Okui Lala, real name Chew Win Chen, is a fourth-generation Chinese Malaysian. Living in a country well known for its multicultural makeup, Chew is a multimedia artist who explores issues of language, migration, and identity through photography, video, and performance art. Today, we meet up with her in Penang’s Komtar Tower, a once iconic landmark in George Town that the state’s tourism board does not want to give up on despite dwindling public interest.
Okui Lala 原名 Chew Win Chen，是第四代的马来西亚华裔。 在这样一个以多元文化著称的国家里成长，Chew作为一名多媒体艺术家，喜欢通过摄影、影片和表演 艺术来探讨语言翻译、移民和身份认知等问题。今天，我们和 Chew 约好到槟城的光大大厦（Komtar）见面。这幢大厦曾经是槟城首府乔治市的标志性地标，尽管近年来这幢建筑对公众的吸引力已不断式微，但当地旅游局仍然不想放弃它。
Inside the shopping mall, 80s brutalist architecture adds to the grimness of the unoccupied storefronts. It’s here where many of the city’s migrant workers set up their grocery stores, restaurants, and hair salons. It’s also here where many of the city’s Filipino workers send parcels and remittance back home to the families they left behind. Young Burmese men gather in the poorly lit eateries sprinkled throughout the mall, chatting over cigarettes and tea on their only day off.
In 2015, Chew started working with Burmese migrants on a piece called Let’s Drink and Eat Tea! One of the standout tutorials of the series was a live performance of making lahpet thoke, a simple Burmese appetizer. In the tutorial, Chew learned how to prepare the dish via translated instructions. The normally quick-to-prepare dish took thrice the time to cook as Burmese was translated into Malay, and then Malay translated into English. The video aims to demonstrate the possibilities and limitations of using translation as a tool for understanding.
2015年，Chew 开始以缅甸移民为对象，进行名为《Let’s Drink and Eat Tea！》的系列项目。其中她还试过现场制作茶叶沙拉（Lahpet Thoke）的表演。茶叶沙拉是一道制作简单的缅甸特色开胃菜，但 Chew 要通过翻译后的说明来学习如何准备这道菜。因为多了先将缅甸语翻译成马来语，再把马来语翻译成英语这个步骤，最后 Chew 完成这道原本很简单的菜式花费了比平时多三倍的时间，以此说明，翻译作为交流理解的工具的可能性和局限性。
Let’s Drink and Eat Tea! kickstarted Chew’s thought process on her latest project – My Language Proficiency, a short film in which she holds a panel discussion with herself in Malay, Mandarin, English, and Hokkien. Confronted with an art scene that’s often segregated by language barriers, Chew wanted to explore what intellectual discourse would sound like in a multicultural society if everyone could have a seat at the table and speak in the language that they are most comfortable with. The project also examines the deep influence that history, education policy, migration, and upbringing have on a person’s choice of language.
《Let’s Drink and Eat Tea!》这个项目启发 Chew 开始思考自己的最新作品《My Language Proficiency》（我的语言能力）。她分别拍摄下自己说着四种不同语言的四部短片，用马来语、普通话、英语和闽南语与自己进行一场小组讨论。面对一个经常被语言障碍所隔离的艺术场景，Chew 想探究在多元文化社会中，如果每个人都可以坐在一起，用他们最熟悉的语言来交流，这样的“知性对话会是怎么样的”。此外，这个项目还会探讨历史、教育政策、移民和家庭教育对一个人语言选择的深刻影响。
As we wander around Komtar, Chew notes how the two waves of Malaysia’s migrants intersect – the “official faces” of Malaysia’s multiculturalism (Malays, Chinese, Indians), and the second influx of foreign workers from Myanmar and the Philippines. “There is xenophobia among our rakyat,” Chew says, using the Malay word for citizens, a word that is usually associated with patriotism and unity on a national front.
In light of recent news of Malaysia’s racial segregation, the country was slapped with a temporary ban from the Indonesian government, stopping the intake of Indonesian workers as a reaction to cases of abuse and the death of an Indonesian maid. Penang itself, with its cosmopolitan past as a trading port, enforced a ban last year on foreign cooks in efforts to protect the authenticity of its famed hawker fares. But Penang’s food, a tourist draw on its own, is a byproduct of Chinese and Indian Muslim traders assimilating with the local culture. The irony was lost on a majority of Malaysians who voted in favor of the ban.
“We’re in George Town, and we have a lot of fixed ideas about what George Town’s heritage is,” says Chew, reflecting on the almost aggressive ownership Penang’s heritage center holds on what it deems as authentic. She says that the new wave of migrant workers is viewed by many locals as “the ‘others’ who will come and take over our jobs”.
“目前马来西亚人（rakyat）中存在一种仇外心理，” Chew 说道。“rakyat”一词是马来语中“公民”的意思，这个词往往还意味着爱国主义和团结。
“We haven’t really overcome xenophobia on a social level. How are we going to handle these issues [related to migration policies]?” she questions when asked if she feels pressure to take a social justice angle to her work with migrant workers. Chew’s work urges one to turn inwards with self-reflection to better understand and receive others, to see that their cultural influences are equally important contributions to the make-up of a Malaysian identity.
“Myanmar migrants are new migrants but can the culture that they bring with them be considered heritage? I like this old and new contradiction,” she muses. The constant stream of languages that appear in Chew’s work, be it familiar or foreign, holds a lens to the complex identities of old and new migrants that have chosen Malaysia as home. And perhaps importantly, in an age of Brexit and Trump, Chew’s work implores for acceptance of self and of neighbor.
Chew 的作品试图从社会正义的角度出发，探讨移民工人的现状和问题。被问及 Chew 是否对此也会感到不少压力时，她说：“我们的社会还没有真正克服仇外心理的问题。我们到底应该要如何处理（与移民政策相关的） 问题呢？” Chew 的作品敦促人们自我反省，去更好地理解和接受所谓的“外人”，也去明白他们的文化影响对马来西亚人身份的有着同样重要的贡献。
“缅甸移民是新移民，但他们带来的文化是否可以被视为（本土）文化遗产？我喜欢这种新与旧的矛盾。”她沉思着说道。Chew 的作品中充斥着源源不断的语言元素，无论是当地人熟悉的母语或是外语，其实都为我们提供了一种视角，以探讨那些马来西亚新老移民复杂的身份问题。重要的是，在这个对移民不够友善的整体环境下，Chew 的作品更是在呼吁人们要去包容和接纳自身的移民文化，而非抵触。
Contributor & Photographer: Adeline Chua
Video Courtesy of Okui Lala
供稿人与摄影师: Adeline Chua
视频由 Okui Lala 提供