Monday, 28 December 2015

The Song of Malaya ; a song for the displaced

Tse Lo lin (紫羅蓮) died this week aged 90.  Song of Malaya (馬來亞之戀) (1954) was one of her most famous movies, for which she also wrote the script. The film is much more than a romance in an exotic locale. It deals with issues like the traumatic dislocation of war, the identity of overseas Chinese, and the moral and cultural obligations of an individual to society.  An extremely beautiful film and very moving. Tse also founded and managed the production company. She was then only 30 years old - quite an achievement for any young actress, anywhere.

Tse was caught up in the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, and forced to participate in the high-profile film the Japanese Army made to commemorate their victory. It is an important historical document, since it was begun within weeks of the fall of Hong Kong on December 25th 1941, when the city was still scarred by battle. Re-enactments were filmed as accurately as possible, on location, with the supervison  of officers who had taken part. Tse played a small part as a local girl, but was most certainly not a collaborator. She was smuggled out in considerable danger, rejoining other members of the Hong Kong film industry who had regrouped as exiles in Free China. China had been at war with Japan since1931. Shanghai and Canton had been conquered. The biggest mass migration in history occured when around 25 million people became refugees,trekking from the coast to the Himilayas.  The charismatic  actor Ng Chor Fan already was a figure in the anti-Japanese resistance, having been an activist since the early 1930's, making patriotic movies and organizing refugee relief. Chinese cinema always has had a social and moral conscience.

In The Song of Malaya (aka Love in Malaya), Tse plays Yuk-kin, a girl who has lost her homeland and family in the war, and travels to Kuala Lumpur, searching for her father who had emigrated years before. Since Malaya had also been occupied by the Japanese, the background of social upheaval hangs heavily on the film.  Tse arrives in Malaya,  excited by the strange new surroundings, but she's dispossesed. Luckily, she's taken in by kind local Chinese, some of whom had been in Malaya so long that they had acculturated as Malay. She meets and is attracted to Mr Wong (played by Cheung Wood Yau) who runs a school for the Wah Kiu (overseas Chinese) so they can learn Chinese and understand their identity in a multi-cultural society.  He's from China, too, and, like Tse, has lost all contact with his family and native region.  Eventually, Tse meets up with her father, (played by Ng Chor Fan) who is now a westernized businessman with a Wah Kiu wife (Mary Man Lee) who wears sarong kebaya and acculturates Malay. Imagine the tensions.

Tse goes to live in Singapore with her Dad and finish her education. Her father's associate, Mr Cheung (played by Cheung Ying), falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Below, in the clip, we can see Tse sing about Malaya, new hopes and dreams and of friendship between Wah Kiu and  China-born. Watch the dynamic between her and her audience. She waves at Schoolteacher Wong, who waves back at her. But things are not to be. Wong's wife and son come out of China, but Wong dies, and presumably they're destitute again. Tse marries Cheung, and they plan a round-the-world honeymoon. But Tse knows where her destiny lies, and Cheung is a good man. So they use their money to continue Wong's mission to provide a good education for the Wah Kiu.

Tse, the woman, not the character, was deeply religious and stopped making movies in the mid-1960's  to raise a family. Her marriage ended early in divorce, and she moved to Seattle, bringing up her daughters.  So she, and they, became Wah Kiu, like millions of other Chinese who have emigrated and live often outside their roots. Not refugees like Tse's character in the movie, but displaced people who forge new identities. I wish The Song of Malaya could be released again because in some ways it's even more relevant now. In the second clip, which mixes the intro with short clips from the film, the scene at the building site is symbolic.The cranes work well, but the peasant hauls soil in a wheelbarrow. Together they build a channel for a river.  Hence, integration and commitment, not anomie.

No comments: