Disclosure: the proprietors of A+ Works of Art have previously purchased my work

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Chong Kim Chiew, Isolation House (2005) at Rumah Air Panas

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I’m late. Sentul, like Cheras or Kepong or Shah Alam, makes me anxious – a result of mere unfamiliarity, which I suppose you could say defines the Malaysian condition. Waze sends me to Bangsar on the NPE and onto Sentul Link. I see familiar buildings, but the elevated highway messes with my sense of direction, already useless in the best of times, and renders everything distant.

It’s tempting to fall into the lull of this speed, the lack of friction. From my home to the destination, via algorithmic app, in an Uber or a Grab, personal playlist streaming on Spotify. I float in my car, the road clean and smooth. It’s a soporific effect. I struggle against a sense of inevitability.

I experienced Kim Chiew’s installation as it was originally conceived, twelve years ago, at the artist-run space Rumah Air Panas, which was on a road called Lorong Air Leleh, surrounded by roads with names like Jalan Air Madu, Jalan Air Bersih, Jalan Air Dalam, and Jalan Air Pusing, in place called Air Panas, in Setapak. Today, a highway runs through where Rumah Air Panas used to be.

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I remember the earth under my feet, and the hole it’d been dug out from. The hole, outside the house, was wide and deep enough to bury a human body, and filled with light brown rain water. We entered the locked house by a door near the roof, down a shaky staircase. Inside, down low, the spread earth pressed against the white walls of the house in a dark ring. Here and there were cages, objects inside: a wooden crutch, a flute, a gourd. Eight enclosures and eight tools to stand for the Eight Immortals who crossed the sea in story.

In this new version, in a newly opened gallery housed in a commercial complex built by YTL as part of their multi-billion ringgit Sentul Raya redevelopment plan, there is no soil. The floor is concrete. The cages  - just two of them – are empty.

Many years ago, I lived in a rented house. We had a god that we’d brought with us from my childhood home, on the ground, in a red hut. But we didn’t take care of him – it’d been a hard year. I could barely take care of myself, and two dogs. We didn’t light his oil lamp, forgot to lay out his cheroot and curry and soft pink cakes, and the rain rotted his red wooden plaque inscribed with glittering gold Chinese words I couldn’t read. When it came time to move again, a man well-versed in these matters came, looked at the hut, and told us: there was no more god, he had left.

I thought about this as I looked at the empty cages.

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Chong Kim Chiew, Isolation House (2005 – 2017) at A+ Works of Art, d6 Trade Center, Sentul East

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Another thought rippled up, unbidden – am I Chinese?

The rusty metal plates bearing the names of roughly 40 new villages remain in the new Isolation House. Slowly they oxidize, breathing oxygen, alive: Semenyih, Rasa, Batang Berjuntai, Jinjang, Salak Selatan.

During the Emergency period (1948 – 1960), in an effort to halt the spread of communism amongst the rural population, the British colonial administration resettled 530,000 ‘squatters’ and workers into more than 400 new villages across Malaya. These ‘new villages’ were guarded camps, with strict curfews enforced by police. The large majority (but not all!) were ethnic Chinese.

This history of the new villages – is it mine?

I remember, as a teenager, quite literally, growing up in shopping malls: specifically, 1 Utama, Bangsar Shopping Center, Jaya Shopping Center, Subang Parade, Sunway Pyramid and Midvalley Megamall, where my parents had opened a chain of deli-style restaurants.

But I go further back, to childhood. An old lady, Ah Chun Yi, took care of me, while both parents worked. In the day, after school, I went to her wooden house. Was it in a village? I can’t… remember. I dig for it, but I hit concrete. Her long hair, her soft voice. Her polyester floral shirts. Naps in the hot afternoon, the standing fan and fluttering of green lace curtains. No, that was in my grandmother’s house, where the god came from, the one who left.

Who else besides me remembers the feel of soil on the parquet floor of Rumah Air Panas? The pixelated video documentation of the original Isolation House tells us almost nothing except that this work existed in another form in another time. It’s my memory that gives the new Isolation House its full meaning – without it, the defining feature of this work, which is loss, is lost. Or say rather: locked. Hard to reach, and thus, hard to read. Harder now than it was 12 years ago. And soon it will be harder still.

In his refusal to stage a straight reproduction of an acclaimed past work, his commitment to the reality of this new site, and his fidelity to the truth of where we have come in the last decade, Kim Chiew teaches us that we must – we can – learn to read and face our history even in the smooth, clean and silent concrete.

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This installation is part of the exhibition Kadang Kadang Dekat Dekat Akan Datang: Chong Kim Chiew & FX Harsono, 15 Sept – 7 Oct 2017 at A+ Works of Art

‘Playing with History’ by Beverly Yong, a joint review of Chong Kim Chiew’s Isolation House and my first solo exhibition Boats and Bridges, first published in 2005 on kakiseni.com (now defunct).