VISUAL artist Wong Hoy Cheong is probably Malaysia’s most internationally-renowned modern cultural export. While a fixture on the biennial — or repeating art exhibitions — circuit, he has nevertheless continued to make work deeply engaged with the Malaysian context.
Take his Vitrine of Contemporary Events, for example. Made in 1999, post-Reformasi, the work is an illuminated showcase of judge’s wigs and police batons — fashioned out of cow dung. Or Re:Looking, a video work and installation that explores an alternate reality in which Austria is a former Malaysian colonial possession.
On 24 Aug 2009, The Nut Graph sat down with Wong to find out where he came from, why he does what he does, and where he thinks we should be going.
TNG: We are all pendatangs. Where are you from? What do you know about your lineage?
My father grew up in Perak. His family was from small towns like Sungai Siput and Sitiawan, and they were rubber tappers. During the war, after my father had been imprisoned four times by the Japanese, he came to Penang. Someone recommended him to my maternal grandmother. That’s how my parents met.
My mother is fourth-generation Malaysian, at least. My maternal grandfather was Peranakan. To my knowledge they’ve always been in Penang; outside of it, I’ve no idea where our origins are.
We weren’t the type of family that was concerned with lineage: we threw away our ancestral tablets when we moved from Penang to Kuala Lumpur. Why should we bother, my parents said.
So you were born and bred in Penang?
One story of my coming into existence: when my parents went marketing one day, they heard crying in a vegetable basket.
My parents liked to tell me these stories, because I was nakal as a boy. I remember being so rude to my grandmother, once, that she walked out of the house. Even now, my mother will tell nurses at the hospital — she isn’t well — that her youngest son was picked up from a drain.
The truth is that I was born in a maternity ward in Georgetown on 5 June 1960.
What was growing up like?
I had a great childhood. Our house was on a slope, with a Penang Hill backdrop. The kids from the neighbourhood used to go into the forest to look for streams and catch guppies.
I remember 1969. We were told to leave school, and my uncle came to get me. He was so anxious he drove on the curb.
I didn’t know what was happening, but I was very excited. We were given pots and pans and ladles, and told that if anyone came to the house, we were to bang them together. It wasn’t a horrible week, for me. This is bad to say, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was as if the movies have come true.
When did you first become aware of race?
In Form Six, when I was 17, I left for America. I would spend 10 years there. I was privileged to go to the Northeast: the most uptight and Left part of the United States. That was in the late 1970s, when Carter was still president.
It was there that I learnt that I was Chinese: a native, the Other. I was told I was Chinese. So I studied Chinese politics and history, and the language. It didn’t capture my imagination.
In Penang, I thought I was Robinson Crusoe. I grew up race-less, in a way. In primary, I was always competing with my classmate Khalid for the best results; in Penang Free School, all the top students were Malay [Malaysian]. My parents never talked about race.
So you studied in the US.
I admire kids who know what they want to do.
I had no idea — except that I wanted to go abroad. I applied for Biochemistry, then I wanted to do Architecture and Urban Studies. Finally I settled on an English major, with a focus on critical theory. In grad school I did Education.
It was still the post-Vietnam generation in the US: things like Nicaragua and Chile occupied us. I was quite involved in student unions. I remember, one time, the students taking over the university’s administration building.
But you ended up back in Malaysia. Did you always plan to return?
I wasn’t going to. I decided to come back on a holiday in the mid-1980s, to check out the scene.
I found an emerging arts and performing culture. Also, through my friends, I found out about the emerging non-governmental organisations of the time. It was quite exciting, reading the newspapers. There was a breath of fresh air. This was before (Tun Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad) had full power.
I gave myself two years. It became more than that.
Within a year of being back, Operasi Lalang happened. A bunch of us started a support group, which became Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram). In the 1999 general election, I was Dr Syed Husin Ali’s campaign manager for the Petaling Jaya Selatan constituency.
A significant portion of your art practice is focused on Malaysian socio-political issues. Why is that?
I started out as an abstract expressionist — but I found it was not something I could continue doing; I felt the form went nowhere. I started referring to the social realists of the 1930s — they became the people who inspired and influenced my work.
Then, subsequently, I realised that I was Malaysian. On a trip around the country, soon after my return, I learnt a lot. I saw that there was income disparity between the rich and poor, between the Malay and Chinese [Malaysian] communities. A Charles Hirschman paper on poverty in Malaysia really affected me.
I really wanted to come back to see how I could contribute to understanding this country, and be part of moving ahead.
And art was an avenue to do so.
I also wanted to teach in a public university — but I was rejected seven times.
I felt sad that my desire to work was not accepted, but a lot of people who wanted to contribute were also not given the chance. I think we were seen as people who could destabilise normality.
I saw education as a means of transformation. In arts education, especially, this doesn’t have to be political. Helping students just to see the world in a new way can liberate them. When I taught in private colleges I did not introduce politics at all, unless it was in answer to a question from a student.
How involved are you, these days?
I’m still seen as a didactic Malaysian political artist. But now I’m less embroiled in Malaysian politics. I’m interested in excavating other issues, issues that are not necessarily inside Malaysia. Because of globalisation, my interests have broadened.
For the 2007 Istanbul Biennial, I made a video work about the gypsy community in Istanbul. My latest art project, for the Lyon Biennal, looks at immigrant populations. Working on that project I learnt about a whole parallel African society in Damansara Damai: they have their own restaurants and cultural centres.
What are your hopes for Malaysia, looking ahead?
There are so many things I wish Malaysia could be.
The Africans I worked with told me that, when they enter a bus, Malaysians tend to hold their noses. It’s ironic that we treat new migrants as a bad influence, when we belong to that same history. The trade winds have always brought different peoples to this finger of land.
I don’t mean there should be homogeneity. The Malay language, for example, shows how absorbent, how myriad a culture we can have. Trying to purify it is completely pointless, to me.
I hope we stop gazing at each other as Others. That we adopt a humanism that tries to transcend petty racial issues. I wish that the parallel worlds in Malaysia would intersect.
The Nut Graph needs your support.