Francis Cham discusses his experiences settling into and living in post-World War II China, Singapore, and Taiwan, between the 1940s and the 1960s.
A third-generation Hainanese Chinese, Francis Cham was born in Singapore in 1941. Cham’s father came to Singapore in 1932, and subsequently brought his mother and elder sister over in 1939. He ran a coffee shop for a living, and actively participated in the overseas branch of the Kuomintang in Singapore for a long time. Cham recalled how he used to accompany his father to various events and activities organised by local societies to commemorate the Chinese nation on the mainland. In 1948, Cham was sent back to his ancestral home in Hainan by his father. He was educated there up until the lower secondary level in Jiaji Town, Hainan (near Bo Ao and Qionghai). While in Hainan, Cham witnessed political movements such as the land reform enacted by the communist regime on the mainland. He became a believer in communism and an ardent supporter of the Communists. He eventually joined the Youth Pioneers and became a squad leader. He shared about the impact of Chinese Communist propaganda and weekly reflection and confession sessions in school.
On his father’s orders, Cham returned to Singapore in 1956 reluctantly and underwent a difficult process of readjustment to Singapore society. His belief in communism made him distrust most around him, even his father. He enrolled in a local high school, where he found learning English especially challenging. Cham recollected the rise of leftist student activism in Singapore throughout his high school years, how he thought Lee Kuan Yew displayed much political acumen navigating the political currents of the time compared to then-Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, as well as the rising incidence of violence between gangs that supported the KMT and those that supported the Chinese communists. His experience living and studying in Singapore, however, made him repudiate his earlier communist beliefs. Cham pointed out that the communists on the mainland had made him believe that the British was mismanaging Singapore and ill-treating its residents; yet he realised that such was untrue. At the same time, he was educated in school by pro-Kuomintang educators and had read right-wing literature. These experiences made him reconsider his blind faith in Chinese communism. He concluded that the rhetoric and promises by the Mao regime were all lies and deception. Cham also shared his views about the People’s Action Party’s relationship with the United Chinese Library, especially on how both Taiwan and pro-KMT organisations in Singapore seriously mistrusted Lee Kuan Yew’s professed “non-communist socialism”. He recalled how Lee hated right-leaning organisations such as the United Chinese Library and even swore to close down those organisations when he clinched political power.
Cham was gradually convinced that he should pursue his tertiary education in Taiwan, and enrolled in the National Taiwan University in 1964. Cham shared how he thought that Taiwan was more backward than Singapore in some ways. For instance, he pointed out that not every household had running tap water, and that people had to collect water from a central location daily. He also thought that Taiwan was culturally and intellectually more advanced than the mainland, since most intellectuals on the mainland had fled after 1949. Such a development, he figured, was what enabled Taiwan to become one of the four Asian Tigers. He also shared his impressions of his pro-Kuomintang teachers as well as his reasons for not joining the Kuomintang. He recounted differences among overseas Chinese students studying in Taiwan, especially between those from Singapore and the Federation of Malaya.
Interviewer: Cheng Yi Mehg
Interviewee: Francis Cham
People like Cham were exposed to both left-wing and right-wing Chinese nationalism, and had experiences living in China, Taiwan, and an overseas Chinese society. Assess how people like Cham made sense of both the Cold War in Asia and the two-China rivalry vis-a-vis each other.
How would Cham’s experience as an overseas Chinese impact the ways in which he understood what the Cold War meant for him, as compared to those from different societies?