Ying Xin Show is a postdoctoral fellow at the ANU Malaysia Institute and a lecturer in Indonesian language and Southeast Asian literature and culture at the School of Culture, History & Language, ANU. She speaks to us about how literature has shaped her research in understanding societies and their history. With heightened sensitivity around and interest in Chinese diasporic networks and identities today, Ying Xin shares with us what’s unique to the Chinese diasporic experience in Singapore and Malaysia and considers new approaches to studying Chinese diaspora from this region. Apart from her research, Ying Xin is also the translator of a collection of short stories by Singaporean writer Alfian Sa'at's called Malay Sketches!
1) Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in a small Chinese kampung (Malay for ‘village’) in the southern part of Malaysia in the late 1980s, surrounded by rubber plantations and durian orchards. My grandfather was among the thousands of Chinese labourers who migrated to the Malay Peninsular in the 1920s from poverty-stricken southern China. Born into a large working-class family, my father was the youngest son who always liked to read and write. He didn’t have the chance to go to university so he put all his hopes on his children. I attended Chinese primary and secondary schools in Malaysia, and pursued my undergraduate studies in English literature in Taiwan — yes, an uncommon choice. I then did my PhD in Singapore.
Perhaps because the rebellious part of me hadn’t yet been tamed, I moved out of academia after I submitted my PhD thesis and worked in a fast-paced, independent, online news portal for about three years. During which time I also co-founded an independent library in Kuala Lumpur. It was an interesting time when civil society in Malaysia was very dynamic, and I was in the newsroom reporting the results of the historic 2018 election, witnessing the first regime change in Malaysia since independence. These invaluable experiences continue to shape my intellectual work in many ways. I came to the ANU in late 2019 and have been enjoying the fantastic resources and colleagues here ever since.
2) How has literature influenced your approach in understanding a society and its history?
Personally, literature (and films) are my refuge. They allow me to put myself in a big imagined world, discover many ways of seeing and feeling the world genuinely, and connect with others through the experiences. Literature never lies, even in the form of fiction. For me, literature represents the texture, fabric, and emotions of a society and its history.
As a researcher, my work lies at the intersection of cultural history and literary studies. I emphasise the significant function of literature as a means of self-expression but also pay attention to the larger socio-political contexts in shaping literary writings. In other words, I am always concerned about the role of aesthetics and politics in literature. For example, I am currently working on Chinese Malayan literature during the Cold War period; it was a time of intense political polarisation along ideological lines, and Chinese writers were inevitably embroiled in polemics about what kind of literature should they produce in their new homeland. In the project, I also tried to rediscover some lesser-known writers from non-elite backgrounds, including women writers and student writers, as they also made up the literary landscape in Malaya. I am always interested in grassroots literary networks and print culture.
3) What motivated you to undertake research on Chinese Malayan revolutionary literature from the 1940s–60s?
I wrote an article about the Malayan communist writer Jin Zhimang (金枝芒) and tried to theorise his works as anti-colonial revolutionary literature in Malaya — a genre that hasn’t been discussed in the field (perhaps because the revolution never succeeded). When the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) moved underground following the British’s launch of the anti-communist Malayan Emergency (1948–1960), Jin continued his propaganda work from the jungle and produced a few literary works during the period. While some would regard his literature as being constrained by communist dogmatism, I actually see that he made efforts to transcend the limits and functions of revolutionary narratives.
My motivation to undertake this research was to understand Cold War culture in Malaya, in which I am personally implicated to some extent. It wasn’t until many years later that I came to know the kampung I was born in was a former Chinese New Village (xin cun 新村), built by the colonial state during the Malayan Emergency as part of its anti-communist effort (to resettle the Chinese into enclosed, monitored areas to cut off the MCP’s supports). My kampung was close to mountains and was categorised as a ‘black area’, which means communists were active in that area.
Drawing on my childhood memories, the state and schools have always portrayed the communists as scary and mysterious terrorisers, even until today. But when you talk to local people, especially the older generation Chinese, they have different stories to tell. For the last few years, my work has led me to meet with older generation activists and political prisoners in Malaysia, Singapore and even Indonesia, who would be considered as radical leftists during their time. To be honest, most of them are the nicest people I have ever met and I have great respect for them. Reading their memoirs and listening to their stories just made me feel that history owes them a great deal, and I need to do something to let them be heard.
4) What’s unique to the Chinese diasporic experience in Singapore and Malaysia? What are some key challenges and new explorations in studying Chinese diaspora from this region?
The Chinese population in Malaysia and Singapore constitutes one of the largest Chinese communities outside mainland China and Taiwan. For decades, they have built a distinct Sino-Southeast Asian identity with Chinese languages (Mandarin and Chinese dialects) still being widely used and folk beliefs deeply rooted. The history of this ‘South–South migration (migration between developing countries)’ and their colonised experience in the European colonies were quite different from those of ‘South–North’ diaspora (migration from a developing to an industrialised country), say, in the case of Chinese Americans as seen in Amy Tan’s novel Joy Luck Club or the popular drama series Fresh Off the Boat.
Besides, contemporary Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia are also not as creolised and assimilated into local cultures as their counterparts in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. This ‘resistance to assimilate’ has its historical and political reasons and has resulted in quite a different situation in both countries. In Malaysia, the Chinese are the minority population (about 25%), whereas in Singapore, they are the supermajority (75%). Recent debates on whether there is a ‘Chinese privilege’ in Singapore also prompted me to reflect more critically on what it means to be Chinese in Southeast Asia today. I am also keen to explore Chinese Australian history in the near future. In fact, ANU has a long history of researching the Chinese diaspora and became a world leader in the field in the 1980s.
I am in no doubt that with China’s rise to superpower status and the so-called ‘new Cold War’ situation today, the ‘Chinese problem’ and the question of overseas Chinese communities’ loyalty to either the ancestral land or the host society is back in the spotlight again. The rhetoric is strikingly similar to what was much debated during the ‘old Cold War’ period. Today, on one hand, China’s attempt to recruit all individuals and communities of Chinese descent to the ‘China Dream’ and to redefine them homogenously as haiwai qiaobao (overseas compatriots) troubles the Chinese diaspora’s urge to localisation. On the other hand, the superpower rivalry also limits the articulations of Chineseness and diverse diasporic experience to one that is nothing but ethnonationalistic. For me, it is imperative to make visible various Chinese diaspora networks, articulations and practices and connect with the local social and cultural realities that produced them.
5) What inspired you to translate Singaporean writer Alfian Sa'at's short stories collection Malay Sketches (2012) from English into Chinese?
The Chinese version of Malay Sketches 《馬來素描》 was published in Taiwan in 2020 by Brilliant Time (燦爛時光). This translation project did not arise due to market demand or through an academic mechanism; rather, it was made possible by a group of like-minded individuals who wished to make it happen. Alfian Sa’at is a very talented writer and playwright whom I admire; he is also an outspoken critic of the Singapore government. As a minority writer in Singapore, Alfian’s works reflect critically on issues of race, gender, and sexuality, and more recently Singapore history and colonialism.
Part of my initial motivation in translating Malay Sketches, which includes many Malay “outsiders” in Singapore, was to make the dynamics of race relations in both countries visible, as one can easily relate the experience of the Chinese minority in Malaysia to that of the Malay minority in Singapore. These experiences are restricted in different linguistic spheres and need to be translated across. Another intention was to pay respect to the tradition of Chinese–Malay literary translation that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. I have written an article to reflect on my translation of this book.
What else you might have been?
If I were not an academic, I would probably still be an independent researcher and translator.
Favourite activity during lockdown
Bushwalking. I found a species of orchid endemic to Black Mountain!
What book are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I am reading a collection of short stories by Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s called Burning the Paper, which was originally published in 1987. I read the Chinese translation published last year. I am also reading historian Tim Harper’s magnificent new book Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire (2020).