A fleet of illegible and nameless specters haunts the political landscapes of early and mid-twentieth-century Southeast Asia. British Special Branch reports from this period tended to present its Communist enemies as faceless statistical digits, revealing few personal details about them. The abstraction of these reports is further exacerbated by the fact that the most frequent sources of intelligence were agents, double agents, double-crossers, informers, snitches, squealers, stool-pigeons, rats, spies, traitors, tattletales, turncoats, and apostates—all of whom have been known to fabricate stories.
This problem is symmetrically compounded by the highly secretive and conspiratorial nature of the Malayan Communist Party, which bordered on the paranoid. Party statements scarcely mentioned names, especially those of their leaders and agents. This security measure for concealing the identities of its operatives seldom worked out in the long term, and its chief weakness was that it rendered these figures invisible to the public, which had no image of the party’s leadership, or knowledge of its policies and activities.
From 1939 to 1947, the secretary general of the Malayan Communist Party was a man known as Lai Teck, sometimes written as Loi Tak, Lai Te, or Lai Rac as he was known to some in Vietnam. It has been said that he lived as Truong Phuoc Dat until 1934, but other sources report his birth name to be Nguyen Van Long, Hoang A Nhac, or Pham Van Dac. Throughout his career, Lai Teck accumulated more than fifty names: Lai Te, Lighter, Mr Light, Mr Wright, C. H. Chang, Chan Hung Chang, Chan Hoon, Chang Hung, Soh King, Lao Wu, Lee Soong, Wong Kim Geok, Huang Shao-dong, Jin Tang, D. Ling, the right hand of Ho Chih-Minh, Ah Le, Ah Lin, or Malaya’s Lenin. He is every name in history. And in May 1948, the Central Committee of the Malayan Communist Party named him: “The greatest traitor in the history of our Party.”
While there seems to be a consensus that he was born in 1903, accounts vary on his birthplace, which ranges from the Nghe Tinh Province of Vietnam, to Saigon, to Ba Ria in the south. But all commentators seem to agree that he was of mixed blood—with a Chinese mother and an Annamese father—as though this mélange prefigured the form, or rather, the formlessness of his life.
Drawn to Communism at an early age, he joined the Indochina Communist Party while he was still a student in Saigon. After leaving school, he entered the French Navy and lived a life of water, circulating through the underbellies of Asian port cities, among an interregional cast of transients, seedy outlaws, and small-time revolutionaries. For a person gifted with strong mimetic faculties, life out in the open, fluid sea was a constant temptation toward dissolution, a slow unbounding of the self. For someone like Lai Teck, to be at sea was to become sea, to become water, in water.
In 1925, he was arrested by the French Sûreté Générale Indochinoise for disseminating Communist literature among sailors. Some believe this to be the moment when he “turned” to the other side; he would have been only twenty-two years old. Others think that the turning point took place six years later, when he was arrested at the French Concession in Shanghai. In any case, Lai Teck worked in Vietnam as an informer until 1934, when his cover was blown in an incident in Annam. No longer useful to French intelligence, he was gifted to the British, with whom he would begin a new chapter in his career. Authenticated by documents that the Special Branch had seized in raids in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Lai Teck arrived in Singapore in 1934 with impressive credentials. The British slyly cast him as a former aide of Ho Chih Minh, which was convenient, given that Ho had been arrested in Hong Kong in 1932. Lai Teck arrived as a Comintern agent specially sent to resolve an internal rift that was paralyzing the Malayan Communist Party.
According to a Japanese military report that surfaced after the war, “Comrade Wright” made an immediate impression within the party. His knowledge of theoretical Marxism earned him the epithet of “Malaya’s Lenin,” while his natural ability for organized destruction showed itself in an intensive, six-month purge that restored “ideological unity within the party.” Using the police to remove his competition, he rapidly rose within the ranks of the party, becoming secretary general in 1939.
When Singapore fell into Japanese hands in February 1942, Lai Teck did not take to the jungle like many of his comrades. He chose to remain in the occupied city, according to one source, accompanied by two Vietnamese wives and a Chinese mistress, until he was picked up by the Kempeitai in a security sweep. From then on, Lai Teck began working for the Japanese. News of his arrest spread, but so great was his aura within the party that it was believed that this master of espionage talked his way out of prison. In the years of the Japanese Occupation, Lai Teck went about his business flamboyantly, in a Morris Eight saloon given to him by the Japanese. But there can be little doubt that he facilitated the extensive destruction of the party’s organization in Singapore and Malaya, often by setting up high-ranking party members for Kempeitai ambushes. Throughout his career, he was responsible for the arrest and execution of at least 105 party colleagues.
With the Japanese surrender and the return of Malaya to British rule, Lai Teck, with characteristic seamlessness, resumed his work with the British. However, suspicions against him had been accumulating in the last years of the war, and the Central Committee of the party summoned Lai Teck for a meeting on March 6, 1947. Sensing that something was amiss, Lai Teck did not turn up. Instead, he spent the next months in hiding before disappearing with most of the party’s funds to Hong Kong. However, prior to this, Lai Teck had made what was arguably his most far-reaching political move—steering the armed, anti-Japanese Communist guerillas away from a forceful take over of Malaya before the British return. And when Chin Peng, who succeeded Lai Teck as secretary general in 1947, led the party to armed struggle, the initiative had already been lost. Vessel to every power, in the vicissitudes of Lai Teck’s career, can be traced a chronicle of the entire region’s political turmoil.
The death of Lai Teck, like so much of his life, came through hearsay. According to Chin Peng, whose account was in itself the result of a sequence of Chinese whispers, Lai Teck was tracked down in Thailand in 1947 by a death squad. He was suffocated, his body stuffed in a sack, and thrown into the Chao Phraya River. A watery grave for a man whose being in the world was like water in water.
The closest thing to an official confirmation of Lai Teck’s death is the recent release of his picture by the Special Branch, something that is usually done upon the death of former agents. In this single photograph of him that survives, we see a lean and severe man with large, deep-set eyes staring straight out at us. Cloaked in blankness, this is a face that lends itself easily to our imaginative projections of cloak-and-dagger fantasies. And in the very inconstancy of his soul, we sense an incompleteness that defines the region as a whole; an identity not defined by interiority or substance, but shaped through exteriority and relationality. In the uncertain and ambiguous biography of this nameless shape-shifter is inscribed the history of Southeast Asia: subjected to multiple possessions and manifold dominations, alongside a brute—and mute—will to survive.