, Singapore.

12 Nov 2016
Artist Talk
Moderated by Dr Charlotte Setijadi

Dr Charlotte Setijadi is an anthropologist and contemporary historian of ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia (with particular expertise on Indonesia). She is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. Charlotte’s research examines how Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia respond to the rise of China, particularly in context of China’s recent foreign policy initiatives such as the 21st Century Silk Road Economic Belt vision. Charlotte was previously a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University. Her forthcoming book, titled Memories of Unbelonging: Collective Trauma and Chinese Identity Politics in Indonesia (under contract with University of Hawai’i Press), examines how collective memories of past anti-Chinese discrimination influence contemporary Chinese Indonesian identity politics.


Despite their longstanding presence, the histories of the rural Chinese communities in Southeast Asia have yet to be written. And this may affect the legitimacy of their belonging, cautions political scientist Mary Somers Heidhues some two decades back. Since then, there have been various attempts by historians and anthropologists to address this gap of knowledge.

This project takes Heidhues’ caution as the starting point. It aims to collect/aestheticise stories and artefacts of these Sinophone 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 semi-rural towns and locales in the countryside. Their forefathers first arrived at these places as indentured labour, political refugees or energetic mercenaries. Over time, they fashioned identities and cultures that differed from people of their ancestral lands and the places where they settled. Visiting these sites today, it becomes easier to understand Chinese-ness as something fluid, contingent or temporary. Hopefully, this helps to problematise the simple dichotomy of “Chinese” versus “indigenous” that continues to hold traction across Southeast Asia.

My work is not an attempt at Chinese triumphalism. Instead, the subjectivities of the interviewees remind us of the popular adage—入港随湾,入乡随俗 (when entering the pier, follow the bends; when arriving in a new place, follow the customs).

A significant part of the project features photographs of the interviewees and the places where I visited. The portraits document the performative encounters between the sitters and me, seared by our desires and expectations. Over the years, I have also collected or bought old photographs, identification papers, wedding invites and name cards from the interviewees and at flea markets across the region. These materials, related to the thrust of my research here, provide the broader context to nestle my work.

Apart from all the sitters who appear in my photographs, I wish to thank the following for contributing to this project: Lee Han Shih, Toh Hun Ping, Chua Chye Teck, Tan Ngiap Heng, Shio Soon Yi, Mohd Shukur Jahar, Bang Duong, Wut Chalanant, Andipo Wiratama and Sutrisno Murtiyoso.


27 Oct 2016 / Opening of “小城故事 | Small-Town Stories” at Yeo Workshop, Gillman Barracks, Singapore / Photographs courtesy Ahmad Iskandar


27 Oct 2016 / With Melani Setiawan during the opening of “小城故事 | Small-Town Stories” at Yeo Workshop, Gillman Barracks, Singapore
12 Nov 2016 / I am happy to have Dr. Charlotte Setijadi moderate my artist talk, held in conjunction with my solo exhibition, “小城故事 | Small-Town Stories”, at Yeo Workshop, Gillman Barracks. With additional questions and comments from the audience, I think we managed to have a productive session. / Courtesy of George Wong


12 Nov 2016
30 Oct 2016 / Installation view of “小城故事 | Small-Town Stories” at Yeo Workshop, Gillman Barracks, Singapore
Installation view