Multiculturalism in Asian Port Cities

Su Lin Lewis’ chapter ‘Cosmopolitan Publics in Divided Societies’ in his book Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920–1940 articulates a wide range of examples highlighting the conjoining of different ethnic and religious communities in Asian-port cities such as Rangoon, Penang and Bangkok. Lewis’ chapter gives an excellent insight into how different ethnicities and religious communities are either united or divided through the urban planning of sacred spaces and colonial objectives of fraternity, community and international fellowship in these port cities.

I would argue that this chapter effectively highlights the cosmopolitan public life from the pre-colonial to the post-World War I period. Lewis showcases a range of empirical evidence and argues that public life in Asian-port cities was “plural and dynamic” and that the increasing transnational networks created new opportunities for an emerging middle-class.1 This blog post will give a brief overview of the argument presented and specifically analyse the author’s discussion of imperialism and colonial expansion and its effects on sacred spaces.

Lewis describes the multiculturalism experienced in Asian port cities as a phenomenon that is not new in Asia and that the cultural and religious blend is not just common but actively promoted. For example, the urban landscape of Penang by 1818 emphasises the ‘Street of Heavenly Harmony:’ the town’s central axis featuring “] a church, Chinese Buddhist temple, Hindu temple, an Indian Muslim shrine, and a large mosque nestled together in a row.”2 Moreover, the author discusses that sacred spaces in Southeast Asia were not just places of devotion and spirituality but places of commerce, networking, economic activity, and social and educational needs.3

The colonial administration’s effects on sacred spaces are discussed minimally in this chapter. The author discusses the monarchical rule and the Kings’ urban plans for sacred spaces, for example, King Mindon’s plans for Rangoon’s churches and mosques.4  Additionally, the author discusses how these spaces act as a point of unification or division within the different religious and cultural communities.5 However, Lewis only mentions in one sentence how during the colonial era, “new ideas of respectability, racial difference, secularism, and globalism” would “test” the co-existence of religious sites.6 This sentence seems to hinder the overall impact of the chapter because the lack of comparison leads to a less cohesive structure.

Therefore, although Lewis’ article is delightfully engaging, giving us a wide range of sources and ideas about local multiculturalism and transnational influences of ideas, his overall lack of comparison of sacred spaces in the pre-colonial, colonial, and probably even post-colonial periods slightly hinders the impact of his argument due to a less balanced case study.

  1. Su Lin Lewis, Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920–1940 (Cambridge, 2016), pp. 99-100. []
  2. Ibid., p. 103. []
  3. Ibid., p. 103. []
  4. Ibid., p. 101. []
  5. Ibid., pp. 100-102. []
  6. Ibid., p. 106. []