Christina J. Chua is a writer from Singapore. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the National University of Singapore in 2013. After years of living out of a suitcase, her affinities divided between the urban and the islands of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, she finally returned to root herself in Singapore in 2017.
She survives her memories by writing a poem every day and cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude and generosity. While working on her debut novel on generational trauma, travel, and faith, Christina took some time to pen this personal response to Boedi Widjaja's presentation, "Imaginary homeland: kang ouw (一)" (17 January–21 February 2018).
I sat close to the glowing cube with my chin in my hands, my eyes filling with tears, as a girl with
hair as black and straight as my own sang into my reflection. She offered me a melodic question:
When will I know my history? When will I know myself?
Her temples and pavilions, the rural land she traversed, the palace she attacked — these were the
features of the motherland I perceived. And although it was a caricature, a mere line drawing, it
seemed to be true. The television transposed my vision, and thus expanded it beyond the borders
of an island whose Chinese immigrants’ skins had tanned under the Pacific sun, as they worked
the sugarcane plantations. Here on my island, I knew that Chinatown was a place for Sunday dim
sum and the lonesome homeless with their shopping carts. I knew that my mother could still find
the ingredients she needed to cook teo chew porridge in a specialty supermarket of some
estranged Western nomenclature, Ranch 99. Here, I had memorised the songs that Disney had
strung together to voice a lowly replacement or substitution, or even a distant longing for what I
thought, was China.
My Beijing-born grandmother was given a Christian and Western name when she met my
grandfather, the third generation son of Cantonese immigrants to British Guiana. He named her
Ruth, and took it upon himself to redeem her along the lines of the Old Testament narrative. He
discipled her in the faith and taught her a meagre English. Ruth followed him south and away from
the capital, her home, pressured by the onslaught of the Red Army, all the way to Singapore.
I do not know her Mandarin name, and even my mother forgets it too. Perhaps, when wondering
about a girl named Mulan, I wanted to ask her the same questions. When I would fly from Hawaii to
Singapore for an annual visit, Grandma Ruth would only sit in front of another television screen,
staring blankly and battling dementia.
. . .
What, and who is China? How do we remember it, and them? Boedi Widjaja traces the outlines,
the trails of our collective diaspora that have otherwise been obscured in forgetfulness, or by the
gaps that inadvertently occur through cultural (mis)appropriation. His wuxia characters that were
first found in film stills now float in palimpsest under windowpanes, islands that they inhabit as thin
copies, delicate regenerations of our ancestors.
It was not a television drama, though the artist chooses to dramatise the force of migration. They
were thrown elsewhere, and through the dance and clash of swords that elevated them, they were
flung into these straits. We do not want their memories to sink. Even the outlines are important.
While I look for Ruth in Beijing, I think Widjaja looks for his own in Fujian. Their muttered names
are the rich, old alluvion that has washed up in cadence, in sketches and in melody on the shores
of our imagination.