Have you ever wondered how you ended up someplace? Some people believe in Fate and Destiny, some people believe in Chance. Zhuang Wubin believes that our lived experience is not by design, stemming from a pondering over alternative histories. Starting from his own experience of being Chinese, Zhuang’s research on the ethnic Chinese communities in small towns and rural areas of Southeast Asia is inspired by his grandfather’s meandering journey from China ending in his settling in Singapore, as well as political scientist Mary Somers Heidhues’ caution that legitimacy of belonging is threatened by the lack of recorded history pertaining to such migrant Chinese communities in these parts of Southeast Asia. Taking her caution as a starting point, Zhuang collects and aestheticises the stories of rural Chinese communities to preserve them.
Small-Town Stories is a project started in 2010 intended to reflect the artistic medium of photography while contributing to fill a gap in recorded knowledge. Travelling to small towns and rural areas in Southeast Asia, Zhuang collects and visualises the stories of people belonging to various Chinese communities he encounters, documenting the lesser-known narratives of being Chinese in Southeast Asia to highlight the plurality of Chinese identity in the region. Exhibitions of his ongoing project include the portraits and depictions of the life of his sitters, captions providing a short biographic description of his sitters or description of the image, and reconstructed pages of his fieldnotes – their characteristic immediacy creating an intimacy between viewers, the artist, and his subject as they contain Zhuang’s reflections while on his journeys.
Selection of exhibition photographs. Medium: Archival D-Print on Hahnemühle Museum Etching Matt Fine Art Paper. Dimensions: 20 x 18 inches, unframed. Photos courtesy of the artist.
As an artist, his use of film photography results in the creation of photographs that have a timeless quality to serve the visualisation and aestheticisation of the histories of these Sinophone communities. Zhuang uses a 1950’s Rolleiflex Automat K4A – a camera that slows the artist’s work process, giving his sitters the opportunity to direct the photographic encounter as well. Zhuang revealed that two of his photographs were born of his desire for a family portrait, however his sitters, who were Muslim Chinese, requested that the familial relationships be photographed separately, in the process sealing a specific depiction of their beliefs and written into visual history. Thus, the photograph is an event; performative of a negotiation between the photographer and the subject, resulting in a product born of the desires and expectations of both the artist and the portrayed subject.
Zhuang’s work is interpretive in nature, because for him, it is less about establishing historical truth, and more about imagining the past.
At the heart of his recent exhibition at Yeo Workshop is a metal box, filled with photographs and artefacts collected on his travels through these regions. Referred to as a “portable museum”, it is a vessel for Zhuang’s project, illuminating the rich history of photography and Sinophone communities in Southeast Asia. The selection of contents in the box itself is eclectic, comprising several of his own photographs and their accompanying captions, old photographs from flea markets, wedding invitations, and other artefacts that contextualise his photography of ethnic Chinese in the small towns of Southeast Asia.
Wubin’s “portable museum” contains original photos as well as photos that the artist picked up at various rural flea markets along his travels. Ticket receipts, wedding invitation cards and visiting cards are also amongst the curious treasured finds in the box.
Examining the contents of the box reveals its intent as a contextual key to the thrust of Zhuang’s artistic practice and research – his “portable museum” is a material representation of the complexity and plurality of the narrative of Chinese identity in Southeast Asia. To this end, the artist chooses consciously to avoid reference to modern national boundaries in his description of locations, thus bringing forth the notion of fluidity across borders to highlight the diversity in migratory experiences and being Chinese in Southeast Asia.
The situation of Zhuang’s work in the contemporary is intentional, as the definition of contemporary describes the simultaneous existence of many things – in this context, experiences of being Chinese in Southeast Asia. Perceiving his work as contemporary art is a persuasive way to recognise the diversity of Chinese migratory experiences, and evoke a comparison between realities.
Beyond the exhibition, Zhuang’s work has important anthropological consequences. Given a choice, how would we identify ourselves? If local definitions of being “local” exclude being Chinese, the communities that Zhuang seeks may choose not to identify themselves as such. It is through local knowledge of which members of society have Chinese heritage that informs Zhuang’s fieldwork. Labels in their denotative and connotative nature have the ability to discriminate and obscure. They serve to signify and highlight certain aspects of identity, and imply whole social realities in their selective use.
Being Chinese himself, Zhuang recognises that had his grandfather migrated to Manila, or Surabaya, instead of Singapore, his reality of being Chinese would be very different, highlighted by the use of different labels, such as “Chinoy” in Manila, to mark Chinese identity in countries where they are not the majority.
Small-Town Stories is a growing body of Zhuang’s art and research, looking beyond what is familiar, expanding horizons, writing into history stories previously untold, and inviting us to ponder our own alternative histories.