Why Remember?

by campbelltownartscentre

Peter Allen sings Tenterfield Saddler. (Sound only, static images)

by Helen Fong

The late singer/ songwriter, Peter Allen, changed his surname from Woolnough. In his autobiographical song “Tenterfield Saddler”, Allen told how his grandfather, his father, and by implication his Tenterfield past no longer had a place in his life. Then came the throwaway line leading to a rousing chorus- “except in this song”. In the song’s three short minutes, Allen deftly managed to memorialise his family while also making a clear statement that he had moved on. Some people who have had traumatic childhoods, as Peter Allen did, seek to reinvent themselves and leave the past behind. It can be an act of courage to do so. Why do others choose to remember? Why did FX Harsono choose to recall his Chinese name in “Rewriting the Erased Name” and “Writing in the Rain”?

Each of the three characters of Harsono’s name has its own potent meaning. Harsono’s Chinese name is pronounced Hu Feng Wen in Mandarin, though his family may pronounce it differently. “ Hu” is Harsono’s surname. Ironically Harsono, who has struggled to maintain his Chinese identity in Indonesia, has the same surname as China’s president, Hu Jintao. “Feng” means “great, rich, abundant”. When used for a name “wen” is understood to mean “ culture, literature”. Harsono’s personal name is in the Chinese tradition of aspirational names for males and both characters have been in common use for naming boys. I’m intrigued by what Harsono’s parents intended when they gave him this particular name. In a country where use of Chinese  in public was banned, did Harsono’s parents express a secret hope by giving their son “culture” and “literature” as his name?

In “Rewriting the Erased Name” and “Writing in the Rain” Harsono expresses his Chinese identity by repeatedly writing his name. But the name itself conveys additional messages to those who can read it. Harsono is no stranger to using coded language in his work. In “Voice Without Voice/Sign,” dating from 1993-94, he arranged nine canvases in a row, each imprinted with a hand gesture. Collectively, they spelt out the word D-E-M-O-K-R-A-S-I in universal sign language. The work was understood by those in the know, but not by government staff. In such games with language, Harsono follows in the tradition of the Chinese literati.

FX Harsono, Voice Without Voice / Sign, 1993 – 4, silkscreen on canvas (9 panels), wooden stools and stamps, 143,5 x 95,5 cm each panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In these works Harsono makes a political statement about the repression of Indonesians of Chinese background, and  signals a wish to be connected with his “lost” Chinese heritage. Cultural theorist Ien Ang says that the Chinese have an obsession with China and that the Chinese diaspora is connected to the ‘homeland’ by an emotional, almost visceral attachment. Some of the Chinese disapora have over the past decades certainly been obsessed with China. The way that Harsono repetitively writes his Chinese name seems obsessional, but this may be more about the formal design of the work. It is clear that like many millions of other members of the Chinese diaspora, Harsono has an emotional attachment to his Chinese cultural heritage. Through an interest in Chinese culture, there is for many an attachment to China (not quite an obsession). Some may feel as I do, that our relationship to China is like our relationship with extended family- it is just there. Families are very varied and we don’t always agree with what members do or say, but so long as people close to us don’t cause us pain, we maintain our relationship.

Along with other members of the Edge of Elsewhere/ In memory of a name curatorium I have been researching why people change their names. At the same time, in my day-to-day work researching the history of Sydney’s Chinese, I have amassed a collection of names of Chinese people from legal documents, English and Chinese language newspapers, Chinese documents, gravestones and temple donor records. Who are the people behind the names? The research for the Edge of elsewhere and my own history project have led me to reflect on the whole matter of remembering as well as changing names.

Why choose to remember names? Family historians seek to know about their ancestors. Some historians research people whose names were once prominent but are now largely forgotten. One is writing about men whose names adorn buildings at the University of Sydney, but whose achievements and stories are no longer known by students who attend lectures in those buildings. Other historians seek out the names and stories of people whose histories have been relatively neglected-women, children, indigenous people, non-white migrants. Ideally, we remember, we reconnect with our past, our heritage, to live a more truthful, richer life in the present.

But the past, history, and tradition can also be burdensome, something used to shackle and restrict. They can be employed as a rationale for privileging one group while subjugating another. In Australia, there is room for creativity and choice. This is what  those who have changed or  remembered their names show us.


Helen Fong is a community historian who is currently writing a social history of Sydney’s Chinese. She is historian for the Sze Yup Kwan Ti Temple. Helen has worked for several years as an editor and arts administrator, and has a M.Art Admin degree. She joined the Edge of Elsewhere curatorium  as, after many years of historical research, she was keen to work again with contemporary art and  on a collaborative project.

Ien Ang, “On not speaking Chinese-living between Asian and the West”, London: Routledge 2001, London
Ien Ang, “Intertwining Histories: Heritage and Diversity”, 6th annual lecture for the History Council of NSW, delivered 24 September 2001, Govt House, Sydney