‘Anthropology is what people leave behind. It could be as recent as this morning.’
‘Smugglers are complex human beings.’
To paraphrase this classically trained anthropologist.
One of the photographs in this piece really moved me. There were no people in that photograph, which shows me that this anthropologist is right. Objects move us, but only because of their connection to people.
The anthropologist studies the objects left behind by migrants as they cross the border.
In the late 1800’s, the Neuman family immigrated from England to the fledgeling colony of South Australia. Following a tough beginning, including the loss of their son on the voyage, they eventually took a significant business risk. When they established a plant nursery in a remote area on the outskirts of the city, many considered it madness. Yet it was a huge success, attracting customers from all over Adelaide to purchase plants.
I hiked into the area recently to view the old ruins of the homestead. Isolated tracks such as Perseverance Rd and Torture Hill reflect the challenging setting. In the remote location, I found it difficult to imagine a thriving business. And then I noticed clusters of tiny orchids growing amidst the native flora, seeded from plants of previous generations.
BY THEOPHILUS KWEK Over 400,000 Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar since August, the latest episode in a cycle of conflict and displacement that has afflicted the predominantly Muslim community. …
Writer and researcher Theophilus Kwek points out that despite Singapore’s size, the island provided ‘immediate rescue’ to over 32,000 Vietnamese refugees from 1978 to 1996, on the condition that they were repatriated or resettled within 90 days.
In today’s context, Kwek suggests that Singapore could provide short-term territorial asylum, receive unaccompanied minors, or allow Rohingya to work in Singapore, a country heavily reliant on foreign labour. Neighbouring Malaysia is giving 3-year work permits for Rohingya to work in certain sectors, as Jordan is doing for highly skilled Syrian refugees.
What happens when you interview a 1987 Literature and Finance graduate from Xiamen University for your book? Well, you get a long reading list.
Josie (not her real name) was born in 1965, a year before Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. Recalling her childhood, she tells me that the only entertainment people had at the time were eight state-sanctioned plays. Her opinion about these plays?
‘Boring!’ she says, definitively.
As a result of this intellectual deprivation, an underground network of readers emerged. People would hide banned books, read them in secret, and circulate them among like-minded friends. Books were so rare and precious that each reader could only have a book for a short time. In order to be able to reread the texts, Josie and her mother used to copy books by hand.
‘What sort of books did you copy?’ I ask.
‘Books that reflect human nature, human love, human feelings, because we were sick of political books. French classics: Camellia,’ says Josie.
From 1981 to 1987, Josie studied Chinese Literature and Finance at university. After graduating, she worked at the People’s Bank of China before flying to Perth to study English in 1990. She eventually settled in Australia as a political refugee.
As much as the first part of her story is astounding for the breadth of her reading, the second part is astounding for her business acumen. I could not have made up the story of how she moved from working on less than minimum wage to owner of not one, but two, small businesses.
I then ask Josie what she thought about the current unease over major Australian political parties receiving donations from Chinese businesses. Her reaction is swift and far more emphatic than what I had expected, ‘They should NOT! These politicians do not care where this money comes from, and Australia should guard her sovereignty.’
I had thought that Literature and Finance was an unusual combination, but after hours of reading the books Josie read, and hours spent writing her story, it dawns upon me that literature and finance is a great combination because it teaches you that money comes with story.
It matters where money comes from and how it is acquired. It matters because money is used to shape the future. This is a problematic thought when so much of the Australian economy is dependant on the Chinese dollar, and more broadly, when money moves fluidly around the world as if it is a neutral agent.
After my interview last week with a Syrian refugee, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books I could find on Syria. One of the books I borrowed was The morning they came for us by Janine Di Giovanni.
A seasoned war correspondent, Di Giovanni, first visited Syria in May 2012, as the country teetered on a precipice. Having described the hotel Dama Rose where she and many other UN workers lived, she moves on, in Chapter Two, to the story of young Nada, who used Facebook and Twitter to broadcast messages from the opposition. One morning, the police came for her. Her parents watch on, horrified.
Nada’s prison experience, and more broadly, the sexual violation of women in the Syrian war, is heart-rending to read. I feel my body bracing itself for the next sentence, and the next. It is as if I am holding my breath. It is as if I cannot breathe normally. What are the men going to do next?
It is so nauseating that I stop reading after Chapter Two and try to forget what I have read. I try to focus instead on onions sizzling in the pot. I look out of my kitchen window and admire the vegetable garden I have planted. I take pleasure in the way the tomatoes have been staked, the way the beans peep out from beneath heart-shaped leaves, and the bright orange marigolds in this riot of green.
It is human to create, and the work of creation takes skill, effort, concentration, time. What has been created takes only an instant to destroy. War destroys, decimates, dehumanises.
Di Giovanni writes, ‘The lowest depth that a human being can reach is to perform or to receive torture. The goal of the torturer is to inflict horrific pain and dehumanise another being…How does someone return to the human race after having been so brutalised?’
What is it like to try to return from that place of war, to try to rebuild a life? That is the question I am trying to answer. After three years interviewing refugees and writing their stories, I am not even sure it is ethical to ask about war experiences because the question so often causes pain. My focus is increasingly on how refugees rebuild their lives and on the people who help them. I hope it is a gentler and more productive approach.
Earlier this year, I stopped to read a commemorative board by a sandy footpath leading to Chapman’s Bar at Emerald Bay on Pangkor Laut. I learnt that the bar was named after Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British soldier who remained in Malaya and led a resistance force against the Japanese during World War II. Chapman recounted his experience in the book, The Jungle is Neutral.
With a jolt of excitement, I remember the book. I particularly remember Chapman’s description of laying explosives on a train line, running back into cover (rubber plantation or jungle I cannot recall), and watching the bomb tear apart a trainload of Japanese soldiers.
Toward the end of 1941, Chapman had travelled against the flow of retreating British soldiers in order to train a small group of locals in guerrilla tactics. It is said that Chapman and his men were so effective that the Japanese thought they were facing a British resistance army of 200 men.
Three and a half years later, in May 1945, it was from this same island, Pangkor Laut, that a much weakened Chapman swam out and escaped into a waiting submarine. He made it safely to Ceylon. For the rest of his life, however, Chapman suffered from illnesses picked up from the jungle and was tormented by what he had witnessed during the war.
I have previously written that the British deserted Malaya when the Japanese invaded but now realise that not all the British left. Some chose to stay. Freddy Chapman stayed.
This realisation prompts me to reflect on the conscience that drives the individual. When people disagree with the actions of their elected government, they can choose to act differently. One of the stories in my book is about a family that opens their home to asylum seekers released from Baxter Immigration Detention Facility in South Australia. Their actions bring healing, not only to a young Sri Lankan asylum seeker, but also to themselves.
Politicians and all manner of people in authority purport to speak and act on our behalf. But that doesn’t remove from us the ability to think as individuals, and to choose to act in what we believe is the right spirit.
Since moving away in 2001, I have returned to Malaysia and Singapore each year to spend time with family. As the years passed, I have noticed loved ones growing old, often witnessing one year’s worth of ageing in a single visit. Chinese New Year celebrations this year were tinged with sadness. My uncle and cousins were still in black, mourning the recent passing of their beloved wife and mother.
While I was in Singapore, I read Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Ilyich. Without sentimentality, Tolstoy describes the various stages of pain, panic and depression that beset Ivan as his unnamed disease progresses. It is painful to read, but the most wretched moment is when Ivan realises that he has spent his whole life on things of inconsequence: societal approval, salary increase, house decor. Why had he not instead sought out those rare moments of genuine human connection he had experienced early in life?
So, 2017 has arrived. I have been working on this book for more than three years. I’d like to think that it is very nearly complete. In fact, I printed out all 168 pages today. I am usually miserly with my printer toner; it’s a big step for me. Having given myself the last two and a half weeks off for travel, I will, starting tomorrow, read it through from beginning to end and mark the places where the prose and logic are found wanting. So I continue working toward the hope of publication.
But if I regard my interviews with refugees and migrants primarily as a means to writing a book, would I, like Ivan Ilyich, have focused on professional competence and missed the moments that truly mattered? So I recalibrate my mindset: the journey is about the people first; the book is a by-product. People before projects. Always.