ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT'S EXPRESSION

RECLAIMING ASIAN PERSPECTIVES AND IDENTITY IN THE AGE OF IMPERIALISM

Modern Asian histories have been profoundly shaped by European-led imperialism, which has ushered in new forms of trade, migration and conflict. All too often, these histories are interpreted through the lens of anachronistic national narratives, shaping our judgement of what events and experiences are deemed ‘important’ and the ways that these are contextualised. Yet the full range of Asian experiences, identities and responses cannot be contained within such narrow frameworks. This panel explores local perspectives on the encounters and ideas engendered by these processes of imperialism and colonialism, using Asian sources to tell Asian stories.

MODERATOR

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JEREMY SALKELD (/u/EnclavedMicrostate)

PANEL MODERATOR

JEREMY SALKELD (HE/HIM) has recently completed an undergraduate degree in Ancient and Modern History at the University of Oxford. His main interests are in the intersection between warfare, ideology, and identity in the mid-nineteenth century Qing Empire, and in the construction of historical narratives by rebel movements in the period, particularly the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. He is also an AskHistorians moderator and podcast editor.

SPEAKERS AND PAPERS

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SYAFIQAH JAAFFAR (/u/thebramblingthorns)

“MERCHANTS NOW RULE OUR LAND”: EARLY BRITISH RULE IN SINGAPORE (1819-1840) THROUGH THE EYES OF THE NATIVE TRADING CLASSES

Dominant narratives surrounding the history of Singapore tend to cast the arrival of British rule on the island in 1819 as positively transformative. It was the ideal success story of rags to riches: the happy tale of a sleepy fishing village suddenly bursting to life as a bustling metropole continues to echo in popular accounts and representations of Singapore, both locally and internationally.

 

Yet in maintaining such a narrative of success, we hardly consider how the arrival of such a new ‘order’ impacted and was received by those already residing in and around the island. What did the change in trade laws meant for the existing native trading classes? How did they make sense of these changes? Were they able to cope? And how did it come to be that their existence was gradually erased out of historical memory? What is also notable is historians’ general silence on this erasure, despite 19th century Malay poetry being consistent in airing the grievances of the native trading classes. Is it sufficient to point to a lack of language capability amongst those working on colonial Singapore history as a  hindrance to do so?

 

In discussing these questions, I will make reference to three understudied works of Malay poetry by writers based in Singapore. They are Tuan Sim's Syair Dagang Jual Beli (Poem of Buying and Selling) and Syair Potong Gaji (Poem of Wages Cut), and Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir's Syair Singapura Terbakar (Poem of Singapore Ablaze). All three works were composed between the years 1820s to 1840s, coinciding with the early decades of British rule in Singapore.
 

SYAFIQAH JAAFFAR (SHE/HER) (She/Her) is presently an assistant curator with the National Museum of Singapore. Her work focuses on the intersections of history, literature and visual culture, primarily of the Malay Archipelago between the 19th and early 20th century. Recently this manifested in the exhibit “A Voyage of Love and Longing” at the National Museum of Singapore. She also handles literary translation from classical Malay into English. She is presently working on an upcoming joint translation of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi’s “Syair Singapura Terbakar”.

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SIMON LAM (/u/hellcatfighter)

CONTEMPORARY ANXIETIES, SELECTIVE MEMORIES: THE MISSING NARRATIVE OF THE INDIAN PRISONER OF WAR IN HONG KONG

In December 1941, around 4,000 Indian soldiers laid down their arms and went into captivity following the fall of Hong Kong. The Japanese, eager to demonstrate their Pan-Asianist credentials, attempted to entice Indian prisoners-of-war (POWs) into joining the Indian Independence League and its military counterpart, the Indian National Army. Indian POWs in Hong Kong were faced with a difficult choice – to partake in anti-colonialist collaborationism or retain military loyalty to a colonial overlord. The Japanese appeal greatly alarmed British intelligence in the South China region, which devoted substantial resources to monitor Indian activities and assist the escape of Indian POWs.

Despite the wartime struggle over Indian loyalties, Indian perspectives are conspicuously absent from post-war memories of the Japanese occupation. Prisoner-of-war literature and remembrances have almost exclusively focused on European (including Canadian) and Eurasian experiences of captivity in Hong Kong. In such narratives, Indians exist on the periphery as prison guards, policemen and fellow captives, and only emerge from the background as foils to European actions. Indian POW perspectives are similarly absent in historiography, with an academic tendency to emphasise Chinese or European experiences in wartime Hong Kong due to the greater range and easier accessibility of related sources.

By examining British intelligence documents, pro-Japanese wartime media and POW memoirs, this paper seeks to restore the missing narrative of the Indian POW in Hong Kong, exploring the complex decisions made by POWs in the name of anti-colonialism, Pan-Asianism and military loyalty. Through colonial, political and social frameworks, this paper will also investigate why wartime Indian experiences have been marginalised in both post-war memory and historiography, tying the Indian experience of Japanese occupation with historical and contemporary representations of Hong Kong’s Indian community.
 

SIMON LAM (HE/HIM) is an Assistant Project Officer at the Hong Kong and South China
Historical Research Programme, Lingnan University. He is currently co-writing and editing a
book on the medical history of Hong Kong. His research focuses on the experience of war in
modern China, with a particular interest in the diplomatic relations of warlords in the South
China region during the Second Sino-Japanese War. He will be beginning DPhil studies at the
University of Oxford this autumn, and is an AskHistorians moderator.

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SHIRIN SADJADPOUR (/u/shirinmikiko)

THREE WISE MEN OF MEIJI: FORGING A JAPANESE AESTHETIC TRADITION AT THE WORLD’S COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION OF 1893

After the collapse of the Tokugawa regime in 1868, Japan transformed its feudal, agrarian society into an industrialized, global competitor that was politically and economically capable of meeting Western standards of modernity. Despite this achievement, the fledgling Meiji government grappled with a profound crisis: Japan had successfully averted the imperial powers that endangered its Asian neighbors, but at the cost of abandoning traditional elements of its national identity.

 

Japan’s entrance into the global arena generated a discourse on the language of beauty and cultural conceptions of art, particularly in the context of international expositions. The propagation of Western beliefs that cultural origins, distinctiveness, and progress were manifest in a nation’s art provoked a reevaluation of Japan’s own art history; consequently, efforts to define and codify the contours of a national aesthetic tradition were deeply entangled with Japanese assertions of autonomy and nationhood.

 

The emergence of what is understood today as “Japanese art” can be attributed to the collaborative efforts between a baron, Kuki Ryūichi; an aesthete, Okakura Kakuzō; and a professor, Ernest Fenellosa. Together, they formed a history of Japanese art that exalted Japan’s indigenous ways while preserving a sacred cultural essence. Their vision of Japanese art challenged Western stereotypes that rendered Japan as underdeveloped, backward, and degenerate while also reversing what Japanese intellectuals perceived to be the destructive influence of Westernization.

 

Japan’s resulting display at the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893) was an artistic and architectural feat that not only embodied a universally recognizable, linear advancement of the nation, but also presented a largely Anglo-American population of fairgoers with a society that was a feasible, if not superior alternative to those of the West. This growing sense of aesthetic nationalism shaped a mentality of Japanese exceptionalism and would eventually function as an integral ideological pillar of 20th century Japanese fascism.

SHIRIN M. SADJADPOUR (SHE/HER) is a PhD student at the University of Chicago with a focus on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Japanese and German history. Her research relies heavily on the use of material culture to explore the role of art and architecture in the cultivation of a national body politic and the formation of a modern state. More broadly, her research interrogates the pre-war parallels of the Kaiserreich and Imperial Japan by examining the negotiation and expression of clashing values—tradition and modernity—in comparable efforts to assert cultural legitimacy on the international stage.