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Visual Arts

Insights: Chu Hao Pei

Unearthing contemporary manifestations of Cheng Ho in Southeast Asia to examine the multifaceted narratives of this historical figure.


Published: 14 Sep 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

For several years now, Chu Hao Pei has embarked on numerous research trips across Southeast Asia, travelling to Java (Indonesia), Malacca and Penang (both in Malaysia) and Ayutthaya (Thailand) for the long-term and extensive project Cheng Ho: The Vernacular of Southeast Asia. Centred around Cheng Ho’s legendary expeditions from 1405 to 1433, the research project examines contemporary manifestations of this historical figure in Southeast Asia and unfolds by presenting a non-aligned, non-exhaustive and non-linear account of this multifaceted character who has been localised and moulded to serve various nationalistic and cultural narratives. Cheng Ho is commonly associated with diplomacy, peace and cultural exchange. Unique across Southeast Asia is the way he is deified with numerous temples and mosques dedicated to him, such as the Sam Poo Kong temple in Semarang and the Masjid Cheng Hoo in Batam. Moreover, the actualisation or conceptualisation of various Cheng Ho tourism-affiliated projects—for instance, the 1987 proposal for the development of The Admiral Cheng Ho Wharf in Singapore—unearths the uneasy endeavour of recreating historical landmarks or constructing "pseudo-monuments" as tools of cultural capital.  

In the iteration of the project entitled Fragments of Cheng Ho: The Useable Past presented in the group exhibition Evolving Currents at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) from 14 May to 4 September 2022, Chu focused on four sites in Singapore: Labrador Park, Haw Par Villa, the former Maritime Experiential Museum (on Sentosa) and the former Marina City Park (located at Marina South).

Installation view of <em>Fragments of Cheng Ho: The Useable Past</em>, Chu Hao Pei, 2022.

Engaging with the histories, accounts and developments of these locations are a series of four videos, miniature site monuments and found objects that underscore Cheng Ho's associations with state-fuelled endeavours and various commemorative projects from the late 1980s to the 2000s in Singapore. Incidentally, this resurgent interest in Cheng Ho and his connections with mobility and statecraft coincided with larger geopolitical shifts of the period and followed formal diplomatic relations between China and Singapore which began in 1990.  

Conceived as a guided tour, the work simulates for the viewer a walk across these four locations and their connections with Cheng Ho. As fieldwork is central to Chu’s research process, this manner of presentation strives to lend insight and bring the viewer into Chu’s processes of development and conceptualisation. Interspersed in the video are also archival documents, images and audio that Chu perused as part of his research process to further contextualise his approaches and methodologies in conceiving this artwork.    

Cheng Ho: The Vernacular of Southeast Asia (2017-ongoing) is a long-term project you have been developing that explores the routes, connections and contemporary manifestations of this historical figure. What was the impetus for researching Cheng Ho?

My interest in Cheng Ho began with two books that I was reading in 2016, namely Cheng Ho and Islam in Southeast Asia by Tan Ta Sen and China and Southeast Asia: Historical Interactions by Geoff Wade and James K. Chin. I was particularly interested in a view posited by the author that observed temples dedicated to Cheng Ho are found only in Southeast Asia. As my interest in the region of Southeast Asia was expanding, the figure of Cheng Ho proved to be a peculiar anomaly. A Chinese-Muslim eunuch who arrived in Southeast Asia from 1405 to 1433, he is presently also deeply revered and deified in the region by non-Muslim Chinese. Cheng Ho’s overlapping, nuanced and hybridised background reflects what we know of Southeast Asia today: a melting pot of various cultures and religions hugely influenced by sojourners who have passed through the region for trade or pilgrimages over the centuries.  

In addition, I find Cheng Ho's manifestations in contemporary contexts—such as the media, Cheng Ho mosques and speculative histories—intriguing. I started my media research via documentaries, television series and talk shows, mainly from Sinophone perspectives. This eventually led to explorations through history books, fiction and academic articles. There are a lot of publication materials on Cheng Ho, with some challenging the status quo. Some of these which are borderline controversial draw inspiration from an array of genres from religion to vernacular architecture. It was this spectrum of conjectures, speculations and imaginations of Cheng Ho that led me on this ongoing research.  

Installation view of <em>Fragments of Cheng Ho: The Useable Past</em>, Chu Hao Pei, 2022.

These research trips and visits were the first entry points for me to understand the local narratives and what position Cheng Ho held in the respective cities or towns he established a foothold, even though some are only oral accounts. At every site I visited, a local caretaker or guide would walk me through the space and often offered unexpected research points for me to ponder. A recurring thread during my research trips is the common claim from individuals on the validity of their stories. For me, this had a lasting impact because it illustrates how the story of Cheng Ho has been passed down and transformed based on one's context. This experience inevitably shaped and influenced how I read the materials I have gathered on-site, which often contradict other written sources. 

The content of the videos and the objects (such as 3D prints referencing specific sites and a found fragment from the Long Ya Men replica monument) show further surface connections between Cheng Ho, cultural sites, tourism projects, and monument making, often blurring the boundaries between real and imagined. I understand this is also witnessed in other locales you have visited as part of your fieldwork in Southeast Asia. Could you share your thoughts and observations on this?

Installation view of <em>Fragments of Cheng Ho: The Useable Past</em>, Chu Hao Pei, 2022.

Cheng Ho in Singapore is theorised, speculated and reimagined, similar to the other places I have visited in Southeast Asia. However, the main difference is the involvement of the state machine and how that narrative slides in to reaffirm larger national narratives, or as a diplomatic gesture. The framing of Cheng Ho in Singapore's historiography landscape is an arduous task, which mobilises a large pool of resources and labour, as observed in the locations featured in Fragments of Cheng Ho: The Useable Past. In each of these sites, extensive plans and developments were laboured but eventually shelved, decommissioned or relocated due to different circumstances. What remains are often fleeting memories or fragments found on site(s) or in archival articles. The choice to include the objects (fabricated or found site-specifically) and anchoring around the videos is to draw attention to the reconstructed monuments and reconnect these forgotten sites and development projects around Cheng Ho.  

The example of the reconstructed Long Ya Men monument perhaps best highlights the historical frictions. The materiality of the found stone fragment in Labrador Park and the reconstructed replica material of the Long Ya Men monument is a figurative metaphor of how history is treated in the context of Cheng Ho within Singapore. Coupled with the objection by the Singapore Heritage Society before the construction of the reconstructed monument, the divide between the need for historical affirmation and validity remains conflicted.  

The selected objects indicate the recent history of Cheng Ho in Singapore in a tangible form. While these narratives have fallen to the margins of social memory, they are still present, and their remnants can still be found.  

Venturing out of Singapore to Malacca's Poh San Teng Temple—a Chinese temple at the foot of Bukit Cina, or Chinese Hill, where early Chinese settlers were buried—is a site subject to controversial claims associated with Cheng Ho. This temple was founded by a Kapitan Cina in 1795 during the Dutch Malacca era, almost 400 years after Cheng Ho's voyages. Amidst dubious claims that the temple was once where Cheng Ho's crew resided, today, we find a statue of Cheng Ho and area dedicated to him within the temple, together with photographs of Chinese politicians visiting the temple throughout the 1990s to 2000s. This reimagination fits perfectly into the tourism narrative of Malacca, and tour guides repeat the template story to visiting tourists. 

Installation view of <em>Fragments of Cheng Ho: The Useable Past</em>, Chu Hao Pei, 2022.

Similar accounts of Cheng Ho found in Semarang's Sam Poo Kong, which was once a temple. It has turned into a cultural theme park anchoring Cheng Ho, where a towering statue of Cheng Ho is the main attraction. The cultural theme park also propagates a controversial view of Cheng Ho's 'discovery' of The Americas by Gavin Menzies, which many historians reject. Commissioned stone wall carved reliefs of Cheng Ho's voyages were added to the facade of the renovated cave, which many believed to be where Cheng Ho prayed when he was in Semarang. In some stone wall reliefs, the stories remain baffling. The expansion of Sam Poo Kong as a cultural theme park came at the expense of the historical narrative of Cheng Ho and Sam Poo Kong constructs a reimagined space of Cheng Ho.  

These two examples foregrounded the possibilities of Cheng Ho as a tourism token. We have seen countless historical figures readapted to fit theme parks or tourism projects around the world, but in Malacca's Poh San Teng Temple and Semarang's Sam Poo Kong, these places are cultural-tourism sites which possess a dual function of being entertainment and didactic platforms. It remains to be seen in time to come how these reimagined sites with 'reimagined' records will morph Cheng Ho's narrative in our social memory. In the meantime, Cheng Ho is embraced wholeheartedly by the newfound tourism capital.  

Could you elaborate on why you chose to include the seven objects as part of the work? Also, what was the process of conceptualising the four-channel video? For example, why were you inclined towards a guided tour, and in terms of presentation, why are the videos played in succession?

Each object ties in with each site. They are site-specific fabrications or found objects in which the respective videos weave the narratives of the objects together. The videos are conceptualised in the form of a guided tour because of observations made during site visits. As the identified locations are all linked to tourism, tour guides were omnipresent during my site visits, and the content and manner in which these tour guides spoke are coherent with how I envision the narration to be. Moreover, the sight of tour guides was also present in other cultural tourism-related sites in my previous research visits, such as Semarang's Sam Po Kong and Malacca's Poh San Teng. Therefore, it came naturally for the videos to take the form of a guided tour.  

The succession video play presentation is to parallel a guided tour where the tour guide brings visitors from one site of interest to another with explanations and stories. This presentation method is also a way to put the audience through the journey and research process I have taken in surveying the Cheng Ho narrative. 

Fragments of Cheng Ho: The Useable Past by Chu Hao Pei was presented in the exhibition Evolving Currents, at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) from 13 May – 4 Sep 2022. 

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