Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
Into the Rainforest: Translating Hai Fan

How translating the writings of a former Malayan Communist Party member changed me

This piece is part of “The Rainforest Speaks: Reimagining the Malayan Emergency,” featuring art by Sim Chi Yin.

In 1976, a young man from Singapore entered the rainforest to join the guerrilla forces of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP, or 马共 / Magong). He knew that by doing so, he was cutting himself off from everything he had known, and that he might never be able to reemerge. He was twenty-three years old. He would have many names in his life. One of them, which would later become his pen name, was Hai Fan.

It may now seem quixotic to have joined the fight for Communism just as Singapore’s economy was on the upswing, but Hai Fan did not feel that he or anyone he knew would be a beneficiary of this prosperity. Having grown up in a rural area with a Chinese education, he could see that the lack of class mobility and increasing dominance of English would make it difficult for him to share in the country’s success. Besides, Communism did not look like a lost cause in 1976. The Cultural Revolution was still going strong in China, and just the year before, Cambodia, South Vietnam, and Laos had come under Communist control. Dreaming of a better world, Hai Fan crossed the border into Thailand and made his way to a safe house in the town of Betong. From there he was led into the rainforest and inducted into the Party, in a group along with about sixty others.

On the inside, he joined hundreds of combatants, a self-sufficient society that had been going strong for decades. With the assistance of Orang Asli indigenous tribespeople, they planted crops such as cassava, hunted, and practiced blast fishing. Hai Fan’s second short story collection, Wild Pathways (野径, Got One Publisher, 2021), is a bestiary detailing the comrades’ various encounters with animals in the rainforest, many of whom end up getting eaten. In one of the stories, the comrades discuss “how elephants, a protected species, could have become a source of food? But what else could they do? In order to continue the battle . . . they would first need to conquer hunger. Without elephant flesh, cut off from the world in the belly of the rainforest, where else could they find rations?”

In 1989, the MCP signed a peace agreement with the Malaysian government in Hat Yai, Thailand, bringing to an end over forty years of revolutionary struggle and allowing around 1,200 guerrillas to reenter civilian life. The Thai government gave them a piece of land in Thailand on which to build settlements, which would later be known as “peace villages.” They had two months to leave the rainforest. In What the Rainforest Told You (雨林告诉你, Gerakbudaya, 2014), Hai Fan recalls how 150 comrades signed up to return to Malaysia as soon as it was possible, only for other comrades to urge them to stay in Thailand “and not be in the first batch to leave. Were they really so eager to depart from the Party?” This ambivalence is understandable. Aged thirty-six, Hai Fan was one of the youngest comrades there. “The vast majority were over forty. Middle-aged, owning almost nothing, forced to return to a world they’d long been separated from, now unfamiliar and unpredictable, to begin a new life. Their fears and anxieties could not be easily soothed away.”

Hai Fan took three years to gain permission from the authorities, and in 1992, he finally returned to Singapore. He had written poems and stories while in the rainforest, but now he felt he had to focus on making a living, particularly after he married and had children. Eventually, though, he realized that he might end up deferring his dreams indefinitely if he waited too long, and so he left his full-time job to be an author. 

I first encountered Hai Fan’s writing when I came across a copy of his story collection Delicious Hunger (可口的饥饿, Got One Publisher, 2017). By that time, he had already released several books as “Xin Yu,” but he was now using a different pen name in order to write directly about his experience in the MCP. I had read other examples of Magong literature, but immediately, this felt different—while the influence of socialist realism was present, this was richer, more gripping. I knew almost right away that I wanted to translate this book.

In the story “Buried Rations” from Delicious Hunger, Hai Fan describes how, after the signing of the Hat Yai peace agreement, the “Thai Army tactfully suggested the villagers leave off their uniforms, and gave them a small clothing allowance,” yet “they still wore uniform trousers as they built the village, but their top halves were a rainbow of colors. . . . It was initially jarring when red, orange, yellow, and blue began showing up alongside the dark greens and mud browns. In bright daylight, these ordinary clothes made them feel they’d lost their invisibility, which made them anxious.” A perfect metaphor for the difficulty of the transition from life in the rainforest to the outside world.

I was born in Singapore in 1977, the year after Hai Fan entered the rainforest. All through my childhood, we visited Malaysia every six months, during the June and December school holidays. My parents both had a connection to the country: my mother is from Temoh, Perak, and my father has family in Selangor. We often stayed with my great-uncle and great-aunt in Jinjang, Selangor, just outside Kuala Lumpur. 

Only much later would I learn that Jinjang had been a New Village (at the time, I don’t think I even knew what a “New Village” was): In April 1950, the retired Indian Army officer Sir Harold Briggs arrived in Malaya and put into action what became known as the Briggs Plan, part of which involved herding half a million rural residents (many of whom did not own the land they lived on, and so could conveniently be branded “squatters”) into hundreds of “resettlement areas” or “New Villages” surrounded by barbed wire, in order to prevent this largely Chinese population from supplying the MCP with aid, which many had been doing as members of the min yuen (民运/ “people’s movement”). 

This tactic was not always successful; the novelist Graham Greene, in Malaya as a foreign correspondent, reported in 1951 that “a Communist military patrol on one occasion passed unchallenged through a wired-in village, both gates wide open, at 2 in the morning. The European officer, when this was reported to him, shrugged the affair off. What difference did it make? You couldn’t keep the Communists out with a bit of wire.” When the Emergency ended and the British left Malaya, some of the resettled villagers returned to where they had been moved from, while others simply removed the barbed wire and converted their New Villages into residential towns.

These forced relocations were part of the state of emergency imposed by the colonial government in June 1948, in response to the MCP’s armed insurrection that had begun earlier that year. The government’s tactics are described in Singapore: A Biography (National Museum of Singapore / Editions Didier Millet, 2009) by Mark R. Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow as “reviving its prewar security measures (raids, arrests, deportations and the banning of publications and films deemed seditious) and throwing in a few extra ones (in particular, detention without trial). To the authorities, such measures appeared justified in the face of the violence that swept across Malaya, as communist insurgents directed their attacks against colonial military and police personnel.”

Despite the failure of peace talks between the MCP, Singapore, and Malaya in Baling, Kedah, in 1955, the movement lost steam after Malaya won independence in 1957—removing the anti-imperialist justification for their actions—and the Emergency was declared over in 1960. Many guerrillas remained on the Thai-Malaysia border, from where they launched a second armed struggle in 1968, their numbers boosted by a rise in recruitment following the racialized violence of May 13, 1969, after a general election. By the time Hai Fan joined them several years later, there were over two thousand MCP combatants in the rainforest. 

My fascination with the Malayan Communist Party is at least partly due to the belated nature of my knowledge. Never mind the New Village, I had very little sense of the state of emergency that had taken place a couple of decades before I was born, nor any idea that until I was twelve, a guerrilla war was taking place not very far away from our twice-yearly family visits. I don’t remember any of the adults ever mentioning it, nor any news stories. I don’t think I was a particularly sheltered child; rather, this speaks to the extent to which the rest of society had left the state of emergency behind. For those in the rainforest, the struggle was real. For everyone else, it had become increasingly irrelevant.

I entered the rainforest myself in 2011. Having decided to write a novel about leftist movements and detention without trial in Singapore and Malaysia, I had done all the reading I could on the subject, and spent many hours listening to oral histories in the National Archives of Singapore, only to find this wasn’t enough. Of course there are gaps in any writing project that reading alone will not fill, but the lack was particularly acute in this case because of the extent to which the narrative had been defined by the victors, which made the historical record feel lopsided, only half formed.

My novel, State of Emergency, follows a Singaporean family from the aftermath of the Second World War all the way to the present day, getting caught up in the vast political movements sweeping through the region. Two of the six narrators eventually join the Malayan Communist Party, choosing to enter the rainforest because the leftist struggle is the only future they can imagine for themselves. In order to write their stories, I had to follow in their footsteps to the extent that I was able, trying to see the insurrection from their perspective rather than that of the official government narrative.  

My journey wasn’t particularly well-organized. I set off knowing only roughly where the former guerrillas lived—by the early 1980s, the comrades had split over ideological differences into two factions: the Communist Party of Malaysia, who left the rainforest in 1987 and were settled in the “friendship villages,” and the Communist Party of Malaya, who held out till 1989 and were now in the “peace villages.” But all the instructions I could find about how to get to the villages involved driving, a skill I have never acquired. 

After trying and failing to persuade car-owning friends to come with me, I got a bus from Ipoh, Perak, to Betong, a smallish town with a (fortunately for me) significant Mandarin-speaking population. After a lunch of noodles at a roadside stand, the sort where a giant wok sizzles nonstop nearby and amazing food arrives at your table in a scratched melamine bowl, I wandered the main street asking in shops how I could get up into the hills. Finally, someone in the market said she knew someone else who had to make a delivery to one of the friendship villages, if I could just wait a short while. 

Half an hour later, I was riding pillion on a motorbike up a steep hill track, wavering between exhilaration and terror (we were swaying perilously, and the rider who’d agreed to take me hadn’t had a spare helmet). The friendship village was less than an hour from Betong, a serene enclave of low wooden buildings and vegetable fields carved out of the surrounding rainforest. With tremendous luck, I learned there were other visitors: a professor from China had arrived with his assistants to record some oral histories. I asked if I could gate-crash their interviews, and so that evening, instead of my original non-plan of walking around and chatting with any comrades I encountered, I found myself sitting at a large rectangular table in an open-air shed (just a roof, no sides), listening as the former guerrillas talked about their lives back in the day.

The broad outlines of what they mentioned were familiar to me from other accounts, but there were details I could not have otherwise known—the forms of torture inflicted during the various “sufan”/ 肃反 counterrevolutionary campaigns of accusations and interrogations that often led to torture and even executions; the pain caused by ideological divides; their complicated feelings about the legacy of Chin Peng, the former MCP leader. The comrades displayed no regret at having spent years, even decades, in a struggle that ultimately failed. It was worth the attempt, and they had made a difference, they insisted, particularly to the local villagers, who came to rely on them. “When we told them we were leaving,” one ex-guerrilla said, “they clung to us and wept.”

I spent several days at the only guest accommodation available, a hotel in the middle of one of the villages, slightly down-at-heel but comfortable and clean. The meals were invariably delicious, mostly consisting of vegetables from the fields. At one of these, I asked the lady who’d brought out the food who actually owned the hotel, and she looked at me incredulously. “It belongs to all of us,” she said, shaking her head at my capitalist indoctrination.

Afterwards, I thought about trying to make my way over the hills to the peace villages, where another group of former guerrillas resided. But I was running out of time and money, and I had enough material for the moment. I needed to get back to Singapore to write my novel. I could always come back if I needed to, I thought, and of course I never did. If I were writing a novel about this research trip, I’d probably have made myself unknowingly retrace Hai Fan’s footsteps two decades after his departure, but life is seldom that symmetrical. Rather, it was in a peace village, one of the ones I failed to visit, that Hai Fan spent the years from 1989 to 1992. 

Choosing to enter the rainforest is serious business. One of the stories in Delicious Hunger has a father reluctantly bidding his son farewell just before he joins up: “You chose your own road. I can’t tell you that you’re doing the wrong thing, serving the People. Which family hasn’t suffered in our New Village? The ‘State of Emergency’ and May 13 Incident. Our lives are cheap as dogs and pigs.” At the same time, a sense of joy permeates the book; the title story has two men reminiscing about how, just before entering the rainforest, they enjoyed a final civilian meal at the newly opened Kentucky Fried Chicken (which would place this in 1973, when Malaysia’s first KFC opened on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in Kuala Lumpur), excited for the adventure ahead of them.

The existence of this volume owes much to the Malaysian novelist Li Zi Shu, who got in touch with Hai Fan in order to research her own novel on the Malayan Emergency. He gave her a copy of What the Rainforest Told You, and she was struck by its vividness and style, unlike any other Magong literature she’d come across. She urged him to keep writing—only he could tell these stories, she insisted—and introduced him to an editor at Sin Chew Jit Poh, a national newspaper that would later publish some of his writing. With this encouragement, Hai Fan set aside his other subjects, and chose to devote all his attention to capturing his time in the rainforest.

In his writing, Hai Fan vividly evokes the material reality of life in the rainforest, from moments of extremity (comrades felled by enemy fire or maimed by land mines) to more quotidian times (the regular business of chores and sentry duty, foraging for medicinal herbs, the paucity of hygiene supplies). Reading his account of the comrades growing crops in forest clearings, I recalled the neat rows of vegetables I had seen in the friendship village. In the afterword to What the Rainforest Told You, Hai Fan talks about how the comrades would bury rations to be dug up at a later date, and how the words he wrote while in the rainforest similarly lay dormant, to be excavated decades later for revision and publication.

When I began pitching to translate Delicious Hunger to publishers, I included a description of the book in which I provided some context for the historical period. I shared this with Hai Fan, and he wrote back with some corrections: I was wrong to talk about the Communists’ “surrender,” he told me; no one surrendered, but rather a peace treaty was signed between the Thai government, the Malaysian government, and MCP. Also, could I please not refer to the Communist “insurgency”? It was a movement. I made the changes, of course, reflecting on how easy it was to slip into the language of the dominant narrative, how the word choices that come naturally are those of the mainstream, and are not necessarily appropriate for voices from the periphery. 

Later, I would learn that I was not the first to be careless in my use of words. In 1989, the BBC stated in a radio segment that the MCP had laid down their arms and surrendered. Recalling this incident in What the Rainforest Told You, Hai Fan writes, “After I sternly chastised them, they offered a ‘correction’ and ‘apology’ for their erroneous reporting.” In this case, though, Hai Fan was more irate at the idea that the comrades had merely “laid down” their arms, rather than destroying them utterly, as per the conditions of the peace treaty.

Translating contested narratives requires a certain amount of vigilance, in order not to thoughtlessly adopt the lexicon defined by the dominant powers—“riot” instead of “protest,” “Communist bandit” instead of “guerrilla.” Even in the course of working on this essay, I learned from the editors that Nadine Chan’s piece in this Notebook deals with the distinction between the words “rainforest” and “jungle” in the context of the Malayan Emergency, with the latter term being “a discursive naming practice intended to signify the removal of the forest from civilization and society” and so a part of “how Malaya’s tropical rainforest became visualized as and through a hermeneutics of violence.” This made me think about my own use of “jungle” in this translation; I realized that Hai Fan had been fairly consistent in his use of “雨林,” literally “rainforest,” and perhaps I should be too. (雨 is “rain” and 林 is “forest.” I am fond of both characters, which look like the phenomena they describe.)

I eventually secured a contract to translate Delicious Hunger for Tilted Axis Press (forthcoming in 2024) and finished the bulk of it during the pandemic, holed up in my New York apartment. I’d always been introverted, but now I found myself not going outdoors for days at a stretch, feeling fortunate to have somewhere safe to be and the ability to work from home. Plugging away at my desk, looking out over the city as my cat glared balefully at me from her windowsill perch, I thought about how the comrades were hardly ever alone. No matter what they did in the rainforest—planting crops, going on patrol, working in camp—there were always other people around.

I’d previously returned to Singapore once or twice a year, but now I was cut off. At least I’d managed to see Hai Fan on my pre-pandemic trips—it would have been harder if we’d never met. I emailed him questions about his work, and celebrated with him each time we got a story published in a journal, but we didn’t have another real conversation until I’d convinced myself it was once again safe to travel long distances, and flew back in the summer of 2023. We met for coffee, and he produced from his bag a chunk of resin from the meranti tree—the comrades had used these as fuel, and I’d asked him clarifying questions about what exactly they’d looked like. Now he could show me. He’d found it during a walk, he said. Other people might have walked right past without noticing it, but thanks to his time in the rainforest, he was much more aware of his surroundings. 

I happened to be back just as Hai Fan’s first novel, A Rear View of the Rainforest (雨林的背影, Got One Publisher, 2023), was being published. At one of the launch events, an audience member asked him whether he’d ever regretted his decision to enter the rainforest. No, he said, and he could break this into three stages: while actually inside, he could have walked out and surrendered anytime, but he stayed till the very end, never going back on his choice; later, having returned to Singapore, he looked around at his peers who’d stayed behind, and thought they were doing no better than he was, despite having remained in capitalist society; and now, as a successful author, what could he possibly have to regret?

One of the first novels I ever translated was Yeng Pway Ngon’s Unrest (骚动), which follows four individuals from their idealistic involvement as teenagers in the leftist movement of the 1950s to jaded middle age. This process filled in many gaps for me—having come of age after Singapore had switched completely to English-language education, I had no real experience of the Chinese school system that these student revolutionaries went through. Translating Unrest shaped the strand of State of Emergency in which a Chinese-educated woman falls in love with an English-educated civil servant, the tension in this mixed marriage standing in for a fault line in Singapore society. And in turn, the research I undertook while writing State of Emergency served as unwitting preparation to translate Hai Fan’s work, which will almost certainly influence my own future writing, and so forth.

I took the epigraph for State of Emergency from Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History, in Harry Zohn’s translation: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” The “one single catastrophe” that for Benjamin is the whole of history feels consistent with Hai Fan’s conception of the struggle as worthwhile in and of itself, whether or not it achieved its aims—better to have tried to change an uncaring world, than simply accepting it. For all that the promised revolution never materialized, Hai Fan’s decision to join the struggle was of far more consequence than anything I have ever done, as are the books he is now writing about his time in the rainforest.

Translating Hai Fan’s work has helped me to understand the living of a life devoted to a higher cause, not as an abstract concept but by seeking community and working together with others to bring about a better world. Shortly before the signing of the peace treaty, Hai Fan wrote a poem containing the lines “Who would have thought / Your shoulders, just two feet wide / Could bear the weight of a half century of storms?” Such strength is drawn from solidarity. By not only describing the world that is but also drawing our attention to the revolutionary possibilities of the world that could be, Hai Fan sounds a call to arms destabilizing the established narratives we are in thrall to, and so creates a state of emergency of his own.