Impermanent Spaces: Japanese Gardens and their Interpretations

In 1892, Lafcadio Hearn published an article in the Atlantic Monthly on the unique characteristics of Japanese gardens.  Hearn was a writer and teacher, born in Greece and raised in Ireland, who traveled to Japan in 1890 and remained there for the rest of his life.1 His article gives a general background on the appearance, history, and symbolism of Japanese gardens for his western readers through a description of his own garden, and ends with the gloomy prediction that “…the old katchiû-yashiki and its gardens – will doubtless have vanished forever before many years… For impermanency is the nature of all, more particularly in Japan, and the changes and the changers shall also be changed until there is found no place for them, and regret is vanity.”2 Contrary to his prediction, by 2006 there would be at least 432 Japanese gardens throughout the world.3 Rather than disappearing from Japan, their global popularity seems to reflect a common fear of the very impermanence that Hearn believed would lead to their disappearance.  As spaces, Japanese gardens symbolize the preservation of natural landscapes whose value seems increasingly important as urban centers grow and natural areas diminish.  

Henri Lefebvre proposes that as natural spaces disappear, they do not vanish completely.  Natural space becomes “…the background of the picture; as decor, and more than decor, it persists everywhere, and every natural detail, every natural object is valued even more as it takes on symbolic weight (the most insignificant animal, trees, grass, and so on).”4 This symbolic weight is clearly identified by Hearn, whose account of his own garden is given primarily through descriptions of the symbolic meaning of the rocks, plants, and animals which inhabit it.  He describes objects and creatures both physically and through the myths, legends, and traditions which surround them and signify their role in the garden.  Not only do they carry individual symbolic meaning, but the garden as a whole is “…at once a picture and a poem; perhaps even more a poem than a picture. For as nature’s scenery, in its varying aspects, affects us with sensations of joy or of solemnity, of grimness or of sweetness, of force or of peace, so must the true reflection of it in the labor of the landscape gardener create not merely an impression of beauty, but a mood in the soul.”5 

This symbolism or “mood in the soul” acquires a new meaning in light of the western adoption and re-creation of Japanese gardens.  Questions arise as to whether the gardens symbolize something inherently Japanese and are therefore only authentic when they are created in Japan according to strict traditions, or whether they symbolize a broader appreciation of nature which can be replicated anywhere in the world.  Hearn argues that “In the foreigner,” the aesthetic complexities of the representation of nature in Japanese gardens, “needs to be cultivated by study. It is inborn in the Japanese; the soul of the race comprehends Nature infinitely better than we do, at least in her visible forms.”5  His suggestion that non-Japanese people cannot comprehend the full meaning and complexity of this art form is reflected by modern Japanese scholars such as Sato and Kajinishi who argue that Japanese gardens in the West are merely inauthentic reproductions (“Japanese-style gardens”), rather than the real thing.6  This idea is taken even further by the notion that Japanese gardens in the late 19th century, lost their authenticity because the Japanese government, being partially controlled by western powers through treaties, recast them embodiments of Japanese nationalism.7  

While questions of authenticity, in Western and Japanese gardens, are highly contested among historians and specialists, the spatial concept of a garden which serves to “…copy faithfully the attractions of a veritable landscape, and to convey the real impression that a real landscape communicates” is one that captured the imagination of the world.5  A place which is designed not only to reflect vanishing natural space, but also to express “moral lessons” and “abstract ideas” through its design is something which can be universally appreciated.8  While the original creator of Hearn’s garden was long gone by the time he owned it and whatever lesson or idea it was meant impart had been forgotten, Hearn believed that, “…as a poem of nature it requires no interpreter.”8 The gardens that exist today, whether ancient or modern, Japanese or Western, built on the practices of artistic tradition or ideologies of nationalism, are, as Christian Tagsold points out, “real places.”9 Their histories, symbolic meaning, and authenticity vary, but as places, they are created with intent.  They are spaces “confiscated from nature” and turned into conscious representations of a particular kind of space.10  Like the natural spaces they reflect, there is an impermanence in the meaning and understanding of Japanese gardens.  Although they are created according to certain principles and meant to represent specific ideas, (moral lessons, nationalist ideology, or western imitations of Japanese spaces) their meaning is constantly changing.

  1. Elizabeth Bisland, The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn, Volume 1 (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1906). []
  2. Lafcadio Hearn, “In a Japanese Garden,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1892, Volume 70, Issue 417, []
  3. Christian Tagsold, Spaces in Translation: Japanese Gardens and the West (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 2, ProQuest Ebook Central. []
  4. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1991), 30. []
  5. Hearn, “In a Japanese Garden.” [] [] []
  6. Tagsold, Spaces in Translation, 79. []
  7. Ibid., 84. []
  8. Ibid. [] []
  9. Tagsold, Spaces in Translation, 84. []
  10. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 49. []

More than Maps: How Culture is a Space within History

Spatial history is usually thought of as being focused around a geographic space, such as a city, country or household. However, concepts such as cultures can also constitute spaces within history. Like cities or countries, they are characterised by their diversity, the inter-relations between many different groups, and the ability for these relationships to change over time. This post uses an interview on the communities of Singapore to highlight this point, with regards to culture in Malaysia. The interviewee is Kenneth Kim Ban Cheo, a teacher and expert on Baba culture, an ethnic group comprised of the first Chinese immigrants to South East Asia. In the interview, he discusses Baba ethnicity, the ways it differs from the multitude of ethnicities in Singapore and Malaysia, and how this ethnic diversity has varied in recognition between 1940 and 1995, the year of the interview.


In the interview, Mr Cheo describes the Baba culture less in terms of its own characteristics, and more as the ways it relates to other communities in the region. For example, he notes how the Baba culture speak a specific dialect of Malay, which enables them to recognise different ethnic groups who do not use the same words, phrases or pronunciation when speaking. In addition, he argues that the attitude of the Baba to the region they live in separates them from other groups, like later Chinese immigrants. He says of national attitudes that, “to the Babas this is where their roots are, and this is where they belong’”. Overall, his choice on defining culture in this way highlights how many in the region viewed ethnicity in relation to others, a hallmark of a cultural space.


Important to the idea of Baba culture being defined in relation to other ethnicities, is the fact that Mr. Cheo characterises Malaysia in his interview as being very diverse. Within Chinese immigrant communities alone he differentiates between the Baba ethnic group, the wider group of Peranakan and those he describes as Straits born. However, this is a small number of ethnicities present in the region, painting a picture of a diverse space of interaction and relations, a hallmark of a distinct cultural space.


The interview suggests that the ways in which the Baba distinguish themselves has changed over the 20th century. Cheo says that the current differences he identifies only became identified following the Second World War. Before this, he argues that the multiple types of Chinese immigrants would all be referred to as a single ethnic group, Peranakans. However, after the war the Baba began to separate themselves from the wider Peranakan ethnicity, which Cheo described as being “too wide a term” to use precisely. Similarly, Cheo also mentions how the younger generation of Baba are reducing the emphasis on a separate Baba culture, wearing clothing more associated with Indonesia, as opposed to the more specifically Baba clothes described earlier by Cheo. An important characteristic of any space is the ability for relations within it to change over time. It is clear that Cheo’s descriptions of the Baba show a culture which has shifted in terms of its definition since the beginning of the 20th century, and show little signs of stabilising.


Overall, Cheo’s description of the Baba ethnic group shows how culture in Malaysia can be given its own space. Like other spaces, it is defined by its relations with others in the same space – in this case the Baba define themselves in relation to other ethnic groups in South East Asia. Furthermore, culture in South East Asia is extraordinarily diverse, with numerous ethnicities being mentioned by Cheo as interacting with each other in the same region. Finally, the relations within this cultural space interact with each other over time, with the Baba ethnic group in particular becoming more and less distinguished over generations. Therefore, while not often being viewed as such, culture in South East Asia is clearly a space in itself, and the interactions between ethnic groups over the 20th century can be described as part of spatial history.



Cheo, K., 1987. Interview with D. Chew.  [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 26 September 2022] pp. 1-10.

Britishness Abroad: The Shanghai Club

Established by the British settler population in Shanghai in 1873 in the prestigious location of the Shanghai Bund, the Shanghai Club was reported to be the ‘microcosm par excellence of the Settlement.’1 The Club’s membership was the most exclusive in Shanghai and the club was indisputably the space that British male society revolved around. This blog post will use articles from the North China Herald to explore how the Club demonstrated how populations of foreign settlements imported their social hierarchies into Shanghai via their own social spaces. Further, it will also comment on the role of newspapers as historical sources.

The opening of the new building of the Shanghai Club was reported in the North-China Herald on January 7th 1911 as ‘something more than a landmark in the history of a social institution’ .2 as commented in the same article that ‘the founding members of the Shanghai Club had in their mind that it should resemble a segment cut from the home circle’.2 The ‘frontage is certainly the most imposing on the Bund’3 and the ‘design throughout is a rendering of the English renaissance’2 this description of the club highlights the importance and prestige of the Club within the settler population. It further illustrates how the social characteristics of London clubs were transplanted to Shanghai. This desire for the club to resemble ‘the home circle’ stems from as Robert Bicker argues the fear in treaty ports that ‘a community which had compromised its ‘Britishness’ would lose government support.’4 The exterior of the building was a ‘rendering of the English renaissance’ illustrating how the club was designed to be a physical representation of the might of the British Empire and was ‘the most imposing’ in an attempt to intimidate the other surrounding buildings. The Club was used and publicised to transplant the British cultural values as H R Panckridge remarked, ‘for more than a century no institution has been more peculiarly British than a social club’.5 is desire to make the club a symbol of Britishness abroad was also evidenced through how the Shanghai Club unlike the French or American clubs chose to preserve their British exclusivity throughout its existence.6 This specific boundary, through membership rules, between British interaction with other communities and individuals portrays how the club not only aimed to reinforce social hierarchies with the local Chinese population but, also was seen as a space which could be used to cement and perpetuate British political and economic power toward other Western powers.

Newspapers are invaluable sources through which historians can gain a sense of popular opinion and perceptions, the North-China Herald is an excellent English language source for the British settler population in Shanghai. However, due to the commercial motives of newspapers one has to note they can often have political or propagandist agendas leading them to embellish their descriptions and present events in an artificial light. From Bickers’ argument, it is clear that the settler population wanted to be portrayed in a manner that embodied the British imperial characteristics of prestige, strength and exclusivity. The North-China Herald, would have been able to be accessible back in England and was accessible for visiting English dignitaries thus it was an excellent way for the settler population to illustrate their Britishness abroad so they could continue to secure governmental support. This consideration must be included when using these newspaper sources to further investigate the club.

The Shanghai Club, Photo by C.E, Darwent. Taken from: Darwent, C.E, Shanghai: a handbook for travellers and residents to the chief objects of interest in and around the foreign settlements and native city, 1900, p.10.


  1. “Club Land,” The North-China Herald, January 13, 1911, p. 61. []
  2. Ibid. [] [] []
  3. “Opening of the Shanghai Club,” The North-China Herald, January 13, 1911, pp. 77. []
  4. Robert Bickers, “Chinabound: Crossing Borders in Treaty Port China,” History in Focus, 2006. []
  5. H. R. Panckridge, A Short History of the Bengal Club (Calcutta: Bengal Club, 1927), 1. []
  6. Robert Bickers, “Britons in China: A Settler Society,” in Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism 1900-1949 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), pp. 67-114, 87. []

Worlds Apart: examining some differences in locations of treaty ports in China and Japan

Nield, Robert, “Beyond the Bund: Life in the Outports”, in Brunero, Donna, Stephanie Villalta Puig eds. Life in Treaty Port China and Japan. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.


Catherine L. Phipps, Empires on the Waterfront: Japan’s Ports and Power, 1858–1899 (BRILL, 2020)


Nield’s chapter does a brilliant job in bringing to life the lived experience of life for those stationed in the ‘outports’ in China. By taking the picture further than the ‘big cities’, Neild shows what life was like for those in more remote areas, and in doing so reveals some of the problems faced by the British in the foundation and running of treaty ports. He notes that these locations were chosen due to the belief that “so many millions of potential customers must surely lead to profitable business” [1]. He goes on to show just how misguided this belief turned out to be, stating that “there were a number of consuls who could easily vie with one another for the dubious title of ‘loneliest member of the service’” [2].


In contrast, Phipps shows how difference the situation was in Japan. She argues for the deliberate, strategic choice of ‘Special Treaty Ports’, which allowed Japan to retain a far higher degree of control over port locations than was the case in China. Firstly, Phipps makes clear the difference between a treaty port and a special trading port. The distinction, in her words, is that a Special Trading Port was not bound by existing treaty port legislation, and thus, crucially, they were not subject to extraterritoriality [3].


Comparing Nield and Phipps therefore paints very different pictures of China and Japan. Where Nield focuses almost entirely on primary sources to show the experience of the British stationed abroad, Phipps instead uses a wealth of secondary literature and archival material to chart the foundation and growth of both treaty ports and special trading ports across Japan. Both methods have merit. Neild is able to draw on the human element and show what daily life was like, while Phipps is more clinical in her approach. It is beyond the scope here to fully debate which method has more merit, if either. There is also the issue of language to discuss, as Nield uses no sources from the interior, focusing entirely on English writings, while Phipps draws heavily from Japanese archives. The issue of translation and sources is obviously a hurdle for anyone with an interest in these areas, but if comparing these two works proves anything, it is how effectively these limitations can be overcome.

[1] Brunero, Donna, Stephanie Villalta Puig eds. Life in Treaty Port China and Japan. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Ch 4 “Beyond the Bund: Life in the Outports”, pg. 79.

[2] Ibid, pg. 80.

[3] Catherine L. Phipps, Empires on the Waterfront: Japan’s Ports and Power, 1858–1899 (BRILL, 2020). Introduction pp1- 16, Ch 1 Special Trading Ports, pg. 21


I Believe in Shanghai: The Transference of British Identity to Shanghai’s International Settlement

In his work ‘Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937’, Robert Bickers sets out to unpack the ways in which British culture transported to Shanghai in the post ‘unequal treaties’ era.[1] Prior to what has been dubbed as the ‘romanticized golden era of Shanghai in the 1930s’, Bickers’ spatial approach endeavours to fill the historiographical void which examines those British communities which existed at the edge of empire and colonial rule.[2] He makes the case that settler communities such as the ‘Shanghailanders’, which flourished primarily due to the laissez-faire commercialism of the period as opposed to direct colonial rule, have been somewhat ignored by historians of the British Empire. Bickers hopes that his work encourage other historians of Chinese politics to look more closely at the multi-layered identities of settler communities and how these affected foreign relations. His work sits in an expanding school of historiographical thought which examines the European cultural influence on treaty ports and urban environments throughout the world. Eileen Scully’s ‘Prostitution as Privilege: The ‘American Girl’ of Treaty-Port Shanghai, 1860-1937’, is one example which further investigates the impacts of European cultural diffusion on foreign relations, racial divides, social inequality and cityscapes.[3] Despite Bickers and Scully’s work, there is still a lack of scholarship which aims to integrate local Chinese voices into the discussion, or indeed the many other nationalities which comprised the International Settlement in Shanghai. This would be a vast undertaking, with archival material spread out and language barriers to overcome, however one that would be extremely fruitful in gaining understanding of the dynamics of Asian urban landscapes and their relational dynamics.

Shanghailanders, who for the most part were just ordinary people, had to contend with a whole new city, way of life, foreign customs and values and a large cosmopolitan population. Whilst one must appreciate the commercial opportunities offered to them by the colonial enterprise, impossible to find at home in Britain, for many, their new life in the East presented an identity crisis. Bickers highlights how their new environment was ‘grimy, polluted [and] congested’ and having to share their space helped to forge an imagined identity.[4] In his biography of Maurice Tinkler, Bickers alludes to how this helped fuel racial division and the perceived notion that Britishness and whiteness were imagined to be superior.[5] Furthermore, Bickers somewhat entertainingly compares the exoticism of life in Shanghai as to that of Slough. This captures the notion that life was distinguishably British and insular.

One of the key issues Bickers discusses is the founding myth of the Shanghailanders. This is captured in the slogan ‘I Believe in Shanghai’ which suggests that the settlers believed it their duty to make Shanghai the best and most modern city in the world. Whether this is true or not, Bickers argues it was a fundamental aspect of forging and upholding British identity in the treaty port. In reading Bickers’ biography of Maurice Tinkler (an officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police SMP), one is struck by the ‘ordinariness’ of the men who made up the majority of the Shanghailander population. For the most part, men like Tinkler were demobilised working class males. Furthermore, as Bickers points out, these men were often from rural backgrounds, unfamiliar to urban life in grand cityscapes. Playing a frame on the station billiard table was far more likely an enjoyable pastime than integrating and mingling with the indigenous Chinese population.

Finally, on a more spatial note, Jeremy Taylor’s ‘The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of Asia’, analyses the role of the Bund in portraying and projecting Western ideals upon the city of Shanghai.[6] The very nature of the buildings erected, often art deco or Bauhaus designs, give a sense far more akin to British Manchester than of the exotic Asian Shanghai. This was a place where British identity, notions of power and dominance could be projected clearly. Whilst Taylor comments on the commercial and military aspects of the Bund, which could be explored in much further detail, he brings out the function the Bund played in providing a space of leisure. With open expanses of grass, gardens, trees and benches, the Bund allowed British settlers to relax in the way they were familiar with. In cementing British identity in Shanghai, this aspect of the space and its functions proved of major importance.

[1] Robert Bickers, ‘Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937’, Past & Present, no. 159 (1998), pp. 161–211

[2] Meng Yue, Shanghai and the Edges of Empire, (Minnesota, 2006)

[3] Eileen P. Scully, ‘Prostitution as Privilege: The ‘American Girl’ of Treaty-Port Shanghai, 1860-1937’, The International History Review 20, no. 4 (1998), pp. 855–83

[4] Bickers, ‘Shanghailanders’ p. 193

[5] Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, (London, 2004)

[6] Jeremy E. Taylor, ‘The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of East Asia’, Social History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 125-142

Foreigners in Treaty-Port Japan (1859 – 1872)

Foreigners in Treaty-Port Japan (1859 – 1872)

In 1854, with the Treaty of Kanagawa, Japan’s ‘closed country’ sakoku policy was replaced with an ‘open country’ kaikoku policy.1 This open era created new markets, new distribution routes and critically opened new Treaty Port towns. The most significant of these was the Treaty Port of Yokohama. Yokohama’s success and use as trading hub was so significant that it led it to the town being known to be ‘synonymous with the West’.2 John Dower explores how the local Japanese viewed this new commercial hub and their new foreign counterparts through analysing Yokohama prints, Yokohama-e. Yokohama prints were woodblock prints that, during the 19th century, became an extremely popular way to depict Treaty Port towns and depict the actions of the new foreign merchants and traders. This blog entry will explore how the Yokohama prints illustrated; first, the different uses of the new Treaty Port towns, second the lack of knowledge or information the locals had about these new foreigners and, third the suspicion the locals attributed to the foreigners.

One primary source, Utagawa Sadahide’s ‘Pictures of Western Traders at Yokohama Transporting Merchandise’, 1861, will be the principal source for this blog entry; Dower uses it to gain an insight into the different activities within the thriving treaty port harbour in Yokohama. The woodblock depicts five vessels within the bustling Yokohama port and the various tasks that are occurring on them when they are coming into the harbour. The five vessels represent the five nations with bilateral treaties allowing them to use the harbour. Many different activities are occurring within the print, from clerks making notes to crewmen climbing the riggings. These various activities illustrating what Dower calls ‘the unprecedented bustle’3 in the Yokohama harbour and reinforces how Treaty Ports were a hub of trading, business and all the other activities that facilitated Japan’s new international markets. The American ship, denoted by an American flag, includes a long row of small cannons running along the length of their ship.2 The presence of these cannons, Dower views as a ‘subtle touch of the ominous’4, signalling the Japanese’s uncertainty and discomfort with their new open era; they now looked out ‘upon the unknown world of foreign nations’.((Ibid.))Second, most critically, it displays the suspicion attached to foreigners in Yokohama. Locals still were sceptical of the Americans after their aggressive ‘gun-boat diplomacy’ which triggered the kaikou policy. It further illustrates how alongside treaty port towns being a hub of commerce, they were also a place where foreigners could display their naval strength. As Jeremy Taylor explores, the harbour in Yokohama was ‘on occasions lined with foreign troops of all kinds to intimidate Japanese government officials into further concessions’.5

It should be noted that, as Dower argues, it is unlikely that Sadahide was creating this print based on his first-hand view of the harbour. Dower explores how a similar European port scene appeared in the Illustrated London News before the publishing of Sadahide’s print, and this had potentially been the inspiration behind Sadahide’s work. This use of a European source to depict Yokohama’s harbour exposes again the lack of understanding and great uncertainty that Japanese locals and artists had towards these foreign nations and this new influx of trade and chaos. Dower emphasises how often different features of the woodblock prints were a ‘departure from strict reality’.6

Overall, Sadahide’s woodblock print is used by Dower to draw conclusions about the Yokohama local’s impression and interactions with their new foreign counterparts and their attitude towards the new use of their previously quiet village. It is clear the locals viewed their foreign counterparts with caution and uncertainty, often relying on European sources or images to fill their lack of knowledge of the new concepts and people that now surrounded them.





  1. John W Dower, “Yokohama Boomtown, Foreign Community in Treaty Port Japan 1859-1872,’” MIT Visualising Cultures, 2008,, 1. []
  2. Ibid., 27. [] []
  3. Ibid., 25. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Jeremy E. Taylor, “The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of East Asia,” Social History 27, no. 2 (2002): pp. 125-142,, 137. []
  6. Dower, Yokohama Boomtown, 27. []