Most Vancouverites don’t give much thought to Malaysia. But the Southeast Asian nation offers a warning of what happens when a toxic cocktail of political demagoguery, populism, and irresponsible media coverage come together to trigger racial violence.
Malaysian Chinese director Keat Aun Chong’s new film, Snow in Midsummer, focuses on the emotional fallout from the notorious May 13 incident in 1969. That’s when ethnic Malays went on a rampage through Kuala Lumpur’s Chinese enclave of Pudu following a national election.
The film opens with traditional Chinese opera performers on an outdoor stage. There’s no dialogue for the next three minutes, only the sound of instruments, as a child and adult watch the show. In a subsequent scene, a Chinese girl named Ah Eng is alone in a classroom. She hears ominous sounds of a political rally outside. Ah Eng’s opera-loving mother arrives to comfort her, asking if she’s been bullied by Malay classmates.
This girl and Chinese opera in Malaysia loom large in Snow in Midsummer. This is not a dialogue-rich narrative of people struggling amid the chaos of communal violence. Rather, Chong (The Story of Southern Islet) adopts a meditative approach. On several occasions, he relies on Chinese opera music instead of words in this thought-provoking exploration of grief.
Moreover, Chong often conveys the May 13 incident with less personal, wide-angle images. The film hints at violence through ominous shadows, embers from flames, and fearful expressions on faces. In contrast, the cinematography captures mourning directly with up-close and very personal imagery.
Chong notes at the outset that Snow in Midsummer is inspired by true events and literary sources. And his script shows the menacing slights endured by Chinese residents at the hands of Malaysian authorities.
Snow in Midsummer shows return to Kuala Lumpur
Taiwanese actor Fang Wan plays the grown-up Ah Eng, who’s married to a man on Penang Island.
Following the defeat of the Najib government in the 2018 election, she returns to Kuala Lumpur, despite her husband’s admonitions. It’s remarkable what Wan is able to convey on this journey simply through her expressions.
Because many Chinese lacked proper documentation in 1969, they were buried with unnamed headstones. Snow in Midsummer gives them the dignity that they deserve—albeit more than 50 years after this politically induced tragedy unfolded.
Another remarkable aspect of this film is its authenticity. Characters speak in a variety of languages and dialects, reflecting the linguistic diversity of Kuala Lumpur.
The government has characterized the 1969 riots, which killed hundreds, as Sino-Malay sectarian violence. However, it’s clear from scholar Kua Kia Soong’s book, May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969, that the Chinese suffered the most.
“Once the rioting had started, the security forces did not keep order impartially but stood by while these hoodlums were allowed to burn and kill indiscriminately,” Soong wrote. “Troops also fired indiscriminately into Chinese shop-houses and were partial in making arrests. Consequently, the casualties were predominantly Chinese.”
In the immediate aftermath, the government imposed censorship and blamed the Communists for the trouble. May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969, on the other hand, attributes the mayhem to a “form of coup d’état” against the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. He was succeeded by his deputy, Abdul Razak, in 1970. His son, Najib Razak, was prime minister from 2011 to 2018.
Institutional racism on the rise
According to another scholar, University of Tasmania professor of Asian Studies James Chin, institutional anti-Chinese racism has increased in Malaysia in recent years. He blames this on political Islam and Ketuanan Malayu Islam (Malay-Islamic supremacy) ideology.
“In the Malay political mindset, the social contract is taken to mean a quid pro quo agreement that provides non-Malays with citizenship in return for their recognition of Ketuanan Melayu,” Chin wrote in a 2022 paper published in the Political Quarterly. “Since then, many Malay leaders, including the Prime Minister, have used the supposed ‘social contract’ to stop debate on discrimination against the Chinese, arguing that what was ‘agreed’ at the time of independence is sacrosanct.”
Meanwhile, in Vancouver, various media outlets and B.C.’s human rights commissioner have linked a recent spike in anti-Chinese hatred to the pandemic, rather than irresponsible media coverage or demagoguery about foreigners buying local real estate.
The reality, however, is that the drumbeat of exaggerated commentary about foreign money pouring into the housing market—rather than a focus on sustained low interest rates, municipal zoning rules, and a shortage of housing units—set the stage for a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes in Metro Vancouver.
Snow in Midsummer reveals where all of this can lead. Sadly, those who need to see this film are probably the least likely to watch it.
Watch the trailer for Snow in Midsummer.
The Vancouver International Film Festival presents Snow in Midsummer at 9 p.m. on Wednesday (October 4) at the Cinematheque. It’s in Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Cantonese with English subtitles. For more information and tickets, visit the VIFF website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.