Page 691 of History

Author: Hai Fan
Published:

Our car departed from our hotel in Changsha, crossed the Xiangjiang Bridge, and headed west. What greeted us was the city’s majestic landscape: a magnificent bridge, spacious roads, towering buildings, neat green fields… We drove past Ningxiang, the hometown of China’s late leader Liu Shaoqi, then took a turn in the northwest direction before slowing down along the tapering road; the buildings on the roadside gradually lowered in height, and the sky loomed brighter and bluer in the background. I sat close to the driver, held a SLR camera in my hand and waited for the optimal time to focus my lens on the scenery through the windshield. There was an inexplicable anticipation and excitement in my heart.

Street scene of Yiyang, Changsha - New Naratif
Street scene of Yiyang, Changsha

Finally, I saw a road sign that read “Yiyang”, suspended at the height of a street lamp, hanging at the centre of the road. Trolleys, bicycles, tricycles, and distinctive motorcycles with umbrella sheds lined the two-way driving lane, moving seamlessly along the smooth traffic, adhering to the rules of tacit understanding. When our tour guide identified the traditional characters of “Henglong Bridge” in vertical lines by the roadside, they exclaimed: “The crossing is here!”. Their voice prompted excited looks to the window. Some people almost stood up in excitement.

Then, the road, sparsely lined with vehicles, tapered to a narrower lane. The vehicles carried all kinds of construction materials: iron pipes, bricks and sand to name a few. Tractor-modified small trucks trundled along, making “dudu toot” noises. The road was lined with low-rise houses and the fields were bare with mud and puddles that reflected the blue sky and white clouds above. The green trees were no longer a single cluster of French paulownia, but an assortment of unknown species surrounded by a sprawling growth of shrubs.

Searching for sounds from beneath

At the sight of the “Sifang Shan” (“shan” meaning “mountain” in Chinese) road sign, our mini coach entered the mountains.

Looking at the landscape outside the window, nostalgic reminiscence of the past brushed across my mind like the passing foliage, leaving behind rapid intervals of light and dark. My heart clenched in successive pulses.

The coach finally stopped on the road with square pillars on each side. The tops of the pillars, measuring 4–5m tall each, were joined with a rusty metal arch that was almost covered with droopy branches laden with thick green leaves. The arch, by itself, stood brittle and lonely, without any adorning words or symbols. Summer is here, and two days later it would be the Dragon Boat Festival. From the lush green bushes emerged faint chirping of birds and crickets. Is this the final place? Is this the base that launched red transition waves to Southeast Asia and the world throughout the decade? Is this the holy place that has been revered by several generations? Right here?

Entry to a historical site - New Naratif
Entry to a historical site

Sifang Mountain is an unremarkable hill in Hunan province, with its main peak not more than 200m in height. This valley, which covers an area of ​​more than 200 acres, began its development in 1967. According to a local resident, the soil (of the valley) had been transported away at night, and nobody knew where it had gone to.

As we crossed the square pillar, we entered the site of an underground radio station, buried from sight by lush greenery and age. Perhaps the 11 years, or four thousand days, of its former glory (November 1969 to June 1981), and the people who lived and worked here, were like the dirt of the valley—”Nobody knew where they had gone to.” On the left side of the gate, we saw a new black stone tablet with conspicuously engraved gold letters that read: Key Cultural Protection Unit; the Sifang Mountain Architectural Complex; Established in December 2014 by the People’s Government of Heshan District, Yiyang City.

Protected cultural relic: Sifang mountain architectural complex - New Naratif
Protected cultural relic: Sifang Mountain Architectural Complex

It was only two and a half years ago that this site was protected as a key cultural relic. A rising China, which periodically faces human rights violation allegations from the West, was the same country that supported people’s liberation struggles abroad under its internationalist policy half a century ago. On the other hand, this historical policy exposed the double standard present in rhetoric that attempted to justify domestic human right violations on the basis of national sovereignty. The physical evidence before our eyes was dense with history, as well as the unpredictability of change. Perhaps they ought to be protected first and left to an appropriate time to thaw.

Going forward, there were several Chinese-plated cars and minibuses perched on the hillside. People, young and old alike, gazed and wandered around in small clusters; some of them, perhaps done with their sightseeing, turned their heads around with cameras swaying on their chests. People have already begun to explore the history of that particular past, though ordinary people might be more interested in novelty-seeking, or deciphering word-of-mouth myths.

As for the one or two hundred Chinese and Malayan Communist member staff who have spent more than a dozen winters and summers here, this place is not just about broadcasts that travelled the sky, but also the fiery lives and dedication of their youth: a chapter in history with soaring ambitious, experiences and memories; all waiting for new interpretations.

Regarding the underground radio station of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) located at Sifang Mountain, Henglong Bridge, Yiyang County of Hunan Province, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Malaya, Chin Peng has written the following description in his book My Side of History:

In Hunan, the unit assigned to the Communist Party of Malaya by the Chinese authority is located in a heavily guarded military zone code-named “691.” We had to take a 12-hour overnight train from Beijing to our new office. “691” is located in a hilly village that was recently vacated. Our radio station is a basement that was dug into the side of the mountain. There was also a building nearby, which was used as an administrative building. Subsequently, our radio station in Hunan was launched in November 1969. We named it “Suara Revolusi Malaya”. The radio station’s program was broadcasted across the region from a 20 kW transmitter.

Our announcers, program producers and clerical staff lived in the “691” dormitory. Chinese technicians also lived in another dormitory within the same area. During our working days in Hunan, we had very little interactions with local residents living outside the fence. Our daily necessities were supplied by the Chinese government. Although the location of the radio station was far from Beijing, we could still receive our allocated newspapers regularly and quickly. China has enabled us to subscribe to all English and Chinese newspapers from Malaysia and Singapore, as well as The Times from London, The Age from Melbourne. It was a time when we read and commented on articles from The Economist, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, Time, and Pacific Affairs. During the infancy of our radio station, we broadcasted in three languages, namely Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. There were three announcers in each language. After we have successfully attracted a group of college students, we added the English language to our broadcast. [1]

Why 691?

A reading of My Side of History reveals that the conceptualisation of ​​the MCP underground radio station dates back to August 1964. When Chin Peng was invited to visit North Vietnam, he appealed for support from the Vietnamese Labour Party, obtaining a positive response. Hence, only some launching and electronic equipment supplies were needed from the Chinese authority. Nonetheless, due to the unstable military situation in Vietnam at the time, the Chinese government did not approve this plan. Chin Peng recalled: “I was very disappointed at the time, but the situation eventually turned out to be favorable for us.”

Book covers of My Side of History 《我方的历史》, by Chin Peng, and A Tough Journey Ahead《一路艰辛向前走》by Ah Cheng - New Naratif
Book covers of 《我方的历史》My Side of History, by Chin Peng, and《一路艰辛向前走》A Tough Journey Ahead by Ah Cheng

In late December 1966, Premier Zhou Enlai hosted the MCP leaders in Beijing. In late January of the following year, Chairman Mao met the main members of the MCP delegation in Beijing: Chin Peng, Lee An Tung, Chen Rui, Musa and Chen Tien. At the time of the conversation, Chin Peng directly made a request for a radio station, which Chairman Mao immediately consented to. [2]

Chin Ping said: “We have fought for the radio station for three years and now our wish is granted.”

The radio station, established in Sifang Mountain, Yiyang County of Hunan, was originally one of China’s standby strategic radio stations. According to a veteran Chinese comrade who was engaged in the construction of second-line radio stations: “In the 1960s, due to the lingering dangers of the world war, a number of secluded radio stations were set up in caves around the country, in order to prevent interruptions to broadcasts from the Central People’s Broadcasting Station and important provincial stations when fires open. They were usually unused, but hidden, maintained and readied for war at any moment. At that time, these stations were called the war preparation stations, also known as the ‘second-line stations’ of the Central People’s Broadcasting Station. These stations had a code name each: 820 in Hubei, 035 in Anhui, etc.”

Hunan’s radio station, code-named 691, was originally one of the second-line stations. Back then, it was not easy to build a radio station from scratch. After a site was selected, a high-voltage power line and special road lines had to be constructed. Water supply pipelines, heating, low-voltage, communication and transmission systems were also constructed. Back then, housing facilities had to be built to sustain technology, welfare, operations and security needs, as well as radio masts and other equipment… It was a big project with no place for wishful thinking. Therefore, when Chairman Mao agreed to the MCP’s request, the Chinese side consolidated all the specific needs and decided to rejuvenate the existing 691 facility, which had already been planned and constructed suitably. As a result, the building standards of the 691’s office area, technical area, and living area were a lot higher than that of the average second-line station. In addition to staff quarters, the station leaders were even entitled to separate courtyards. The old comrade added: “Technically speaking, between the 691 and Voice of Malayan Revolution (Malay: Suara Revolusi Malaya) there only existed a broadcasting relationship. The responsibilities and the job scope for both sides were clearly divided. They (the MCP) manage the broadcast, but we (Chinese staff and technicians) took charge of equipment, technology, security, and welfare. Simply put, they used our resources to speak their own words.”

Creating the code

Chen Rui (Ah Cheng), the party secretary of the MCP radio station, recalled: “In the summer of 1969, Eu Chooi Yip, P. V. Sarma and I, led by Wu Weiqun, the leader of the Malayan Research Group of the ILD, went to Hunan for the last site inspection in preparation of the (opening) work.” [3]

The trio were received by the secretariat of the Hunan Provincial Party Committee upon their arrival, while the Chinese technicians, admin and security staff have already settled in at the beginning of the year. Chen Rui said: “I clearly remember the secretariat’s well-wish when he toasted us. He said that “Chairman Mao’s radio station for the MCP is located here in Hunan, and we are deeply honoured to do our part for the revolutionary struggle of our brother. This (endeavor) is also a part of the Chinese Communist Party’s internationalist obligation.” Suara Revolusi Malaya radio station’s code name “691” is derived from the date of January 1969, when the former director (former Chinese director of the radio station) led the first batch of staff into the facility.” [4]

August 2nd 1969, Eu Chooi Yip and Zhang Hongbing visited the former residence of Chairman Mao in Shaoshan - New Naratif
August 2nd 1969, Eu Chooi Yip and Zhang Hongbing visited the former residence of Chairman Mao in Shaoshan

The MCP staff settled into 691 in fall of 1969, and the first radio broadcast was made on 15th November that year. Zhang Hongbing , a member of the pioneer batch of staff who moved in in 1969, recalled: “In the early spring of 1969, I returned to the Malayan National Liberation League’s Office in Beijing from Shenyang, a city in the Northeast of China. Uncle (Eu Chooi Yip) informed us (Buyong, Ravi and I), with great excitement, that Chairman Mao has given us a radio station and we are going to work there. Back in Beijing, Buyong and I have already started our reading practices for our future job as broadcasters. At the end of August, Sarma, Suding and Uncle, as members of the secretariat group, arrived at our radio station in Sifang Mountain, located 70km from Changsha, the provincial capital. Together with them were Chen Tien and Li Ming, and we addressed them as Uncle Zhuang Sheng and Aunt Liu Zhen, Xu Ke and Lin Jun.” Ravi also said, “We arrived in Changsha in early August and first visited the former residence of Chairman Mao and other attractions in Shaoshan. Then I entered the location of the radio station. I remember that it was Tuesday, August 26, 1969.”

In fact, preparations for the radio station can be traced back earlier. Zhuang Sheng (Chen Tien) and Li Ming (Liu Zhen) contacted the Malayan international students in China before the turn of spring.

Recruitment of team members

Ma-ge (Lin Yan), the Malay translator and broadcaster of Suara Revolusi Malaya, recalls: “After Chairman Mao promised to establish a radio station, the Malayan Communist Party began to take in overseas Chinese who worked or studied in China. The organisation sent Liu Zhen to contact me and asked if I wanted to go back to Malaya. I replied yes of course! Back then, she did not mention the radio station in our conversations, and not even when the cadres of the International Liaison Department (ILD) has approached me to confirm the plan. In May of (19)68, my whole family moved to the Beijing Hotel, where Zhuang Sheng received us. When we arrived at the Beijing Hotel, we realised that Wen Feng (Wen Yu Shan) has arrived few days earlier than us. Wu Weiqun of the ILD received us at the hotel and introduced us to Zhuang Sheng, who told us that some people will be arriving shortly after us. Later, when everyone has arrived, Zhuang Sheng presided over the meeting and formally announced the preparation plan for the radio station. Subsequently, we set up a group in the hotel to study politics and the Malay language. I was chosen as the team leader and the Malay teacher.”

Among the overseas students who returned to China from Singapore, Malaya and Thailand in the 1950s, some had already joined the workforce in China, and some were even romantically attached. However, for the revolutionary cause of the MCP, they gave up comfortable lives in the city and travelled to faraway lands.

The Suara Revolusi Malaya radio station, 691, was officially launched on 15 November 1969. At that time, 29 people were involved in the work and Chin Peng was not included. According to Chen Rui, “At the beginning of 1969, he (Chin Peng) discussed with me: “Which one of us is going to the station? It seems that you are more suitable. ” I understand what he meant because he was settling some problems relating to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, so it was not convenient for him to leave.”

Listen: Suara Revolusi Malaya

Above: An excerpt from a broadcast of Suara Revolusi Malaya.

Above: Initially, the starting music was March of the Malayan National Liberation Army. The music composer was one of leading members of the 8th Regiment, which split from the MCP in the beginning of 70s and established MCP (Revolutionary Faction).

Above: Later, the starting music changed to “Defend Malaya” composed by MCP member Yang Li, who died fighting the Japanese. The name of the song and the words were changed to “Liberate Malaya”.

Later, Chin Peng arrived at 691 in early 1970, and settled there under the pseudonym “Hong Tao”. On the other hand, Chen Rui worked there for three years, from the summer of 1969 to the early autumn of 1972. During this period, the “Eighth Regiment” and “Second District” of the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) back home were split due to the expansion of the elimination of counter-revolutionaries carried out by the North Malayan Bureau of the Central Committee. Hence, Chen Rui was ordered to return to the region, while Li Fan (Chen Zai-Nen, Ah Yen)  took on his role as the radio station party secretary in 1972 and led the radio station’s operations alongside Chin Peng.

The radio station developed and expanded steadily since its official opening. In 1970, a small group of children revolutionaries who practiced medical works in Vietnam joined the radio station, while another group of 31 went to the 731 base for training before joining 691 in 1972. In 1972, the station also welcomed several colonial-exiles. Later, between 1974–75 when the MCP’s split was made public, broadcasts in English, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese, and Guangxi dialects were launched to increase publicity. To support the effort, a group of young adults, most of whom were offspring of MCP members from Indonesia, were sent to the various dialect areas of China to learn dialects for a few years before joining the station. In 1977, several English-educated university students joined the English section of the radio station. One year later, seven or eight Singapore-Indonesia exiles also came to 691, followed by five university students from Malaya in 1980, who collectively strengthened the English broadcast. At last, when the radio station was closed on 30 June 1981, the total number of MCP staff exceeded 100.

During the operation period of 691, members of the main editorial board of the radio station took a group photo with the Chinese cadres. From left: Zhou Li (Jinzhi Mang), Zhuang Sheng (Chen Tien), Director Su (Head of Hunan Province Foreign Affairs Department), Ah Yan (MCP Leader), Hunan Foreign Affairs Department’s cadre, P.V. Sarma, Suding, Hunan Foreign Affairs Department’s cadre (Image taken from A Tough Journey Ahead) - New Naratif
During the operation period of 691, members of the main editorial board of the radio station took a group photo with the Chinese cadres. From left: Zhou Li (Jinzhi Mang), Zhuang Sheng (Chen Tien), Director Su (Head of Hunan Province Foreign Affairs Department), Ah Yan (MCP Leader), Hunan Foreign Affairs Department’s cadre, P. V. Sarma, Suding, Hunan Foreign Affairs Department’s cadre (Image taken from A Tough Journey Ahead)

Memories along the cement road

When we arrived at the gate of 691 at nearly 11am, we hurried to the station’s work area after taking a group photo under the arched metal gate. We walked along a cement road that only allowed one car to pass at a time. The cement road was still the same one we remembered, with weeds creeping in from both sides. We wondered to ourselves how many times they had withered and greened. The hills were still verdant with trees and clusters of bamboo forests swaying in sunlight and wind. Under the canopy, unruly growth of shrubs were adorned by an abundance of azaleas. It was said that when the spring azaleas were in full bloom, tourists would stream in to admire their beauty.

The cement road was about 800m  to 1km long. It meandered through ploughed fields, where crops had been recently harvested by local villagers, leaving behind muddy footprints and water-logged puddles. Our old friends Chen Ying, Ravi, Qiu Hua, and Wan Shui were eager to give their comments.

“The whole field turns green when rice seedlings grow!”

“It’ll be more beautiful when rapeseeds blossom!”

“We used to travel back and forth four times a day, and sometimes we saw farmers bending over to plant.”

“But that building wasn’t there last time. Was it built after we left?”

“That tree over there can’t be so tall!”

Wandering around the gloomy base

At the entrance of the work area, I saw the square pillars and the arched metal frame. Next to it was the sentry post and broken barracks left behind by the Chinese security guards. Finally, we stopped at the gate of the two-storey administrative building. Several sycamore trees now towered over the building, casting mottled shadows on the moss-covered red brick walls. I took a deep breath and descended into a sombre state of silence.

691 work area's main entrance - New Naratif
691 work area’s main entrance

Chen Ying pointed to a room on the second floor above the main entrance and said: “That is Secretay General Chin’s office.” Everyone looked up and glanced into the rectangular window. A shaft of sunlight fell onto the haphazard wooden beams. She added: “Beside Chin Peng was Chen Tian. At the time, he was the editor-in-chief.”

Chin Peng’s office on the second floor - New Naratif
Chin Peng’s office on the second floor

The administrative building was T-shaped with two floors in front. Most of the staff worked on these two floors: collecting information, editing, translating, typing, proofreading… The party committee and editorial office were on the second floor. A sheltered corridor connected to the single-storey building behind, where recording of radio programs took place. There was also one room for the Chinese and Tamil languages, another for the Malay, and a bigger studio room for song recordings.

691出入证 - New Naratif
The badge that identified Voice of Malayan Revolution staff and permitted them to enter and exit the compound

Led by Ravi, Chen Ying, Qiu Hua and Wan Shui and others, we parted ways into the dark and empty rooms. The walls and ceilings were peeling and stained; what remained of the window was only a rectangular rusty frame and scattered glass fragments; dead tree stalks and decaying leaves were the only objects left in the room.

“Here’s the information room of the Chinese group…”

“This was the Malay group…”

“This corner had the desk of XX…”

“At that time I was sitting here to translate…”

“On the right side downstairs was the store room of tapes for recorded audios…”

“This was a small library that stores radio materials, Marxist-Leninist books, magazines from Southeast Asia and newspapers…”

Our voices echoed in the dark void and our footsteps stirred up dust and mildew from the ground. We walked into some rooms, and peeked into the others. Along with their narrations, our minds became overwhelmed with flashbacks of comrades working tirelessly in the past: we were busy reading, editing, sorting, writing, editing and recording,…

The view of the 2-storied administrative block of base 691 - New Naratif
The view of the two-storied administrative block of base 691

Dreamlike déjà vu

We slowed down our steps. Taking in the words, gestures, and expressions of the people before me, I thought of the young and energetic figures they were. In that moment, I remembered a line from Chin Peng’s foreword of My Side of History: “We are not a generation who sat before desks in magnificent buildings. Our mightiest weapon was our idealism.”

My heart and mind were in a daze: as if in a bout of déjà vu, I felt as if I stepped into a dream that I had experienced before.

In our twilight years, we travelled thousands of miles to this remote mountain because we shared common memories of youth in this place… Someone among us used to put on headphones in the early morning to listen to the radio; someone used to transcribe broadcasts solemnly in the middle of the night; someone used thin paper to copy articles page by page before binding them into neat booklets; and some groups of us would study quietly during other times.

I remember that in the army (MNLA), we would wipe our faces with spring water, wrap ourselves with a Thai sarong for warmth and carry our guns before assembling in the courtyard immediately after the reveille, while the rainforest was still shrouded in the tranquil morning mist. At precisely the same time, we would hear the majestic music of the radio and the call of “Inilah Suara Revolusi Malaya”, which marked the start of a new day for all of us, as well as the guerillas and the underground comrades all over the border areas and peninsula, who would feel a renewed sense of conviction, strength and confidence to face the challenges ahead.

The road to armed struggle

I joined the army (MNLA) in October 1976. From Kuala Lumpur, I drove to the third Company of the 12th Regiment located at the Malaysian-Thai border area, just in time for the commencement of the seventh recruitment training class. Back in the 1970s, the third Company, which was the HQ of the 12th Regiment, had held eight recruitment classes with more than 60 participants each. Nonetheless, it was the final class conducted on such a big scale.

Recruit Certificate and Learning Materials - New Naratif
Recruit certificate and learning materials

Against the backdrop of a stabilizing society and growing economy in the Singapore-Malaysia region in 1976, it seems peculiar for anyone to join the armed struggle. In hindsight, the region’s development in the 1980s and 1990s was indeed impressive: lives were improved, conflicts were deescalated and Singapore even joined the ranks of developed countries. However, in the 1970s, such a future was hardly foreseeable. During that period, industrialisation began, international investments gushed in and labour-intensive factories multiplied while wealth disparity widened and labour relations tensed. In that year, I attended high school while running a book stall in the night market of Jurong Industrial Zone with friends. At dusk, I would lug books and magazines on my bicycle to set up the stall a few kilometers away.

En route, I would always run into mother who was on her way back from the construction site. From the other side of the road, she would shout to remind me to “be careful”, before pedalling away from sight. From behind us, we felt the relentless grind of life lashing us forward. What kind of vision should the country have? What kind of days should the people live? What was tomorrow like for the toiling workers and where can it be found?

Around the same time, three regional events gripped Southeast Asia: in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge liberated Phnom Penh; in the same month, the North and the South came under a unified Vietnam; in December, Laos established the People’s Democratic Republic, lending unprecedented credence to the so-called “Domino Theory”. Together with China’s Cultural Revolution that provoked radical thoughts around the world, the situation greatly boosted the morale of youths who yearned for socialism, and set the tone for the resounding success of Suara Revolusi Malaya, which subsequently summoned many more young people from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand to embark on the revolutionary road in pursuit of a social ideal.

A change in strategy

Following the failure of the Baling peace talks in late December 1955, the Malayan Communist Party launched its anti-British war but soon suffered heavy casualties due to military disparity between the two sides. It was a hostile situation for the MCP. Later, in response to the Malayan Federation’s declaration of independence in 1957, the Central Committee of the MCP held a meeting in Songkhla in October to negotiate the change of revolutionary strategy. The central committee eventually adopted a strategy of restrained and waiting for the opportunity, and decided to send the MCP’s general secretary Chin Peng and other leaders such as Lee An Tung and Chen Tien abroad to study and research about the Malayan revolution, carry out international activities and strengthen ties with fraternal parties in order to garner global support.

At this time in the 1950s, the Communist Party of China (CCP), which adhered to the diplomatic principle of “peaceful coexistence”, retrained its support for revolutions in Southeast Asian countries other than that in Vietnam. Nonetheless, following the gradual breakdown of Sino-Soviet relations in 1960, the CCP adjusted its foreign policy in the belief that the center of communist revolution had shifted towards China and therefore, China should assume the historical responsibility of promoting world revolutionary struggles. Hence, in the 1960s, revolutions in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries became a main target of assistance from the CCP.

Monetary assistance to relieve financial woes

In June 1961, Chin Peng and other leaders met Deng Xiaoping—then the general secretary of the Communist Party of China—in Beijing, where things took an unexpected twist. Deng told them that the situation in Southeast Asia was undergoing a drastic change. Strategically, the situation in Malaya was becoming more mature for MCP’s protracted armed struggle. He strongly urged the MCP not to change their strategy but to jump at the impending opportunity in Southeast Asia. Deng also expressed support for the MCP’s proposal for direct financial assistance, hence resolving the party’s financial problem for the first time.

Once again, the MCP faced a turning point that demanded a reversal of the strategy decided 18 months ago at the meeting in Songkhla. However, leaders were hesitant to resume the armed struggle. “This time we received China’s promise of financial assistance. However, was this enough to overturn the previous arguments?… Behind such a positive outlook, there’s still considerable reluctance. After all, our 1959 Songkhla Resolution was not made flippantly but with much analyses and critical criticism.” [6]

In September 1961, the MCP held its 11th expanded Central Committee plenary meeting to re-established the strategy of “taking the armed struggle to the end” and released a “New Policy” of “active persistence, gradual development.”

“From the end of 1961 to May 1966, the whole party and the army resolutely implemented the new policy and struggled bravely, achieving steady growth and expansion. The number of troops increased from 300 to 800; the Young Communist League developed to a number of 3,000 members; In the surrounding areas, we also witnessed the development of a new group of party members and established multiple branches, peasant associations, women’s associations, etc. Masses supporting the revolution can be found in almost all bases and villages. We greatly outnumbered the enemies and effectively parried several attacks.” [7]

Following the success of the New Policy, the establishment of an underground radio station as the publicity organ was put on official agenda. From Vietnam to China, the plan eventually materialised when diplomatic efforts came to fruition.

In 1965, Chairman Mao Zedong met Chin Peng in Wuhan (photograph from My Side of History) - New Naratif
In 1965, Chairman Mao Zedong met Chin Peng in Wuhan (photograph from My Side of History)

Blinking red

In the afternoon, we went straight to the radio station’s transmitter room. A sentry was adjacent to the room and security was rather strict. Since technical works, such as transmitting radio waves, were undertaken by the Chinese personnel, only a few members of the MCP who were designated to learn the radio wave transmitting technology were allowed to enter. As one of the designated members, Zhang Hongbing recalled: “The most striking thing about the cave is that it contains a giant pillar. It was taller and thicker than a human and blinked red during operation.”

Aerial photography of the 691 base today. The courtyard on the left is the residence of Chin Peng (photograph by Zhao Siyi) - New Naratif
Aerial photography of the 691 base today. The courtyard on the left is the residence of Chin Peng (photograph by Zhao Siyi)

In front of the transmitter room, we saw two sturdy, rectangular door frames under the shade of wild trees. Above what looked like a main entrance, there was a sign issued by the Yiyang Eastern New District Management Committee that read: Gentle reminder, the air-raid shelter and equipment are broken, please do not enter! There was a rectangular iron sheet underneath the signboard with four conspicuous black holes the size of rice bowls. The doorway was not very spacious. It had a tunnel extending inward, surrounded by icy cement walls that were dimly illuminated by the penetrating sunlight. In the absence of torches, we were nearly suffocated by the thick and damp darkness. In front of us, I saw a decrepit door slanting precariously from its frame and beyond it was unfathomable darkness.

Remembering the sign at the entrance, we stopped our footsteps. That was the door wedged in history. I recalled that at the right side of the 40m-long main, there were two transmitter rooms, one diesel engine room and the total length of the main and auxiliary tunnel was about 150 meters. At that time: “Two 25kW transmitters were installed in the tunnel and they totalled up to 50 kW. The voltage was more than 100,000 volts. Usually, we only used one transmitter, and the other transmitter was reserved for emergency situations. Our transmitters were powered by the Yiyang County Thermal Power Station. The Chinese side have also thoughtfully supplied us with two diesel generators, so that when the thermal power station fail, the broadcast will not be affected. The two diesel generators were installed in the tunnel, each with 250 horsepower and a total of 500 horsepower. Once the external power supply from the thermal power station was interrupted, the diesel generator in the cave will immediately generate electricity to sustain normal operations.” [8]

Not far from the transmitter room was a reservoir. A short walk along its bank towards the water dam would take one to the transmission antenna field: a large antenna network with a huge tower of 94m in height. Facing the south, the tower sent transmitting waves in the mornings and nights, which were capable of covering the whole of Southeast Asia and even Europe.

Schematic diagram of the 691 base main building and facilities (photo taken from online) - New Naratif
Schematic diagram of the 691 base main building and facilities (photograph taken from online)

Of course, the antenna tower has now been removed. What was left was only the green waters around the dam. Without a sense of relief or lightness, we emerged from the narrow tunnel and stood underneath the blue sky, only to find ourselves angling for a good photo to capture the fleeting moment. Amongst the stones that lined the water dam, I discovered a few intricately patterned stones and tucked them into my backpack.

Entering the MCP living quarters

The living quarters occupied the largest area in 691 base and similarly, “living” constituted one of the most important aspects of our lives too. Before the MCP comrades arrived at 691, all of us helped out in the kitchen and patrolled the mountains during our breaks from the regular guerrilla duties, marching drills and camping missions in the forests. Later in 691, the MCP comrades enjoyed a large living space that was well-supported by the Chinese authorities.

The living quarters of 691 was divided into two parts. The area at the right side of the main entrance was inhabited by the Chinese technicians, logistics personnel and their family members. The MCP quarters were further up the slope.

“The life there was rather bland. We worked, ate and relaxed at fixed hours every day. There were not many recreational activities too. After getting up in the morning, I would go to the radio station after eating breakfast and at 11:30am I would go for lunch. The food was prepared by the Chinese and we didn’t have to worry about it. Our job was only to manage our radio broadcasts, while the Chinese were responsible for the technical matters as well as our daily welfare. The MCP and Chinese personnel were also divided into two separate zones. We were not allowed to communicate at all and all rules were to be strictly followed. Outside of two zones was a giant gate guarded by the Liberation Army soldiers. Their duty was to stop any trespassers from entering the MCP zone and to protect our safety.” [5]

In addition to work, other activities included reading, playing music instruments, singing, and watching movies together. During the Cultural Revolution, the MCP comrades mainly watched revolutionary operas and movies like Chun Miao and Sparkling Red Star. During the Cultural Revolution, the range of options expanded to include foreign films dubbed in Chinese, such as Notre Dame de Paris, Resurrection, Caravan, Red Shoes, Future World, Chaplin’s Modern Times, The Light of the City, etc. Other than movies, the comrades also played sports such as basketball, volleyball, table tennis and badminton.

In the rice fields near the reservoir, the Chinese authority had built a 25m-by-50m international standard swimming pool for the MCP comrades to keep fit. Zhou Li (Jin Zhi Mang), who suffered from heart disease, was one of the first to start swimming. Before the pool had been built, he swam in the reservoir together with Chinese comrades.

Other than activities in the base, there were also four “red” tours to iconic revolutionary spots like Yan’an, Dazhai and Shijiazhuang; The MCP comrades also visited the site of Zhang Side’s sacrifice and the “Good Eight Connections on Nanjing Road”, the cemetery of Henry Bethune, the hometown of Liu Hulan, the location of the “Xi’an Incident”—Huaqing Chi, the places where national heroes like Wang Jinxi and Liu Feng had fought, and met famous figures like Chen Yonggui and Guo Fenglian.

Change of seasons, age of time

A road ran gently up ​​the Malayan Communist Party living quarters. Under the shade of the lush foliage, the old buildings seemed distant and surreal in the afternoon sunlight. Located on the left hillside were the female dormitories, large conference rooms, leaders Chin Peng and Li Fan’s courtyards, the infirmary and the kindergarten. Chin Peng and Li Fan’s independent courtyard was built at a later time than the rest of the structures. The courtyard had neat red bricks, grey walls and clean stone steps topped with only a few fallen leaves. The place seemed to have been cleaned and was the best-preserved building amongst all the others, except for the kindergarten that was still in use. There were even publicity articles on the Internet that called this small courtyard “The Presidential Palace”, but of course there was no such name in the past.

Chin Peng and Li Fan’s courtyard was not known as “The Presidential Palace” in the past - New Naratif
    Chin Peng and Li Fan’s courtyard was not known as “The Presidential Palace” in the past

On the right side of the road was a large area that included the family dormitory, male dormitory, small meeting rooms, dining hall, kitchen, bathroom, warehouse, coal room, boiler room, hairdressing room, retail store and medical office. There were also two basketball courts belonging to the MCP and Chinese personnel respectively, as well as a badminton court. It’s easy to believe that one or two hundred people had lived here comfortably and peacefully in the past. The empty dining hall, were shared by both parties who dined separately. The MCP staff were served three meals a day, 365 days a year by the Chinese side. Despite the general lack of resources in the 1970s, they enjoyed a diverse menu: Every meal included pork, beef, chicken, eggs and even freshwater fish. It was said that the Chinese workers and cadres had only a few cents a day for food while the MCP staff were allocated two yuan (almost 20 times of a cent) per person.

Stories frozen in time

In the company of old friends, we toured around the place quietly, with only the sound of leaves crunching beneath our feet. The stillness was broken when Wanshui and Chen Ying exclaimed “This is my room!” while pointing to an old chamber with nothing left inside except for the doorway, the windows, the walls and the pillars. Everything had aged with the passing of time, except for the vivid stories of youth that remained frozen as they were forty-years ago.

Aerial photograph of the 691 old buildings (photographed by Zhao Siyi) - New Naratif
Aerial photograph of the 691 old buildings (photographed by Zhao Siyi)

Some of the roof tiles had collapsed and the moth-eaten beams hung like pieces of cloth, letting in sunlight, rain and wind into the old room where green algae trickled down the walls like blood and the smell of time permeated the air. I felt a throbbing pain in my heart, as if it too has collapsed under force of rain and wind.

These broken buildings, well-blended with the trees on Sifang Mountain, reminded me of the guerrilla camps that I spent ten years in. I saw a striking resemblance in the green canopies, dense forests, thick litter shrubs on the ground, hidden ferns and vines.

Yes, those who worked in this radio were the soldiers without uniforms. But we were comrades-in-arms, though the distance between us was thousands of miles.

The worn-down buildings that were rich with history - New Naratif
The worn-down buildings that were rich with history

Some people have described the Sixth Shock Brigade of the Malayan People’s Army, which persisted in the front line of the forest in the 1980s, as a “solitude army”. Its fighters were remotely under the leadership of the North Malayan Bureau of MCP, had little contact with the local people, received no support and were in a state of isolation. Looking back,  survival was the first priority for most of the fighters.

In addition to “minyun” (mass work), activities in the border areas mainly consisted of obtaining intelligence information and food supplies. In the army, we received little information about the developments in our homelands and could only rely on vague memories of Malaya. Nonetheless, as we listened to Suara Revolusi Malaya, watched Chinese films, read Chinese magazines and newspaper, we felt that Beijing was closer to us than our native lands.

The 691 base, supported by the Chinese authority, provided us with spiritual bread throughout our mission. Up close, 691 was a safe haven isolated from the chaos of the outside-world, located in the deep valley miles away from the county towns. Despite its distance from Malaya, it attempted to organise and compile information from books and magazines to depicted the reality of the Malayan society and offer a direction for the revolutionary cause. Under such a circumstance, efforts to achieve localisation and to win the trust and support of the domestic people were extremely critical, but also immensely difficult.

The closure of Suara Revolusi Malaya

In the 1970s, the post-independent Southeast Asian countries turned their attention to economic development and poverty alleviation. The shift in national priority also coincided with the wave of global industrial transfer that swept across Southeast Asia. With economic development and reforms reshaping the social consensus, the social foundations of the Communist Parties in Southeast Asian nations were sorely challenged. Furthermore, against the backdrop of multi-ethnicity in Malaya, the revolutionary ideology clashed with racism.

Due to the MCP’s historical origin as the Overseas Nanyang Provisional Committee of the Communist Party of China established in 1926, its pioneers were mainly Chinese. Subsequently, the party leadership tried hard to weaken the Chinese-dominance in the party, by recruiting indigenous Malay party members. However, their success was limited and they never managed to form a broad and unified front across the nation. On the other hand, China had also come to the stage of “reform and opening up” by the 1980s and hence adjusted her foreign policy. When Lee Kuan Yew met Deng Xiaoping in 1980, he claimed to represent the four ASEAN countries and asked the Chinese government to shut down Suara Revolusi Malaya radio station. In exchange, ASEAN would lobby African and Latin American countries to support the Khmer Rouge in the United Nations. Hence, in December of that year, after a conversation between Deng Xiao Ping and Chin Peng, Suara Revolusi Malaya was arranged to end its broadcasting services half a year later on 30 June 1981.

Selling tea cakes, guarding the houses and the mountain

Finally, I sat down in a small bamboo chair with a few chickens and ducks waddling around. I was in a small family stall that served tea and cakes made from wild vegetables and glutinous rice flour to explorers who came from afar. During a casual chat with the shopkeeper, the woman in her fifties mentioned that she had attended school with the 691 children when she was young. She knew that her peers were leaving this place to return to their homelands, and worried about their safety and whether they would meet again. In what felt like a blink of an eye, nearly half a century had passed. The woman said she would always come here during the weekend in the belief that her old friends would return one day.

In 1969 and subsequent years, several families settled in Sifang Mountain with their children. Ravi recalled: “Our family (referring to P. V. Sarma’s family) has my brother and sisters; Eu Chooi Yip has two daughters. Sudin, Lin Yan and Liang Sen also have children.” These school-age children did not work in the station and instead studied with the locals at the Sifang Mountain Primary School. For this reason, this tea-selling woman was able to meet a group of peers with a different background from the rural children.

“Some of these children joined the radio work after they grew up. My brother Lu Hua (Abhilash) was one of them. After the radio station was closed, he stayed in Changsha to study in a medical university, and later went to the UK for a master’s degree. Now he works in Beijing. My sister also stayed in Changsha to study at the Normal University, and then went to India to pursue her master’s degree. Sudin’s son, Yuri, also graduated from the medical university. Fang Xiaolang’s son, Fang Ning, followed the Lin Yan family and was educated in Changsha as well. After 1981, he went to Hong Kong to study photography and subsequently worked as a professional photojournalist for newspapers and TV stations. In November 2001 after the ‘9.11’ incident, he was dispatched by Phoenix TV to Afghanistan for field shooting, along with renowned reporter Lüqiu Luwei. He has been to many countries and is very successful.”

Eu Chooi Yip has two daughters. The eldest daughter was six years old and younger one four years old at that time. In an old photo, they were playing with Sudin’s three boys in front of the 691 base meeting room. The photo was taken in October 1969 and the building in the background had a banner that read: Celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Great People’s Republic of China. Later, their entire school life was spent in Changsha. The older sister said: “My sister went to the kindergarten class while I went to the Sifang Mountain Primary School with the local children. There was a local child named An Jing who became my good friend.” After the closure of the radio station, the sisters went to Hunan Normal University to study a foreign language ​​(English), until they left Changsha in 1988.

A few 691 children playing in front of the meeting room - New Naratif
A few 691 children playing in front of the meeting room

The woman who sold tea cakes was probably not An Jing, but the time she spent with the 691 children would always be a part of her memory. She would be happy if she knew that her little friends from the past were now living fulfilling and successful lives around the world, in Hong Kong, Beijing, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the United States….

Guarding the osmanthus tree in the mountain

While visiting the work area of 691 in the morning, we ran into Chen Meizhen, an old uncle on welfare who guarded the 691 compounds. He spoke to us in a heavy Hunan accent: “I came here in 1994, more than 20 years. Until now, they haven’t paid my salary!” He told us that he slept in his home in a nearby village at night and went to the base every morning except on rainy and snowy days.

After the MCP members left in the 1980s, the compound was taken over by the railway department. In 1994, a person named Pan Xianhua asked the uncle to “guard the houses and the mountain”, and promised to pay him upon “the development of tourism”. However, Pan Xianhua died a few years ago, and the promise of “development” went unfulfilled. Despite this, Chen Meizhen did not leave his job. He said that when he first arrived, the houses were in acceptable condition and sweet-scented osmanthus trees lined the mountain. “If it weren’t for me, the osmanthus trees would have been dug away!”

Uncle Chen Meizhen who "guards the houses and the mountain" - New Naratif
Uncle Chen Meizhen who “guards the houses and the mountain”

Another story about the abandoned 691 base suggested that it was used as a gambling den and many people in the Sifang Mountain village were recruited as waiters. Given the secluded location of the base, gamblers managed to run their business without the authority’s knowledge. Nonetheless, after many days, news leaked and the police came to hunt down the gamblers, who left behind their cash and fled.

Later on, the transmitter room and the diesel generator room, which were located in the air-raid shelter, were utilised by the villagers as facilities to pickle salted duck eggs. The 25m by 50m international competition standard swimming pool in the rice field was converted into a freshwater fish farm, but retained its small diving platform and the glistening water surface that reflected the blue sky above.

Yesterday's 25m by 50m international competition standard swimming pool, today's freshwater fish farm - New Naratif
Yesterday’s 25m by 50m international competition standard swimming pool, today’s freshwater fish farm

A page of profound meanings

Time toys around with history, life, architecture and more… It chips, bumps, and knocks them into unrecognisable forms; some even into rubbles. Generations of people have rushed along the same path in pursuit of their ambitions, both grand and humble alike. Some people would eventually look back and some others would stop to ponder. Perhaps, every life experience shapes who we are today.

A local villager told us that a female member of the MCP had sold her personal notes, materials, books and magazines as waste paper before the station’s closure. The villager’s family rolled all the papers into firecrackers. She recalled that the notes contained many verses of Li Qingzhao’s poems and hence inferred that the owner “had deep reflections about life”.

691, a page of profound meaning, has been turned over. Nonetheless, the plethora of human experiences are still waiting to be unpacked by political scientists and sociologists. In this remote mountain tucked away from the bustle of modernity, there still lives a tea cake-selling woman awaiting the return of her childhood friends, as well as Uncle Chen Meizhen who guards the osmanthus trees.

Qingyuan—Another episode of Suara Revolusi Malaya Radio Station

Changsha Qingyuan Hotel was originally one of the designated guest houses under the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. It mainly hosted cadres from Southeast Asian fraternal parties who were engaged in armed struggles, as well as other temporary guests. Apart from the members of the MCP, cadres of the Central South Peninsula and Southeast Asia have lived there too. After the MCP closed the establishment of the Malayan National Liberation League in Beijing, the leading agency was moved to Hunan. During that period, Changsha Qingyuan had close ties with the MCP, and even reserved a temporary residence for Chin Peng. Although Chin Peng mainly lived in Sifang Mountain, he received guests and the Chinese cadres in Qingyuan, and stayed there temporarily when he needed to travel to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. The Qingyuan reception building outside Chin Peng’s residence were used by MCP members for a long time as an office for external communication, manpower and document transfer and material procurement, as well as a temporary residence for comrades entering and leaving Sifang Mountain. After Suara Revolusi Malaya ceased operations, Qingyuan was also home to the Chen Tien-Li Ming, Eu Chooi Yip and Sarma’s families before they left Changsha.

Chen Tien's last New Year, celebrated in Qingyuan Hotel, 1990 (From Li Ming's Oral History) - New Naratif
Chen Tien’s last New Year, celebrated in Qingyuan Hotel, 1990 (From Li Ming’s Oral History)

When we visited Qingyuan’s original site in Changsha again, the old compound had been transformed into a quiet and beautiful residential estate with the same name, which befittingly translates into “garden of lush greenery”. During our visit, we met our old friends from the 691 Chinese staff , many of whom lived in the new Qingyuan. Dr. Feng was one of them and he agreed to invite other old comrades to his place. Selfless internationalist Dr. Feng joined the “Resist U.S. aggression and Aid Korean” campaign when he was 17 years old. He was a medical soldier and furthered his career to become a doctor after the war. He and his wife, Dr. Huang, were transferred to 691 to serve the radio station until it ceased operation in 1981. Throughout the years, they dutifully looked after the health of the comrades and tended to all sorts of afflictions around the clock, even in the wee hours of the morning. Back in the present, when the full group of twenty to thirty comrades arrived, Dr. Feng’ spacious living room was packed to its full capacity with old friends and joyous chatter. Even though some of them spoke to us through a thick Hunan accent, their drive, selflessness and enthusiastic belief in internationalism were still able to stand out to us clearly with the aid of Chen Ying’s simple translations. Madam Guo came to 691 in July 1969 as a tutor for the children of the MCP comrades, who had yet to join the local primary school. Back then, she taught subjects across five academic levels and took care of the general welfare of her students. In her own words, she was “both a teacher and a nanny”. Madam Guo’s husband was surnamed Xie. He was one of the logistic personnel of 691 who was in charge of purchasing food from Yiyang and Changsha. Back then, in the absence of refrigerators, Mr Xie would leave the base as early as 5am and rush back before 9am in order to keep the ingredients fresh for lunch. On the other hand, the food suppliers in Yiyang, under special order, tried their best to meet the needs of the 691 base. Their effort maintained a high-quality and diverse menu for our comrades, who enjoyed three dishes and one soup for lunch every day.  Long and Mr Liu were among the first 16 people to join 691. Before their arrival, Changsha lacked high-end launching equipment. As station technicians, Long and Liu purchased Soviet-standard instruments from Beijing and painstakingly carried them to Changsha as though protecting swaddled babies. When Liu trained the MCP comrades on transmission technology, he would not hesitate to climb 94m  up the antenna tower to demonstrate the right operation method, much to the amazement of Ravi and the younger colleagues. People like Feng, Guo, Xie, Liu and Long were valuable assets to 691. They arrived in Sifang Mountain prior to the MCP’s arrival, and stayed behind to settle remaining affairs after our departure. Some of them even stayed on until 1984; they contributed the prime time of their life to 691. Feng, after becoming a chief officer, continued to look after affairs concerning the MCP comrades. On the other hand, his daughter Feng Tong, who is now working as an English teacher, was thankful for Eu Chooi Yip’s tutorship and guidance. She recalled that Eu used to teach her English in the 691 medical office. Together with Uncle Sarma, Eu encouraged her to overcome her fear of reading English books and broadened her perspective. “I was extremely lucky to have gone to college as compared to the other 691 children who lacked the chance to,” she added.

The new Qingyuan building on the original site of Qingyuan Hotel - New Naratif
The new Qingyuan building on the original site of Qingyuan Hotel

Life-long camaraderie

A blessing or a misfortune? Different encounters tell their own tales. With the passage of time, histories and fates are shaped into their present form. The people in Sifang Mountain once had great hopes and ambitions for the future of their country, but their 11 years of labour did not culminate in the outcome they had in mind. Nonetheless, this is not to say that their effort was in vain. The people behind it served selflessly with the interest of their nation at heart. They pursued the noble goal of realizing a better future they believed in. Ultimately, the definitive outcome of a political movement does not undermine the human spirit of contribution and sacrifice that empowered it. In this secluded mountain valley, tenacity and camaraderie prevailed. In retrospect, life seems nothing longer than a few dozen decades. However, as we look back on our journey, memories linger as we savour the past. At the end of the day, all we are grateful for is the unforgettable memory of people, friendships, love and youthful dreams.

A photo with old friends from afar - New Naratif
A photo with old friends from afar

The new Qingyuan building stands tall against the backdrop of a clear, azure sky. My thoughts drifted to Hunan’s Xiang Jiang River that dashed ceaselessly northwards, like in Dufu’s poem, “flowing through the aeon of history”.

This article was originally published in Malaysia’s Sin Chew Jit Poh in eight parts monthly in 2018.

References

[1] Peng C., Ward I., and Miraflor N. (2003), My Side Of History. Singapore: Media Masters, pp. 403-04.

[2] Cheng A. (2009), 《一路艰辛向前走》A Tough Journey Ahead. [s.n.], pp. 87-91.

[3] International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China

[4] Cheng A. (2009), 《一路艰辛向前走》A Tough Journey Ahead. [s.n.], pp. 138-139.

[5] Hiang T. C. (n.d.), Li Ming’s Oral History. [s.n.], pp. 96.

[6] Peng C., Ward I., and Miraflor N. (2003), My Side Of History. Singapore: Media Masters, pp. 389-90.

[7] Cheng A. (2009), 《一路艰辛向前走》A Tough Journey Ahead. [s.n.], pp. 333

[8] Cheng A. (2009), 《一路艰辛向前走》A Tough Journey Ahead. [s.n.], pp. 141-142

Hai Fan

Hai Fan is a Singaporean publisher and writer. In 1976 he joined the Malayan People’s Army, and returned home after the Peace Agreement was signed in 1989. His collection of stories, “Delicious Hunger” (《可口的饥饿》), was selected as one of the "Ten Major Chinese Novels of 2017" by Yazhou Zhoukan (亚洲周刊). In 2018 Malaysia’s Sin Chew Jit Poh published his article about Suara Revolusi Malaya on its special column in serials.

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