Migratory Times, Diaspora Moments: Films as Archives of Migration and Memories

September 17, 2019, 12:15pm

Written by Jessica Tan

Curated by film scholar Dr. Elizabeth Wijaya, the Asian Film Archive’s Reframe series Migratory Times featured five Chinese-language fictional films – Love in A Fallen City (Ann Hui, Hong Kong, 1984), Blood and Tears of the Overseas Chinese (Tsai Wen-chin, Singapore, 1946), The Wheel of Life (King Hu, Lee Hsing & Pai Ching-jui, Taiwan, 1983), Banana Paradise (Wang Tung, Taiwan, 1989) and Spring in A Small Town (Fei Mu, China, 1948) at the newly opened Oldham Theatre between 26 and 28 July 2019. Covering the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese occupation of Singapore, the Chinese Civil War and the Martial Law in Taiwan, the films in Migratory Times span the most traumatic yet pivotal events that shaped the history of Chinese migration during the twentieth century. They wrestle with the histories and memories of Chinese migratory experiences, especially during the turbulent events of the 1940s that led to the divided loyalties across Chinese communities, with reverberations still felt today.

Aptly named Migratory Times, the plural use of “time” in the title suggests the myriad of spatial migratory experiences that intersected with significant moments in the history of Chinese diasporas, while not collapsing the historical perspective into an overly simplistic or linear one. The choice of the adjective “migratory” over “diasporic” is compelling as it foregrounds migration as a dynamic phenomenon of transnational mobilities and interregional connections, rather than diaspora as a static community displaced from their homeland. By avoiding the baggage of identification with the ancestral homeland, the title highlights the importance of examining various scales of narratives, mobilities and perspectives that the transnational history of Chinese migration offers, in conjunction with reading transnational Chinese-language cinema.

Migratory Times can be understood as an unlikely, yet timely participant of scholarly conversations over the past decade that have re-examined the making of modern Asia or China history through the lens of migration. This includes works such as Sunil Amrith’s Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Shelly Chan’s Diaspora’s Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), which unpack the fraught relations between transnational mobilities, nationalism and globalization in modern history through the lens of Asian diasporas. If, as suggested by Amrith that the archives of migration is problematically dominated by official governmental records that overlook “the intimate dimensions of the migrant experiences”[i], films can potentially lend themselves as a productive archive to document what Chan terms as “diaspora moments”[ii].

Rather than focusing on the spatial dimension in diaspora studies, Chan rethinks the history of migration by focusing on temporalities. In her conception, if “diaspora time” is the silent, on-going condition experienced by families caught up in the everyday realities of migration, “diaspora moments” are the fragmented instances in history that erupt and recur when “diaspora time” is disrupted by or interacts with other temporalities, be it social, cultural or political. These dialogical moments in history produce “unexpectedly wide reverberations” and demonstrate the interconnectedness of the Chinese diaspora’s engagements on the global stage.[iii] Through showcasing five filmic representations of “diaspora moments” that explore questions of war memories, gender, and nationalism, Migratory Times can be understood as an alternative “archive of migration” and methodological approach to the study of Chinese migratory history.

Film as History; History as Film 

Directed by Tsai Wen-chin and produced by Chung Hwa Film Production, Blood and Tears of the Overseas Chinese (1946) premiered in Singapore on 21 July 1946.[iv] It was one of the first post-war films made in Singapore immediately after the end of the Japanese occupation. As suggested in the self-evident title, Blood is a melodrama that revolves around the fate of the wealthy overseas Chinese Yang family who undergoes tribulations during the war and decides to join the anti-Japanese resistance underground forces in Singapore. Unlike war films that usually focus on kinship ties with China and the necessity of defending the ancestral motherland, Blood reveals a nascent sense of local consciousness in post-war Singapore. It does so by emphasizing the agency of the overseas Chinese in local anti-Japanese resistance movements and making only vague gestures to China, such as the half-concealed portrait of Sun Yat-sen that hangs in the background, while the local resistance group carries out their meeting in the foreground.

A half-concealed portrait of Sun Yat-sen hangs in the background while local resistance forces hold their meeting in Blood and Tears of the Overseas Chinese

Released less than a year after the Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945, the film’s opening scenes of young men being inspected and executed by the Japanese Kempeitai forces invoke fresh memories of the Sook Ching (the operation carried out by the Japanese military in 1942 to purge anti-Japanese elements among the Chinese in Singapore), while other scenes of Japanese brutality inflicted on commoners pry open wounds that have yet to heal completely. Blood’s raw and documentary-like footage of Japanese atrocities convey a sense of urgency to record these happenings, lest they are forgotten, hence suggesting the role of film as an archival medium.

Young Chinese men being inspected by the Japanese military in the opening scenes of Blood and Tears of the Overseas Chinese

Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948) is a film that was also produced soon after the Second Sino-Japanese war but it differs greatly from Blood in its treatment of traumatic historical memories. Regarded as one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema, the story revolves around the love quadrangle between four protagonists, Zhou Yuwen, Dai Liyan, Zhang Zhichen and Dai Xiu. Yuwen’s former lover Zhichen visits her and her invalid husband Liyan at their derelict family house tucked away in a small town and his visit reignites Yuwen’s desire for him. Unlike Blood that seeks to realistically re-enact Japanese atrocities, the Second Sino-Japanese war and the then on-going Chinese Civil War fought between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party are never depicted explicitly in Spring. Instead, the ruined compounds of Dai’s house suggest the distant presence of these wars. Using long takes without any music and long shots of run-down walls, battered roofs and overgrown foliage that fill the mise-en-scène, the film creates a slow-paced narrative and presents an alternative space by detaching itself from the ravages of the on-going civil war and revolutionary fervour.

Zhou Yuwen in Spring in a Small Town walking along the town’s ruined walls

At first glance, Spring appears the least relevant amongst the film line-up to the theme of “migratory times” as there is no migration per se in its narrative. However, it is precisely through the absence of characters’ movement at the height of Chinese migration during the late 1940s that Spring presents an even more polemical question: what does it mean to stay put during massive social upheavals? Spring ends uneventfully, yet contemplatively, as Zhichen departs and Yuwen chooses to remain with her husband Liyan. The ending scenes in which Yuwen resumes her walks along the ruined walls echo her initial appearance in the film, as though the elapsed time is immaterial in the longer flow of History. This repetition suggests a cyclical temporality that brings to mind Julia Kristeva’s concept of “women’s time”, which builds on the idea of cyclical time linked to motherhood and reproduction, to challenge the grand linear concept of history.[v] Indeed, both Blood and Spring offer intimate portraits of women and gendered perspectives of historical memories through the films’ layered narratives. In Blood, Mrs Yang and Luo Liying bond in sisterhood and demonstrate clear agency as female revolutionary fighters in Singapore’s resistance war against the Japanese. The gentle whisperings of Yuwen as a form of non-diegetic voice-over and the use of cyclical time that ascribes female subjectivity in Spring present a nuanced portrayal of Yuwen’s psychological vulnerability; the film’s war-devastated setting parallels the destructive impact of her own emotional wars as she struggles to choose between fidelity or desire.

Two female resistance fighters Luo Liying and Mrs Yang in Blood and Tears of the Overseas Chinese

Unlike Yuwen who remains in her small town, the only female protagonists who successfully cross borders in this series are Bai Liusu in Ann Hui’s Love in a Fallen City and Yue Hsiang in Wang Tung’s Banana Paradise. It is interesting that Love in a Fallen City, rather than Boat People (1982) – Ann Hui’s masterpiece on the plight of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong – was picked for this series on migration. Yet on hindsight, Love in a Fallen City well encapsulates the theme of migration from different angles. At the production level, the film’s adaptation of Eileen Chang’s novella set during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong can be regarded as a migration from text to screen. Nonetheless, the film’s often-melodramatic visual language, such as the Hollywood-like battle scenes between the British troops and the Japanese, have arguably undermined Eileen Chang’s signature textual aesthetics of desolation and her obsession with the sensuous details of quotidian living in times of social turmoil. Within the film’s diegesis, migration can be considered an act of personal agency as much as it suggests the problematic relationship between gender and colonizing discourses. Bai Liusu’s migration from Shanghai to Hong Kong epitomizes the chance for her to shed the identity of a divorcee in Shanghai, as she becomes Nanyang-born Chinese Fan Liuyan’s object of pursuit in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, in the Orientalist eyes of Fan Liuyuan, she also becomes the “authentic” embodiment of a Chinese lady amongst the Westernized ladies in British colonial Hong Kong.

Bai Liusu and Fan Liuyuan in Love in a Fallen City (1984), directed by Ann Hui

The fluidity of identities that occurs alongside physical migrations is also depicted in Banana Paradise. The theme of fake identities, which insinuates the triviality of human existence in the face of turbulent social milieu, is explored in Wang Tung’s Banana Paradise (1989) that showcased the traumatic forced migration of mainlanders to Taiwan in 1949. Banana is the story about a young man Door Latch who follows his friend Chang Te-sheng to Taiwan in 1949 in hope for a better life. Door Latch has other names such as “Tso Fu-kuei” that he uses interchangeably, but he finally assumes the identity as “Li Chi-lin” after he meets Li’s wife, Yue Hsiang, and takes her late husband’s identity to find a job and support the household. It is later revealed in the film that Yue Hsiang isn’t Li’s real wife, but simply a woman who assumed her identity after Li rescued her while fleeing to Taiwan. This act of survival by assuming fake identities lead them to comedic and complicated situations throughout the film, but none is as poignant as the scene where Door Latch speaks to Li Chi-lin’s long-lost father over the phone in the ending. While he initially tries to maintain the facade by comforting the sobbing old man, Door Latch’s pretense breaks down after he learns about the death of his “mother” and blames himself for being an unfilial son. In a twist, Li Chi-lin’s father becomes the convenient substitute for Door Latch’s own father as Door Latch directs his distraught cries of regret to him. At this particular moment of anguish, Door Latch’s heart wrenching cries is perhaps representative of the voices of many mainlanders in Taiwan who were kept separated from their families in China since the 1949 divide.

Door Latch in Banana Paradise in his moment of anguish while speaking with Li Chi-lin’s father

Collective Memories and Personal Histories

The powerful ability of films to evoke personal memories is attested by the heartfelt sharing of family migratory histories by audiences and panelists during the roundtable discussion on Sunday (28 July 2019). Moderated by Elizabeth Wijaya, the roundtable discussion featured international scholars Chan Cheow-thia, Shelly Chan, Hong Guo-juin, and Ma Shaoling, as well as Taiwanese actor Shih Chun (1935–), who starred in The Wheel of Life.

Taiwanese actor Shih Chun sharing his experiences at the roundtable discussion

During the sharing, Shih Chun revealed that fake identities, as explored in Banana Paradise, were more than common in post-1949 Taiwan. Born in Tianjin, Shih Chun shared his experience of moving from Qingdao to Kaohsiung in 1949 with his family and growing up in Taiwan. Shih Chun was part of a generation of Taiwanese filmmakers and film stars whose personal experiences of migration from China to Taiwan were intricately embedded in the films that they were involved in. Shih Chun, for example, had also starred in Wang Tung’s semi-autobiographical film Red Persimmon (1997), which followed the fate of a Chinese family who fled to Taiwan after the communist takeover in 1949. Shih Chun also spoke about the harsh realities caused by the Chinese Civil War that affected people on both sides of the Straits – countless families were broken up, people took up fake identities while on the run for survival, and daughters were left behind in China to take care of ancestral homes while other male family members fled to Taiwan. These constellations of individual lived experiences and family migratory histories are commonly explored in Taiwan New Cinema films, such as Banana Paradise and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (1989). While seemingly insignificant in light of grand historical narratives, these affective individual stories suggest the political dimension of migration and the interweaving of a collective history in one’s personal memory. In this regard, film becomes a critical space where such collective histories and individual memories of migratory experiences unfold, interact, and are stored.

Migratory Times Roundtable Discussion on 28 July 2019

But what are the consequences if such critical memories fail or are forgotten? The Wheel of Life poses this question through a three-part omnibus film directed by King Hu, Li Hsing and Pai Ching-jui – all of whom grew up in mainland China. The three parts of the film are tied loosely together with the casting of Shih Chun, Chiang Huo-jen and Peng Hsueh-fen. The film features the reincarnations of three protagonists across different historical periods in Chinese history – the Ming dynasty, the Republican era in China and 1980s Taiwan. In each lifetime, Chang Huo-jen and Peng Hsueh-fen fall in love, but Shih Chun always disrupts their romance, which results in the death of at least one protagonist. The fact that all three protagonists have no memories of their past lives haunts them like a bad curse; they are unaware of their previous relationships and become stuck in a karmic circle that drives the recurrence of the love tragedy. On the other hand, audiences with the privileged knowledge of every reincarnation can only watch the tragedy unfold repeatedly before their eyes. It is as though the film is making a meta-commentary on the importance of historical memories: how should history and memories be preserved in order to prevent the recurrence of tragedies? Yet, the film also makes it difficult for audiences to derive any resolution from its ending. While the death of Shih Chun in the third reincarnation seems to finally suggest a successful union between Peng Hsueh-fen and Chang Huo-jen in this lifetime, the film ends with an ambivalent teaser: a fourth reincarnation?

Chang Huo-jen and Peng Hsueh-fen in The Wheel of Life (1983), directed by King Hu, Li Hsing and Pai Ching-jui

When do Migratory Times End?

Echoing the question of a fourth reincarnation was a remark that Hong Guo-juin posed during the post-screening discussion of Banana Paradise: when do migratory times end? This series does not seek to answer the question; rather, we are reminded that every screening and restoration unleashes something new for the film and its audiences – a new afterlife, a new reel-to-screen migration, and a new reverberation. The Taiwan Film Institute’s restoration of The Wheel of Life, under the sponsorship of its female lead actress Peng Hsueh-fen, could thus be considered as the fourth reincarnation. 35 years after its first launch, the restored version of The Wheel of Life premiered at the 21st Far East Film Festival on 26 April 2019 in Italy. In Migratory Times, audiences in Singapore had the privilege of watching the world premiere of the restored Blood and Tears of the Overseas Chinese, 73 years after its first launch. Originally thought to be a lost film, the “diasporic” find of this Singapore-made film in the vaults of China Film Archive in 2013 is regarded as an important recovery of a missing piece of Singapore’s film history. In this sense, perhaps every screening of the film in this series could also be regarded as a “diaspora moment” – an invocation of a migratory past that entwines with contemporary issues and seeks resonance with audiences.

While watching these films on “migratory times” from AFA’s film programme at the new Oldham Theatre, which is located just above the main reading room of the National Archives of Singapore, I was struck by the juxtaposition of both spaces of archives and the significance that they hold for understanding Chinese migratory history. If the official governmental archives often neglect “the intimate dimensions of the migratory experience,” perhaps films can stand in as an alternative archive of migration that chronicle lived histories that have elided the official print records; herein lies the importance of the film archive as a key repository and curator of historical memories and voices.

Jessica Tan is a PhD candidate at Harvard University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Her dissertation examines Sinophone Southeast Asian literature and films that demonstrate the complexities of transnational and transcultural exchanges between Southeast Asia and East Asia during the Cold War. Her other research interests include modern and contemporary Chinese literature, Hong Kong film culture and diaspora studies. She graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a B.A. (Hons) in Chinese and received her M.Phil. in Humanities (Literature) from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She also served as Shih Chun’s translator at the Migratory Times roundtable discussion on 28 July 2019.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.


[i] Sunil S. Amrith, “Introduction,” in Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 14.

[ii] Shelly Chan, “Introduction,” in Diaspora’s Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 13.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv]Huaqiao xuelei mingri xianying,” (Blood and Tears of the Overseas Chinese premieres tomorrow), Nanyang Siangpau, 20 July 1946, 5.

[v] Julia Kristeva, trans. Alice Jardine, Harry Blake, “Women’s Time,” Signs, Vol. 7 No. 1 (Autumn, 1981): 13-35.