IN 1989 I completed a series of nine pencil drawings, accompanied by 10 sets of draft verses, and called them The Refugee Child. They are about the aftermath of a battle during the Vietnam war, and the journey of a child after the ravages through to his resettlement in a foreign land.
In 2018, after much re-write of the words, I published it as a PDF file. By that time, I had realised I knew little about the realities of war on the ground and wrote an introduction to explain. I also wrote a piece on empathy to elaborate. Please click on the two headings below. They will expand and give you access to the contents:
Introduction to The Refugee Child, 2018
Empathy and imagination are two traits that quiet, nay, introverted, people like me cherish. They help us to navigate the labyrinthian pathways of life. They give us a world to recede into, to enjoy and grow ourselves and our work. They are a constant companion in this often lonely world.
The seeds of this project were planted in the mid 1970s when I watched Saigon fall on TV in the United Kingdom. They were cultivated again later in the backroom of The Malay Mail when we were copy tasting regional news. In the late 1970s, a trickle of people leaving Vietnam by boat turned into an unimaginable gush. There were horrendous stories on their plight at sea, the atrocities inflicted upon them by fishermen-turned-pirates, the concentration camps, their journeys to faraway lands and how they settled there.
I felt deeply for them – feelings that imploded into this project. As I wrote and drew, I knew I had lost touch with Truth; that, not being with them, I could never capture their actual condition. However, I did not want to deny myself artistic licence – after all, at that time, like many other things I had done, the audience was limited to me, my family and a few other people close to me. Looking at The Refugee Child from afar now, it was a wildish abstraction of reality, somewhat like Max Weber's “ideal type” (read here) with creative flourish.
I treat it as part of my “biographical expressions”. Media, be they photos, text or doodles are, many a time, all we have to tell others what we were, snapshots of our “becoming”.
Lim Siang Jin, June 2018
Peel my harsh words gently
To touch their worn down
Gaze at my gaudy images
To soak their empathy
Wear my mask patiently
To feel its burden
On my soul
Touch my body
To brave its weariness
And the defiance it exudes
Enter my mind
To live its hope
Despite the absurd machinations of our kind
Crawl into my soul
To wield the brazen humility
That stands up before Power’s gaze
I never thought I would revisit this piece of work again so soon after my “restart” in 2020 – it’s very elaborate and would require a lot of planning and probably have to be recreated, if ever, as installations. Not until Oct 7, 2023, that is, when Hamas attacked Israel, and the latter responded with unrelenting and absolutely unconscionable cruelty. The scenes at Gaza reminded me of the Aftermath, the first set of my verses. Scouring the text, I come across the phrase therein that says “the tattered mourners wail”, something I had illustrated in pencil before.
I like the drawing very much but, without full-colour and the means to project more emotions, I felt I could do better. An opportunity arose when I was to submit two 2ft x 2ft pieces for a collaborative Malaysia-India exhibition at ArtVoice Gallery called MyVoice from Dec 8-14, 2023.
I was running very late. I painted the two pieces quickly, and sent them a couple of days after the November 30 deadline – while my feelings for Gaza remained acute. I called them “Tattered mourner(s) and beams of wails”. One has a figure and the second, two. I quickly typed out some thoughts to explain and shared with exhibition curator Stephen Menon and co-exhibitor KF Choy: “We cannot project sound through visual art; I thought light might do the trick as the metaphors for sound. As the beams intersect, they make cubist-like forms that give the sense of dismay and [dislocation, of pain, utter] confusion and overlapping [complex] feelings”.
Being late and wanting mainly to capture my feelings of the moment, I asked if I could submit pieces that have not been completed to my satisfaction. With an answer in the positive, for which I am very thankful, I sent two “drafts” that are “80 per cent” done. I wrote: “I may redraw them or use them as the basis of a collage with silkscreens of other print images. At this point, redrawing them seems to be my chosen option”.
The following are the paintings I submitted: