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How Memory Persists in Anthony Chin’s From Silver to Steel

My grandmother’s memories of the Japanese Occupation were what made World War II (WWII) real to me.

Despite studying wartime chronology at school, I understood the terror of invasion only through her thirteen-year-old self, who hid in rolled-up carpets and jumped out of a truck to escape Japanese soldiers. History is recorded with facts, but remembered in experience and emotion. 

Anthony Chin’s From Silver to Steel (2023), now on display at the Singapore Art Museum’s inaugural biennial project Residues and Remixes, uses this understanding to uncover the complex history of iron ore mining in British Malaya. The installation offers a visceral viewing experience. Eleven steel swords hang on nearly invisible string; the gleaming blades form reflections and shadows on the gallery floor. Each sword has a royal blue and purple tassel affixed to its hilt, a symbol perhaps of wealth and power. 

Captivating the viewer with these strong aesthetics, the work prompts deep reflection on narratives of industry in the region. In particular, Chin focuses on the irony that lies in how iron exported to Japan from the 1920s onwards for urban development returned to the Malay peninsula during WWII, as violent weapons of imperialism. 

This is a story that has long lay dormant, at risk of being forgotten entirely. In Chin’s hands, history comes back to life. Eleven shin guntō (new military swords in Japanese) are suspended vertically just above the floor, so the artwork moves slowly, constantly. This movement seems testament to the shifting understandings one can have of past events. 

After all, new reactions to old facts change the way history is framed. I had always seen the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia (roughly 1941-45) as an isolated attempt to exert their influence. Now, Chin’s work suggests that their intervention in the region began decades earlier with the opening of Japanese-owned mines all across Malaya. In turn, fresh questions of British complicity—in giving them an economic entry point into Malaya, in their willingness to cede their colonies during the war—are brought to the fore. 

These overlapping narratives are visually represented in From Silver to Steel too. How the swords are lit creates two sets of intersecting shadows on the ground that add to the work’s quietly haunting effect. Arcing outwards from each sword, these shadows expand the artwork’s physical presence, as if saying that so much of historical memory remains out of sight unless brought up to the light. 

Displaced into a modern context, the work appears innocuous. But something precarious lingers. Sword tips are centimetres away from crashing deep into the ground. There is a sense that quietude can teeter into mourning for a violence initially masked. 

Mapping violence

Moving closer to the weapons, I realise that these are not exact replicas of shin guntō (Japanese military swords). Every guard has been replaced with steel plates, which form the cartographic shapes of the 11 iron ore mines the Japanese owned in Malaya. The placement of each weapon, precisely upright, appears maplike, perhaps reflective of the networks Japan built in this industry, while the Straits Settlement coins used to create the hilt reflect also the emphasis on commerce and exchange occurring during this time. Chin creates a careful record of how these materials were exploited for ultimately awful ends.

This map of hidden past tragedies led me to ponder the symbol of the imperial sword itself. It felt strange that an archaic weapon like a sword would be used by the Japanese during WWII, a conflict that catalysed technological advancement like never before. Yet, rising nationalism during this time necessitated the preservation of old symbols of Japanese might, including the samurai sword (which shin guntō is adapted from).

Japan’s desire for national progress resulted in the creation of these iron ore mines in the first place––extracted iron was originally intended for the construction of railroads and other infrastructure within the country. It was sobering to think about how pride in cultural artefacts could be misdirected towards ends achieved only at the expense of other peoples’ destruction and pain. 

Memories and realities

Chin’s presentation at Residues and Remixes continues outside, with an augmented reality work titled South Sea Ore (2023) that makes use of Tanjong Pagar Distripark’s view of the nearby port to trace how extracted iron ore would travel through Singapore’s shores to Japan.

It was a rainy morning when I visited, so the work could not be presented for fear of water damage. I was left to look out at the colossal container machinery set against a dreary grey sky. 

The work’s absence was felt. As I tried to imagine history laid out only in the wall text, I experienced firsthand the difficulties that come without the striking guidance of artistic visuals rooted in personal reactions and feeling, as Chin’s work inside was. 

I thought about my grandmother again. She has lived through so much history, before, during, and after the war. She is 96 as I write this. I do not know how long she has left. Perhaps this is my attempt to grasp onto a history with written memory, to capture through my reflections on art a story I am afraid will otherwise be soon lost. 


Anthony Chin’s From Silver to Steel is on display at SAM Contemporaries: Residues & Remixes at Singapore Art Museum till 24 September 2023. Click here to find out more about the artist. 

Feature image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

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