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The Huo Yuanjia Catalyst

Updated: 2011-08-16 11:31
By Bob Tan (

If the twentieth century anno domini saw the emblemic rule of Captain America, the twenty-first witnesses (depending on how you are informed) a rising or returning frequency to the global hum. The Chinese nation, since opening up in 1978, has since embarked on a relentless charm offensive and four years ago, it hit me.

The <EM>Huo Yuanjia</EM> Catalyst

Bob Tan [Photo provided to] 

Now that is not a long time by most measures. Four years ago was when my self-concept and identity went through a paradigm shift. It was then I "remembered" I come from a long line of people that hailed from China. I am a second-generation overseas-born Chinese, or 'Huayi'. Like my father and late grandfather, we are part of the world's largest diasporic group. Stretched out over all four corners of the globe the overseas Chinese number over 40 million, a figure twice the entire population of Australia where I am based today.

My late grandfather left China for Singapore by boat seventy years ago. Perhaps it is no coincidence that where I am today expands on his original voyage. I had extended his arduous journey of sailing 3,000 km on a junk boat from the "Tidal Prefecture" Chaozhou to Singapore where I was born, to now work and live in Melbourne in Australia; an additional 6,000 km away from Singapore.

So, it was as recent as three years ago that it did not matter that I was twice removed, 9,000 km away, from the source where my grandfather was born. My Chinese-ness, the ethnic and cultural dimensions to my identity were afterthoughts that were paid little heed to.

Like many other Huayi, I was educated in a mission school for twelve years in the metaphorical little red dot that is Singapore. I was taught in the English language, a relic from what some argue to be a relic of British colonial hegemony. I was more comfortable watching MTV and British sitcoms, and yes, reading Captain America and Superman comics, than following the rituals of the Spring Festival.

The call of Chinese-ness did not resonate until late 2006. A 2006 Chinese Wushu film, on the backs of others like it heralded a new wave of 21st century Chinese public and peoples' diplomacy, one that was couched in the cultural capital of the longest continuing civilization the world had ever seen.

When this film emerged in the box office it changed my lenses on how I saw the Chinese, and ultimately, how I saw myself. Entitled Fearless for Western audiences and Huo Yuanjia for the Chinese market, Jet Li's reportedly final Wushu film is the first significant catalyst that stirred something in me to check out China for myself.

Primarily it made me question my mental mirror - why was I more comfortable speaking and thinking in English, the language of Singapore's colonial masters. The semantics of the two titles for different markets resonated both ways for an English-educated overseas-born Chinese like myself. To the English-speaking world, Fearless pronounced its rediscovered confidence in dealing with the world on its own terms. For the Chinese market, the name Huo Yuanjia was used to strike a historical and mythical reminder that even during what China deems as a century of humiliation, that there were pockets of Chinese who dared stand up against foreign oppressors.

But there was a catch; a film is a film, a snapshot, edit and selection of representations and mediations. As a student of media, I was reminded of how distorted the gap between true events and representation can be.

Prompted by that catalyst, I have gone on an exciting journey rediscovering my roots. With that, I have found good reason to visit Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Shantou, Suzhou, Xi'an and the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macao to get a first hand-account of China, relying less and less on media representation to inform my notions of the land of my forefathers.

Bob Tan is a Singaporean-born, Melbourne-based China researcher and new media educator who is fascinated by the global imagination of a China that has learnt to stand up again. He blogs on media representations of China at

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The <EM>Huo Yuanjia</EM> Catalyst