During a recent visit to the Singapore Arts Festival, along the hectic program and the delights offered by the so called Switzerland of the South East Asia, I had the luck to encounter the complex and multifaceted work by Choy Ka Fai, titled “Lan Fang Chronicles”. Experiencing the piece means to embark on a journey where the political potentials of the Lan Fang Republic, are explored through the visual elements and the documents that existed, or might have existed, and that testify to its one hundred years of existence, until the Dutch occupation occurred in 1884, the year of the disappearance of this enlightened state. In fact, this territory – today part of Indonesia - became a Republic ten years before the United States, when an implementation of its democratic founding principles made it stand out in a locale still run by dynastic structures.
Stated by the author himself, that “memories sometimes become forgeries”, the project consequentially unfolds a series of performative, installative, archival and printed works that revolve around the scarcity of documents that lack to prove a solid knowledge around the existence of this early Republic. Through clever devices – such as a fake museum collection from the Netherlands, made out of beautiful 3d prints – what is reconstructed in front of the eyes of the spectator is a history that almost no historical sources can recall, but that through this reenactment, can come about as a precedent, with an immense political significance, in understanding the peculiar economic subject that Singapore represents within the South East Asian universe.
The settlers of Lan Fang were from a hakka Chinese community, brought there by the Sultans of West Borneo to work in the gold and tin mines. Running these highly strategic mining activities certainly demanded a stability in the governance of the place, in order to avoid any easy invasion from the surrounding colonizers. The Chinese community and the Malay indigenous were treated differently, especially once the Republic became dependent from the Chinese Qing Empire. As soon as the latter weakened, the Dutch took advantage of the situation and occupied Lan Fang, in an action that the Dutch colonial historiography described as a breaking up of a “Chinese uprising”.
“Many of Lanfang's citizens and their descendants made their way to Singapore, which subsequently became another ethnic Chinese republic in Southeast Asia” - recites the wikipedia page on Singapore - and another extremely precious economic zone to protect, I would add.
While walking through the several instalments of the Lan Fang Chronicles, displayed and performed in the Ying Fo Hui Kun Ancestral Temple, I am told by the artist that the temple where all the actions are taking place, was funded by the hakka who escaped the Republic after its end, precisely three years after it had been invaded. This series of fictional reenactments, of which the project is made of, is happening in one of the few tangible remains, that can physically connect the parable of Lan Fang to the Singaporean story, creating this weak bond intertwining two political entities belonging to the same context, that share a singular stability due to their highly constructed and protected economies.
By the end of this week there will be a key European Council in Brussels, where, as Ian Traynor puts it, the State members are “facing the death of the euro or the birth of a new European federation”. The Euro zone, the economic monetary union, is, de-facto, the entity that represents Europe on a capitalist global scenario, and it is here called to decide if Europe as a political entity will continue to exist, with Germany playing the part of the major member, among the sixteen others. While linked to this move, fundamental questions about democratic legitimacy have been rising, in the ever present problem that is the “democratic deficit” of the EU as we know it, I wonder if this Lan Fang syndrome Europe is in, will ever end. If the bond of dependency to a financial empire will continue prevailing over the peaceful stability among the European populations.
“History itself happens in moments when there is a possibility for a future” says Choy Ka Fai in the booklet accompanying the “Lan Fang Chronicles” project.