Nostromos of Nanyang

All history is political, and all history is suffused with a sense of loss. 兰芳记, The Chronicles of Lanfang, sifts through both. Working with a team of writers and performers, director Choy Ka Fai brings into being a speculative museum of the Republic of Lanfang (兰芳公司), an 18th-19th century Hakka Chinese settlement in what is now Indonesian Borneo. The piece can be explored as a museum site alone, and there are also performed tours of the museum.

The Lanfang Republic was a real place, and there is a serious argument to consider it a small state with a population of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, depending on the time, and how you count. (For example, the wikipedia page points out only ethnic Chinese had voting rights in presidential elections. Without disputing major race discrimination was going on, the territory of the republic was probably not clearly controlled at borders in the modern sense, either.) The settlement existed because of, and the economy was dominated by, a nearby gold mine. It’s a fascinating moment in time, and the musuem setup includes archival material and books like Yuan Bingling’s intriguingly titled Chinese Democracies for those that want to follow up further.

The exhibits, and the performances, hold up artifacts to the light for us to see. This ranges from historical, to speculative, to impossible-but-thematic. A photo of a Chinese merchants Dayak wife, and her son; with a note that Dayak women were bought with a dowry. As well as conventional monogamy and traditional multi-wife polygamy, the massive gender disparity on the gold fields also spawned other relationships: like multiple miners pooling their funds to match the scarce erotic capital of a single Dayak wife, who would be free to sleep with other men or buy her way out of the marriage.

The speculative De Groot Collection organizes reconstructed artifacts into a museum tour. The curator/actor relates a timeline around the artifacts linking it to more familiar events in consensus history like the Napoleonic Wars or the abdication of Qianlong 乾隆帝. There’s a beautiful momentum to Ng Yi-sheng’s speech, though the inclusion of Luo Fang Bo’s mythical crocodile harnesses in the collection derailed it slightly for me. Choy Ka Fai is interested in obscured history, he tells us in the performance prologue, but undersignalled mythology obscures it further.

The short documentaries, The Man Who Rode Crocodiles, and Insignificant Landscapes, are meditations on emptiness and ruin, using locations tied to the republic. This whole piece isn’t just about the history, or else it would be a museum exhibit. The films are more about showing an absence, which is harder than it sounds.

A small number of artifacts, like the banknote at the top of the post, are from a parallel present that never existed. I have a weakness for these. They taunt me to see if I can pay with Luofang yuan (LFY) when booking tickets for the upcoming test match between the Confederate States of America and the Republic of Kashmir.

Parts of this piece have been staged once before at the Singapore Art Musuem, but it is sited now at the Ying Fo Fui Kun Cemetry 应和会馆墓. It’s an evocative place, founded by Hakka from the same Chinese prefecture as those that founded Lanfang Kongsi, three years later. Two short solo performances make a great theatrical use of the space. Epic Poems of the Kongsi War, in the form of a Malay family history, has a particular strength. The explicit performances give the actors the freedom to use full hysterical throttle as required. For the more curatorial pieces, it’s harder to strike the appropriate tone. This isn’t Banksy upending institutional hypocrisy with postmodern untruth, after all, unless I’ve misread the intent entirely. To reveal obscured history, I wonder if it might have been simpler to get a grad student from one of the local history departments involved as a guide, if harder to coach for a broad audience.

These are minor points. I spent the afternoon exploring the remnants of a republic founded a year after the United States declared independence, with the population of classical Athens, that lasted for a hundred years, but was convenient for people to forget. The study of the classics, Mary Beard recently wrote, is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. Sometimes antiquity happens very quickly.

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