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Scenes of Magic Realism in “Malaysia, Truly Asia”
July 11th, 2016Type: Meeting NML
Author: Wang, Po-wei , Cliff Chang (translator) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 《現代美術》no.181
Note: This article originally stems from the MNML series: “Art-in-Production 2: Yao, Lee-chun + Au Sow-yee”, organized by No Man’s Land. Yao, Lee-chun, the director of Guling Street Avant-garde Theatre was invited as host and speaker to talk with Malaysian artist Au Sow-yee on the “real” Asia, of which the seemly bizarre problematization was inspired by “Malaysia Truly Asia”, the official tagline by Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia.
Pak Tai Foto Studio on Google Maps; (c) Google Maps

This article originally stems from the Meeting No Man’s Land series: “Art-in-Production 2: Yao Lee Chun + Au Sow Yee”, organized by No Man’s Land. Yao, Lee-chun, the director of Guling Street Avant-garde Theatre was invited as the moderator for Malaysian artist Au Sow Yee on the “real” Asia1, of which the seemly bizarre problematization was inspired by “Malaysia Truly Asia”, the official tagline by Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia. The series of video advertising with the tagline stresses that the “real” Asia lies in the harmony of multi-ethnicity and the diversity of lifestyles in Malaysia.

To what exactly does the “real Asia” refer? The lecture went in relays, Q&A, talk show and slide show, with the help of Google Maps, exploring the area of Pak Tai Photo Studio. Obviously, it is not only an attempt by setting the topic to re-locate the “real” within history and daily scenes, but a way of initiating a new narrative. Namely, whether it is possible in the form of “lecture performance” to make clear what lies within the “real” Asia. In what sense is it to be incarnated as the “real”, “truly” Asia? How is the sense of “real” being produced and presented to the audience, with elements such as scenes of space, historical events, personal experiences, records and forms of narratives of the field… etc.?

In the process of AU’s mapping work, the keywords are not just “real” and “Asia”, but those that have to do with many “backcourts” of the history, for instance, legal acts concerning military, policing and national security. Do those backcourts set up historic viewpoint that upholds the sense of “real”? Are these views simply layered one after another? Or would those personal experiences, failing to coincide with official historiography, be eliminated under the structure of nation-building in any way? Moreover, if there were any chance that this journey would eventually return to the reflection of ourselves? Although this article follows Meeting NML, along with its pace, topography and story, it is not merely a presentation of the talk. Instead, it examines the contents and techniques of the narrative in Au’s “Pak Tak Photo” (2015), and reflects on how the narratives are twined together to produce various representation forms of the senses of the “real,” based on the related memories and stories collected during the examination process.


Au Sow Yee, Pak Tai Foto; image courtesy of artist

Spatial Position

Malaysia: Mainly divided into East and West Malaysia. ID card and passport are required to visit the East Malaysia from the West, even being a Malaysian citizen. The local government of Sarawak or Sabah can refuse those who want entry to the East Malaysia or arbitrarily limit the days of entry.

The street where Au once lived in childhood has been renamed as Jalan Hang Tuah since 1982. She has been always hanging around Pak Tai Photo Studio, which is located near the intersection of Jalan Petaling and Jalan Sultan, 20 minutes away from home by foot.

Klang River: Pak Tai Photo Studio is located in one of the earliest developed districts in Kuala Lumpur where the Klang and the Gombak rivers meet, while it is nearer to the Klang River. In early times, the tin ores were delivered by the river, and exported to other places from Port Klang, but Klang River is hardly a “river” now, yet more like a huge ditch, on which the boat is allowed to sail.

Pak Tai Photo Studio: is by the Klang River and located at the intersection of two streets, the Jalan Petaling and the Jalan Sultan. It used to be the downtown during the colonial era of British Malaya, and more inhabited by the Chinese. It’s about 10 minutes’ walk from Merdeka Square where the first raising of the national flag took place in 1957 and within 10 minutes’ walk from the Stadium where Tunku Abdul Rahman hailed the “Merdeka” cries. The wall of the studio is scattered with the profile pictures of soldiers and policemen, among which are the ones of some fairly high-ranking characters. According to the owner’s unofficial estimate, up to 60 percent of all the soldiers and policemen in Kuala Lumpur have taken photos here; nowadays some still come, and the studio even provides uniform rental service. It has remained nearly unchanged since its last renovation in the 1960s, and one of the few changes is just the shift from the use of film cameras to digital ones, a dark room to a MacBook of the owner’s daughter.

Jalan Petaling, (c) Google Maps

Jalan Petaling: The block, where Pak Tai Photo Studio is situated, has become a night market within the Chinatown, known as a tourist attraction. Apart from sex workers, many vendors here sell counterfeit clothes, watches and bags. Due to the heterogeneous historical background of this spot, the stores have kept some documents (photos) of Mao Zedong or domestic / international political personages who ever visited here. Although this Chinatown once accounted for a fairly important part of Malaysia’s independence history, lately the most heated issue in the area is about the overcrowding of incoming foreign labors. In recent years, this district has undergone urban renewal under the planning of Kuala Lumpur City Centre. There will be a subway line running through, and the building of the photo studio may disappear ever since. Yet a row of houses adjoining the studio have cracked during the construction, thus no longer inhabitable.


About “Pak Tai Foto”

In Au Sow Yee’s “Pak Tak Photo” (2015), no walking person can be spotted, while the characters stay present outside the frame in the form of voice-over. Au regards it as a “video work aloof from flesh and blood”, with most of the scenes taken in the studio. “Pak Tai Foto” is part of The Mengkerang Project. The artist rented the studio for shooting; however, the filming must be temporarily halted whenever there is a customer, as stated in the agreement signed prior to the shooting, in order to not to hinder the daily business.

Au Sow Yee, Pak Tai Foto (shooting); image courtesy of Alison Khor

During the shooting of “Pak Tai Foto”, Au did not make any additional setting in the studio. She hoped to keep a meticulous record of all the details in the studio, including light and shadow flowing in the space, within the limited filming time. Since the studio has not been renovated since the 1960s, its original appearance remains and subsequently makes all the scenes in the video seem rather old. The studio was founded in 1950s, and its history is even longer than that of the Federation of Malaya.

Scenes in “Pak Tai Foto” are set in this studio space which dates back to before the founding of the Federation, while the voices in the video consist of stories of migrant workers from China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. In those interviews, the artist asks these workers questions of their favorite songs from their childhood, the reason to work in Malaysia, future destinations, to name a few. Most of these interviews are held at their workplaces, since they rarely have their days off, and thus their narrations are companied along with the sounds of their respective working sites. But the number of these workers is only a part of migrant workers the artist had enquired. Most of the workers, having no legal identifications, are not willing to be interviewed. This juxtaposition poses a sharp contrast between the portrait photos in the visual and the voices of the workers who are illegal due to the current policies.


Temporal and social position

Yap Ah Loy: In the late 19th century, he was appointed the third Kapitan Cina under the British colonial government, administering areas of today’s Malaysia. Yap was also an important developer of Kuala Lumpur, owning a factory of tapioca flour (“Ci Chang”) at Jalan Petaling.

Au Sow Yee, Pak Tai Foto; image courtesy of Au Sow Yee

Independence of Malaysia: Two different years, 1957 and 1963, could both refer to the Independence. The former one was the formation of Federation of Malaya consisting of the whole West Malaysia. In 1963, the East Malaysia and Singapore joined the Federation, and together they became a nation. Then in 1965, Singapore declared independence from Malaysia and became a single nation. Merdeka Square is said to be the place where the first raising of the national flag took place on 00:00, August 31st 1957, when Malaysian’s founding father declared independence at Stadium Merdeka.

(Character 1) Ethnic Groups: For the need of ruling, a huge amount of different ethnic people from other countries were immigrated by the colonial government, and made them adhere to the different vocations designated by political and economic functions, and the relic has lasted to these days. For example, Indian work in rubber plantation, Southern Chinese mine for tins, Sikhs serve as police officers, soldiers or guards.

(Character 2) Communist Party of Malaya: The Communist Party of Malaya was founded in the 1930s primarily to fight against the Japanese invasion of Malaysia, and back then they fought jointly with the British military units against the Japanese. However, after the withdrawal of Japan, the two sides’ views on political system collided, and the Communist Party’s anti- British / pro-independence stance eventually propelled them to take to guerilla warfare in order to overthrow the British colonial rule.

The documentary The Malayan Emergency, produced by History Channel, makes an argument that the British authorities’ announcement of the status of emergency in 1948 was actually a war in disguise against the Malayan Communist Party. After the state of emergency was announced, the party once took the name of “Malayan Races Liberation Army”. Due to the advantages of terrain such as mountains and tropical forests, the communists were mainly based in the west. For soldiers of the colonial government, mosquitoes and leeches were as much a threat as the communists, thus they would not mindlessly march into the forest to engage in combat. With survival in the forest being a main problem, the communists in need of resources received all forms of aid from the nearby villagers.(註2) Thereat, fighting the communists hiding in the forests became a huge issue for the colonial government.

(Policies & deployment) Briggs’ Plan: To fight against the Malayan Communist Party in the rain forest, British commander Harold Brigg proposed what is now known as Brigg’s Plan, and ordered the construction of the “New Villages”, also known as Kampung Baru Cina, with a view to cut off the resources of support to the 55 Malayan Communist Party. The people (mostly Chinese) who were likely to support the communists were concentrated in the New Villages, and anybody at any time should be checked up and questioned upon entering or leaving the villages. There were more than 600 villages at peak times. Food in the villages was all rationed from the beginning. In the later period, even ingredients were not provided in case the food would be smuggled to the communists, and central kitchens were set up to dispense daily meals.

Au Sow Yee, Pak Tai Foto; image courtesy of Au Sow Yee

Suture(註3) of foreground and meta-level in form of magic realism

Magic realism is a narrative technique, which often makes the cause and effect relation in a story asymmetrical to the reality. This term was first coined by a German art critic Frank Roh to describe a rather unusual style of realism deployed by American painter Ivan Albright. Its popularity in the 20th century rose along with the emergence of Mikhail Bulgakov, Ernst Jünger, as well as many of the Latin American writers, of which the most famous were Jorge Luis Borges, García Márquez and Isabel Allende. Today, magic realism is often referred to when we talk about Latin American literature. The first critic ever used this concept in literature was Arturo Uslar-Pietri; nevertheless, the term had not come to light until Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales, the winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Literature, identified his novel style as magic realism. (Reference: Magic realism on Wikipedia)

The abruptness, which occurs when putting this simplified paragraph of magic realism into the main text instead of the footnote, is no less than incorporating the description of “Pak Tai Foto” into the dual contexts of “spatial” and “temporal / social” backgrounds of Kuala Lumpur. The abruptness originates in the confounding arrangement in which the work and the main text, supposed to be the foreground, are both patched with contexts and genre categorization that are regarded to be at meta-level. Hence, readers can neither tell whether the continuum of text’s narrative is developed along its main text or the context, nor comprehend if the article is a description(註4), or a review of “Pak Tai Foto”. Moreover, it is hard to fathom whether the mention of magic realism is to explain Yao’s time-space disorientation as well as the sense of rupture of the cause-effect relation, or to suggest Au’s attempted techniques, in the making process of “Pak Tai Foto”, to choose the use of abstraction in historical setting over portraits and to shape the setting into a general “space of survival” in order to encompass the past and future events.(註5)

We may as well ponder over more profoundly: Isn’t the relationship between “Pak Tai Studio as the historical setting” and “Malaysia as a nation” situated in the similar abruptness? In what way should the pre-existing photo studio adjust itself for the sake of the nation’s future development, even if it ushers in its own destruction? The above mentioned may provide the opportunity for us to reflect on the notion of “Malaysia as a nation” in accordance with the images, the narratives, and the foundation of the so-called “real.” Realism only takes on a magic sense when a reader realizes that the narrative and historic background are constantly shifted while kept reconciled in their coherence and continuity among all the deviating contexts.


Return and unity: scenes and lecture performance

The dimension of time is filtered out by the tricks of memory. Time does not have any structural impact on the whole process which can namely be the methodology of pure spatiality.(註6)

So it’s said by Aleida Assmann. While the unity(註7) of ethnic diversity is hailed by Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia as an inner nature of Malaysia, this talk forced us to inquiring into this “real” Asia by setting it as the topic. In this way, the salient differences of geographical and spatial politics between “Malaysia / Asia” and “Pak Tai Studio / Malaysia” were put in the spotlight in the beginning of the talk. The moment when Google Map was used to elaborate the context of Pak Tai Foto Studio, a sense of “unity” and “real” was produced unconditionally in the presence of map spaces and live lecture performance. This return of the real was subsequently not sheltered by ministry’s official nationalist statement, but rather sanctuarized by the temporal continuum of “past-present-future” thanks to the technology of Google map that allows the conflicting events, ethnic groups, individuals and history to find their own allocation. At the end of this article, we still cannot help asking: does the volume of temporal continuum stay the same despite of different factors and allocation in the spatial structure? Do the dreams of nation, of ethnics, and of individual all last for the same duration? Can soundscape and scene intermingled in “Pak Tai Foto” be unhooked from the timeline of the real world?

[1] For video recording of the talk, please check here: (accessed 2016/5/20)
[2] Especially support from the Chinese. Over 70 percent of the Malay communists are the Chinese people, and this is the profound reason that the Chinese Malaysian is rather not seen on the political landscape.
[3] The term and its concept is borrowed from Jacques Lacan.
[4] Most descriptions of spaces, history and events in this article are slightly rewritten from what Yao and Au mentioned in their dialogue.
[5] In the talk, Yao proposed concept of “magic realism” based on sense of immediacy at the site of Pak Tai Studio. This article proposed that the concept should be viewed as a genre and applied to the level of history and realness, to illustrate arbitrary and editing character of national narrative and its political construction in its elaboration on “reality” in relation to different ethnics and individuals.
[6] Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, Munich: C.H. Beck, 1999. The Chinese version in this article is from the one published in 2016 by Peking University Press, p.20.
[7] We can tell clearly that unity is based on national level, and diversity on ethnic level. We can also tell that the existence of both these two levels is supposed to be based on a structure of unity being prioritized.