Shanghai Homes as Private Domestic Spaces

Following the end of the Opium War, the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 symbolised the opening of treaty ports. Shanghai’s opening welcomed an influx in  Western traders as well as foreign settlers. The influence of such foreign settlers was apparent across broad swathes of the Chinese community. Such influence was clearly recognisable through the development of architecture in Shanghai. Such an exchange between western modernity and traditional Chinese emerged within Shanghai’s neighbourhoods, in particularly Shanghai’s lilong residences.[1]The rise in Shikumen style housing, which made up a significant proportion of lilong residences, by 1930, serve as insightful spaces of historical artefact, in which Jie Li, has examined thoroughly within her work on Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (2015). Through maintaining an interdisciplinary approach to the comparison of two shikumen style houses, in which both Jie Li’s paternal and maternal grandparents and family subsequently lived from 1930, through the combination of ethnography and microhistory Li creates her own approach to the subject of such housing in Shanghai as palimpsests, through her approach “Excavate Where I Stand.”[2] Thus through the analysis of the private and domestic space, witnessed with Jie Li’s work the author reclaims the importance of such domestic spaces, and reclaims the space of Shanghai alleyways in history as “Shanghai alleyways.. a palimpsests of voices and noises, past and present.”[3]


Despite critiques of microhistory, which focus on its limited scope, the strength here within Li’s work shows the role of microhistory as facilitating the ‘excavation’ of details, within the private domestic space, which overall serve to contribute to the readers understanding on the topic of enquiry as a whole. By expressing that whilst “a microhistory is not the last nail on the coffin of its subject matter, but rather an invitation to examine similarly obscured lives and to open up the Pandora’s box of a past era.”[4]


Moreover, the approach through its focus on ethnology additionally succeeds in transforming the role of local gossip into a tool, for the use of the historian. As “the private narratives of the past form gossip and family lore.. an undercurrent of private interests, voices and beliefs.”[5] Thus, through this approach historians are able to gain access to otherwise lost oral narratives of a private closed spaces. Which may be viewed as particularly crucial in the case of reconstructing narratives of the private space within Shanghai alleyway homes throughout the early twentieth century. This is summarised accordingly by Li as, “the history of any alleyway should be written as an anthology of gossip exchanged among its residents.”[6]


The importance of the private domestic space in this instance of understanding Shanghai Homes within the period, is reclaimed through the deployment of Li’s ethnographical and micro historical approach, which succeeds in light of sceptics views of microhistory. Let us hope that Jie Li’s insightful approach may be adopted as an alternative approach to examining otherwise unavailable private domestic spaces by historians in the future.





Li, Jie, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life. (New York:, 2015).

Yang Xianoneng, ‘Shanghai Alleyways: Situating Jinahua Gong’s Shanghai Alleyways’, Cross-Currents East Asian History and Culture Review, Volume No.2, March 2010.


[1] Lilong, is a term used to describe a street, sometimes interconnected where Shikumen housing would be found.

[2] Jie Li, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Lives, (New York, 2015) p.11.

[3] Ibid.,p.12.

[4] Ibid.,p.14.

[5] Ibid.,p.23.

[6] Ibid., p.142

Rebranding History in Beijing

If one walked around the old, seemingly timeless neighbourhoods of Beijing five or six years ago, they would have seen the character “拆” (chai) spray painted on some of the grey shabby walls of hutongs or traditional Chinese family homes. 拆 is the verb for “destroy” or “to pull down.” Once that mark appeared on any given home, it was only a matter of time before it would be bulldozed and made into whatever the government wanted.

Zhang Yue, in their essay “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005,” outlines some of the destruction and renewal Beijing has undergone for the sake of urban development.[1] Zhang describes how Beijing’s real estate development has washed away  – both literally and metaphorically – the city’s historical and cultural DNA. Out of the rubble of many Beijing hutongs has risen massive shopping complexes or high rise office buildings. Traces of the Beijing’s ancient heritage have completely evaporated in many parts of the city.

In the early 2000s, local residents and others lamenting the disappearance of the historic parts of Beijing were appeased by the local government through projects aimed at rebuilding the city’s grandest historical buildings. Coinciding with this effort was the construction of the immense Olympic park north of the city centre. Zhang highlights the reconstruction of the Ming-dynasty south city-gate, Yongdingmen, as the epitome of the government’s cultural preservation effort.[2] Beijing, throughout its many centuries of history, has been built around an auspicious north-south axis, based on the geomantic practices of Feng Shui.[3] Yongdingmen is the base of the axis, while the Forbidden City lies at the heart and the Olympic Park at the head. Rebuilding Yongdingmen at the same time the Olympic Park was taking shape helped to complete Beijing’s power line.[4] The north-south axis was displayed as the pulsating vein of Chinese history – from its cultural grandeur and its deep historical origins to the flourishing world power it has become.

Zhang questions whether Yongdingmen was rebuilt for its cultural and historic authenticity or merely to prop up the image of the city as it became a destination for tourists and world leaders alike in the wake of the Olympic games. While the heart of Beijing’s city life – the hutong – is plagued with destruction, grand buildings and tourist traps like Yongdingmen have risen in its place. As Zhang says herself: “symbolic urban preservation prioritises monuments over urban texture, exploits the economic value of cultural heritage without protecting it, and entertains visitors at the cost of the original inhabitants.”[5]  In effect, Beijing’s rich historical landscape has been appropriated to serve the commercial and political needs of the city as China has assumed its place as one of the world’s foremost powers.




Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005.” The Town Planning Review 79, no. 2/3 (2008): 187-208.

Meyer, Michael. “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.” St Michaels Publishing, 2008.

[1] Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005.” The Town Planning Review 79, no. 2/3 (2008): 187-208.

[2] Ibid

[3] Meyer, Michael. “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.” St Michaels Publishing, 2008.

[4] Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth.”

[5] Ibid

Bushido: The Spirit of the Samurai as an Auto-ethnography

Mary Louis Pratt’s work Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation explores the idea of contact zones which are ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power’ and the process of transculturation that can occur at these zones.[1] Transculturation refers to the process by which subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture.[2] Transculturation is also a selective process, as the subjugated can determine the varying extents to which they absorb aspects of alien cultures. However, in Pratt’s work Asia remains relatively unexplored, meaning that the majority of her discussions of the contact zone remain largely confined to the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. However, Japan arguably represents an interesting an unusual case for Pratt’s model of the contact zone; as a power that was not fully subjugated and was forced to resist imperial encroachment from the Western powers. One of the ways in which this process of encroachment was resisted was by modernisation which was accompanied by a degree of unwarranted transculturation. This process was not universally supported and debated amongst the ‘new men of Meiji Japan, who were concerned about the damage to Japanese culture caused by rapid westernisation.[3] However, Western encroachment was also resisted by the production works that publicised the modernity of the Japanese and their similarities to Western nations. A notable example of this can be seen in the association of popular western values within Japan’s past and the creation of literature designed to espouse the similarities between Japan and the West. These works were arguably auto-ethnographic in nature, by portraying themselves using the terms of the coloniser. Historians such as Karl Friday and Thomas Blackwood argued that the Bushidō that came to be popularised by government endorsement originated in the 1880s and 1890s. As Blackwood observes it has far more in common with Western ideas of gentlemanship, sportsmanship and ‘chivalrous masculinity’ than the medieval Japanese warrior ethos.[4] Nitobe’s work emphasised the importance of compassion, respect and honesty in Bushido to a far greater extent than older accounts.[5] It was not only written in English and but also explored numerous other indigenous traditions of Japan whilst citing European and American philosophers, including classics.[6] The writer of the introduction to its first edition, William Elliott Griffis, clearly identified the work as the solution of this century’s grandest problem – the reconciliation… of the East and the West’ clearly a recognition of the auto-ethnographic nature of the work.[7]

[1] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, (London, 1992), p7.

[2] Ibid, p6.

[3] Kenneth Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan, (Stanford, 1969), p190.

[4] Karl Friday, ‘Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition’ in The History Teacher, Volume 27, Number 3, May 1994, pages 339-349; Thomas Blackwood, ‘Bushidō Baseball? Three ‘Fathers’ and the Invention of a tradition’, Social Science Japan Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Winter 2008), p229.

[5] Nitobe Inazo, Bushido: The Spirit of the Samurai, (New York, 1905).

[6] Ibid, p30.

[7] Ibid, p26.

Building, Making, Thinking – Heidegger, Bachelard and the Mingei movement.

Heidegger wrote Building Dwelling, Thinking in the wake of the housing crisis in Germany after World War Two. As an existentialist Hediegger’s primary focus was the study of being and more specifically in this work its relationship with building and dwelling, which he viewed as intrinsically linked. Using a brief lexicography into the gothic origins of the verb Bauen (to build), its relationship to Ich bin (I am – derived from the very sein: to be), and its origins as the gothic word for dwelling, Heidegger justifies his view that to dwell, is in essence to be or to exist.[1] Heidegger then continues to explain what is called the fourfold and its importance to the concept of dwelling as only by acknowledging this fourfold are humans capable of dwelling and only when capable of dwelling can we build.[2] He illustrates his point using the example of the black forest house to illustrate a building that was built with these ideas in mind. This is a nostalgic and arguably anachronistic view of both spaces and housing relies largely upon his own inherent belief in Gothic (and therefore Aryan) superiority as part of his background in the Nazi party.


In many ways the Heidegger’s work was similar to Bachelard’s phenomenological approach in the poetics of space. As Joan Ockman eloquently explained, ‘Bachelard’s evocation of the rustic abode in Champagne is almost exactly contemporary with Heidegger’s paean to the peasant hut in the Black Forest’.[3] Both Heidigger and Bachelard also disliked the ‘terrible urban reality that the twentieth century has instituted’.[4] However, unlike Heidegger, Bachelard’s dwelling is less about the space itself and the manner or reasons for which it was constructed, but a space that accommodates consciousness. The same was true of smaller objects within the house, like chests, drawers and cabinets.[5] Buildings and objects are thus shelters or dwellings for our thoughts.


The ideas of Phenomenology and existentialism in Heidegger and Bachelard’s work also have a number of parallels with east Asian philosophy, with Heidegger even being in dialogue with East Asian thinkers during his life.[6] Although these are sometimes assumed to be intrinsically different there are in fact numerous similarities with movements in East-Asia and ideas prominent in Bachelard and Heidegger’s phenomenology. The Mingei movement also celebrates the important of Zakki or miscellaneous things, such as ‘chests, plates and clothing’.[7] In his work, The Beauty of Everyday Things, Yanagi laments the ignorance to the importance of these everyday objects in modern Japanese society and the fact that, ‘their existence has been ignored in the flow of time’.[8] Through seeing beauty in the utilitarian nature of everyday objects, Yanagi evokes a similar feeling of importance in functionality that can be seen in Heidegger’s description of the Black-forest dwellings or bridges.

[1] Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ from Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, (New York, 1971)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joan, Ockman, The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, (review) in Hardvard Design Magazine, No. 6 Representations/Misrepresentations and Revaluations of Classic Books.

[4] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), pp120–121.

[5] Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, (Boston, 1958), p74.

[6] Martin Heidegger, “A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer,” in On the Way to Language (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).

[7] Yanagi Soetsu, The Beauty of Everyday Things, Trans Michael Brase, () p35.

[8] Ibid, p35.

Space, an everchanging landscape.

Gonda Yasunosuke’s approach to understanding Asakusa, an entertainment district in Tokyo, sought to portray it as an urban space under constant motion, an interpretation which he concluded would result in an inability to separate its individual parts as they represented Asakusa itself. [1] This brief summary implies a fluidity and flexibility to the understanding of this urban setting, an idea which is synonymous across multiple levels of space. For example, Sanam Luang, otherswise known as ‘The Royal Field’, a large open park in the centre of Bangkok, has served multiple meanings since its inception in 1782. The field was at first used as a cremation ground and a ceremonial rice field, before becoming a symbol of Westernisation and protest. [2]

It can, therefore, be seen that these two examples of urban space each possess a range of meanings and understandings. A diversity which raises questions over the definition of space itself, such as if it is a multi-layered concept, as the two examples suggest, or if it could be simply interpreted as having just one meaning or understanding. For example, could it not be argued that, if we examine space in one moment, a snapshot, it could be interpreted in just one way. Yet, in arguing this you ignore the complexities of space itself, historians themselves are yet to find an adequate universal definition for this concept. Instead, much like Yasunosuke’s description of Asakusa, it represents an idea of constant motion, where academics grapple to place socially constructed boundaries around spatial entities which are both mental and physical.

The Star Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong offers an interesting case study. From one perspective the ferry can be understood as a transport hub and a tourist attraction due to its colonial era design, and yet mentally as a space it represents much more. Following protests in the 1960’s the terminal became a symbol of anti-government protests, a meaning which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to diminish by demolishing the building in 2006. This in turn tied the building into a growing local identity within Hong Kong, which was developing as a reaction to the increasing influence of the CCP in the city, as well as helping to popularize the desire for the conservation of the city’s colonial legacies. [3]The Star Ferry Terminal, therefore, throughout out its life and beyond inhabited multiple levels of space, more often than not at the same time.

As urban historians we must acknowledge that space can be investigated beyond the traditional sense of the urban sphere, requiring the exploration of the local psyche as well as material aspects. Even then, it is not straight forward, for conflict arises in interpretation. Both the CCP and local Hong Kong residents differed on the importance of the Star Ferry Terminal, one side seeing the space as problematic, whilst the other saw it as a source of local pride. An answer to this difference can be found in the fact that space is defined by the eyes of its beholder, a statement which is seemingly confirmed when we explore Miriam Silverberg’s book, ‘Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times’. Her chapter entitled ‘Asakusa Eroticism’, highlights the multiple understandings and approaches undertaken by writers who were attempting to convey the meaning of this urban space. For example, whilst Gonda Yasunosuke focused on the importance of class division, Kawabata Yasunari used the colour palette of Soviet Constructivism to demonstrate his noir tale of Asakusa, tinged with eroticism. [4]

The difference of these two understandings represents a beauty which urban historians should delight in. Space it seems does not have just one meaning, a conclusion which is not problematic as this diversity is a gift in which historians can attempt to untangle the urban maze, unravelling ideas which may have implications beyond the topic under investigation. Post-colonial narratives particularly revel in this, as it offers them an avenue to dismantle traditionally European dominated discourses on colonial history, allowing agency to be placed within the hands of the colonised.

[1] Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (California, 2012), p. 179.

[2] Koompong Noobanjong, ‘The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest’ in Manish Chalana (ed.), Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia (Hong Kong, 2017), pp. 81-98.

[3] Carolyn Cartier, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), p. 76.

[4] Silverberg, Grotesque Nonsense, p. 191.


Cartier, Carolyn, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), pp. 59-83.

Noobanjong, Koompong, ‘The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest’ in Manish Chalana (ed.), Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia (Hong Kong, 2017), pp. 81-98.

Silverberg, Miriam, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (California, 2012).

Domestic Work as a Civic Duty

Japanese homes underwent significant shifts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Such changes can be viewed through John Agnew’s conditions for a meaningful location where he emphasizes location, the physical point on a map, the locale, the setting which facilitates social bonds and sense of place, the emotional connection and associated memories. [1]Japan’s industrialization facilitated the development of collective privacy amongst the family and the idea of the ‘happy home’ amongst the middle and upper classes.[2] Meiji officials actively engaged with women, encouraging the cultivation of what Jordan Sand terms ‘the housewife’s laboratory’ as a necessary part of the Japanese ‘happy home’. By this, he means the professionalization of domestic housework for women who became nutrition, healthcare, and hygiene experts educated and trained to protect bourgeoise households against outside threats.[3]Thus, what John Agnew would see as the locale of middle-class Japanese homes is altered considerably during this period.  

The Meiji adjustments saw the rise of familial privacy meaning the ousting of people like laborers, maids, and other members of the household previously included in daily activities like cooking, cleaning, and overall production. As industrialization encouraged a separation of work and home life, the collective family’s privacy was important and thus the criteria for household members were redefined. This new household order placed the housewife in an all-seeing position wherthe household activities came under her purview. Thus, the state deployed the housewife as its agent advancing the state through her work and embedding her duties into a socio-economic context.

However, this shift laid the groundwork for a system where women’s care of her household went beyond familial bonds but a duty to the state, a view still supported in the 1940s. In the immediate post-war years, food was scarce, and the government encouraged women to be more economical than ever before, avoiding waste as much as possible. Magazines disseminating ideas of using all food materials, including items not normally consumed for example sweet potato stems, in new recipes were common.[4]Once again, housewives and their managerial skills took on a new value to help the state in caring for its citizens in a tumultuous period. Housewives were encouraged to waste nothing however upon the subsequent rise in economic growth, increased consumption saw these habits challenged. Once the so-called ‘consumption revolution’ in the 1950s and 60s took off, the state encouraged women to buy more goods for their families and homes and enjoy the benefits of the progress of Japan embodied in such commercialism.[5]  

The state’s emphasis on the household made women a vital tool for its agenda.  Repeatedly encouraging women to take control of their homes in what they deemed productive ways, Japan relied on women’s role as household managers to monitor households across the country. While this encouragement of household work largely limited female talents to the domestic sphere, the education which opened to educated women in such affairs facilitated social interactions with other women of similar means and provide a springboard future woman could use to branch off into different industries. Thus, while not ideal the seed for female expertise in a chosen field was planted and would develop over time. 

[1] Tim Cresswell,  Defining Place: a short introduction (Malden 2004), p. 7

[2] Itsuko Ozaki, ‘Society and Housing Form: Home‐Centredness in England vs. Family‐Centredness in Japan’, Journal of Historical Sociology  14 (2002)p.  341

[3] Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space and Bourgeoise Culture, 1880-1930 (Cambridge 2005), p. 55

[4] Eiko Maruko Siniawer, Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan (New York 2018), pp. 21-22

[5] Ibid., p. 46

Enframent and Resistance, Hong Kong in the 21st Century

Having recently read ‘Colonising Egypt’ by Timothy Mitchell, I couldn’t help but be drawn into his theory of enframent, which he used to address the place of colonialism within the critique of modernity. The idea of enframent is simple enough, it describes the process in which a container is placed upon a society, enframing the society’s inhabitants within new structures of power and order. The simplicity of this definition makes the theory incredibly versatile, enabling us to apply it beyond the colonial sphere. To prove this, I have chosen to explore the relationship between China and Hong Kong within the 21st century, a case study which details the complexities of enframent within the modern world.

     In recent times, when we think of Hong Kong and China, the first thing that tends to come to mind is civil unrest. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, news reports to do with these two entities were primarily dominated by ongoing protests which were caused by attempts to introduce a new extradition law to Hong Kong. Yet, between 2003 and 2009 more residents of Hong Kong identified themselves as Chinese citizens, than as citizens of a localized identity, begging the questions ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Why did this change?’. [1]

     The answer to these questions I believe, rests in the importance of disciplinary power, an idea that Mitchell takes from Michel Foucault. [2] After the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, spoke of the need to make the city more Chinese. For example, advocating the need for civic education amongst the youth, stressing that it was important that they, ‘‘would have national pride as Chinese.’’ [3] This is important as patriotic education represents a soft policy, which could subtly regulate the power of thought and behaviour. Furthermore, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government targeted the youth of the city through organising activities such as inviting mainland nationalist’s heroes to tour and perform in Hong Kong. [4] It is, therefore, clear that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempted in the early 2000’s to enframe the youth of Hong Kong through the introduction of disciplinary policies, which disseminated nationalist rhetoric.

     So where did this all go wrong? Marilynn Brewer suggests that Chinese integration policies failed to garner widespread support for the Chinese government. [5] Instead, within the transition period an ‘identity conflict’ arose, as Beijing was unable to strike a balance between differentiating Hong Kong identity and their desire to assimilate the city. For example, the demolition of the Star Ferry terminal in 2006 was seen by many as an attempt by the CCP to remove a symbol of protest from Hong Kong’s collective memory. [6] A decision which led to widespread protests and the development of a heritage conservation movement, which was clearly tied to concerns about the erasure of Hong Kong identity. These concerns can be found to date back as early as 2004 when 300 professionals, concerned that Hong Kong’s identity was being eroded, issued a declaration in the press to uphold values such as human rights and democracy. [7] It would, therefore, seem that disciplinary measures employed by the Chinese where not subtle enough, gradually pushing many Hong Kong residents towards a localised identity to combat the ‘mainlandisation’ (enframent) of the city. This is comparable to Mitchell’s descriptions of enframent policies in Egypt in the 1830’s, where disciplinary reforms, such as the reorganisation of the military and agriculture were met with large scale resistance as they were too overt. [8] Furthermore, Brewer believes that perceived threats towards Hong Kong were amplified by the depth of pre-existing regional identity within the city, leading inhabitants to become more inclined to respond to these threats with political resistance and conflict. [9]

     It, therefore, seems that although mainland China was initially able to begin enframing Hong Kong within the ideals of the CCP, these soon unravelled as the pace and intensity of disciplinary action became too overt. This in turn led to the development of a stronger local identity, setting the stage for the protest movements of 2014 and 2019.

[1] Yew Chiew Ping, Kwong Kin-ming, ‘Hong Kong Identity on the Rise’, Asian Survey 54:6 (2014), p. 1089.

[2] Disciplinary power is a mechanism of power that regulates the thought and behaviour of social actors through subtle means such as surveillance and through institutions (i.e. schools and the military).

[3] Ping, Kin-ming, ‘on the Rise’, p. 1089.

[4] Examples of these heroes are Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut and medallists from 2004 and 2008 Olympic games. Ibid.

[5] Marilynn B. Brewer, ‘Multiple Identities and Identity Transition: Implications for Hong Kong’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations 23:2 (1999), p. 195.

[6] Carolyn Cartier, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), p. 76.

[7] Ping, Kin-ming, ‘on the Rise’, pp. 1102-1103.

[8] Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkley, 1988), pp. 41-42.

[9] Brewer, ‘Identity Transition’, p. 196.


Brewer, Marilynn B., ‘Multiple Identities and Identity Transition: Implications for Hong Kong’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations 23:2 (1999), pp. 187-197.

Cartier, Carolyn, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), pp. 59-83.

Mitchell, Timothy, Colonising Egypt (Berkley, 1988).

Ping, Yew Chiew, Kin-ming, Kwong, ‘Hong Kong Identity on the Rise’, Asian Survey 54:6 (2014), pp. 1088-1112.

Conversation’s with a Khan: Invisible cities and Spatial Theory

Invisible cities was written in 1972, Italo Calvino’s work explores the themes of imagination and the imaginable through a dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. The work contains a description of around fifty cities which are explored in the form of prose poems which are interspersed with conversation between Polo and the Khan. Although the poems themselves are separated into separate groups relating to numerous themes, such as death, desire and memory. The book itself was both celebrated and critiqued upon its release, with some claiming that in the work, “Calvino the mature postmodernist became exactly what he feared as a young man, that is to say, a solipsistic thinker removed from the exigencies of history’.[1] The idea imagination of any city or space is ultimately and exercise in imagining oneself is both a profound and unsettling one, however not one as divorced from the exigencies of history as literary critics might assume. Einaudi’s invisible cities in fact reflects a number of key themes and ideas touched on in spatial history and historiography, albeit in a roundabout manner. Perhaps the most telling section of the work can be found in the conversation between Polo and Kublai in the opening of chapter 6:


Dawn had broken when he said: “Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.”

“There is still one of which you never speak.”

Marco Polo bowed his head.

“Venice,” the Khan said.

Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?”The emperor did not tum a hair. “And yet I have never heard you mention that name.

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.”

“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”[2] 


Although it may not have been Einaudi’s intention, the idea that we ultimately remain grounded in our own imagination and ideas when describing new spaces is an important warning to the historian. The problem of anachronism within history is a longstanding issue and one that historical theorists have always attempted to tackle. The idea that a description of a time or space is ultimately a reflection of the context of the person imagining was one of the key criticisms of the Historist school of historical thought. Polo’s description of his fantastical cities is flavoured by the context in which he explains them, more particularly his venetian background, which influences his ideas about cities as he explains them. All of his cities are described based on their relationship to his understanding of Venice.


Aside from more obvious historiographical tropes, the work also suggests numerous aspects of spatial theories within the poems on cities. The idea that ‘The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things’ is certainly reminiscent of Lefebvre’s idea of representational spaces that have a system of signs and symbols that help conceptualise space.[3] Furthermore, in Cities and Signs 3, the idea that ‘In every city of the empire every building is different and set in a different order: but as soon as the stranger arrives at the unknown city and his eye penetrates the pine cone of pagodas and garrets and haymows’ has similarities to Lefebvre’s idea of representations of spaces, as spaces that can be conceptualised and that ‘the imagination seeks to change and appropriate’.[4]


Although these similarities and associations are merely speculative, the book was nonetheless an interesting reflective peace that raises important questions for the spatial historian and an important warning:


‘No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it’.[5]

[1] John Welsh, ‘Erasing the Invisible Cities: Italo Calvino and the Violence of Representation’ in Working papers in Romance Languages, Vol 1 Issue 2 Summer 2007, p1.

[2] Italo Calvino, invisible Cities, (London, 1972), p86.

[3] Calvino, Cities, p13; Henri, Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Oxford, 1991), p38.

[4] Calvino, Cities, p34; Lefebvre, Space, p39.

[5] Calvino, Cities, p61.

The Politics and Economics of Gandhi Hats in 1930 Bombay

At the onset of the 1930s, anti-Gandhi hysteria amongst the British in India was close to boiling point. This was largely thanks to the now iconic Salt March, where over 24 days, he led a non-violent protest to the Arabian Sea in protest at salt taxes. The British clamped down on this movement, arresting tens of thousands, including Gandhi himself on the 5th May.[1]

This event sparked civil disobedience throughout India. The response of the British was one of righteous indignation, with one paper reporting that, ‘consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Gandhi is playing a dangerous game. In the name of Ahimsa he is actually promoting violence, not only in feeling but in act. Within the week just ending all the Presidency towns and every city has witnessed scenes of wilful rioting and excesses by mobs’.[2]

I was surprised therefore, when in the very same newspaper I read the following, terse report from Bombay dated a couple of weeks previously:

‘The bullion, cotton share and cloth markets in the city have posted special notifications forbidding admission of all Indians wearing foreign head-gear to their respective places of business. Gandhi caps are being freely distributed’.[4]

These hats had long been associated with the home-rule movement, first being worn by Gandhi in 1919, and soon entering into mainstream popularity, being sold at pro-independence meetings in the early 1920s.[5] The British response had been swift, with cap-wearers suspended from Government jobs, fined or even beaten.[6] Such hats have therefore maintained political significance up to the present day, with the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (common man) Party dishing out tens of thousands of these cheaply made caps emblazoned with party slogans at rallies from 2012 onwards.[7]

AAP Gandhi Hat (Andrew Whitehead)

Against this backdrop therefore, this report seems somewhat paradoxical. Having previously banned it, and at a time when Gandhi was coming to be considered pariah-in-chief in India, the British authorities seem to have tolerated the open distribution of one of his most iconic symbols.

What conclusions can we draw therefore from this anecdotal news article? The fact that three of the most important markets in the city had banned ‘foreign’ head-gear seems significant, as it suggests that domestic cloth manufacturers were feeling the strain of competing with foreign imports (coupled with the ongoing economic fallout from the Great Depression). The fact that Gandhi caps were being freely distributed as well points to the open support of independence by some of the leading merchant’s associations of the city. In this context then, the British tolerance of the manufacture and distribution of Gandhi hats, even to the detriment of imports, can also be seen in light of needing to prop up Indian industries. It also potentially demonstrates how Indian cloth merchants could use this rising nationalist tide to spur and stimulate their own industries, using it as an excuse to prevent competition. This isolated case therefore demonstrates the often grey area between political and economic nationalism, with the latter frequently fuelling the former across South East Asia in the 1930s.

[1] ‘Salt March’,, 16th Jan 2020

[2] Rangoon Gazette and Weekly Budget, 5th May 1930, p7

[3] Ibid., p24

[4] Rangoon Gazette, ‘Free Distribution of Gandhi Caps in Bombay: Bullion and Other Markets object to foreign headgear’, 14th April, p2

[5] Andrew Whitehead, ‘Radical Objects: The Common Man’s Gandhi Cap’, History Workshop, 17th April 2014

[6] Lata Singh, Popular Translations of Nationalism: Bihar, 1920-1922, (Delhi 2012)

[7] Andrew Whitehead, ‘How India’s iconic Gandhi cap has changed sides’, BBC, 28th April 2014

‘Cautionary Tales’, The State of Burmese Cinema in the 1930s

Of all art forms, film has often found itself most susceptible to government censorship. This became clear when I was conducting research for a project on Indo-Burmese relations in 1930s Rangoon. Whilst in the British Library, poring over a very large and exceedingly dry copy of the Burma Gazette (filled for the most part with regional judicial and forestry commission reports), I randomly came across a bi-annual report from the Police Commissioner’s office, showing the activities of the Burma Board of Censors. This provided not only an intriguing insight into the early Burmese film industry, but also the colonial government’s attempt to police the thoughts of its captive audience.

Firstly, the Burmese film industry appeared to be very healthy despite its relative newness, with the first Burmese film having only been released a decade earlier, in 1920.[1] From 1st January to 28th April 1930, fifty-three new films were submitted for certification.[2] Nor was this industry seemingly dominated by a couple of major companies, with over sixteen different studios submitting applications over this period. The vast majority of these films (thirty-six), are classified as ‘Burmese’, presumably indicating their language and the origin of their producers. Certain major Burmese companies included the British Burma Film Company, as well as the Burmese Favourite Company, headquartered in Rangoon at No. 276, 39th Street and Sule Pagoda Road respectively. Together they produced a range of Burmese language films designed for a purely domestic audience, with titles ranging from ‘Thidagu’ to ‘Khemathee’.[3]

What is especially interesting however is the prevalence of Chinese films, comprising 15 in total. Despite being produced by a range of different studios, the most important company appears to have been the so-called Star Motion Picture Company, headquartered in Shanghai. Here the films appear to have been more along the lines of so-called ‘blockbusters’, featuring English language titles such as ‘Three Knights in the Army’, ‘The Young Heroine’, and ‘Knight of Burning Temple’. Importantly however, Chinese English-language films were also permitted even if they were explicitly political, as is clear from the title of one approved film, the ‘Northern Expedition of Nationalists’, produced in 9 parts by the San Bim Film Company.[4]

In light of this, censorship of this cinematic mix appears to have been very light. Every film on the list is approved, with some Burmese films even referenced as having passed the censorship test ‘Without Examination’. Indeed, only one film appears to have been subjected to censorship; a regional Burmese news report where the censors appear to have noted certain particularly graphic scenes, for example ‘The holding up of the bloodstained clothes which are presumably exhibits’.[5]

The evidence from this report therefore suggests that Burma enjoyed an unexpectedly vibrant cinema culture under British occupation, with healthy levels of competition between local and international studios, presided over by a seemingly light censorship hand. It also provides a cautionary tale about how the development of the arts can easily be reversed. With the onset of military rule, all cinemas were nationalised in the 1960s, with the industry instructed to broadcast the ‘march to Burmese socialism’. From a peak of 244 cinemas, Burma in 2011 was therefore reduced to 71 as popularity dwindled, with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) continuing much of the censorship apparatus of the military junta which preceded it.[6] Documents like this can therefore help to throw the problems of Burmese cinema today into sharp relief.



[1] Mark Magnier, ‘Myanmar’s once-proud film industry a flicker of its former self’, LA Times (1st April 2013)

[2] ‘Register of Cinematograph Films examined by the Burma Board of Censors, Dated Rangoon, the 15th May 1930’, in the Burma Gazette, Part IV, pp. 945-947

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 947

[6] Aung Kaung Myat, ‘Military Rule May Be Over, But Myanmar’s Film Industry Remains in a Tawdry Time Warp’, Time (22nd August 2018)