Love, Loss and the Last Days of Rangoon
Dr Michelle Aung Thin reveals how Gordon Luce’s Burmese collection is helping her imaginatively recreate the vanished world of the wealthy, cosmopolitan and colonial city of Rangoon for her new semi-autobiographical novel.
Dr Aung Thin is the 2017 Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing, supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust.
*Speakers: Alex Philp (A), Michelle Aung Thin (M)
*Audience: (Au) – no microphone
A: Good evening, everybody, welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name's Alex Philp and I'm the Director of Overseas Collection and Metadata Management here at the Library. Before we start, I'd like to acknowledge the Nganbury and Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and I'd to pay respects to their Elders past and present.
I'm lucky enough to live at the foot of Mount Ainslie, just over the lake there and when my shoddy knees allow, I like to walk up Mount Ainslie on the weekends. There are a number of scarred trees and ceremonial sites in the Mount Ainslie Reserve and those are a physical reminder for me of the continuing stewardship of this beautiful land of the Aboriginal people.
Look, it's an absolute delight for me to introduce this creative art's fellow presentation. Love, Loss and the Last Days of Rangoon. I've introduced quite a number of these over the years and this is absolutely the most intoxicating title of any of them. Dr Michelle Aung Thin is the 2017 Creative Arts Fellow for Australian writing, supported by the Ray Matthew and Eva Kollsman Trust. Dr Aung Thin is a novelist, essayist and academic and is a lecturer at the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT. Did I get that bit right?
A: Very good. Her first novel in 2011, the Monsoon Bride, was short-listed for the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. During her Fellowship here at the Library, Michelle has been primarily examining the personal papers in the Gordon Luce collection to help her recreate the cross-cultural cosmopolitan colonial city of Rangoon.
Before she came to the Library, she had already consulted official archives in Myanmar, the Library of Congress and at the British Library but came to this Library seeking a more personal stance of a foreigner who made Burma home as did Gordon Luce. Michelle will talk a bit more about the Luce Collection during her presentation so I won't go into that right now. But before I introduce her, let me do a little brag about the wonderful collecting program covering Myanmar we do here at the National Library.
The Library collects and provides access to a really wide range of materials from Myanmar and we're really proud to do so. We think this kind of collecting makes a really significant contribution to Australia and to our collective understanding of our region. It's a small but significant way we're building our Library's collection and it helps fulfil our mandate, which is to develop a national collection of Library material.
The Burmese collection consists of over 3,000 books and 125 serial titles and that's - when I started in this job, I would have had no idea but that's quite a large amount. Most of the collection dates back to the 1950s and includes work on economics, education, history, ethnography, language and medicine and there are also many works on Burmese culture and religion and literature.
Now the Library's longest serving Director General, Sir Harold White, had a fearsome reputation for getting his own way. He visited Gordon Luce in Rangoon in 1963 and expressed an interest in acquiring his personal collection. He wasn't able to persuade Gordon Luce at that time but however we did eventually manage to acquire the collection in 1980 after Luce died a year earlier and 10 years after Sir Harold White had retired.
Sir Harold was a visionary in many ways but I wonder if even he would have seen that this Luce collection would be the spur for this Creative Arts Fellowship in writing. While we've got no idea if he did foresee that or not, I'm very glad he put in that effort to visit the family in Rangoon in 1963 and I'm sure we're all looking forward to hearing Michelle give her presentation about the collection. Please welcome Dr Michelle Aung Thin.
M: I'll change into my reading glasses. Well, as Alex said, my name's Michelle Aung Thin and I'm the Creative Writing Fellow for 2017. And tonight I'm going to talk to you a bit about the project that I've been working on that I've used the Luce collection to develop. It's a novel and it's set in Rangoon. In the promo for this, I noticed that Robin Holmes, who's not here tonight, mentioned that I would be discussing my creative process and I laughed and was terrified at the same time because - this is my son, and when I was working on my first book I used to work at our kitchen table and I would work during the day and he would - and I would wait until he came home from school and pick him up and then sometimes if I was on a deadline or something, or on a role, I'd go back to work. And one day he was standing there watching me and I said, yeah, what do you want. I was busy, and he said, what are you doing, and I said well I'm writing, and he goes, really, because it looks like you're just staring into space and talking to yourself.
And actually that is the creative process, it's staring into space and talking to myself. I'm staring into space now and I'm talking and you're listening but it does feel a bit like I'm going on a bit. So this could be a little bit weird but hopefully not too strange. So the creative process, the work that I did with the Luce collection, I wanted to discuss first before I go into that, a little bit of the history of Rangoon and Burma so I could orient to you in what I'm going to talk about. And I felt that the best way to do this was probably to show you this photograph. This is the secretariat and it's right in the centre of Rangoon or Yangon as it's now called and it takes up this massive space, several acres. And it's this heavy brick red built series of buildings and it was built by the British not long after they annexed Burma in late 19th century. And that was when Burma not only became a colony but a province of India.
The Royal Family had been exiled and the Burmese had been humiliated and this was really very much a symbol of colonial power. Mandalay had been the centre and Rangoon was where activity had shifted. So for me I still feel that tension when I see this building. But of course, as you see now, it's quite decayed. In 1941 the Japanese declared war on America and Great Britain and the Secretariat was abandoned. Of government records that had been there were loaded onto a train bound for Shimla which is a hill station in India, the site of the temporary Burmese capital and then they got lost en route. The rumour is that they were mistakenly redirected to a shunting yard somewhere. So there was the empty Secretariat.
In 1945 the British retook Burma and between 1945 and 1947 there were negotiations made about the independence for the country. In 1947 San who was the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, was the defacto leader of Burma or would be, and he had managed to broker this piece between the different ethnicities that made Burma. Burma's actually a union rather than one nation of a single people. He was assassinated in the secretariat in 1947 and that kind of assassination and his moral right was what Aung San Suu Kyi took on when she became the defacto leader or Burma and the leader of the National League of Democracy.
In 1962 there was a military coup and again that was about keeping the peace amongst the different ethnicities to create this idea of a union of Burma and in 1964 the foreigners were expelled from the country and that was people who had lived there for generations. The Secretariat was abandoned and I think it was some time in the '70s and this long slow isolation of Burma began. And for me the Secretariat has an incredible emotional charge. If you look at this photo, if you look in that doorway at the centre you can see through to another building that matches this big red building here, it's quite a large site, there's buildings on the corners and they're all completely falling apart. What I also think is really telling about this, is you can see I've shot this photograph and there's two sets of fences so it looks like a wound to me and the fences look like Band-Aids trying to contain this terrible emotional past that is Burma.
So that's my potted history of Burma that will hopefully orient you in what I'm about to tell you. As I said, I took this photograph in 2013 and that was the first time I returned to Burma. I was born in Burma in 1962, the year of the Military Coup. I left in 1963 with my parents but my maternal grandparents stayed behind. In 1964 the military government expelled foreigners, as I've mentioned, and that was the beginning of the isolation. And it also was the beginning of a defacto policy of refusing former nationals' visas to return. So until the trip when I took this photograph I had never been to Burma, even though it was the country of my birth.
My grandparents had stayed behind. I never met them. In fact none of my family has ever been allowed back. I was the first one to return. So why did I go? I was quite reluctant to go for a really long time, but really I was so keen to know about the place where I had been born. I wanted to know about the culture, I wanted to know about the climate, I wanted to know how people looked, all that basic stuff that you associate with the land of your birth. And what I found when I went - I went twice in 2013 for the first time and then again in 2014 for an extended period of three months. And what I found was society in total transition. People were staggering out from beneath 50 years of an oppressive military government and it was incredibly humbling to witness this experience - these people experiencing this. They were incredibly courageous about this change in things. They were very disoriented. They were joyful at the prospect of a more open society but they found the whole process very painful as well, it was something they had to really grapple with.
It was a moment, I think that will probably never be repeated and as things have changed since 2012/'13 and '14 Burma's changing and we see how the politics of the country are becoming harder but that moment was a moment of almost complete innocence. It was frankly something that was very humbling to witness.
But I was amazed, of course, at what was going on around me, and yet I was also unprepared for what was happening inside of me for what it felt like to finally walk the streets of the city of my birth. My first book is called the Monsoon Bride and it's set in colonial Rangoon and I had for that book researched the city minutely. I researched the climate, I researched the layout of the city, I looked at these old geographic articles to see where people lived in the different parts of the city. I researched social [inaudible 11:38] as well as I could, memoirs, people's discussions of their parties, culture of newspapers, all these things I looked at.
And yet I was really not prepared for the experience of being there and I think that's because one of the remarkable things about Rangoon is that the entire colonial city is virtually intact. So you can walk around the buildings as they once were. It's decrepit but it's still there. And so walking those streets, being in that place I felt like I was in a double reality. It was like the past and the present were unfolding before me simultaneously. The memories of my mother, my father, my grandmother, my cousins, great aunts and uncles flooded back to me. And then new memories because I was the first person back so this prompted lots of new stories that came via email from people all over the world. My family's strung out all over, they're in Australia, Europe and Canada. So they'd be sending emails going, oh I remember this and oh I remember that. My parents would be remembering, oh we used to live in this road and we used to go to this place for coffee and this happened and that happened. So all these things were coming back at me via email.
It felt like I was the recipient of five generations of my family who had lived there, all talking to me at once. All these stories were going in my head, they felt like they were in the air around me and it was a really overwhelming experience. But one that I welcomed. So this is a picture of my great aunt, she's the one on third from the right. Yeah, that way. She's the one holding the big silver cup with the western style dress and that picture is from after independence but it's still part of that cosmopolitan and colonial Rangoon. And I really love this picture because the jockey is the tallest person. And you don't expect that, do you.
So I have a very complex heritage and one that I think is really typical of Rangoon at the particular - of that time. My heritage includes Indian, Dutch, German, Scottish and Irish predecessors, Catholics and Buddhists, Hindus, and Protestants. As I walk the streets that they had walked I realised that what I was longing for in this present and past unfolding, was that Rangoon of the past. A cosmopolitan city where there were German and Italian and French communities alongside Indian, Chinese and Japanese ones, and of course the Burmese, where there was and still is a synagogue and an Armenian Church.
The writer, Morris Collins, describes colonial Rangoon as paradoxical. What he means is that in a city where social hierarchies were based on race and religion, people still strayed across those boundaries. Loving and marrying outside of their culture, their nationality, their religion or in defiance of gender paradigms. So east Rangoon was full of these mixed race families, and mixed race I'm using for want of a better term. One of the problems of writing this book has been finding the right words and I'm a writer, so but that's fairly typical of writers, we don't know how to use the words very well.
The other thing that was really interesting about that Rangoon is that there was also well known gay scene at the YMCA and this was back in colonial times. Interesting, this is something that came out while I was there and people remember these whispers. So this was colonial Burma and it was surprising. But before I make it sound too ideal let me also tell you that Rangoon was a heartless city. It really built for commerce that often violence erupted between these communities, that misogyny was pretty typical, but all the same it was a place where different people met and for the most part were able to make or allowed to make a place for themselves.
So here I was in Rangoon in 2013 and one of the stories, one of these stories flying through the air that came at me stuck. This was the story. It was late November in 1941 and my grandmother, Sarah, was coming home from a Christmas party on the outskirts of the city. Beside her in opal roadster was an Italian musician, Mario or Carlos Aguido, we never knew the name, who'd played at the party and to whom she was giving the lift home. Suddenly both back tyres blew out, the car crashed. They were alone on an empty road in the middle of the night, the car un-drivable and the calls of the blur was potentially menacing. They didn't really know what had caused it and at the time there were a lot of agitation for an independent Burma so people were actually performing little acts of terrorism so they might put something on the tracks of a train and they might lay something across roads, so potentially a menacing situation.
They were waiting there by the side of the road when out of the darkness emerged a man my grandmother referred to only as the Japanese photographer. He was a visible figure amongst that mixed race cosmopolitan layer of Rangoon and he was known as K for the stamp on the back of his exquisite photos. He rescued them and took them home. The next day when my grandmother went to his studio to thank him, he warned her to leave for India, that the Japanese were coming and that they would win the war. It was another week before the attack on Pearl Harbour and before the Japanese actually declared war, so this was like one of those, wow, what the hell was going on there.
And of course I was totally intrigued by this story. I wondered first of all if it was even credible. I wondered why an Italian, an enemy national was allowed to roam Rangoon freely. I wondered what he was doing in her car so late at night, but that's another story. I also wondered how the Japanese photographer knew so much. I wondered if he was maybe some sort of spy and why he was known only as K.
It was at that point in my first trip to Rangoon that I realised the whole experience, the stories that I was thinking that were coming back to me was potentially a book. And this book would be the overarching story of my return and then within that the story of Rangoon, a city and its people in moments of transition. In its last days, if you like. So in 2014 and '13 the last days of a dictatorship which was unfolding before my eyes.
In 1963 with the expulsion of the foreigners the last day of a multicultural city as it became an isolated state. And in 1941 the last days of a cosmopolitan city before it became a city of war where your national origin was suddenly your destiny. This would be a story about how we belonged to the places we live in. It will be a story about home and what that actually means.
So I came to the National Library. As Alex mentioned, I've been researching Burma and the cosmopolitan layer of society for years. For my first novel and for this first book as well and I'd worked in the National Library of Congress in various places, but I hadn't been to the Luce collection. And I came here for a very specific reason. I came to read the private papers and through the library of Gordon Hannington Luce in the hopes that I would find something to help me recreate those earlier incarnations of Rangoon. And this is one of his letters. It's really interesting to look at letters actually because you realise that we're very used to our phones and our devices and we're used to autocorrect and to being able to erase things when we type them. But a lot of Luce's letters are first rough drafts of things that he had to write up later and this is an example of that.
So Luce, I'll tell you a bit more about him and the reason why I was interested in his work and his letters particularly. He was an Englishman who travelled to Burma in 1912 to work as a teacher. He spent most of his adult life in Burma and unlike most of the British who kept to themselves he married a local woman. He name was Tee Tee and she was - their union was one of those paradoxical unions that colour so disapproved of. She was actually a woman in her own right, she opened up a home for waifs and strays and she was a woman of great prestige. But Luce, his career was very much in education. He helped to set up and run rank in university. As a scholar his life's work was documenting the ancient languages and cultures of Burma. He was a renowned expert in this area and his library housed here is one of the world's best collections I believe on Burmese culture remains that.
Yet despite his contribution to Burmese historical scholarship his marriage, all the years he'd lived in Burma, he was expelled from the country as a foreigner in 1964. The interest in his letters for me was because he'd lived in Rangoon during the period I was anxious to recreate, particularly the pre-1941. There was also a diary from his evacuation in 1942 which I thought sounded promising. And what I really hoped for was that his letters would give me a sense of the atmosphere of pre-war Rangoon, of what about - what people thought about things privately.
As I mentioned, much of Burma's colonial archive was destroyed or lost during the war and there really just isn't that much material, not in the way that I wanted to understand it. And I was interested particularly in this cosmopolitan mixed race layer and often that group of people are so good at assimilation it's really difficult to find traces of them in the archive and a name on a piece of paper is often not something that gives you enough information. I was really keen to find what the experience of being in Burma was like.
And here's an example of what I mean. So this is another family photograph, you'll forgive me the family photographs, I hope. On the left with the V on her - oh, no, sorry, there on that side with the V is my grandmother and on the very far other side with a B is my grant aunt Beryl. And they come from the same family and yet you probably wouldn't pick them as sisters. And that is just part of the whole mixed race experience. Your skin is how you face the world and your name. Their name was Nasse, they sounded like Germans, is what you look like in the archive and I was interested in that tension between what you see in the archive and what you see in the lived world and how you negotiate those two things.
So I came to the NLA in June and July of this year and I read through Luce's lifetime of correspondence. And as I read I felt an affinity with this man because he'd spent his whole life reconstructing lost languages and cultures and I felt that I am also trying to re-construct something that was lost, something that I have lost. I didn't actually find out much about Rangoon before the war, I'm afraid, but what I did find was a different way of thinking about the material of this book. And so we are talking about creative process here and I guess this is about process here. This is about the way you find shifts and the way you think about the material you're working on.
So in my reading of Luce's letters the period that moved me most was not the dramatic dash through Burma to India to escape the war, which I thought would be really exciting and dramatic, but rather his slow and painful expulsion in 1964. Luce was in his 70s, his wife was facing leaving the country of her birth and the home of waifs and strays that she'd built up. They had to fight for his pension to be paid to him and that was his only source of income and he had to fight to take his savings with him. So this letter here is to, I believe, is it - this is - I think it's to the Foreign Office and there was lots of correspondence about him trying to get them to put pressure on the Burmese Government to pay his pension.
The other thing that was particularly sad is that Luce had to leave his library behind. So Harold White might have been over in 1963 hoping to buy it but Luce held onto it, it was really important to him. 1964 he had to leave it, he had to leave it. Here is his library. No, that's another story, his letter to the Foreign Office. So this is another example of the kind of correspondence. There was a lot of it in terms of him trying to retain what was his. Here is his library. So Luce's library was of great personal significance. And this is the library I used while I was there and I have to tell you, this library just gives you one corner of it. The amazing thing about the library is that you can smell it several shelves before you get to it. It's actually a lovely thing. I'm never going to give up brooks frankly, because they are just such an amazing sensual pleasure. And you know what it smells like? It sells like heat on paper, you can smell it, it's just amazing. And it's so exciting.
So this was actually the second library that Luce built up and that was dedicated to Burma and her ancient cultures. His first collection was lost during the Japanese occupation and that was a very comprehensive collection put together when he was at the height of his creative - his academic powers. As a young man it contained extensive word lists that he'd gathered of his drawings and that was lost. He spent years trying to reclaim that collection too through the UN. So it was a huge blow when the Burmese authorities would not allow him to take his library with him. They wanted to retain it because they felt it was of cultural significance to the country.
And this whole tension between leaving something behind and taking it with you made me think really deeply about what it actually means to leave a place, to split yourself off. And I realised that even though I am the daughter of migrants and that we left during the coup under extremely dramatic circumstances, and although I've lived in Canada and in England and Australia, and although I was terribly moved when I returned to Rangoon, I really didn't understand what it meant to leave a place under duress.
In my own family this is a part of our story that we don't really talk about. We arrived in Canada late 1963. My brother, Peter, was born in '64, my sister, Pam, in '66, my brother, George, in '73. And the moment of leaving, my parents leaving with me, is mostly buried in that tumult of early family life. That's our history. Besides, when we do tell the stories, when we do revisit them, the stories around coup are extreme, they're often violent and they're traumatic for my parents to relive even now and I think that trauma's not just about the violence, it's also about leaving something that was important to them that defined them. It does set you apart, that background of violence history and I guess it's something that people tell the stories over and over again and you never really fully get to the bottom of them.
What I had, though, in Luce's letters was the documentation of leaving, from the never ending administration so the different forms he had to fill in, the different letters, often in triplicate he had to send to different departments; the practice letters, the rough drafts, the final drafts, all of that. I had that. I had the sad letters of commiseration when people found out he had to leave. I had the sad letters of commiseration when people discovered that Tee Tee had had an emotional breakdown en route between Burma and England. And this changed the way I thought about the story that I was going to tell, both structurally and emotionally.
Here is an example of - a very technical example of something that I used really in the work that I'm about to read to you. This is a letter of termination, Luce's termination from the University of Rangoon. And I'm sorry, you probably can't read it that clearly. But it's extremely formal in the way its set out. And it says - this is the date and this is the day you're leaving and this is the time you're leaving. And this form of letter I thought was really interesting because we just don't get letters like that anymore. And it made me think about how I was going to set up and dramatise and fictionalise the moment when we left. So this is the bit of writing I did as a result of some of the reading I did in Luce's collection.
The idea comes to him with the letters. One is from the Burma Oil Company, the word confidential stamped on the front, the other from the people's oil, the new name chosen by the revolutionary council. Side by side they arrive, presented on the silver tray of the houseboy he uses for the post, except these didn't come by post, they were delivered by hand. Time to arrive at breakfast. A little piece of private theatre. Very well then. He pushes away his eggs and slices through one envelope and then the next, before smoothing both letters onto the table in front of him. Beneath the table, Maou, the dog, shifts in his sleep. The dog rolls heavily across his feet pinning them to the floor.
On the left in English Rangoon [inaudible 28:41] 1963. In accordance with letter number 68 dated 1 January 1963, from the People's Oil Industry of the revolutionary government of the union of Burma, Mister is released from the service of the Burma Oil Company with effect from the morning of 19th of April 1963. Sir, [inaudible 29:02] Chairman, BOC.
On the right in Burmese, Rangoon 7th of January 1963. In accordance with the letter number 68 dated 1 January 1963, from the People's Oil Industry of the revolutionary government of the union of Burma, Mister is appointed to the service of the People's Oil Industry of the revolutionary government with effect from the afternoon of 19th of April 1963. Signed Brigadier Chairman People's Oil Industry.
Attached to each letter is a form which he is required to sign; one to accept his termination and the other to accept the new appointment. There are envelopes too, and this he recognised as part of the performance to sign the form, fold it up, put it into its envelope, seal the flap, agree, comply, obey. And if you do then all coups will be bloodless, all transitions seamless. He picks up the pen the boy has thoughtfully placed on the salver. How has the boy known to do this, and pulls off the cap. It's not as if he hadn't expected this. The oil business will benefit from the close attention from the revolutionary council. That was the latest official line announced a few months earlier. Those professional soldiers are keen to make the country work. They are keen to take what is rightfully theirs, to end the continuity of humiliation of foreign influence. They will keep men like him, the old guard, close for the hand-over and train up the new pure Burmese executives and army officers who will naturally take those roles and then when he is no longer needed.
He has already been in to sound out his superior, a blandly imperturbable Englishman, about a posting elsewhere in the world with the BOC. Well I suppose we could get you something somewhere. Somewhere meaning unpleasant, hot and remote, given grudgingly if given - if it were even given at all. He suspects he's superior of a secret admiration for those army officers, their effectiveness, the way they know who and what they are. Well who would want to live in England anyway, grey skies, grey buildings, reviled everyday for the colour of your skin. So he signs the first form. I accept my termination from the Burma Oil Company. He pulls the second sheet towards him. A sharp and sudden cry from the floor above, an acid fury that cuts swift and deep, so deep his hand jumps his infant daughter and now he has splattered ink across the paper. He drops the pen onto the tray, pulls his feet from under the dog before pushing his chair away from the table, stands, walks to the team sideboard, leans onto it, palms flat against the wood. He remains there for a long time, long enough for Maou to rouse himself from under the table, pad over and plant a [inaudible 31:50] snout against his thigh.
If you had asked him how he felt in those first months after the coup he would say it was the fear that was new, that it was like static on the radio, both familiar and ordinary, part of the background to life. He grew used to it, perhaps irritated but only a little. And then some event, some small thing, a shift in the air perhaps in the [inaudible 32:16] would suddenly to an end, sound willing up loudly, crashing over you, your ears buzzing, reminding you that all along you had been afraid, that you continue to be afraid and that was the reason why your body suddenly jolted, why you gulped at the air, why the blood suddenly drained away leaving you shivering.
In those first few days after the coup, his aunt marvelled that she had only known something had happened when the announcement came over the radio, no gunfire, no explosions. Imagine, she giggled, and the laughter was a giddy apology because it had sounded as if she was asking for gunfire, for explosions, for blood. A bloodless coup. But soon enough there had been blood.
He reaches for the cigarette tin, twists off the top. There's that sweet earth smell of tobacco. He shakes his cigarette loose and lights it. Then turning to lean against the teak again, draws back hard to fill his lungs before expelling a long grey plume at his feet. Now the dog wags his ginger tail.
So that's just a very brief excerpt, but you'll notice there's real similarities to the letter that Luce received. There's that decision between the two, that stipulation of the moment of termination. You'll also notice that I've thought about what it is difficult to leave behind and my father, who this is about and me, I'm the infant crying up there. My father had this dog he called Maou, he was a Chinese Chow dog and he named it Maou after Mousey Tug. He thought it was a hilarious political joke. But he loved that dog and he still talks about it, and I thought oh my God, that was one of the things you had to leave behind and that leaving of a pet was some way of building it up, the dilemma of what it means to actually leave a place.
So in the reading of the letters of Luce and this thinking about what it means to actually leave under duress, I thought of it as a series of dilemmas, stay or go, take something with you, what do you have to leave behind. This is very much based on Luce's experience of having to leave his library behind.
So earlier I mentioned the Japanese photographer and the Italian musician who were in that late night crash and I wanted to just in the last few minutes of this talk detail a little bit about the research that I've done there because this bring in another collection in the National Library which we didn't mention but which was really great fun to have a look at. And that's the Harold S Williams, and Harold S Williams was, what would you say, I guess a hoarder. There's boxes and boxes of stuff and there are all these bits and pieces that he gathered together while he was living in Japan as called an expat. So when I was in Burma in 2014 I wanted to find this Japanese photographer and this Italian musician who had been in the car in this car crash with my grandmother. I wanted first of all to know if the story was actually true or just some massive family told tale and I wanted to know why people who were in effect enemy nationals were allowed to roam through the city.
So I went to the National Archives in Myanmar and they house the remaining colonial records and I would add that the archivist there was trained here in Canberra and he remembers Canberra fondly but what I did was, I went there, I found the colonial records and I almost immediately found this guy called Mario Degeorgio and he was a musician in the car with my grandmother so the story was actually true and his name, his occupation, all that kind of fit with the time. The reason he was allowed to roam around Rangoon was because he'd taken out British subjectivity. In fact there are pages of people and this again proved this whole idea, this cosmopolitan in Rangoon which had been - felt like a family story and not much more but he were pages of Germans, French, Italians, Armenians, all in a rush to become British protected subjects in that period between 1939 and 1942.
I looked for K the Japanese photographer as well and I found a list of the Japanese residents in Rangoon compiled by the authorities. They'd been keeping an eye on this community and their activities since 1936 so every few years there is this compiled list. There are also surveillance records of the Japanese and their activity through Burma and Thailand.
In this list of Japanese residents I found nine photographers who lived in Rangoon, none of whom fit K, I had so little to go on. Any one of them could have been them. So I fast‑forwarded to my Fellowship here in July and I looked into the Harold S Williams collection hoping that maybe he had a lot of photographs. He had a lot of postcards and I thought well maybe I'll find something with a K on the back. And I got a sense of photography and what it meant to people. I also got in touch with various academics and curators around the world including Gael Newton who was the curator here at the National Gallery, I believe, for photography and also an art historian called Luke Gartlan who specialises in Japanese photographs and the history of them. And I was very - my heart was absolutely gladdened when Luke Gartlan wrote to me, you are in unchartered territory and nobody knows about these guys and that's - it makes you really happy as a researcher, doesn't it, when you find woah, nobody's here, yeah, just me.
But I didn't find the Japanese photographer. I also found on the internet these colonial photographs that had been taken by a Japanese photographer who was currently living in Rangoon or - he had access to them somehow, and so I emailed him. This was while I was here doing my Fellowship. And he replied, we corresponded and then he sent me this. And this is the meeting of the Rangoon Japanese Photographers Association. I know, it's like woah. And if you look really closely they're all absolutely parallel [inaudible 37:57]. So they had a really great time.
I don't know if K is one of these people, maybe took the photo. To be honest, I - K could be for Kodak or Konica, it could be something on the back of the page. Who knows. But I think the thing about this is that finding K is an ongoing unfolding story, it's part of the story of the book, the finding of him but also imagining that community. And reading through Luce's letters, because they're written moment by moment without any of the judgement that comes with hindsight and the passing of history, what emerges for me now post-fellowship is an idea of a community that is perhaps delicately balanced between the country they've chosen to live in, this is Burma, and Rangoon the city and the nation that they come from.
So I think that maybe the Japanese photographer wasn't as fine. I think it's really interesting that my first instinct was, oh it's a spy story, it's about the war. I think that maybe he was just somebody perhaps quite ordinary who maybe listened to the Japanese language radio, got his information that way and was helpful to people because he was part of a community, he was - maybe considered himself a community leader. Mario too, I think is really interesting from this perspective. He was an Italian national on paper but when I dug a bit further I discovered he was actually born in Trieste, and he was born as a Serb and Italy - Trieste was seated to Italy after World War I and he never identified as an Italian. In fact he left - when he was quite young he left Trieste as a ship's musician on a cruise liner and came to Burma as his port of call.
So this brings me virtually to the end of my talk which is timed perfectly for 45 minutes. And my final observation about the way that this Fellowship has helped me develop my project and to really think differently about the writing that I've been doing, the creative process of working out my ulterior needs. And this also brings me back to this idea of the title, Love Lost in the Last Days of Rangoon and we're back at the Secretariat.
So as a writer the things that I'll look for in my practice are where there is resistance, my resistance to things. The things that make me super uncomfortable are often the places I need to go, the places I need to find out more and think about what that material's telling me and perhaps how I should dramatise it. I also look for the things that shift, for changes in form or changes in subject. And I think one of the lasting shifts from this Fellowship has been about my idea of what I'm actually writing about, the emotion I'm writing about. When I started this talk I talked about how I felt I'd lost something, I'd felt I'd lost home. But as I read through Luce's letters, as I worked on my manuscript, as I thought about the people that I'd found in the archive, the people that I dramatised, my own family, I realised that loss is actually often an echo of love. You really don't lose something unless you have affiliation or some kind of connection or some sort of love for it in the first place.
I realised also that the idea of home, this thing that I wanted to write about is often a negotiation between love and loss, it's about the transition between loss and love and back again. And I think those are the negotiations that allow us to belong to a particular place and a particular time. And that is my experience of working with Luce. Thanks.
A: Look, thanks so much, Michelle, it's a rare privilege indeed to really - for me to find out the essence of a writer's creative process and it's an extra satisfying experience as a collection manager here at the Library to know that what might look like a couple of letters in a box can really make someone react in such a creative and wonderful way. So thanks for sharing that writing with us. Look, we do have some opportunities for questions now for Michelle, if you like? Yes?
Au: I'm wondering if you know that not only does Love in Luce's collections bring a long association with [inaudible 42:24], I don't know how his name's really pronounced but he was the university librarian and the [inaudible 42:34] National Library and a long association of exchanges with him and he visited the Library in the '70s. I've got a photo of me and him taken by one of the sculptures outside there [inaudible 42:49]. And he was held in great esteem by British librarians. He used to pave his way to go to every international Federation of Library Association's meeting and I also met him when I went with [inaudible 42:05] to the one in Paris and he kept a long association and we had with him the [inaudible 43:15] which would have been government complications and that sort of thing. I wondered what the National [inaudible 42:36] Burma, National University Library was like.
M: Okay, well I know a - I don't think I know about him but - unless he wrote something about the Luce collection but I don't really know about him.
Au: No, you wouldn't have.
M: No, okay, then I don't know about him so thank you very much, I might write his name down after the talk - after we've finished here. I can tell you a little bit about Yangon University Library because I did actually get to research there while I was there in 2014. It's also very well kept and there's a zillion librarians and you can go in there and they'll bring you your books but I think the problem with any library in a tropical country is that there is a rapid deterioration of the material and it's difficult to keep it intact. So I looked at a very rare vernacular newspaper but in English, though not vernacular but published by Burmese. And it was from 1938 and it was slowly disintegrating but it was in this great big bound leather book. So that still exists, the Yangon Library is still there, it's still well staffed. There is still a car catalogue as well, which I love. I love the car catalogue, it's so easy, right. And it's still going but I think like many of the educational institutions in Burma it's struggling to find funding and to find staff and to keep turning over but it's there.
Au: Is it why the British librarians pay for him to go to international [inaudible 44:51] because there's obviously no money for travel.
M: Yeah. It's quite -
Au: Because he was really a pseudo national librarian.
M: Right. I think it's quite interesting, a lot of people in Burma will find - have found ways to keep up with their particular set of skills, yeah, but it's so very ad hoc, it's not like the government sets anything up for people, but yeah thanks for that, it's great,
Au: Thank you very much, Michelle, it must be [inaudible 45:16] It was a city and your families. I was just wondering, you were saying that the families were being [inaudible 45:29].
Au: [Inaudible 45:31]. How do they feel about you having gone back twice and now you saying family history in a [inaudible 45:40].
M: Well, not all of them know. So mainly I've been looking at my immediate family and I did interview my parents earlier this year and they were excited by it. And I actually filled out an ethics application for that actually because it's quite a big thing to do. And I was surprised by my parents' reaction so yes a lot of the stories are traumatic but they were quite keen for it to happen and they were surprised that I was so interested. And really I think my interest is partly because suddenly it was possible to go to Burma and I wrote an entire book about colonial Burma so I guess I'm a little bit obsessed about that past. I have a cousin who - so a lot of the family are older who live there and a lot of them are dying off. I think I have one aunt and who's just turned 90 on the weekend and she lives in Western Australia and I have a cousin in Paris. He actually did go back in the '80s.
He was working with a big multinational, I think it was Schlumberger and because he was negotiating some big contract they allowed him a visa to come back. He tells a story about arriving at the airport and being handed a book and they say here's your favourite book, it's a copy of [inaudible 46:56] and inside it was a note about not saying anything in the hotel room because it was going to be bugged. It's like real spy stuff.
He went to the old houses and he found - he went to the Strand Hotel and he's also quite keen for this history to come out. He's a bit of a budding novelist himself. So there's encouragement from those who know. But it is - yeah it's really - it is a very personal story and yet it's a very universal story, that whole kind of loss of home and how you construct yourself. And I think it's quite an Australian and Canadian one too, we're countries of migrants, yeah.
Au: Thanks Michelle. I'm intrigued that you began with the Secretariat building. I'm doing some work at the moment on [inaudible 47:47] First World War.
M: Oh yeah.
Au: One of the sources I've used is a book that - it's actually postcards and [inaudible 47:53] and it's full of huge [inaudible 47:54]. But, as you say, the [inaudible 47:59] going through the transition acknowledge as well as the political and social. So my question is, what's going to happen with this enormous hosting of colonial architecture?
M: Well, gee, I probably can't answer that question but you know there is youth and mint organisation which is about the heritage of - the colonial heritage of Yangon and that's - they've got an office right on [inaudible 48:25] road near the river so there's - attention's been paid. But I went first in 2013, I went 2014 and then in 2016 when I went there was this massive shopping mall and things were being built over all the time. So I don't know what's going to happen to that heritage. I think people locally still don't recognise it as an asset which it is potentially, and I think that the ideas that you should have the big classic skyscraper skylines like you get in other Asian cities. So it's hard to know but it is worth seeing, it's just amazing to walk through those buildings. It just feels like - you squint your eyes a bit and you could be in the past. And it's really equally fascinating to see the different styles of architecture and see who built them because often there's the names of people on the buildings. Yeah I - it's really cool. And your book of postcards, is that something that is in this collection here?
Au: No it was in [inaudible 49:28] in Britain. So it was sold to collectors and stuff and now it's in the [inaudible 49:32]. But they were very keen to collect photographs to show they'd been back home because it was a world that they'd never for instance seen. It's a world, as you say, that's disappearing.
M: It is, it's absolutely vanishing. And it's such a fascinating world and it's so - in many ways familiar like that gay scene at the YMCA, like who know that was going on. And I think the other thing that's really interesting is that whole culture of the postcard actually, because one of the Harold S Williams bits that was particularly fascinating was all these different postcards that people collected and, as you say, this entrée into this completely different world. Any other questions?
A: Oh, yes, one more, good.
Au: I think [inaudible 50:19] -
M: Sorry, I didn't hear.
Au: I think at least some of the Japanese [inaudible 50:28] and one of the most [inaudible 50:36].
M: Oh really, yeah.
Au: [Inaudible 50:48].
M: Yeah, it's - if you were going to be an information gatherer then being a photographer will be a huge asset, wouldn't it.
Au: [Inaudible 51:42].
M: Yeah. The residence is particularly interesting, though, because you see generations of people and there was this massive migration out of Japan through southeast Asia, all over at the beginning of the 20th century. There was in the red light district of Rangoon there are specialities and one of the speciality houses were - areas was Japanese prostitutes. So I think it's really difficult to know from this perspective what you're looking at, what kind of community and what the intentions of the community were when they first get there and what they become coerced into or what they feel they need to do afterwards. And I think that, for me, is also part of that moment, that transition in between being a citizen of Rangoon and then suddenly being a Japanese citizen of Rangoon. But thanks for that, that was really interesting. I might note that down.
A: Yes, a new chapter of your book. Just before I let you go into what looks like it's turning into being a terrible evening in Canberra. I can see heavy rain coming down outside. Just before we go, again a really great reflection on Michelle's work here. We spend a lot of time trying to build our collections so that they suit the needs of advanced researchers and academics in our universities and it's really wonderful to see that our collection is used for creating endeavours as well and we are just about to look at the next - to assess the next round of creative fellowship applications and I think we've got quite a few dozen, haven't we, Margie, that thankfully I don't have to read before the assessment date.
Now, before I let you go, I do need to let you know that our - the good news is our next Fellow's presentation is as soon as next week with Dr Sue Chen and her topic is Enlightening the Child, Chinese children's literature at the Crossroads, 1875 to 1919. So that's next Thursday evening and we'll try and make sure it doesn't rain for that one. So thanks again for coming along this evening and please join me in thanking Michelle Aung Thin again.
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