Holly Leung reflects on Ho Tzu Nyen's research in relation to items in the Ha Bik Chuen Archive.
Ho Tzu Nyen's project The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, Vol. 1: G for Ghost(writers) features a mysterious character named Gene Z. Hanrahan, the author and editor of a number of books about Asia, politics, and warfare. As Ho conducted research he discovered very little proof that Hanrahan is a real person, which led to him speculate that the name is a possible pseudonym that was used by US government agencies during the Cold War. This was on my mind as I came across magazines at AAA's space in Fo Tan, where the physical Ha Bik Chuen Archive is located at this time. As I engaged with these materials, they seemed to provide what I believe to be a picture of America's activities in Asia during the Cold War period.
Free World is a periodical published by Manila-based Free Asia Press. During my investigation, I could not find any online information about the publisher; I learned, however, that the United States Information Agency Regional Service Centers started to produce periodicals in Manila from 1952 onward.1 I suspect that Free World may have been one of these periodicals.
The publication date is neither indicated on the cover nor in the interior pages. The copy Ha Bik Chuen archived is incomplete; he inserted clippings related to art in Asia from multiple years inside the cover pages of one issue. These articles, which seem to be from Free World, suggest that these issues were likely published between 1956 and 1962.
The geographic areas covered in the clippings include East Pakistan, Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon before it became a republic in 1972), the Philippines, and Taiwan (the magazine uses the term "Free China," coined by the KMT government to differentiate from the Communist-controlled "Red China"). In addition to showcasing Asian artists, the magazine also reports on American artists who exhibited in Asia.
One of the clippings is "How do I become an art practitioner,"2 an article by Chinese American artist Dong King-Man (a descendant of Hong Kong immigrants), whose works were shown in Malaysia in 1956 when the article was published.3 Dong explicitly criticised the communist sphere: "as everyone knows, the American is most afraid of government control. They have seen the example of USSR. In USSR, every art practitioner . . . is a puppet whose daily life is completely controlled by the political leader."
In 1954, the US Department of State invited Dong to go on a cultural exchange programme tour around the world to mount exhibitions, give lectures, and to meet local artists. In 1981 at the invitation of the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China, Dong made history as the first American artist to have a solo exhibition of his work in Beijing, following the resumption of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. There is no evidence that indicates that the United States facilitated this exhibition in any way.
In this batch of materials, Ha also saved "Two Artists" (written around 1962), which features Shiy De Jinn (b. 1923) from Taiwan and Senaka Senanayake (b. 1951) from Sri Lanka. While the two share nothing in common at first glance, the report describes them as "riding a wave of artistic rebirth in Asia." The article notes that, "Both artists share common preoccupation with real life due to the emerging sense of freedom and democracy that has swept over Asia during the past 20 years." The depiction of "real life" is a recurring theme in other articles as well. In the same year, Shiy was invited by the US Department of State to visit the United States and Europe; two years later, Senanayake opened an solo exhibition at Asia Society in New York.
Art in Asia reported on The First Southeast Asia Art Conference and Competition that took place in Manila in 1957, which was said to be the first survey exhibition of South East Asia.4 While the article does not explain how this exhibition came to be, participants have included observers and artists from the United States who "exchanged knowledge and discuss modern art and culture" with the representatives from South East Asian countries, as well as Australia and Taiwan. These materials and the connections between countries reminds me yet again of Gene Z. Hanrahan.
Free World is just one possible example of America exercising power in Asia during the early period of the Cold War. Through associating art with the freedom of expression and modern culture, the magazine shows how ideologies of democracy could be disseminated through travelling exhibitions, cultural exchange, and the circulation of print media.
Notes and Reference Materials
1. "Records of the United States Information Agency [USIA]." National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed 1 August 2017. https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/306.html.
2. "Free World," Volume IV, Number 5.
3. According to the USIS station in Kuala Lumpur, Dong Kingman's exhibition took place in 1956. "While awful weather and other factos conspired to keep attendance relatively low at the beginning of the tour, he was a perfect example of the 'poor boy makes good' story." Krenn, Michael L. Fall-Out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War, pp.120–121. 2005.
Soon, Simon. "Maps of the Sea."
Holly Leung is AAA Programme Coordinator.