If white could be a state of being, it would be yourself, says Chiang Hsun. Under light and shadow, its true shade sometimes becomes blurry, but it never loses its essence. With that confidence, white in art or in life also means negative space — the void that is at ease when it is not filled, the voice that gives itself the freedom to just be.
Playing in the screw pine (pandan) jungles of Taiwan was a childhood pastime for Chiang Hsun. But he had to be careful; screw pines were sharp and poky, and had a dark folklore dogging its back — the ghost of Sister Lintou clinging to all its swaying leaves. Will the skies clear one day, for the screw pine jungle and for this island too?
For many Chinese, Chinese New Year is a time of warmth and mirth with family and friends, surrounded by delicious goodies, fun and laughter. This year, because of Covid-19, millions across China have not been able to make the trip home because of travel restrictions imposed after a fresh round of coronavirus cases. In fact, the past year has been less than kind to the world in general. How have we responded as individuals? What do we remember, and what would we rather not think about? In this Chinese New Year period, comic artist Bai Yi reminds us to give ourselves credit for making it through another year.
Born in Fujian province in the Republic of China era in the early 20th century, Chiang Hsun’s father was strict and upright to a fault. He left home to join the army at only 14, then meandered across towns and cities, before landing up in Taiwan via the Matsu Islands. Self-disciplined as he was, he let his mind roam free in the books he devoured and in traipsing across the land. As a child, Chiang felt distanced from his austere father. Now, retracing his father’s steps of adventure, he feels close to him at last.
In December 2020, family and friends of Shanghai Book Co Ltd produced a commemorative book of the now-defunct bookstore. Founded in 1925, Shanghai Book Co Ltd played a pivotal role in shaping the consciousness of Chinese-speaking Singaporeans in the 1950s. It was a meeting point of ideas and voices, not only from greater China, but within Southeast Asia. In fact, it had helped to nurture the budding interest of Chinese-speaking young students in Malay language and culture. Teo Han Wue recounts how this bookshop in North Bridge Road, easily stereotyped as Chinese-centric, became instead an emblem of openness and cultural diversity.
Time passes but our memories stand still. If all we want in life is to be understood, how lucky we are if we have someone to see us through our many faces and phases. Even if we part, if we see with our hearts, muses Chiang Hsun, we’re sure to recognise each other when we meet again.
In today’s era, we get instant gratification through a swipe of the phone or a flick of the switch. Could we have done what Tang dynasty wife Wang Baochuan did and waited 18 long years — without phone, wifi or video apps — for her husband Xue Pinggui to return home? Taiwanese art historian Chiang Hsun knows his army wife mother could. It was she who taught him about “Baochuan vegetables”: the stubborn weed of Taiwanese purslane that won’t be stamped out; the pure love that asks for neither company nor reward.
Amid the pandemic that has been ravaging the globe, the year 2020 has come to an end. Young comic artist Bai Yi looks at the world with all its scars battling a virus, the deteriorating environment, the faulty human systems, and the seemingly incomprehensible foolishness displayed by the adults.
Like a song, a place can trigger a memory, an emotion. Preserving little landmarks is akin to preserving the collective memory of a city, says Chiang Hsun. Shared memories, more than any loud declaration, are the cornerstone of a people’s culture, heritage and sense of belonging.