Yuanmingyuan: Reconciling Layers of History


Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, fits into Manish Chalana’s idea of a spacial palimpsest, similar to Sanam Luang Park in Bangkok.[1] When considering the history of these spaces, one can almost feel as if they are looking at fossil layers in the earth. Sanam Luang was at first a regal space, reserved for royal ceremonies and cremations. In the 20th century it became a contested political space where students staged protests against Thailand’s military junta governments and now it is a space for Bangkok’s well-known vices such as prostitution. Yuanmingyuan has a similarly turbulent history. Each layer of Yuanmingyuan’s history is imbued with the political, social and economic upheaval China has experienced over the past 150 years.

Yuanmingyuan was the primary retreat for Qing emperors who found the Forbidden City and urban landscape of Beijing to be stifling. In contrast to the cacophony of inner Beijing and the austere but imposing Forbidden city, Yuanmingyuan was supposedly a place of great natural beauty. The retreat was designed to resemble the Jiangnan region, a southern area where famous Chinese painters and poets came from.[2] It’s gardens and man-made lakes were said to have made Yuanmingyuan into an oasis and a paradise on the outskirts of Beijing. The Qianlong emperor included a European-style section to the palace gardens, drawing on the recommendations of his Jesuit advisors. British and French forces, having established a military presence in northern China as a result of the Second Opium War, came to blows with Chinese Imperial forces and marched into Beijing after the emperor had already fled the city. A British legation, led by Harry Parkes, was killed by Imperial troops during the conflict.[3] Anglo-French troops responded by razing and looting Yuangmingyuan, dealing a personal and symbolic blow to the emperor, who had grown up on the summer palace grounds.

Today, the Yuanmingyuan park is a paradoxical space. It represents the scars left by foreign exploitation, but it is also represents the renewal and resurgence of China. It is both a “gradenscape” and “ruinscape.”[4] Visitors to the park witness the broken marble columns where the  French and British troops laid waste to the palace and looted its most valuable art. On the other hand, they are also able to enjoy the beautiful recreational landscape Yuanmingyuan has become. As Haiyan Lee articulates, “the pain of loss and humiliation is always acknowledged, but pleasure is never far from consideration.” [5] Significant investment from the government has helped to renovate the area and turn it into a family-oriented recreational park, similar to Western-style botanic gardens. Yet it is also still a memorial, a place whose main intention is to immortalise history. Yuanmingyuan’s history carries a significant amount of weight. The ruins are a reminder of the decadence of the Emperor and the injustice China endured in the face of colonial powers. More than anything, the space symbolises the ways in which China has changed and how it has decided to memorialise its troubled and violent past. Yuanmingyuan is no longer just an enclave reserved for imperial corruption and decadence, nor is it blatant evidence of China’s weakness and foreign incursion. Rather it is a space for the public to engage in memorialisation of Yuanmingyuan’s collective past and enjoy it as a place for recreation and well-being.

[1] Noobanjong, Koompong. “The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest.” In Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia, edited by Manish Chalana. Hong Kong University Press, 2016.

[2] Li, Lillian. “The Garden of Perfect Brightness.” Visualising Cultures.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2012). https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/garden_perfect_brightness_03/index.html

[3] Ibid

[4] Lee, Haiyan. “The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan: Or, How to Enjoy a National Wound.” Modern China 35, no. 2 (2009): 155-90. www.jstor.org/stable/27746912.

[5] Ibid

‘Everything old is new again’: Contrasting discourses on modernity in Western and Japanese Colonial Enterprises

Much has been written on the benevolent, patriarchal language and discourses of empire that surrounded the Western colonial projects of SE Asia. These models sought to justify European imperial expansion on the grounds of restoring the material, artistic and myriad other cultural glories of SE Asian states and kingdoms. In doing so, colonial powers became guardians, or stewards, of subject peoples waylaid and fallen into depravity and decadence, who required educating on their own historical achievements to attain a higher level of civilisation.[1]

Evidence of this is abundant within both the French and British contexts. Within the former, French colonisation of Cambodia included initiatives to promote traditional arts, the restoration of a national museum, as well as crucially the restoration of monuments from the Angkorean period, including the site at Angkor Wat. As Andaya notes, ‘by resurrecting the glories of Angkor, the French provided the Khmer people with a permanent reminder of their former greatness and a powerful symbol of Cambodia as a nation’.[2] This both allowed the French to frame themselves as a benevolent force undertaking a mission civilatrice, as well as cementing the symbolic connection between the Khmer and the French.

This framework is also shown in Sir Stamford Raffles plan for a college of Native Learning in Singapore. As justification, he points for example to Great Britain’s long history in ‘promoting the truth and diffusion of knowledge’, and ‘to the improvement of the condition of her new subjects’.[3] On the grounds therefore of ‘exciting the intellectual energies and increasing the individual happiness of the people’, he therefore proposed the establishment of an Institution of Higher Learning in Singapore, ‘having for its object the cultivation of the languages of China, Siam and the Malayan Archipelago; and the improvement of the moral and intellectual condition of the inhabitants of those countries’.[4] This moreover had the additional advantage of training a new class of bureaucrats, skilled in local languages, to cement Imperial control.

These cases form a marked contrast however to the Japanese form of Imperialism, which eschewed the improvement of indigenous peoples. Instead, upon the annexation of Manchuria in the 1930s, the seemingly open, barren landscape was perceived as an opportunity to liberate the colonising Japanese themselves, through new infrastructures of urban modernity. The civilising mission in this case hence was directed inwards, with Meiji conceptions of Korean and Chinese cultural and economic backwardness providing the justification for Imperial expansion.[5]

This ideal was illustrated by large-scale and ground-breaking urban projects. The trading town of Changchun was transformed into the new Imperial capital of Xinjing, with wide open green spaces, and axial formations of boulevards radiating outwards from key monuments to Japanese modernity (for example a War Memorial , the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, a train station etc). Under the urban planner Sano Toshikata, it moreover became the first Asian city where all buildings were equipped with water closets. This hence paved the way for large scale immigration, with the civilian population of Manchuria being swelled by 800,000 mainly middle-class Japanese immigrants from 1930-41. .[6] Japanese colonial discourse therefore helped to disseminate of a new, urban utopia, with the idea that this would inform and inspire similar improvement schemes back in Japan, though such grand schemes were ultimately abandoned due to financial constraints.[7] Nevertheless, such a case study is instructive in illustrating the marked ideological contrast between European and Japanese discourses on colonisation and modernity. Whilst the former purportedly looked to the past to find inspiration for modernising its indigenous subjects, the latter kept its gaze firmly fixed on the future, for the supposed betterment of its own population.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (Penguin, 2003), Introduction

[2] Leonard Andaya, ‘Ethnicity in Pre-colonial and Colonial South East Asia’, in Norman Owen (ed.), Handbook of Southeast Asian History, (Routledge, 2014), p.273

[3] Sir Stamford Raffles, Formation of the Singapore Institution: A.D. 1823, (Mission Press, 1823), p.5

[4] Ibid, pp.3-6

[5] Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism, (University of California, 1999), pp.255-258

[6] Ibid., pp.262-263

[7] Ibid., p.281

The persistence of exclusionary spaces from the Canton system to colonial Hong Kong

Throughout the 19th century, Asia became home to the unrelenting forces of globalisation. Across Asia, anti-foreign violence and exclusionary policies like the Canton system separated the lives of Chinese and foreigners in virtually all areas but commerce. After imperial powers had gained extensive influence in China, foreign entities instituted their own policies of exclusion by regulating space to keep out natives and preserve their imposed dominance in the colonies. Despite the increased contact between Asia and the West throughout the 19th century, spatial arrangements strictly demarcated what was native space and what was foreign space.

In Qing-era China, the Canton system was the pinnacle of isolationist and exclusionary policy. However, preventing foreign entities access to the colossal commercial potential of the Chinese hinterland proved ineffective as British merchants still found ways to smuggle opium into various Chinese port cities. When the Chinese population became inundated with the adverse effects of the drug, the Qing imperial government attempted to crack down on foreign trade and the British responded with force, resulting in the First Opium War and the establishment of the Treaty Port system.[1] Efforts to stifle the spread of Western imperialism failed and the country was opened to the influence of imperial powers and international trade. Paradoxically, once Western imperial powers were able to open China to outside influence, they sought their own ways to limit cross-cultural contact. The British colonial government in Hong Kong provided one of the most potent examples of this through their manipulation of aesthetic and spatial arrangements in an effort to segregate the colony between the coloniser and the native.

The art historians Alex Bremmer and David Lung discuss the British policies of segregation in Hong Kong’s residential districts in the late 19th century. They assert that by creating areas that excluded native Chinese, the British residing in Hong Kong attempted to create what they deemed as an “orderly, civilised, visually coherent, and identifiable urban environment that reinforced the identity and interests of the dominant cultural minority.”[2] By the 1880s, Chinese outnumbered foreigners in Hong Kong by fourteen to one. As foreigners made up an increasingly small part of Hong Kong’s population, the colonial government sought to concretely demarcate which spaces were for foreigners and which were for Chinese. The ethnic homogeny of residential areas was of particular concern to the colonial government. Europeans generally held the belief that the Chinese population had unsanitary habits and would spread disease.[3] Apart from this overt racism, segregation was justified using the fear of a Chinese-driven mutiny on the colony. The Arrow War between 1856 and 1860 deepened resentment for the British in Hong Kong and the Qing government encouraged Chinese citizens in the colony to turn against the foreigners. In 1904, a bill was passed that formally reserved the peak area of Hong Kong for anyone who was “non-Chinese.”[4] The policy lasted until 1946.

Exclusion and segregation upon ethnic lines were ubiquitous in spatial arrangements between imperial China and foreign entities. The Canton system limited foreign commerce to a closed area and resulted in the opening of China by force in the First Opium War. As Bremmer and Lung show, colonial officials in Hong Kong made concerted efforts to separate themselves from the Chinese population, using racist arguments as well as the possible threat of violence against foreigners. No matter how strong their commercial ties were, the exclusionary spatial arrangements between Britain and China showed that ethnic tension and animosity persisted in significant ways leading into the 20th century.

[1] Spence, J. The Search for Modern China. Third Edition, (2013).

[2] Bremner, G Alex, and David P Y Lung. “Spaces of Exclusion: The Significance of Cultural Identity in the Formation of European Residential Districts in British Hong Kong, 1877–1904.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21, no. 2 (April 2003): 246.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

Massey’s For Space Manifested in Yokohama Woodblocks

In Doreen Massey’s For Space, she argues against a static view of space. In her first chapter, she states space is a product of interrelations, is always under construction and is ‘the sphere of possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality’.[1] In this she means, space encompasses multiple possible trajectories at once.  She asks in her introduction, ‘what if we open up the imagination of the single narrative to give space for multiple trajectories? What kinds of conceptualization of time and space and of their reaction might that give on to?’.[2] Looking at the woodblocks produced upon the opening of Yokohama in the late nineteenth century, one can see examples that resonate in the answer to these questions.

As described by John Dower, the woodblocks which emerged with the developing commercial industry reflected a ‘dream window’ where people ‘let their imaginations run wild’ as they depicted not just what they saw but what they imagined.[3] Events or situations depicting Western and Japanese ways of life were a common theme in these prints however many were imagined and varied drastically depending on who the intended audience was. Western observers focused on the Japanese population with a preoccupation for capturing their quintessential essence and the Japanese did the same. As Dower points out, these different depictions are also impacted by the different mediums used, the Japanese using colorful wood prints while Westerners used black and white photographs or sketches.[4] Western periodicals like the Illustrated London News and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published engravings which catered towards a curious audience at home however, these publications became available in Japan shortly after the opening of the port.[5] Thus, the Japanese artists began to base their depictions off these images revising them to add their own unique style. The combination of printed foreign sources and colorful woodblocks created different perceptions of the same city which were then widely distributed to different populations within Japan and abroad, creating a variety of perceptions of not only Yokohama but the populations within it.

Artists like Sadahide (b. 1807) contributed to the growth of Yokohama woodblocks as a distinct subset of this Japanese tradition. These were widely available to regular Japanese citizens and depicted the international area and the people within it who would not be so accessible otherwise. Dower claims the city was, ‘a window looking out of Japan upon the unknown world of foreign nations that lay across the seas’.[6] Thus it didn’t matter whether or not the scenes depicted real events as they did develop a real image and perception amongst their consumers.

Here, Massey’s multiple trajectories theory is applicable to the different depictions creating different perceptions. While the city could be perceived as a drastically different place amongst these relationships, its impact was constantly shifting and changed by new works. Thus, through the lens of her theories, Western and Japanese perceptions of the city and people within it are part of the imagined space of Yokohama.

[1] Doreen Massey, For Space (Sage 2005), p. 9

[2] Ibid., p. 5

[3] John W. Dower, ‘Yokohama Boomtown: Foreigners in Treaty-Port Japan (1859-1872)’, MIT Visualizing Cultures, MIT

< https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/yokohama/yb_essay02.html> [accessed on 10 December 2019]

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

SMPA: May 30th Incident

Reports Made 1916-1929 – Strike Situation – Important Happenings, Meetings, Propaganda, Etc 1449

While the Shanghai Municipal Police Archives hold a wealth of records, the police reports tracking the aftermath of the May Thirtieth Incident caught my attention. While the file holds several different reports, they all hold a significant amount of detail in the records of meetings, demands and overall sentiment of the protestors indicating the police were either infiltrating meetings or getting detailed reports from informants. Before detailing the reports, some context of the incident helps clarify the importance of these documents.

The May 30th Incident occurred following nationalistic reorganization. In 1924, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members joined the Kuomingtang (KMT) to centralize nationalistic ambitions and mobilize support from a more diverse support base.[1] This reorganization saw several branches with the Department of Youth, Women, Labor, Peasants, Merchants, and Propaganda established, amassing more support for their larger ambitions of gaining Shanghai from the foreign powers who held it.[2] The anti-imperialist sentiment was called on to gain mobilize merchant support who long felt burdened by economic restrictions however, their own interests at times conflicted with the agenda of the KMT. [3] Students were recruited within KMT subsidized institutions like Shanghai University and Kwangtung University while legalized trade unions in 1924 Canton were meant to gain working-class support.[4]

In 1925, frequent disputes between a Japanese owned cotton mill (no. 8 on Naigai Wata Kaisha) occurred.[5] The conflict came on May 15th when a Japanese foreman shot dead a Chinese worker by the name of Ku Chen-hung.[6]  This event created mass outrage with a large memorial service and several arrests of students who were distributing pamphlets about the event.[7] The arrest intensified the tensions and following police shooting into a protesting crowd on May 30th, a widespread movement erupted. Different branches of merchants, workmen, students, etc. took part in an extended strike. Students created twelve demands which were passed on and included in the 17 demands of the Shanghai Federation of Merchants, Workers, and Students Organization on June 7th.[8] Demands like the end of martial law, the end of extraterritorial rights for foreigners and the release of all arrested protestors were evident in the first file.

In the file, the first document describes a meeting of the federation on June 9th with details of the meeting’s discussion. Police had knowledge of where strikers were posting fliers, where they were staying, future meeting places/times as well as the rhetoric and claims they were using to gain support. The third report details a subtle calm with more people returned to work indicating they believed the worst of the strike was over. However, it would not be fully settled until late August when most workmen returned back to the Japanese mills.[9] What is striking in these documents is the level of attention, awareness, and detail in these reports. The concern and vigilance demonstrated reflected the disruptive power strikes, especially one with such a wide-scale support base had for the entire city. Anti-foreign sentiment is very clear in the workmen’s demands and meetings as is the police’s concern and awareness towards the potential trouble these activities could cause them.



[1] Hung-Ting Ku, ‘Urban Mass Movement: The May Thirtieth Movement in Shanghai’, in Modern Asian Studies 13 (1979), p. 198

[2] Ibid., p. 198

[3] Ibid., p. 199

[4] Ibid., p. 199

[5] Ibid., p. 201

[6] Ibid., p. 201

[7] Ibid., p. 201

[8] Ibid., p. 207

[9] Ibid., p. 210

Prostitution in Trade Cities

Upon Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan, the country was opened to the rest of the world in the late nineteenth century. Following British victory in the First Opium War, the UK successfully ended the Canton system opening up other areas of China to trade in 1872. With this new space opened to trade, the process of developing industry and all factors to accompany it would be a topic of much contention for both sides. However, in this early ambiguity and chaos, many illicit industries were stimulated including the sex industry within these areas to supply services to a growing detached and mobile male population.[1]

Following Perry’s expedition, unequal treaties were negotiated with Japan giving Western powers the upper hand. The Japanese adapted quickly with widespread education and literacy as well as economic changes to help Japan match its Western counterparts in this new era. Thus, the increasingly successful nation attracted many people to its newly opened cities. As practical details were still being ironed over, the legal grey areas enabled the growth of prostitution within these trade cities. Yokohama was one such city where Historian Foster Rea Dulles stated by 1865 ‘five hotels, twenty-five grog shops, and an unrecorded number of brothels in the foreign settlement [Yokohama]’.[2] Thus, the idea of this chaotic trade city as one of much vice and sin was a popularly expressed concern seen in the protests of many English clerics. However, it continued to flourish until government intervention decades later.

This theme of debauchery was also echoed in Shanghai in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Shanghai was opened to Westerners in 1872 upon the end of the First Opium War, the city became the perfect place for the sex industry to flourish with lacking contagious diseases acts like those in Hong Kong and the extraterritorial rights of Europeans. Thus, women trickled into the country to fill this demand. Here, they were able to make in some cases, a quite generous livelihood. However, after the 1890s this ‘golden age’ of prostitution had come to an end with Qing officials pushing Western powers to crackdown.[3] This manifested itself in legislation like that enacted in Singapore in 1890, and on encouragement of the League of Nations saw the deportation of such women in the early 1930s from Singapore and in 1932 from Hong Kong.[4] This was partly fueled by religious groups who saw these practices as distasteful and contributed to consuls abstaining from overseeing disputes in such affairs and instead directing them to the courts.

Prostitution was able to flourish in these chaotic new trading cities opened up between East and West. Ambiguous legal and moral conditions in the beginning to mid-nineteenth century facilitated such growth as trade continued to develop in newly opened areas.

[1] Eileen P. Scully, ‘Prostitution as a Privilege: The “American” Girl of Treaty-Port Shanghai, 1860-1937’, in the International History Review 20 (1998), p. 876

[2] John W. Dower, ‘Yokohama Boomtown: Foreigners in Treaty-Port Japan (1859-1872)’, MIT Visualizing Cultures, MIT

< https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/yokohama/yb_essay02.html> [accessed on 10 December 2019]

[3] Eileen P. Scully, ‘Prostitution as a Privilege’, p. 869

[4] Ibid., pp. 869-70

Heterotopias within French and Japanese Imperialism

As Michael Foucault details, heterotopias are places of mixed experiences, representing the existence of different expectations and meanings for different groups.[1] While this is a model that can be applied to a variety of other spaces, it visibly manifests in imperial ambitions of both French Hanoi and Japanese Manchukuo. In both cases, leaders albeit with different motivations, pursued the construction of ‘modern’ cities in these areas ignoring the existing people and structures in place already. Despite efforts to adapt to different terrain with architectural changes, in the end, both efforts failed due to a variety of reasons.

The leaders overseeing Manchuria’s development into a Japanese territory saw it as an ideal blank page, one which would be a model for slow to change Japanese society and cities back home. Repression evident in events like mass resignations of staff at Kyoto University in 1933 saw Japanese social reformers looking to use imperial additions as a canvas to model the changes they imagined but could not implement at home.[2] The French saw Hanoi as another imperial location necessary to expand its empire. Influenced by the discourse around tropical architecture, sanitation, and contagion theory, Hanoi saw rapid urban expansion and the implementation of sanitation laws in the early twentieth century part of  France’s larger imperial agenda.[3]

The Japanese pursued a similar expansive agenda, with the development of industry, railways lines and technology evident in the prestigious symbolism the Asia Express came to represent.[4] They framed the development of Manchukuo as the creation of a new ideal Japanese city. Additionally, an elaborate tourism industry saw travel passes on increasingly expanding rail lines into far towns, touring to see Chinese ‘exotic’ markets and the newly created modern cities creating a dichotomy between a Chinese past and the Japanese future.[5] In a similar vein, the French developed Hanoi’s European quarter on the vision of a renovated Vietnamese city, improved by Western sanitation and urban planning.[6] French construction saw colonizers tackling issues of how to build houses suited to the foreign climate, similarly to how the Japanese borrowed Manchurian designs in their hamlet planning.[7] This reflected the different motives with the Japanese pursuing construction of a model Japanese city in Manchukuo to encourage reforms at home while the French sought to extend their imperial power in Hanoi to boost their world standing.

Additionally, both powers showed a disregard for existing structures. In Manchukuo, the distance between the Chinese and Japanese populations was attempted, although it failed as it did not practically consider labor needs.[8]  The French’s European quarter remained isolated and reserved for European immigrants despite the use of local labor in its construction. Thus, the complex sewage system within it served as a symbol of European victory over germs and their success in the area.[9] When rat hunts broke out in 1902, French powers used the local population as the rat-hunting workforce, a move capitalized on by the latter. Thus, French powers were duped by their dismissal of the local existing structures of people, climate and pests.

Both cases show imperial ambitions attempting to cultivate and create a utopian city model for colonizers to enjoy. While both ultimately fail in part because of their disregard for the existing structures in place, they also create concrete examples of Foucault’s heterotopias. Both reflect utopian dreams for imperial ambitions and the inaccessible nature of that dream.







[1] Michael Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias (PUBLISHER 1984), p. 4

[2] Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism, Twentieth-Century Japan (University of California Press 1999), p. 255

[3] Laura Victoir and Victor Zatsepine, Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment (Hong Kong 2014), p. 2

[4] Young, Japan’s Total Empire, p. 245

[5] Ibid., p. 274

[6] Michael G. Vann, ‘Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History’, in French Colonial History 4 (2003), p. 192

[7] David Turner, Crossed Histories Manchuria in the Age of Empire (University of Hawaii Press 2005), p. 57

[8] Ibid., p. 54

[9] Vann, ‘Of Rats, Rice, and Race’, pp. 193-94

The Soundscapes of East Asian Cities

In his work, ‘Sounds of the City: The Soundscapes of early modern European towns’, Garrioch examines the formation of a semiotic system in early modern towns, arguing that the system was useful for conveying news and ‘helping people to locate themselves in time and in space’.[1] Although this auditory system was gradually eclipsed by modern modes of information, it was nonetheless an important and underexplored historical phenomenon. Garrioch cites the noise of horses, street vendors and church bells as vital examples of the semiotic system that helped townsfolk in the Early modern period to locate themselves within a city. However, how would these soundscapes compare to that of an East Asian city like Tokyo?


Analysis of the soundscapes of East Asian cities has already been undertaken by a number of scholars many of which arguably point out a number of similarities between East Asian cities and those in the west.[2] In fact, a number of the points raised by Garrioch are equally applicable to the soundscapes of East Asian cities. In terms of the sounds of the street it is fair to argue that very little can be differentiated between the early modern East Asian city and that of its counterpart in Europe. In Europe market days were distinguished not by a single sound, but by a conjunction of noises indicating unusual levels of commercial activity. Examination of the Woodblock print, Night view of Saruwaka Street arguably indicates the noises and soundscape expected from a bustling street in historic Tokyo.[3] As in Europe it is likely that the vendors situated in the street selling food, had achieved a ‘high level of audibility’.[4] Furthermore, in European cities the lack of noise was equally informative as noise within the semiotic system. In Europe, silence was closely associated with both secular and religious power in the form of court rooms, which conveyed authority, or churches in which silence was expected as a matter of respect.[5] Like churches, temples in East Asia were often places of quiet for better facilitate reflection and meditation in a manner not dissimilar to churches. In this regards, the ability to produce or demand silence was a privilege of authority and another similarity in the soundscapes of both Europe and East Asia.


It is also likely that, with the rapid modernisation of Japan, this soundscape likely became eclipsed in a manner not dissimilar to in Western European cities. The short educational film Children of Japan from 1941 shows the extent to which the traditional Japanese soundscape had been largely eclipsed[6]. Bustling streets in the film show pedestrians, cars and cyclists in western attire as well as trams and trains in the new cityscape. Although the vendors still exist, it is clear that this semiotic system has been largely been replaced by modern technologies. Although it is not possible to find out exactly what an east Asian soundscape would be, it is likely that in many instances it shared key similarities with its western equivalents and was also eclipsed with the advent of new technology.

[1] David, Garrioch, ‘Sounds of the city: the soundscape of early modern European towns’ in Urban History, Volume 30, Issue 1, May 2003, p5.

[2] Freek, Colombijn, ‘Toooot! Vrooom! The Urban Soundscape of Indonesia’, Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 22, No. 2 (October 2007), p255.

[3] Utagawa Hiroshige, ‘The Night view of Saruwaka Street’ <https://www.mutualart.com/Artwork/-THE-NIGHT-VIEW-OF-SARUKAWA-MACHI—FROM/8BDCCCABCF350172> [Accessed 11/12/19].

[4] Garrioch, ‘sounds of the city’, p8

[5] Ibid, p13.

[6] Children of Japan, ERPI Classroom Films, Inc.

< https://archive.org/details/Children1941> [Accessed 11/12/19].


Luddites of the Far East? The Hidden Dimension of the 1905 Hibiya Riot

The Hibiya Riot is famous for being the first major social upheaval in modern Japanese history. Angry at what was perceived to be the disappointingly minor concessions gained following the end of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, a heterogenous group of lower and middle class rioters brought Tokyo to a standstill for three days, at the end of which 311 people had been arrested, and 17 people were killed.

Japanese propaganda had obscured a Pyrrhic ending to the conflict. Japan had suffered 80,000 fatalities in a drawn-out, attritional war, with total costs incurred coming to 1.7 billion yen; eight times the cost of the Sino Japanese War of 1894-1895. Andrew Gordon’s account hence demonstrates clearly how public fury was directed at visible signs of Government authority. For example, nearly three quarters of all the neighbourhood police boxes were destroyed in the city, whilst clashes resulted in injuries to 450 policemen and 50 firemen.

However, the roots of this riot can be found in more than just anger over tainted national pride. There is also evidence for a more subtle, economic dimension to this groundswell of popular protest. Besides the police boxes, the other public institution to be specifically targeted was the recently opened streetcar system. Tokyo had invested heavily in its tram system as a potent symbol of the new Imperial and democratic Japan. However, they were expensive, and beyond the means of many of the city’s lower classes. They were also a disruptive presence, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of rickshaw drivers in the city. Nor indeed was this a one-off occurrence. Upon the anniversary of the riots, a rise in streetcar fares spurred a new rally in Hibiya Park, which again ended with the smashing of dozens of streetcars, as well as an attempt to storm the streetcar offices. [1]


Image from The Tokyo Riot Graphic, No. 66, Sept. 18, 1905, (Kinji Gahō Company, Tokyo)

Such a case therefore illustrates the simmering tensions between the ‘old’ city of Edo and the ‘new’ metropolis of Tokyo. The transition between the two is discussed by Henry Smith in the ‘Edo-Tokyo Transition’. He refers to the distinction in Japanese intellectual thought between the shitamachi and the yamanote. Whilst they began as geographical designations (shitamachi referred to the lower class Eastern downtown of the city, whilst yamanote was associated with the elite Western upland areas), Smith argues that by the early 20th century, they had come to embody two competing ideological frameworks, with the former representing the old, traditional ‘plebeian’ ethos of Edo, whilst the latter instead heralded the new, modern and Imperial Tokyo.[2]  

What conclusions can be drawn from this? In terms of the destruction of modern technology, there are obvious parallels between the Hibiya Riot and the 19th century Luddite movement in Britain, where textile workers attempted to destroy textile machinery that threatened their employment.[3] What is interesting about the Japanese case though, is how this struggle against streetcars formed part of a deeper, ideological battle for the very soul of the city; with competing notions of modernity versus tradition helping to shape urban social protest in early 20th century Japan.

[1] Andrew Gordon, ‘Social Protest in Imperial Japan: The Hibiya Riot of 1905’, MIT Visualising Cultures, < https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/social_protest_japan/trg_essay01.html> (accessed 9/12/2019)

[2] Henry Smith, ‘The Edo-Tokyo Transition: In search of Common Ground’, in Marius Jansen and Gilbert Rozman (eds.), Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji, (Princeton, 1986), pp. 370-374

[3] Evan Andrews, ‘Who Were the Luddites’, in History Today, (26.6.2019), <https://www.history.com/news/who-were-the-luddites> (accessed 9/12/2019)

Tianjin Foreign Concessions and Cross-cultural Exchange

The history of foreign concessions in Chinese treaty-port cities like Tianjin pose a strikingly unique take on colonialism in China. Foreign entities, namely those from Britain, France and Germany constructed their concessions in treaty ports for the purpose of physically separating themselves from the Chinese community that they deemed as lesser and often as unclean. However, the initial purpose of the foreign concessions did not last. As Zhang Chang and Liu Yue note in the chapter “International Concessions and the Modernisation of Tianjin” the concessions, particularly those in Tianjin, became conductors of cross-cultural confluence – between China and the outside world but also between the colonial powers themselves. The cosmopolitan, ostensibly harmonious nature of early 20th century Tianjin seems to contradict the serious conflict that occurred between the colonial powers and within China itself.

Since the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, foreigners had maintained a history of violence and oppression in China. The actions of colonial powers like Britain, France and later Japan helped to instigate nation-wide conflict like the Boxer Rebellion but also smaller incidents like the Tianjin Massacre of 1870. Decades long turbulence, in combination with racism and jingoism, constituted some of the main reasons why foreign entities established isolated areas or “concessions” within Chinese cities. The concessions were walled communities that were meant to separate the poor Chinese from colonial residents and provide the same general amenities they could find back in their home countries. The physical and social barriers set up through foreign concessions created a distinctive spatial layout in China’s largest mercantile cities like Tianjin and Shanghai. The history of the foreign presence in Tianjin is not totally absolved from animosity with local Chinese, but Zhang and Liu’s chapter indicates that the first decades of the 20th century saw a productive relationship between foreigners and Chinese flower.

The foreign presence in Tianjin helped to spread new ideas to Chinese elites. Arguably the most import foreign export in Tianjin was local democratic government. The foreign concession was run by an elected council and their systems inspired local Chinese authorities in Tianjin to establish China’s first democratically elected governing body that was officially recognised by the Qing government. (94) Perhaps even more consequently, the move to adopt democratic provincial institutions in Tianjin was directly endorsed by Yuan Shikai, the future President and self-declared Emperor of China. Neither foreigners nor Chinese were immune to the effects of cross-cultural confluence. Foreign children who were nannied by Chinese amahs often spoke Chinese as their first language and didn’t fully absorb their home country’s language until they attended school in the concession. Language skills in Chinese and various European languages were also important for career advancement. Foreign subjects working in customs houses were required to learn Chinese. As the foreign presence in Tianjin grew, Chinese citizens could become a part of the “social elite”  by learning European languages and studying abroad. (99)

The wealth and modernisation that flowed through Tianjin as a result of its bustling trade and significant colonial presence saw western-style materialism spread to wealthy Chinese outside of the concessions. Wealthy Tianjin businessmen adopted western-style exuberance. Some of these businessmen built European-style estates but added touches of traditional Chinese culture, such elaborate gardens. Through cultural exchange with foreign entities, Tianjin turned into a diverse, thriving city where cross-cultural confluence became a part of the urban fabric.

Zhang Chang and Liu Yue could engage further with this period in Tianjin’s history by discussing how the events of the First World War and the Sino-Japanese conflict affected the concessions and the citizen’s willingness to engage with those from other countries and absorb cultures. Despite this gap, they make it clear that Tianjin became a site of positive confluence between China and the outside world.





Chang, Zhang, and Liu Yue. “International Concessions and the Modernization of Tianjin.” In Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment in Asia, 1840 to 1940, by Victoir, Laura, and Victor Zatsepine, eds., edited by Laura Victoir, and Victor Zatsepine. Hong Kong University Press, 2013. Hong Kong Scholarship Online, 2014.