Conjuring Memory and a Sense of Place in Southeast Asia

For 50-year-old Hoa, the main character in the film “The House of Guava,” time stopped in the early 1960s.

In his mind, he is forever a teenager and his family lives in a house with a guava tree in the backyard. After falling out of this tree at the age of 13, he suffered brain damage that interrupted his mental development.

In a scene from 'The House of Guava,' Hoa holds a pair of guavas that bring back memories of his happy childhood.
In a scene from ‘The House of Guava,’ Hoa holds a pair of guavas that bring back memories of his happy childhood.

The home that his father built in Hanoi was seized during the land reform period and now belongs to a Vietnamese government official whose daughter does not know its history.

The 1999 film by Vietnamese director Dang Nhat Minh is the subject of a new article by Cambodian-American scholar Ly Boreth, set to be published Thursday in the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, an online journal.

Mr. Ly, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, specializes in Southeast Asian art history and visual culture. The film fascinated him because it could have taken place in any one of several Southeast Asian countries that experienced conflict and regime change in the second half of the 20th century—and where families were uprooted.

“The film resonates because it addresses the notion of history and memory—private and public—and the erasure and ultimate deracination of the old elite family,” he said in an interview.

It could very well have been set in Phnom Penh, where many fled their homes during the civil war of the early 1970s, taking refuge abroad with whatever they could carry, while those who stayed behind were forced to leave when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city in April 1975.

Whether they later returned didn’t matter. Under the 2001 Land Law, property rights prior to 1979 are not recognized. Those who obtained land rights after that date legally own their properties.

As in the film, the children now living in pre-1979 homes in Phnom Penh probably have no idea that other families abandoned them in tragic circumstances. In the film, the daughter of the house befriends the mentally disabled Hoa and lets him tour his childhood haven, at least until her father hears of it and has him committed to a psychiatric hospital.

As far as Mr. Ly knows, no feature film in Cambodia has addressed this issue. That a film on the topic was made in Vietnam, which remains under communist rule, as it was when the land reform program was instituted in northern Vietnam in the 1950s, is an anomaly, he said.

The film was made by one of Vietnam’s foremost directors. Mr. Minh, who studied filmmaking in the Soviet Union, went on to direct movies in line with his country’s communist ideals. “The House of Guava,” whose Vietnamese title is “Mua oi,” is based on his short story “The Old House.”

“It’s very astonishing that a national filmmaker coming from the old regime, making films approved by the censorship of the Vietnamese government, is able to critique in his film very explicitly—right, in metaphorical terms—what transpired and the types of memory embedded in social structures,” Mr. Ly said. The film, however, was only shown publicly in Vietnam when it first came out in 1999, he said.

For those who lost their homes in the course of the region’s political upheaval, Mr. Ly said, “the memory will always be there.”

“They can’t erase it; it’s like a ghost. No matter how much they want to erase it, it’s still there,” he said. And yet, he added, “It’s not about nostalgia, because it’s gone. It’s a bygone era.”

According to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, editor of the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, published by Kyoto University in Japan, addressing the topic of memory is to push boundaries both among academics and the general public in Southeast Asia.

“The issue of memory is important in a sense that we confront the political realities by refreshing ‘certain memories’ which have shaped and reshaped our thinking and ideology, for better or for worse, as a way to understand how we are today, and the system that we are in,” he said.

The journal’s forthcoming issue was overseen by Penny Edwards, a British historian and professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has written extensively on Cambodia. She entitled the issue “Memory Thickness: Presenting Southeast Asian Pasts.”

Memory has become a popular theme in academic circles, Ms. Edwards said, but “some of the work on memory is so hyper-theorized that I wanted to explore the ways in which memory is actually very much embodied, as it’s not always abstract.”

As French anthropologist Anne Yvonne Guillou discovered during nearly a decade of research on Cambodians’ beliefs and practices in the countryside, whole pages of history are imprinted into the landscape. “Land in Cambodia, where 80 percent of the people still live in the countryside, is central as a livelihood. It is also central to the popular religious system,” she writes in another article in the journal’s memory issue, “Potent places as embodied memory in Cambodia.”

In Pursat province, for example, the landscape has become a physical representation of the story of Khleang Moeung who, according to legend, raised an army of ghosts to defeat military forces from Siam—as Thailand was then known—in the 16th century. Locals visit those sites and appeal to his spirit for help, and many speak of being visited by him in dreams or through apparitions, Ms. Guillou writes.

But this is not limited to events of centuries past. Cambodians have found ways to come to terms with the Khmer Rouge era in a similar way, she said in an interview. “Cambodians conceive history through locations,” she said, and locations become powerful in their eyes.

Under the Khmer Rouge, killings fields and mass graves multiplied across the country. These ranged from former prisons where thousands were killed to trenches for a few dozen bodies that only locals remember, she said.

These sites have been assimilated into beliefs that yield power, Ms. Guillou said. The anonymous dead “have become some sort of dead protectors of the territory,” she said. “It’s a way for the Khmer to somehow assume the Khmer Rouge history in a Cambodian and popular way.”

The concept of memory-imbued land also explains why Cambodians forced from their homes lose more than their houses and livelihoods. They are also deprived of an entire history and belief system linked to the land.

As in “The House of Guava,” in which the guava tree is Hoa’s link to a happier time, parts of the landscape, Ms. Guillou explains, become “creative memory” that people use to face the present.

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