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Lai Teck was the leader of the Communist Party in Malaysia from 1939 to 1947. He was also a triple agent, working for France, Britain and Japan. Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen investigates the life of this man who reportedly had more than thirty identities. In a visually disorienting, cryptic staging with mechanical elements, projections and music, Ho plays an ingenious game of masking and
revealing. In 2018 the festival presented Ho Tzu Nyen’s One or Several Tigers. He is praised for work which shines a light on forgotten or concealed aspects of the history of Southeast Asia, a region with many nationalities, divided by numerous conflicts.
A fascinating spectacle unfolds as The Mysterious Lai Teck begins: the curtain opens, but again and again, differently each time. The number of curtains seems infinite, until slowly but surely we can
see the shape of a man through the diaphanous fabric. It is a larger-than-life-size, moving, speaking animatronic (a lifelike puppet based on robotics), sitting at a table, writing his memoirs. Again and again, differently each time.
In The Mysterious Lai Teck, Singapore-born artist Ho Tzu Nyen shines a spotlight on a man who worked as a triple agent for France, Great Britain and Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, and then became secretary general of the Malaysian Communist Party from 1939 to 1947. Using projections, shadow play and the animated marionette, Ho paints a picture of the man who had at least fifty known aliases and whose real life is shrouded in mystery.
Lai Teck is said to have been born around 1900 in Vietnam, where he started spying for the French in the 1920s. He was then recruited by Great Britain for a Special Branch intelligence unit to infiltrate the Malaysian Communist Party in their crown colony Singapore. Once the British had removed a few of his allies and competitors, he took over the party in 1939. After being arrested during the Japanese occupation, he began working as an agent for the Japanese secret police as well.
Out of a web of facts and fiction, Ho Tzu Nyen has spun a tale full of both ghosts and gaps. The little that we do know about Lai Teck comes from other agents, and thus from spies and traitors whose stories are shaped by political interests before they go into any official histories. Lai Teck, and his many other names – Lai Te, Lighter, Mr Light, Mr Wright, C. H. Chang, Jin Tang, D. Ling, ‘Ho Chi-Minh’s right-hand man’ and even ‘the Malaysian Lenin’ – was given his definitive name in May 1948 by the Central Committee: ‘the greatest traitor in the history of our Party’. By then, Lai Teck had been dead for a year. According to his successor, he had fled to Thailand, where he was eventually discovered by a death squad. His body ended up in the Chao Phraya River, as Ho Tzu Nyen poetically puts it, the end of ‘a life like water in the water’, a life every bit as elusive and fluid.
For Ho Tzu Nyen, the role of the ‘traitor’ is at the core of the work. As the artist sees it, the precariousness and inconstancy of Lai Teck’s career at the service of several powers, the elasticity of his boundaries and the almost complete rewriting of his identity are reflections of the history of Southeast Asia, a region that has never had a common language, religion or political power, its national borders drawn by the colonial powers. This is in line with Ho Tzu Nyen’s more recent works, which are part of the project on which he has been working since 2012, the Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, an atlas of motifs and stories from a region full of variety and contradictions. Ho made his debut at the Holland Festival in 2018 with One or Several Tigers; with The Mysterious Lai Teck he once again presents a visually breathtaking and powerful story about politics and betrayal in post-colonial Malaysia.
Ho Tzu Nyen (1976, Singapore) makes films, installations and theatre performances, taking his inspiration from historical and philosophical texts. He received his bachelor’s degree in Creative Arts from the
Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne and his Master of Arts in Southeast Asian Studies from the National University of Singapore. Since then he has worked and exhibited all over the world. His most recent works are part of an ongoing project, The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, and are populated by figures that can undergo a metamorphosis, such as the weretiger in One or Several Tigers (2017) and the traitor in The Mysterious Lai Teck (2018).
Ho has had solo exhibitions of his works in Kunstverein Hamburg (2018), Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai (2018), Guggenheim Bilbao (2015), DAAD Galerie, Berlin (2015) and the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2012). In 2011 he represented Singapore at the 54th Venice Biennale. His work has been shown at the 12th Gwangju Biennale (2018), in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2017), at the 10th Shanghai Biennale (2014) and the 2nd Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2014).
His theatrical works have been have programmed at Kampnagel, Hamburg (2018), TPAM (2018), Asian Arts Theatre, Gwangju (2015), the Wiener Festwochen (2014), Theater der Welt (2010), the KunstenFestivaldesArts (2018, 2008, 2006) and Singapore Arts Festival (2019, 2008, 2006). His films have been shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 and the film festivals of Berlin (2015), Cannes (2009), Venice (2009), Locarno (2011) and Rotterdam (2008, 2010, 2013). Ho received a DAAD Scholarship in Berlin (2014 – 2015) and was awarded the Grand Prize of the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation (2015).
- concept, direction, text, edit
- Ho Tzu Nyen
- performer, voice, translation
- Tay Kong Hui
- research consultant
- Marc Opper
- Light, set, technical direction
- Andy Lim
- Jeffrey Yue
- Black to Comm
- Creature NFX Workshop
- digital visual effects & CG
- Graham Lamb
- Ho Tzu Nyen, ARTFACTORY
- with support by
- National Arts Council, Singapore