A transliteration from Hokkien to Bahasa Indonesia, kang ouw means ‘rivers and lakes’ or jianghu (江湖) in Mandarin. The series inquires the imageries in wuxia films that Widjaja grew up watching in the 1980s through bootleg VHS tapes. They were officially banned in Indonesia during President Suharto’s New Order regime (1966 - 98), a period of systemic suppression of Chinese culture.
2022. Solo exhibition at the Esplanade Tunnel, Singapore. Curated by Lynda Tay. In-kind support by ShanghART Singapore. Singapore Art Week program.
2018-19. Solo exhibition at ShanghART Singapore. Supported by the National Arts Council. Singapore Art Week program.
2018. Solo exhibition at the Peninsula Shopping Centre, Singapore, I_S_L_A_N_D_S. Curated by Tan Pey Chuan. Singapore Art Week program.
2013. Group exhibition at 13 Wilkie Terrace, Singapore. Curated by Yen Phang.
BW: My initial impulse to draw reference from the story《侠客行》came from an unexpected amnesia. Whenever I thought of 《侠客行》, I would see a still from the titular 1989 TV series starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and hear a narrator say the title, without knowing where or when I saw it. Having not watched the series, I was intrigued by the unlocated video memory and went to find out more. Similar to your online experience, I was not able to find much on 《侠客行》at first, but that changed when I started Googling in Chinese; the internet transformed dramatically into a kaleidoscopic resource.
Chief Editor Christina J. Chua speaks to artist Boedi Widjaja on dislocation, memory, and the persistence of history.
I reread a diary entry I produced for Boedi Widjaja’s exhibition at I_S_L_A_N_D_S art space three years ago. The show was tucked away in an unexpected corner of a zombie mall called Peninsula Plaza. Even now, the feelings still arise. I recently watched the controversial updated version of Mulan on Disney+, and it still triggered the same thoughts. The experience of a family and a home is so deeply lodged in our hearts and minds, and the narratives that are woven into those formative memories — however trivial — are inextricable from one’s adult identity.
Boedi’s work harkens back to these generational reflections, but never in a straightforward manner. He works with detailed rubbings and pencil drawings, installations, video and sound, recomposing the interlaced threads of his heritage and his hybridity. The artist weaves a wide net, sifting through how these memories are codified and interconnected — whether through our very DNA, our language and distinct dialects we may have adopted as children, inherited familial tokens (our names) objects (books, journals, photographs), or belief systems, superstitions, and the political ideologies that have profoundly shifted our families’ journeys.
Pey Chuan: Whereas in previous iterations of of Imaginary Homeland, you shift between drawing and photography, here you have turned your focus toward film and literature. Could you tell us more about the Indonesian author, Asmaran S. Kho Ping Hoo and his serialised novels, which serve as the inspiration behind this work?
Boedi: I got to know about Kho Ping Hoo a few years ago from my uncle (not the cinephile) when he bought me a few of KPH’s cersil series (cersil is an abbreviation of cerita silat in Bahasa Indonesia, which refers to martial arts novels). It was the books’ format that first caught my eye — each measured 10cm by 14cm, about 5mm thick, and printed on newsprint, they don’t look like your typical wuxia novel.Later, I learnt that KPH was a popular (perhaps the most popular) cersil writer in Indonesia of his time. He was born in Sragen (which happened to be my mother’s hometown), and had taken on various jobs in different cities before establishing his reputation as a cersil writer in Tasikmalaya, a town near Jakarta, between 1958–1964. His life was marked by political chaos, enduring the Japanese invasion in 1942, the pro-independence battle of Surabaya in 1945, and in 1963, lost all he had in a racially motivated riot before moving to Solo City the year after.
KPH had started writing wuxia stories in order to attract readership for a literary magazine he founded during his time in Tasikmalaya. In contrast to some of his peers who also translated foreign wuxia stories, KPH’s oeuvre was mostly made up of original stories. He didn’t understand Mandarin and had supposedly relied on wuxia films (most likely subtitled in Bahasa Indonesia) as reference. An interesting time-based technique that he used was how a series would lead to another, with different characters who existed as sin tong (a transliteration of 神童 from Hokkien in Bahasa Indonesia) ‘growing up’ from childhood to adulthood across the different series. It has been speculated that his stories were partly autobiographical, as a way of describing his own wandering life amidst political chaos.
“...imagined changeless China held enormous appeal to ethnic Chinese audiences around the world. They found in Shaw Brothers films a China forever in the midst of all the political turmoil and personal displacements and with which they could continue to identify despite their life in the diaspora.”
Wuxia had its antecedents in Shanghai silent films in the 1920s, adapting and experimenting with the West’s advances in camera trickery and cinematic special effects to produce strange fantasies. Though the genre was propelled by technological advances, it ironically drew a backlash from the authorities for being feudalistic and anti-scientific, purveying immoral values of superstition and sex. By the mid 1930s, censorship and war brought the drastic decline of Shanghai’s film industry, causing many filmmakers to flee to British colony Hong Kong.
In the 1960s, a new cycle of Wuxia films was introduced by the Hong Kong cinema industry. In 1965, Shaw Brothers Studio trumpeted the “new Wuxia century”, and was a key producer of Wuxia films in the 1960s and 1970s. The studio had a markedly transnational strategy right from its beginnings. It originated in Unique Film Productions, founded in Shanghai, 1924. In the same year, Shaw Organisation was set up in Singapore to capture the Southeast Asian market, which they did with spectacular success. By 1939 they owned 139 cinemas across Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Indochina; and by the 1970s, the chain had grown to 230 to include the territories of Japan, Australia and North America.
Since the 1920s, the diasporic audience that Shaw Brothers films played to spoke diverse dialects. As decades passed, latter diasporic generations were more disparate in their backgrounds and worldviews, and may not even speak their ancestors’ language. Their memories of homeland were received traditions mish-mashed with new constructions such as the imageries seen in Wuxia films. The latter had to satisfy an increasingly broader spectrum of audience.
“I make movies to satisfy the desires and hopes of my audience…They miss the homeland they have left behind and the cultural tradition they are still cherishing,” Run Run Shaw pointedly spoke of Shaw Brothers’ production strategy. It was a looping relationship. Shaw Brothers produced what their initial diasporic audience wanted – a dream homeland – and these imageries of dehistoricised space and time gradually supplanted the real geography that was left behind.
Circulating through diasporic spaces, wuxia films were mnemonic material, projections of history, fantasies, traditions and ideals that indulged the nostalgia of the diaspora. Globally popular, “the genre itself can be said to be schizophrenic”1, responding to trends and mutations, crossing over media, from literature to cinema to television and video games. Wuxia has been discussed in various contexts, including historicism, nationalism, transnationalism and orientalism2.
Although wuxia films are characterised by period settings, they are often de-historicised and hence anachronistic. Equally problematic is the sense of place in Wuxia. The geography of Wuxia is un-located, and its form relies much on diasporic fantasy. Cinematically, it is achieved through the technique of fragmentary spatial collage. Diasporic cinema academic Poshek Fu described Shaw Brothers3 films as capturing the “many geographies of a place, functioning as both medium and outcome of ‘splintering, colliding, and merging’ geographies of a place.”4
In the instance of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, director Lee Ang admitted that the cinematic place of the film existed only in “his boyhood fantasies”5; conceived in the deep recesses of personal and cultural memory. The un-located geography of wuxia is nonetheless felt, believed and culturally occupied by the diaspora.