A decade or so ago, media moguls had dismissed the dearth of female representation in the film industry as merely a “tempest in a teapot”. However, things began to look up in recent years when Hollywood stopped treating the success of female directors as anomaly, especially with Chloé Zhao’s historical win for being the first Asian woman to clinch the best director gong for her drama Nomadland. After years of sidelining women, production companies — very slowly, but surely — are now figuring out the best ways to tell new stories while widening the range of people who get to tell them.
Director Rachel Leow had not intended to screen her film Chinese Go Home to the Malaysian audience on International Women’s Day (IWD) but the date given by Gerakbudaya bookstore and Hikayat art space, which are hosting the screening, turned out to be an auspicious opportunity.
“I’m proud to be a female director at a time when, thankfully, is becoming more common but when women are still vastly underrepresented in the sum totality of film directors,” says Leow via an online interview. She's also a senior lecturer in Modern East Asian History at the University of Cambridge, and author of Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia.
Chinese Go Home explores a complex historical moment between 1948 and 1953. Over 20,000 Chinese people were deported from what was then British Malaya to China, when both countries were embroiled in war and revolution.
History is often thought as a male preserve, as if only men have an iron grip on the genre. But Leow is passing the megaphone to women, whose voices and narratives may have been muffled by gender stereotypes.
“I'm telling through the memory-work of two women and their families’ experiences of deportation. In featuring female voices, and the historical memories they articulate, I also wanted to gesture to critical omissions in the largely male written record of the ‘Malayan Emergency’ in general, and of the experiences and consequences of deportation in particular. And I think writing women’s voices back into history, however small my contribution can be in this film, is a great way to celebrate IWD.”
Leow’s 20-minute short film has much to explore and unpack as it explores a complex yet fascinating period of history.
“Most Malaysians will know that Malaya was at this time in the throes of the “Malayan Emergency” (1948 to 1960), a period which is better understood not as an "Emergency" but as one of serious and protracted civil war between the waning British administration and an anti-colonial resistance movement spearheaded by the Malayan Communist Party.
“But perhaps fewer might understand the broader geopolitical context in East Asia, which has bearing on these deportations. At this time, China, too, was in the midst of civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang (1946 to 1949), a confrontation which would result in the creation of two Chinas and mark the opening gambits of the Cold War in Asia.”
While the film deals with big themes such as socialism, Communism, nationalism and anti-colonialism which may be familiar to the older generation who have lived through them, how will it help the current generation understand our past better?
“These concepts are told in small and personal ways. We should think about them as shaping forces in Malaysia's historical trajectory, and how they bind Malaysia's history into regional and global dynamics too. It highlights tensions between the deportation of local-born versus foreign-born Chinese, and how the Malayan Emergency ended up providing the circumstances in which these differences were elided in the name of national security, with important long-term consequences today for national integration of Chinese communities in Malaysia.
“Fundamentally, it also deals with generational memory. As the film makes clear, these are sensitive issues for the generation who lived through them, and there is a great deal of reticence to discuss them fully — and yet as the generations pass inevitably on, these stories become ever more precious, as they pass slowly out of living memory. So I also hope that the film will encourage people to look into their own family histories in the way I have tried to do for my two subjects. I have tried to show that their stories can be told well, with all the historical sensitivity and empathy they deserve, and I hope that it inspires others to do so themselves — or to reach out to me, so I can help tell them.”
The definition of “home” extends beyond our four walls as the passionate attachment we have for it becomes an extension of ourselves. But how does one speak about origins or the idea of belonging when the concept of identity has become increasingly fluid than ever?
“I have to say that I chose a deliberately provocative title. I wanted to play a little with the ‘Cina balik Cina’ trope that rears its ugly head every now and then in Malaysian political discourse, but show in the film how complex, and even historically nonsensical, that idea really is, and why.
“As for ‘home’, I also play in the film with what "balik" can possibly mean amidst the great geopolitical uncertainties and negotiations of this era — about who belongs where, and what belonging or citizenship can even mean at a time when we don't really yet have uncontested and fully sovereign nation-states (neither China nor Malaysia). And I won't spoil the film for you, just to say that in the very last screen, in the end credits, I address this issue of "home" directly, but briefly. If you blink, you'll miss it!”
Leow’s film is also funded by the European Union Horizons 2020 grant, and will be available on YouTube. She’s hoping that more people, be it the young or the old, are able to watch her film even if they missed the film screening on Mar 8, 8pm, which will end with a Zoom discussion with founder of Hikayat Bettina Chua Abdullah.
Screening and refreshments at Hikayat, 226 Lebuh Pantai, George Town, Penang; RM10. For Zoom screening, register here.