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A researcher visits the UK National Archives in search of Malaya.

This piece is part of “The Rainforest Speaks: Reimagining the Malayan Emergency,” featuring art by Sim Chi Yin. It is excerpted from a longer story that considers the migration history of ethnic Chinese communities in the Malayan Peninsula.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

—1 Corinthians 13:12

Outside of the archives, it was evening, the dusk of a city that had opened itself up for my recollection—I, a sole researcher who had arrived here not without motive. But I could not have known this cold dusk had arrived, as I sat inside, beneath the light that was bright phosphorus, set upon a newspaper and file, sealed with envelopes. So it was, then, even without a footstep, I had attended a burial of sorts, a building housing the physical manifestations of men’s words and deeds.

Without thinking I had slipped into reverie, recalling places that surrounded the city; Oxford, for example, lit by the kerosene lamps still in black encasing, its old beauty still preserved. And I recalled the natural history of a time that could be documented, and the poetry that spanned centuries and had been taught in the strangest locales, such as the pastoral identification, by colonial men in Malaya. They had imbibed this language, a language that had emanated across distance, carried by force and weapons, goods and markets, such that one could only gleam at its rough edges, or its imperfect cadences, the encounter a frightful mystery that still would not resolve itself, unless one was brought to one’s knees, by the sheer virtue of this politics.

I had come here looking for land, specifically the land of Malaya, as it would be represented in a colonial holding; something I imagined had been neatly typed out and transcribed in rows of documents, sheets that could transpose place into words, the letters of an official, a directive from the early century, anything that would give shape to my time and the time of my forefathers, their entrance to a land that had been not theirs. A forced movement, to be sure, but also one that involved families decades earlier, dotting the landscape like so many rubber trees. And how that entrance had led to the conflict that moved us away from the land. 

The archival machine was relatively benign, as it extracted the files I had typed in, numbers flashing on the screen, showing these conjunctions of alphabets and numbers that together formed an appellation for the file. But I was left with a problem of trying to catch, on a monitor, this place, descriptions that would do justice to a thing that was alive once. It was a quaint problem to address, to find in the manifests a seemingly possible solution—the yellowing newspapers pressed and scanned to an image. They presented a flatness that would not show the expanse of land. Yet these articles, dating back to the prewar period, had been carefully scanned and preserved, such that one was able to find “Malaya” as a term, a phrase, as when “these men fought valiantly in the jungles of Malaya,” and so on and so forth. I had been looking for this place, but it was impossible to separate the place from the men who told stories about it, stories of glory and valor, jungle hunts and bandit chases. 

My back ached from bending, a strange confluence of needing to feel a physical document—something left behind from an era that I had not even been alive in—and the labor of my forebears. Nothing to be testified to without witnesses, certainly eyes that did not belong to me. A document was some kind of solution, in that I realized for the first time that some peoples possessed history, collated by the work of archivists—the basis for many an official narrative, a written history, or even a good yarn about one’s forebear, found in the records as being this or that official. Or perhaps a merchant, a mere soldier in the war, a servant of the baron with some lineage that led back to the gentry, their aristocratic preserve still intact in the titles that, in fact, were also translated and melded as a feudal hybrid, the Malay titles not too different from their English, in that they enacted an aura of power, of descent, of place belonging to them. 

Scurrying in the archives with these dead powers, I wanted, perhaps, to be written into these records, which seemed to only note my predecessors as making complaints about the patch of land they had occupied, illegally, it was noted. But to them still a place, a space that allowed for “temporary license for occupation,” where they planted crops like sweet potato and yam, nangka and pineapple, tapioca roots that could stretch and conceal themselves however many places they uprooted to. And to follow their uprooting was a difficult task; it had seemed less likely for the ones on their way to a new place, without really knowing their destination, to reach this equatorial land. They would be subject to further movements, the history of the temporary, the transient, where words could not account for what had happened, as elusive as the deed they had sought after and asked for in the records. Perhaps it was ironic that the moment of asking was what had been recorded of them: the need to press claims, the only documented encounter between unequal parties, one possessing the deed, and one that did not.

The repatriated never had names. “Seven Chinese men” was the closest one could get to their identity, and even that felt reluctant, a deep-seated disappointment of these men who had been insufficiently corralled in the land. They were laborers, perhaps, or temporary miners, or rubber planters, members of the anonymous masses who had been shipped across the ocean, with the promise of building a new life away from the scarce lands of South China. Arable, virgin soil, a tropical rainforest to be excavated and extracted, then sent back on ships at ports that connected the world then; materials harvested and cobbled together in factories that would in turn, sell these products on a main line that seemed to stretch only where the imagination could take. These men were not too different from the materials being sent around; they were needed to move, cut, arrange, lever these objects. They were needed to remove and uproot, just as they had been uprooted once.

In the video, the apparatus of colonial administration was recorded: men in military uniforms who bestrode Malaya with their war machines, a plane taking off juxtaposed with the shipment of goods that now signaled its value. Somewhere there existed a map that would lay out this world that had been imagined, empire in its logistical operations, the destination of the steamship, the frontier that needed to be integrated. How that mental map was created, described in terms beyond a vague pastoral, was not immediately apparent, nor did it mean anything unless I located more evidence.

The past emerged in motion, each frame needing a minute to turn into the present, its recovery a slow entrance. Sitting in the archives, it was not immediately clear to me whose recording this belonged to, nor was it clear how it had been labeled, with only the name “From Singapore to Alor Star,” the span of the peninsular cut together without sound, frames of men and land that were loosely bound without speech to create a story. Unmarked, the stories were only vignettes, snapshots of British army soldiers who seemed to enjoy their labor, flashing smiles to someone outside of the frame, the video separating those observing the construction, and those captured in full working mode, the bearers of empire in the frontier. “Sgt. XXX – 12 Columns; Cpl. YYY – 5 Columns…” written on a blackboard, the chalk a command to tame the landscape, the place captured as background for their methods of dredging and scouring, a small-armored vehicle rushing through the now paved road flanked by coconut trees and banana plants. And the glee with which they rode this vehicle down the road—I was reminded, momentarily, of walking on the dirt path along Sungai Pelek as a child, tracing the village boundary that I was unfamiliar with, coming face to face with the other children.              

The waterfront in the frame faced a distant shore, somewhere in the Pacific, a peninsular that would, to the naked eye, appear close to the rolling waves, the coconut trees and the palm fronds inviting, lights turned to the axis of a plane that would land, if there were a runway. And indeed, there was a beach on the East Coast where a Japanese attack would take place in 1941, ultimately leaving traces on the countryside, in the numbers of men who evacuated the towns and the city to find succor in opaque rubber trees brought in by the British. The settling of the peninsular by these outsiders had an ironic denouement in the shaping of a place that had already been a thriving intersection of the monsoon winds, the laboring of merchants and Arab traders who had found this the path of least resistance.

They were joined by those coming from another direction, heading eastwards—traders stopped by the port of Penang, which maintained its reputation over the years, with the island bearing the royal name of George Town. Yet I had not heard most of my forebears speak of the island, its distance across too far to bridge; there was some envy of the English that the island dwellers spoke, my forebears’ own patois the mark of a mainlander who was less a merchant with a house, and more a temporary occupant of the land, whose anonymity had to be shed over the years. In the slow building-up of capital in the shape of goods that could be traded and sold, the sundry shop—a destination that had been arrived at through the yearly toil in the frontier, their harnessing of land as resource, the knowledge of place transformed into a possibility of mobility, and niches in the trading zones—they slowly settled in place, claiming a part of the peninsular, haltingly.

The whizzing of the armored vehicles was of a different scale, symbolizing a power over the land that could not be matched by the blunt instruments of rubber tapping. Their machinery had not been limited to weapons of war; what had been left behind were pools, dunes, dredged up by the economic machines that the locals called the “iron monster,” large ships that spat out effluent while digging ever deeper to their goal, the Malayan tin that had served the global war effort in bullets and axles, their origin in this peninsular obscured by the sheer fire of places and peoples destroyed. Similarly, the landscape, whose material had been previously of pastoral song, now a pock-marked, uneven dredge of water and sand, ravenously searched through by those who had arrived looking for new gold in a new world.

It was perhaps another irony that my forebears, having been imported from the South, a harsh landscape that according to tradition, was itself an arid, faraway “barbarian” plain—far, at least, from the centers of Chinese civilization settled around lush rivers and flowing waters—would find a habitat that was workable, livable along the edges. The leftover waters and effluents themselves were another wellspring, forgotten by those with the machines, who cared only for the tin products that were circulated and later stamped in by the Royal Selangor Pewter, a clubhouse that housed the colonial niceties of the era.

Later, I walked along the Thames. I felt the breeze of other places, just like how the Kew was haunted by more than a few ghosts and near-ghosts who had been looking for their genealogy, the family tree kept intact by fussy archivists who could tap into the search function after years of collating, the Kew’s dull brick exterior belying years of historical excavation and preservation. The closest equivalent that I could remember of my family was a middle-aged lady at the shophouse, who showed me a hardcover book of surnames, and the altar that was supposed to connect us back to our arid origins by virtue of this virtual naming, the land we had left. Not quite ghosts, perhaps not even a ghost, just a faint trace of what used to be home, clung onto by the imagination and its need to belong, somewhere amidst this jungle that was undergoing a violent transformation to fit the incoming world.

I had been to enough of these archives—one dedicated to war, another to travel, and yet another the state’s own mechanism in preserving its doings in faraway places, somehow readily documented—to piece together a story about these men in the videos and their domination of the land. “They did what they wanted,” said a villager I interviewed for a project later, and it was clear in the video that the British were the only subjects of the land. I wanted to answer others who had written on the Cold War, comprehend the place where I could remember my own history being written in, my family house having been built amidst jungles the British had cleared for the sake of fighting communism. 

The snakes were still at my family house after the fighting had ceased; during heavy rain, one of them appeared in front of me, dark and scaly, in the kitchen that was otherwise part of a banal reproduction of a terrace house, similar to the London suburbia I visited many years later. My father evacuated this snake from the kitchen with a large wooden pole; normal to him, the wildlife that still roamed even the modern suburbs. Yet, I had been led back to this initial moment of entrance; the moment when the power to transform the land had been forcefully taken or given, the sultan’s prerogative to have advisers and to be taxed, so to bring this part of the world into the territory of the British empire. Without this territory, I perhaps would not have existed; there would be no movement of my forebears to the Malayan frontier; no snake appearing in the cleared jungle kitchen; no videos of men on their armored vehicles. 

Some of the photographs in the archive felt benign—the British soldiers had not been doing much more than standing in front of the landscape, posing. Even in their military garb they looked like they had just arrived as tourists. These were young men on a trip to the “far East,” and their poses with the long guns were accompanied by a smile that was a mixture of naivete and fear, the jungle devouring half their legs, rivers yellow and continuous, knees wet and khakis inadequate. It seemed strange that these were the men who had been entrusted with policing the frontiers of empire; they could have been plumbers, carpenters, a lad who, like the man serving chips in front of the library and the town square back in England or Scotland, wanted nothing more than to make a living in the city, and then return to plot the countryside. They were not too different from those who they fought later—rural men and women who found themselves hiding in a jungle that did not distinguish race or creed, its deadly sting equal to those who dared to traverse it.

I had walked through this jungle as a teenager, held the stones by the river as it dashed along, to find only leeches that refused to leave one’s ankles, stealthily grabbing onto my legs. Rain, monsoon—the subject of a thousand monographs and writings that tried to evoke the humidity of a place that had been the subject of exotica during the Cold War, the background to romances that were perhaps, in retrospect, a kind of empire pornography for those gazing upon this faraway stretch, the little men and women in the jungle, who had set up shop here only to be dragged into this war against the yellow people. Even up until the nineties, in this seemingly more benign era, one could find the exotica of this time, an Asia that was the subject of private travel, planes that reached the destination of new skyscrapers and concrete buildings, the jungle a distant memory fading into the background. Except the relation remained the same—the peninsular still a frontier for permissive shenanigans, a party ground captured in the freewheeling spirit of the armored vehicle. Whereas the snake lived on in my back kitchen, a sleepy threat, unlikely to attack, and yet present like a ghost.

Perhaps it was because I had seen, once, when I had barely understood the situation or history, a photograph of one of the insurgents kneeling by a British soldier whose rifle was perilously close to his face. The insurgent’s hair was windswept, captured in an instant of defeat, rounded up by those with uniforms and guns. He had become an anonymous photograph in the archives, searchable yet unknown. His story, like the tropical landscape that surrounded him, had become a mere node in the larger problem of imperiality, a story that began even before the jungle war.

In the archives, I had wanted to find a resolution, somewhere to place my own, my language that had no land, absorbed within a violent history and the marginalia of time; the footnotes that had no referent, the images without a camera. But repatriation was not the only fate of these men; some of them took up arms to fight in the twenty years ahead, a strange twist for those who had been here for not very long, less than a generation, and yet had found a reason to be part of something, part of the new patrie, a place that had neither fully accepted nor rejected them. Before they had been armed to fight the invading Japanese, the number of workers mattered to the extent that production capacities were met, and it was easier to import and control them, to ensure the stream of Southern Chinese could continue from port to port, to be shipped over by agents and then integrated into the existing families and relatives who had made the journey over; to the rubber plantations, the tin mines, the slapdash farms improvised as additional food stocks, the tapioca that could be curdled but also buried in an emergency.

They were part of the land, and yet prone to the changing circumstances, the flux of political and climate fortunes; a part that was indispensable, yet always replaceable in the ongoing transport of more and more laborers, farmers who had wanted to leave their immediate surroundings, to go elsewhere, to become part of another land, to fill a difficult task that was based on sheer human power; a power that could not be captured in the archives, save for a few photos that saw them as examples of toil. 

I returned to the city after traversing the thickets of a country road, which was busy with cars going back and forth, an image I had only seen in television or films that featured places with strange names such as Dorset or Yorkshire. The English periphery was accessible by bus, one that I gratefully hopped on as it stopped in front of the wooden sign that marked this as a place to board.

The countryside was a trimmed hedge, a cow field that one could walk through, to be stared at by mute animals in the vast landscape—a landscape that had appeared in paintings I had seen, a thunderstorm to accompany the openings that felt less earthly than something out of a Romantic poem, even if they were populated by such animals. A pastoral to be replicated, perhaps, but even with the sudden burst of wispy rain, the clouds that hung above in lazy patterns, their constant drizzle would never be the same as the lightning and thunder of the tropics. I had departed from the tropics months ago, the rain at takeoff leaving patters on the black windows of the plane; only to encounter rain of a different sort, rain that would follow you, hover above the ground, blown by wind that could spread the moisture unpredictably. Not the rain of the tropics, the rain that came down for an hour or two and left, with the sun returning to its dominant position after its temporary absence, the smell of gasoline after rain, the smell of rain before it would fall, a faraway idyll in the center, those statues.

It started raining, and there had been gray skies before.

The images in this piece depict documents from the National Archives, UK.