Monday 3 June 2019

Eminent Historian Professor Wang Gungwu converses with Elaine Chiew on his autobiography, Home Is Not Here

Photo courtesy of NUS Press

From the book jacket:

Wang Gungwu is one of Asia’s most important public intellectuals. He is best-known for his explorations of Chinese history in the long view, and for his writings on the Chinese diaspora. With Home Is Not Here, the historian of grand themes turns to a single life history: his own.

In this volume, Wang talks about his multi-cultural upbringing and life under British rule. He was born in Surabaya, Java, but his parents’ orientation was always to China. Wang grew up in the plural, multi-ethnic town of Ipoh, Malaya (now Malaysia). He learned English in colonial schools and was taught the Confucian classics at home. After the end of WWII and the Japanese occupation, he left for the National Central University in Nanjing to study alongside some of the finest of his generation of Chinese undergraduates. The victory of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party interrupted his education, and he ends this volume with his return to Malaya. 

Wise and moving, this is a fascinating reflection on family, identity and belonging, and on the ability of the individual to find a place amid the historical currents that have shaped Asia and the world. 

EC: A very warm welcome to AsianBooksBlog, Prof. Wang. An absolute honour to have you. Your biography, for me, was such an evocative read of a time and place in one person’s personal history. Given your distinguished academic career, and numerous treatises on the history of modern China, were you tempted to write your biography at other points in your life before this?

WGW:   I never thought of writing about my life. Teachers, including those in universities, don’t have interesting lives to write about. It was my wife Margaret who got me to think about writing for our children. She had done a fairly full story of the first half of her life for them and encouraged me to tell them about mine. Thus what became this book had begun as stories that I hoped would be of interest to my children. It was only by chance that I came to be persuaded that it should be published so I revised it a little for the heritage reading public.
EC: There were sections of the book in your mother’s voice, drawing upon her memories of China during the war and then back in Ipoh, and her memory for details was incredible, down to how much the rent was when your family first moved to Shanghai or how much a buggy ride cost. Was she a diary-keeper? 

WGW:   My mother never kept a diary. She just had a very good memory for anything pertaining to family and her home country China. She addressed her memoirs to me primarily to ensure that I would understand all about what she and my father went through in their lives. She was always deeply concerned that all of us who were born and brought up outside China would not know what it meant to have come from that great country. I had included her words to me for my children to read in the belief that they would find her voice more authentic and her story especially interesting.

EC: We have something deep in common: Ipoh. You were a year old when you moved from Surabaya to Ipoh, and in your book, you call Ipoh your hometown, which is also where I was born and grew up until I left for college in the U.S. Can you tell us how you see Ipoh as your hometown even though, as you describe, your parents had prepared you always to return to China and that Ipoh was not your home?
WGW:  Everything I can remember about my childhood and youth, the years 1931-1947, was about Ipoh. I grew up in Green Town, New Town, Old Town and the edge of New Town and just about explored every corner of the town and even many of the neighbouring townships. True, I never thought of it as my hometown when I was growing up, but my nine months there in 1949 after returning from China gave me the chance to see the town in a different light and led me to see it as my hometown, certainly the only place that I felt could be my hometown – and I still feel that way.

EC: During the War, you described how reading, a love of literature, as well as films, sustained you, especially during disruptions in your education. In what ways?

WGW:  Not being in any school for three years left me with a lot of time on my hands. My love of literature came from my father whose books were primarily literary (exclusively classical for Chinese, and more modern for English). We lost everything during the war so it was the cache in the Education Department “library” that my father had put together and had asked me to help sort out that led me to read a lot of modern English popular fiction, books that I had never heard of before. That improved my English despite the fact that I did not speak a word of the language for three and half years.

 As for films, I saw not more than half a dozen films during the whole occupation period; these were Chinese films made in Japanese-held Shanghai. After the war ended, a flood of English and American films came and I was overwhelmed by what I could learn from them about the world I had been shut off from for so long. 

EC: You were only able to pursue your university education in Nanjing for a year before the looming civil war between the Nationalist Government and communist rebels forced you to return to Malaya. Looking back, what are your deepest impressions of that time, and would you have decided anything differently?

WGW:  Nanjing, Shanghai and Taizhou where my father’s family resided were fascinating and I have good memories of everything I knew and learnt about in these places. They were my China on the ground. The idea of China as a country and civilization, however, was more abstract and was a strong image that was always there in the background. But that image was badly damaged by the bitter civil war going on, the hyperinflation that made everyone poor who were not desperately poor already, and the corruption in high places we read about was disillusioning.

Nevertheless, I expected to belong to China and to go on studying in Nanjing and hoped to work to serve the country in some way. I did not want to return to Malaya but was persuaded to do that for reasons that I give in the book: as an only child, I felt that I could not refuse their wish when they asked me to rejoin them in Ipoh.

EC: Returning to Malaya from Nanjing in 1948 during the Malayan Emergency and enrolling in the newly formed University of Malaya during this tumultuous period, I wonder if you would share with us some reflections on being a witness to history and a contributor to a country’s nation-building efforts are.

WGW:   Once it was clear that I would be staying in Malaya, I prepared to start afresh. That turned out to be a terrific learning experience for me to see this nation building process from almost the starting-line. Everyone in my generation was excited at the prospect. 

EC: The words ‘cultural amnesia' also get thrown around a lot with respect to young people in Singapore and Malaysia especially with regards to a deeper sense of history beyond colonial times. What are your thoughts on that?

WGW:  I do not feel that this was true of Malaysia. In Singapore, the shock of separation in 1965 led the PAP leaders to play down history in the belief that doing that would make it easier for the plural society to develop a new Singapore identity. That idea has recently been replaced by a healthy interest in history that has also been encouraged by lots of events to celebrate anniversaries, right now it is the 200thyear after 1819 “founding” of Singapore.

Photo courtesy of NUS Press

EC: With your deep understanding of Chinese history, what do you see as the role for future Asian Studies, particularly in the West, for how to grapple with the idea of a resurgent China?

WGW:  The best scholars in the West and elsewhere do understand China (and many parts of Asia). Unfortunately, there are not many of them and, if they show that they are in any way admiring of Chinese culture, they tend to be dismissed as “panda-lovers” and not taken seriously. 

As long as the field of Asian Studies is encouraged (and funded) so that the West can continue to dominate the peoples of Asia and make them more dependent on the West, the best of the Western scholars of Asia who are interested in Asia for itself are unlikely to be really influential in public affairs.  

EC: Prof Wang, you’ve taught at the University of Malaya, the Australian National University, The University of Hong Kong and National University of Singapore; how do you see contemporary world events influencing or even steering the ‘uses’ of history for the foreseeable future?

WGW: I believe contemporary world events can only be better understood with good historical knowledge. I also believe that governments know that and are concerned to use history to help them to govern and, wherever possible, will try to shape history-writing to help their systems function – of course, if that history happens to be true, so much the better.

EC: Thank you Prof. Wang for your time and valuable insights.