Interview with Ho Tzu Nyen

“Re-thinking our past is a way to re-think our present and also our future.”

(Photo by Morita Kenji, Courtesy of the Mori Art Museum)

Tzu Nyen, your films, installations and performances often begin with an engagement with history. Why do you think it’s important to understand the past?

Re-thinking our past is a way to re-think our present and also our future. The only way we can build a different future for ourselves is if we re-think how our past has been constructed or communicated to us. I like to work with subjects that I imagine are crucial, for instance, historical figures, but at the same time, subjects that have a strange resonance with our present.

The history of the left in Singapore has also, for many reasons, been suppressed in public discourse, and even if it is discussed, this history is often viewed within a very narrow set of parameters.

In The Mysterious Lai Teck, I’ve used Lai Teck, the secretary general of the Malayan Communist Party and a triple agent, to find a way for us to think and speak about that period of Singaporean history.

Who is Lai Teck? Isn’t his life shrouded in mystery?

Till today, nobody knows Lai Teck’s real name. Lai Teck is one of his fifty or so known aliases. We are also unsure of where he was born, but I think it’s fairly certain he was born in Vietnam. He later became the leader of the Communists of the Malayan area between 1939 and 1947 as its secretary general.

I spent quite a bit of time understanding the historical context of Vietnam in the early twentieth century. My work usually involves a lengthy period of research and gestation. Around 2015, I made a short film called The Nameless, which also took Lai Teck as its subject. That was almost a sketch to develop this longer work of The Mysterious Lai Teck.

Coincidentally, The Nameless will also be shown at The Arts House during SIFA 2019 so I think it’s quite interesting to see The Nameless and The Mysterious Lai Teck together.

Lai Teck was discovered to have been a triple agent in 1947, working for first the French, then the British and finally the Japanese secret police. Do you believe Lai Teck was a product of his time?

The twentieth century is known as the century of treachery because no other century has produced as many traitors. In a certain sense, we have to understand traitors as a historical phenomenon.

The twentieth century was also an era where so many nation states were born. By producing nation states, you also produce the conditions for traitors to betray these states.

So, you believe treachery is not merely personal?

I think one of the most interesting ways to think about Lai Teck is not see his treachery as being purely personal and stemming from character flaws. The personal is only one aspect of looking at treachery, but the treachery I’m interested in is a structural form of treachery.

It is about how certain situations produce conditions in which one becomes a traitor – maybe for survival or when one has to negotiate one’s way and balance between a few superior powers – which we can essentially think of as the recent history of Southeast Asia.

The Mysterious Lai Teck looks at this very contested figure in order to re-understand or re-think our moral and ethical judgments about past events.

Yet, this work is also very current, especially with our pre-occupation with privacy in the digital age.  

One could also think about the status of treachery today in the twenty-first century, which is the era of whistleblowers and WikiLeaks. It’s also the era where we are all ‘betraying’ ourselves, with all the traces that we are leaving behind digitally.

What draws you to any project?

When I’m working on a new project, it only interests me if I have the fantasy that my collaborators and I are creating something unprecedented.

This could very well be a fantasy, but I think it’s a fantasy we use in order for us to push ourselves. I like to imagine that the setting, the way in which we are choosing to present the story of Lai Teck, pushes theatre at an aesthetic level and formal level, and also, broadens the field of what can be understood as the performing arts.

Finally, why should audiences come to SIFA?

SIFA is a great occasion to see how arts practitioners from all over the world are pushing the limits of their chosen practice.

It’s also a great opportunity to engage with people from around the world to see what haunts them, what inspires them, what drives them. It’s a way to open up our boundaries and to get plugged into the world.

Don’t miss The Mysterious Lai Teck by Ho Tzu Nyen (Singapore) taking place from 17 – 19 May, Fri - Sun. Click here for more.