Gan Chin Lee (Malaysia) was shortlisted for his work The time to live and the time to die III – a distillation of a visual language viscerally connected to his cultural background, personal emotions, and memory.
What are some of your earliest memories, growing up in a ‘Chinese New Village’?
My earliest memory of Chinese New Villages mostly involves some hazy experiences of childhood. Steeped in the culture of Chinese immigrants, the village held innumerable events of worship and fundraising throughout the year. Each clan had its own sphere of influence to protect compatriots from the same hometown. Today, with hindsight, the Chinese New Village as I see it possesses a utopian air. Even if it was a segregated community in political context, for children living within the confines of barbed wire, simple communal life brings a strange sense of security. Besides, there is a huge road out of my village, across from which lies a typical Malayan village. For safety concerns, Chinese adults forbade their kids to play in that area. And so, the non-Chinese village across from the New Village became a magic space that stirred up my fancy, fear, and imagination as a child.
Can you tell us a bit more about the scene captured in your work – who is the person on the motorbike, where are they entering, and who is the silhouette in the background?
The motorbike, for me, symbolizes the father and the breadwinner of a family. In my childhood memories, the means of transport were mainly bicycle and motorbike. Bicycles belonged to moms, responsible for grocery shopping in the market; motorbikes were for dads, as they needed to ride to work in the oil palm plantation outside the village. My memories are inhabited by the roar of the motorbike engine — when it approached the fences of a household, it marked the happiest moment of a child’s day, because it signaled the arrival of the breadwinner.
Moreover, the man on the motorbike is also the person who makes contact with the world outside the enclosed village. For instance, they’d meet Malayan Communist tramps in oil palm plantations. The creation of a Chinese New Village as a segregated community results from the English colonial government’s intention to block the economic and material support of the Chinese to Malayan Communists. The Malayan Communist party declined precisely because the segregation plan worked. Some of my ancestors were involved in communist activities in the 1950s. Consequently, they had to sacrifice their freedom to pay for those undertakings.
So, I want to use the man on the motorbike and the white silhouette in the background to give shape to the obscure and mysterious liaison between the Chinese and the Malayan Communists in this particular episode of history. They also stand for what remains of beliefs and homesickness. In reality, an unspeakable atmosphere of white terror suppression can still be felt in some dwindling Chinese New Villages and their surrounding woods.