From Heroes to Villains
Her journey to revolution has for me a textbook familiarity: the demonstrations against the Japanese invasion of China; the political education in the communist cell in high school; the harassment and threat of arrest by the police; the party’s order to join the comrades in the jungle. In my notes I have written: Xiao Hong was a seamstress at the time, around 1953, living in a rented room on top of one of the shops in Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. The other tenants were like her, young working women seeking a direction in life, each aspiring to something ‘serious’ though they didn’t know what it was. Like her friends, she was fond of reading – novels, translations of Western classics, film magazines, local progressive newspapers. Her lack of English alienated her from Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard and the Hollywood movies. But there were pop songs and films from Hong Kong. From the leftist Great Wall Studio ‘patriotic’ directors turned out films of realistic treatments of life in an office or a factory in the capitalist British colony. Each tale was spiced up with the ‘political soul searching’ of a young worker – always a woman and played by one of Great Wall’s glamorous stars – as she turns her experience of injustice into self-discovery. She had seized on them with pleasure.
Xiao Hong’s political coming of age is better made sense of, I am sure, by this jumble of interests and influences. We are shaped by the social world, and by our desires and impulses. Politically, the transformation of the MPAJA (Malayan People’s Japanese Army) guerrillas to communist bandits was inevitable. The British-MCP (Malayan Communist Party) comradeship was forged by expediency against the common foe, the Japanese. Both sides knew its inherent bad faith. After the war, Britain was determined to restore its power in Malaya – for imperial prestige, and for the rubber and tin and their foreign earnings. As for the MCP, the success of Mao’s forces in China and the wave of nationalist struggles in the European empires nursed their own ambitions. Things came to a head between British reoccupation of Malaya and the opening of the Emergency in 1948, three years later. Most immediately, brutal government repression had forced the MCP to take up arms and return to the jungle. In hindsight, though, the MPAJA’s transformation from ‘resistance heroes to terrorists’ was long coming, a final scene of a political play.
The ‘human story’ of the Emergency is told by the life-career of a person as Xiao Hong. The fifties was a time of social and political changes. For the ethnic Chinese the struggle for modern China since the late Qing, the formation of the Chinese Republic, the Japanese invasion of the homeland, the Communist victory in the civil war – they had been major influences on their communities in the South Sea. Xiao Hong’s reading, her filmic taste, her yearning and desires were something of the cultural shift. In the interview, her expression ‘Life must have a purpose’ was a code, a sign of her search for identity, as we say these days. When she talks to me about her joining the noisy fans at the airport to greet the arrival of one of the Great Wall stars, I see it as a part of the mystery of the formation of selfhood.
She was born to a family of vegetable growers. But she does not talk about her poverty like a festering wound. She was a young person of her time, but to speak of the circumstances as having ‘over-determined’ her revolutionary career seem crude and too easy. She talks of her readings, and it is Ba Jing’s ‘Family, Spring, Autumn’ Trilogy, Lu Xun’s A Mad Man’s Diary , and notably, the great novel of socialist realism Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered that she remembers. (She confesses she has not read The Communist Manifesto). Xiao Hong had arrived at the insurgent’s career via a detour in her search to be ‘modern person’ in a ‘modern era’. For its followers Communism was modernity’s highest expression. All the same, ‘modern culture’, with its radical progressivism, best captures Xiao Hong’s existential quest that willy-nilly took her to the revolutionary path. Modernity rather than Marxism-Leninism as such had been her guiding star. With almost an Althusserian touch, she has, when recounting her early years, ushered me to an exuberant terrain of modern Chinese – and Russian – classics and the Great Wall Studio movies, a terrain that makes sense for me her transformation from a seamstress to a Communist rebel.