Chinese School Lessons

Solo Exhibition By Green Zeng

27 September - 18 October 2012

In his latest exhibition, Zeng continues his examination of the construction and manipulation of history. This time he turns his attention to the Chinese school student activism of pre- and post-Independent Singapore and the educational reforms affecting Chinese schools.

Presenting a series of blackboards, covered with silk-screened images of Chinese school uniforms, painted flags and texts in English, Chinese, and Malay, Zeng transforms the gallery into a temporary classroom and invites the viewer to join in a lesson discussing the changes in Chinese education and the struggle to retain one's cultural and historical roots amidst the building of a new nation.

The images of familiar Chinese school uniforms and interwoven texts of school mottos, slogans, anthems, and idioms, allude to the strong ideals and ideology of these schools, whilst the inclusion of three languages points to the important role that language plays in forming cultural and national identity. Through a poetic and incisive approach, Zeng encourages the viewer to be actively engaged in the discussion to re-examine the official history of the Chinese student activism and educational reforms in Singapore.


By Eva McGovern

How do we understand national history, our identity within it and the collective generations (including our own) that have shaped it? And within this understanding, how can we challenge, complicate and revise these scripted narratives, to build new ways of reading and remembering complex issues that continue to haunt official propagandas of progress and modernity? These questions fuel the obsessive practice of Green Zeng, an artist who consumes and reconfigures codes and symbols found within the historical trajectories of Singapore. Functioning as a storyteller, artist, filmmaker and subsequent historian, he obsessively researches critical moments of dissonance from the past that have been passed over in official versions of Singapore’s development. In Chinese School Lessons, Zeng selects the Chinese Middle Schools Movement to present a semiotic lesson in language and politics across a group of unique ‘chalk boards’ that fill the gallery space for his latest solo at Chan Hampe Galleries. Combining specific ideas around systems of education, activism and nationhood, this alternative classroom provokes an uncomfortable dialogue around the forgotten histories of Singapore.

Zeng’s visual inspiration first begins with Singapore’s foremost Social Realist painter Chua Mia Tee (b.1936) and his iconic work, National Language Class (1959), now in the collection of the Singapore Art Museum. A Chinese migrant from the Guangdong Province, Chua’s early works reflected the nationalistic aspirations of 1950s Singapore. This was the decade of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), a guerrilla-style, Communist revolt against the British that took place on the peninsular, as well as various anti-colonial actions organised by the Socialists in Singapore. The painting itself depicts a classroom, where young men and women from various classes and language backgrounds sit around a circular table during a Malay language lesson. On the blackboard behind their ethnically Malay teacher, are written two questions in Bahasa: ‘Siapa nama kamu?’ (‘What is your name?’) and ‘Di mana awak tinggal’ (‘Where do you live?’). During that time, it was Malay or Bahasa that was promoted as the lingua franca of the fledgling multiracial nation, which in 1959 had just received internally self- governing status within the Commonwealth, with Lee Kuan Yew as the First Prime Minister. However, rather than a visual revision of the painting, Zeng seizes upon the blackboard and what is written on it to review the politicisation of language and its relationship to identity in a multi-cultural society. These two seemingly innocent questions ‘What is your name?’ and ‘Where do you live?', the first phrases learnt when trying to speak a new language, necessarily allow Zeng a wider platform to open up a dialogue on the social tensions of place.

Zeng’s own blackboards, seen throughout the exhibition, are historically located earlier in the 1950s, during the Chinese Middle Schools Movement. The Chinese High School was founded in 1919 and was the first independent school to cater to different dialect groups among overseas Chinese in the region. It was also a hotbed of Communist-aligned political activity that included political demonstrations and rioting. The most famous of these was the May 13, 1954 protest where 500 Chinese students, reacting against recently enforced militaryconscription against the Malayan Communist Party, clashed with police. Two dozen people were reportedly injured and 50 more were arrested. In the next few days, the students would then barricade themselves inside both Chung Cheng High School and The Chinese High School. They threatened hunger strikes in retaliation, whilst outside, others traversed the city in order to enlist public support. This incident ignited and united the Chinese youth who later became a political force within the leftist movement and catalyst for Singapore’s self- determination. As evidence of their influence, the student union had 10,000 members with multi-levelled committees all striving for governmental change. Nevertheless, newly elected Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock later dissolved the union in 1956, in an attempt to stop the threat of leftist organisations. In response to the dissolution, students once again gathered at The Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School for sit-ins and demonstrations. However, after two weeks, the Government publicly demanded that the schools be vacated. As the deadline approached, riots once again erupted at The Chinese High School, spreading to other parts of the island. 13 people were killed, more than 100 were injured and over 900 people were arrested. They were later released when the People’s Action Party came to power.

These two points of visual (Chua Mia Tee’s National Language Class) and political (the Chinese Middle Schools Movement) meet at the junction of Green Zeng’s latest works. By combining images of silkscreened school uniforms, handwritten cursive words in English, Chinese and Malay, with flags of colonial power, Zeng presents triggers points to remember and analyse histories of dissent and self agency. The white uniforms, of both teenage boys and girls, are not therefore, an expression of conformity or control, but rather the collective strength of the Chinese youth invested in the future, emboldened by threats to their beliefs, as emphasised through their repetition in pairs and single configurations, throughout the exhibition. As such, these uniforms function as reminders of specific moments in time, with the names of the students written in Chinese, appearing in one work, acting as a type of haunted memorial. Such ‘ghosts’ represent the voices of rebellion, seemingly absent in today’s generation of young people. Zeng’s work is not an outright form of political provocation but rather a whispering of evocative images and words as visual footnotes to histories gone by.

Language and text are important sources of interest for the artist. His recent project at this year’s OH! Open House project in Tiong Bahru, textually encouraged visitors to speak more dialects in response to government campaigns for Singaporean Chinese to speak more Mandarin instead of their own dialects. Zeng’s work thus functioned as an attempt to reclaim and preserve cultural uniqueness. In Chinese School Lessons, he combines various words from English, Chinese and Malay to set tones of progress, unity and division within multi-racial Singapore. By juxtaposing words from different languages - silence, origin, race, Nanyang, nation, spirit, unite, strike, dawn, Malaya - on the same image and sometimes written against a British or Japanese flag, Zeng loads his surfaces with poetic tensions. What emerges is a conversation between Motherlands: of China, Malaya and Singapore, of multiculturalism and monoculture, as well as the histories of colonialism (Britain) and occupation (Japan) and how youth movements can challenge these systems of power. By juxtaposing Chinese, the language of the students (and the culture that the Chinese schools were trying to preserve and nurture) with Malay, the lingua franca that supposedly opened communication between every Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporean, as well as English, the language of the colonials and elitism, Zeng represents aspects of unity in the face of difference. ‘Fajar’, meaning ‘dawn’ in Bahasa, was also the name of the leftist student publication of the University of Malaya, whose English educated counterparts formed an alliance with the Chinese middle school students after 13 May 1954. 

However, difference, or rather the cultural uniqueness of the Chinese in Singapore, is still the main entry point of this body of work. Zeng’s other pieces in the exhibition are filled with various Chinese idioms. 'Jin zhu zhe chi' (近朱者赤) - which literally translates to ‘if one is near vermillion, one becomes red’ - speaks of the influences of environment and community, and perhaps is a nod to Communism itself. Zeng’s own hopes for Singapore are implicated in such wisdoms as 'wen gu zhi xin' (温故知新), where lessons from the past create new ways to address the present, or 'yin shui si yuan' (饮水思源), literally translated as ‘when you drink water, consider its source’, referencing that the past always contributes to the present. None is more specific that 'zi qiang bu xi' (自强不息), or ‘ceaseless quest for excellence’, the actual motto of the Nanyang University and The Chinese High School. Such textual and visual relationships are processes of remembering, and provoke discussion around the complications of a country built on migrancy and how it has evolved to become a cohesive contradiction.

The questions of ‘What is my name?’ and ‘Where do I come from?’ therefore seem to be the most appropriate entry points into Chinese School Lessons. In a multi-racial society like Singapore, these questions are constantly being asked, with answers redefined on a yearly basis, depending on agendas, understandings of history and cultural allegiances. By locating this within the perspective of the Chinese majority, Zeng presents his own shared cultural histories and anxieties through carefully articulated historical, textual and visual references. Time-travelling across Singapore’s history from the 1950s and '60s as in his previous solo projects The Exile Revisits the City and Malayan Exchange: Notes of the Future, he selects fragments from the past to disturb and provoke contemporary understandings of nation and identity. It is a lesson of remembrance, of times and people forgotten in order to reflect upon who we are now, where we live and how we define ourselves in contemporary Singapore today.

Eva McGovern is a curator of Southeast Asian contemporary art


  • Green Zeng

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