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The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea (2019-20) >

It means I won’t be back

It means I won’t be back

A research project on “Sea” and “Diaspora” (Excerpt)

Text: LEE Kai Chung




After the War – On Heritage and its Conservation


On September 1, 2002, the Guangzhou Municipal Bureau of Culture listed the Guangdong-Hong Kong Customs and Quarantine Station of the Japanese Southern China Army Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Unit under Registered Protected Cultural Relics in Guangzhou (CW84), a designation established in April 1941 during the Occupation period, when the Guangzhou Municipal Bureau of Public Works claimed part of the land at Nanshitou for the establishment of the Quarantine Station. It is the only listed historical building in the Nanshitou Incident, but six other architectural structures are still pending archaeological assessment. On February 22, 2017, representatives of the China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation visited Nanshitou and claimed that they were considering raising funds for conservation and urban planning. In March of the same year, 23 members of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) proposed to “build a monument and a memorial museum for the victims of the Japanese Army’s germ-weapon massacre in Nanshitou”, and resolved to “protect the ruins and architecture and prepare the memorial museum in phases”. Two years have passed, and when I conducted field research in Nanshitou between late 2019 and early 2020, the ruins of the refugee camp were surrounded by fences, and all buildings were basically demolished except for the walls of the automobile factory. There are also no signs, such as “Public notice of Historic Buildings” or “Protected Heritage”, in the vicinity of the refugee camp site, and some buildings are at risk of collapse as a result of dilapidation. For example, the main building of the Quarantine Station has been in disrepair for a long time; the roof has been severely damaged by typhoons and rain, and the internal ceiling shows signs of water leakage. Parts of the building were defaced, vandalized (ie. the ceiling at the top of the doorway showed signs of being burnt) and dismantled. The two stone pillars on either side of the main entrance and in front of it are painted with Communist slogans from the Cultural Revolution era, with a piece of paper with Japanese inscription still left on the ceiling of the main entrance, which theoretically should be preserved intact with the historical wholeness of a heritage. In 1994, the Director’s Room on the second floor was still there. In addition, the structure and pavement in front of the building were occupied and converted to the Nanhe Road Police Station, and a slope was built in the open space in front of the Quarantine Station, which leads to the residential houses on the hill. From a conservation point of view, the overall connectivity of the heritage was disrupted, as the Hong Kong refugees, upon disembarkation, had to go to the Quarantine Station for initial examination before being transferred to the refugee camp or other departments, or being directly released. Therefore, according to the map drawn by Mr. Leung from Shunde, Guangdong, the Quarantine Station was also called the “Upper Station”, while the “Lower Station” was another Quarantine Station in the west, now a residential area. The difference between “Upper” and “Lower” could be geographic locations or refer to the sequence in which the refugees entered Nanshitou, since “Lower” in Japanese has the additional meaning of “next place”. According to Professor Tan Yuenheng, after visiting the Quarantine Station in 2016 with volunteers and engineers, he felt the building was at risk of collapse and urged the heritage department to repair it, after which it was learnt that about RMB100,000 or so was granted to the department. Unfortunately, the relevant departments have not carried out any repairs at the time this article was written.

Another artifact related to the incident, the Memorial of the Guangdong-Hong Kong Refugees, is located in a neighbourhood along Nanji Road where a locked metal gate is installed, rendering it inaccessible to non-residents. There is also a lack of signage at the entrance to the neighbourhood. The open area around the memorial has been privatized by the neighbourhood residents, who store their personal belongings and generally occupy the space. Display panels showing the typical historical narrative of the Chinese Communist Party are installed behind the memorial, but rubbish has been stuffed behind the glass panels, and nobody appears to keep them tidy.

Professor Tan speculates that there are some other historical buildings whose heritage could hark back to World War II, such as a separate architectural cluster in the northwest of Nanshitou Village that could have been another Quarantine Station, as well as the kitchen of the refugee camp, or a Red Cross medical clinic on the hill (formerly ‘Japanese Hill’), etc. Existing references are mainly drawn from interviews of nearby villagers and refugees in the early 1990s, and at this stage, only reasonable inferences can be made based on the geographical context and Japanese deployment at the time, etc. After the founding of New China, there were new construction projects of the Guangzhou Automobile Factory and the Guangzhou Paper Mill Dormitory respectively in the district; meanwhile, villagers have also occupied and made various degrees of unauthorized building works or alterations to the above-mentioned buildings.

Many local researchers and citizens who are concerned about the incident have proposed to the Guangzhou Municipal Government to conserve Nanshitou’s heritage and promote its history, and even collaborated with local organizations to design a museum and theme park. However, the proposal was later shelved due to the demolition of the automobile factory, land ownership and the Guangdong government’s desire to use the former industrial site for commercial purposes, and also due to the pandemic in 2020.

At the original site of the refugee camp, Nanshitou 28 Creative Park has been planned, which falls under the governance of Qianzhan Industry Research Institute (前瞻產業研究院), an enterprise that claims to collaborate with the government, academic institutions and private corporates; it specifies that it works in real estate planning and big data research. Nearby, the 31 Road Photography Creative Park in the same district has already started running. The “Upper House” or Japanese Hill area is now occupied by various dwellings, and Nanshi West Village is mainly a residential area for factory workers, people in the recycling business and citizens who settled in after the war. The opposite bank of the Wood-washing Pond is still occupied by a group of factories. The area around Taikoo and Osaka warehouses in the north of Nanshitou has been successfully transformed from a cargo transfer station into a recreational and cultural district, with residential estates, hotels, shopping malls and commercial buildings. This gentrification is likely to extend to Nanshitou; with enterprises such as Qianzhan Industry Research Institute, which was originally dedicated to the development of light and heavy industry lots, now shifting to arts and cultural studios and technology research labs. I think it is less likely in the current development context of Mainland China that the city would choose to develop Nanshitou, with its beautiful scenic view of Pearl River, into a museum district purely for conservation and commemorating war history, instead of developing it into a multi-functional district with a mix of real-estate projects and commercial developments. On the other hand, it is a common practice for cities to expand into suburbs, and a large proportion of the historic sites are now built with residential high-rises, so one can imagine the serious impact on housing prices if the history of refugee camp and discovery of the corpses were to become part of the museum’s narrative. At this specific time, as a result, conservation and local development are at odds, and cooperation – or conflict – between corporations, plutocrats and the city government is becoming more obvious.

At the Fifth Session of the 12th CPPCC Committee, the suggestion was made that “the Municipal Cultural and Heritage Departments may take the lead in conducting an archaeological exploration of the relevant cultural relics”. This necessarily involves considerable difficulties because the area around Nanji Road, where the bodies were once excavated, has been developed into different small neighbourhoods. Once an archaeological survey must be conducted, a long-term negotiation and mutual agreement between residents and management companies has to be reached. If the survey is carried out at the Nanshitou Refugee Camp, the difficulty is relatively low, as the automobile factory has been demolished. However, In early 2020, I saw bulldozers begin to clear the rubble and ruins, presumably in preparation for construction, but it is unknown whether this is done by a private plutocrat or the city government. Once construction has started, even if there are new archaeological discoveries, I am afraid that transparency will be a crucial issue in the context of conservation. If and when more bodies are found – which would affect the reputation and profitability of future property projects – the developers will likely hide the discoveries in order to facilitate progress.

What has been discussed above relates mainly to the hardware of the incident. Moreover, if the heritage conservation of the architectural complex is to be advanced, the city government should invite historians and archaeologists to further study the deed of property, ownership and structure of the building based on official materials, while consulting with residents, a study on land resumption and resurveying need to be initiated. However, political factors and local power relations are likely to be crucial factors.

As for software and public education, a group of local educators and conservationists have conducted interviews with villagers and residents since the 1990s. But I believe that a more systematic and longitudinal study is required, covering the following: firstly, interviews with the surviving workers of the Paper Mill and the automobile factory; secondly, interviews with the local villagers and the surviving refugees; and thirdly – which is exactly what I am doing now with this project – is to initiate an open call to the public in Guangdong and Hong Kong through social-media platforms and local contacts, to find all the Hong Kong refugees who were repatriated at that time, as well as their relatives and second or third generations. According to Feng Qi, a survivor from the camp, “When the Kuomintang was about to take over the refugee camp before the Japanese surrender in 1945, there were few refugees left in the camp, especially those from Hong Kong. Thousands of refugees were released and scattered. ” In addition, Hong Kong refugees had the opportunity to stay and settle in Guangdong Province and even other cities in Mainland China after the war, so there are many unknown factors in the third initiative, which will require more manpower and time to investigate. In the open call, I am mainly concerned about the identities of the deceased refugees, and the lives of the refugees after the war.


Since last year, the pandemic has in some ways created a stronger connection to and empathy for the Nanshitou Incident, even if what I am feeling at the moment is far less than what the refugees suffered. This project has been shown in various exhibitions and occasions, and each time I tried to legitimize a connection to the venue. The exhibition at HB Station Contemporary Art and Research Center was not only a remnant of a scene from fragmented memories, but also led the audience and participants into two public programmes: a walking tour entitled “A Walk by the Sea” and an open-air screening. The latter made me contemplate once more the meaning of the work in relation to the present and the locality. The screening, in the original location of the refugee camp, moved me more than ever. I did not have preconceptions about how the villagers would perceive this so-called artwork, or whether the mysteries of history would be resolved. The screening was filled with a young audience, while elsewhere, villagers were discussing how their grandparents survived the occupation. An older woman was walking back and forth within the area, another villager stopped by and watched the film while she was walking her dog, and a solemn-looking subdistrict officer took plenty of pictures. While he was paying attention to the content of the video, he was also distracted by the reaction of the audience. The monologues and sound effects with the projection became intertwined with the sound of cargo ships chirping on the Pearl River in the distance, and workers renovating the Shrine of Merit behind the audience. Perhaps I cannot expect a single project to re-organize all the historical complexities, nor are the “new discoveries” of my research are necessarily inspiring; but by taking the work out of its conventional artistic realm, and adding a sense of everydayness and locality, overlapping it with the realities of daily life, at least it opens up the possibility of dialogue with various kinds of people.

During the project, I interviewed a 93-year-old lady who had experienced the refugee camp, the end of World War II, the Chinese civil war, New China, the Communist era, etc. I put her and her interview into the work that was shown in the outdoor screening: The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea, Part V: The Remains of the Night (2020). During the interview and conversation with the woman, she repeated that what had been engraved in her mind was not the misery of the war and the ease with which people could control their fate, but the fact that for the next 80 years after the war, while remaining unruffled having experienced so many ups and downs, the social welfare system was what could comfort her heart. That is her reality, existing outside of the numbers and causes and consequences recorded in the archives.

While artists hope that their works don’t merely create a definite conclusion of history, we always believe that the imagination brought out by art is productive and meaningful to real life and that the audience can fill the void with their own conclusions. When discussing this notion with my fellow artist Zhu Jianlin, he mentioned that the younger generation may be resistant to fill in and create when they are given this imaginative space, because authoritative education and the social and institutional framework over the years have diminished the mechanisms, vocabulary and techniques for generating “imagination”, which is, as mentioned earlier, one of the fundamentals for critical thinking in historical research. In a sharing session at HB Station, a friend questioned how this project could be expanded. Perhaps the artist could promote the openness and creativity of history on an epistemological level through works of art, just as I have postulated, by reorganizing and criticizing history and the present. In addition, I deeply believe that the perception taken by the artwork transcends rational thinking and language, and the shimmering light can stimulate the pursuit of goodness in human nature, showing empathy and care to the suffering and to the world.

(Article was written in June 2020, revised in February 2021.)


The essay was published on OUTCAST (2021).