Asia’s Burial Grounds: The Last Bastions of Resistance Against the Will of the State?

The burial ground, throughout the world, has for centuries been considered a sacred place. At the physical level, they provide the setting for laying loved ones to rest peacefully and for paying respects and remembering those who came before us. Throughout history, they can be seen as symbolic sites of power, memory, and identity. Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh’s The Politics of Landscapes in Singapore: Constructions of ‘Nation’, however, has been a landmark publication analysing their competing role against the will of the ‘modernising state’.1 Using this text as a foundation, this post aims to show that whilst one might expect such personal, spiritual and sacred spaces to contest modernisation and urbanisation, they have offered little resistance, especially in an Asian spatial context.

When studying the physical manifestations of Chinese burial practices and rituals, one is struck by the immensity of tradition, laws and its geomancy. The dead are considered to play an important role in family life, with Chinese custom believing them to have an important role in looking over their ‘earthly descendants’.2 In accordance with feng shui, the Chinese burial space is carefully considered, planned and maintained.3 In China particularly, perhaps more so than in other places, they are sites of familial kinship and loyalty, of home comfort and spirituality and of personal exchange between the living and dead. As Kong and Yeoh have noted the importance of burial site configuration in ensuring ‘benign influences’ are drawn from earth and transmitted to descendants of the dead.4 Any interference with such a custom, would bring risk to the wellbeing of the deceased’s family. With these facts in mind, such sacred sites are widely considered to be immune from external influences and government intervention.

Yet, despite this, such Chinese sites and their stakeholders offered little resistance when modernisation and urbanisation efforts by the Singaporean government commenced in the second half of the 20th century. Such sites, which occupied large areas of physical space, and which many considered to be focusses of disease, proved to be obstacles to expanding townscapes and cityscapes and land acquisition program. This was especially the case with specific regard to Singapore’s relative shortage of land to develop. Whilst some Chinese clans, the YFFK and SHHK sought a level of compensation for their burial grounds being disrupted or moved5, the Singaporean example shows these sacred spaces to have offered little challenge to the will of the state.

To move up the chain of abstraction, it is important to perhaps consider this phenomenon from an alternative, more critical perspective. Whilst Kong and Yeoh note that practices of cremation and the use of columbariums were promoted as a valid and useful alternative to traditional funerary sites, this lack of resistance may also have been a by-product of changing attitudes and perspectives amongst Chinese huangxi themselves. Whilst Kong and Yeoh cite several accounts that highlight the sentimentality in the very beauty, ‘finding’ and ‘activity’ of tending relative’s graves, there is evidence that communities throughout Asia felt less affinity to family and community and instead felt part of a larger, modern and cosmopolitan society. Su Lin Lewis’ Cities in Motion brings to light the rise of ‘globalisation in the public sphere’ and a growing sense of cosmopolitanism throughout Asia.6 Organisations such as the YMCA, YWCA and the Rotary helped foster feelings of community service and international consciousness across Asia. To provide a counter argument to Kong and Yeoh, perhaps communities felt less compelled to engage in the traditions of burial and with ancestral or clan connections and instead felt more kinship to the state.

If one critically unpacks the physical ritual of tending to the dead, such an activity often involves time, offerings and is a practice for entire families or communal groups. However, with modernisation comes displacement, geographical fragmentation and greater restrictions on time. Accompanying the building of new towns comes the relocation of communities and the foundation of new lives, ideas and identities. Affinity to home, albeit not lost, can become more ambiguous and obtruse. Whilst the ritual of visiting and supervising sacred spaces should not be underestimated in the spirituality and comfort it can bring to people, Kong and Yeoh’s analysis reveals the success the Singaporean example had in shaping the material landscape of columbariums to accommodate traditions and still offer meaning for loved one’s of the dead. Indeed, between in 1962, the Mount Vernon Crematorium was performing four cremations per week and by 1995 it was averaging 21 cremations per day.7  Niches could be selected and adjusted to suit the personal preferences of the family, providing an acceptable and more financially viable alternative.8

Whilst this blog has built upon and provided a critique of Kong and Yeoh’s article, further inquiry into the relationship between burial sites, national identity and the state would prove incredibly fruitful. In the contemporary world, disagreements still take place over burial and memorial sites. The removal of George Floyd’s memorial in Minneapolis in 2021 received much criticism with demonstrators protesting that it damaged the city’s collective memory of the incident.9 Such an example proves the power that such sites can have as symbols of resistance, community and identity. Burial grounds have the potential to be places of power, struggle and memory and will continue to provide a fascinating lens through which to study civil autonomy and the will of states.

  1. Lily Kong and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, The Politics of Landscapes in Singapore: Constructions of ‘Nation’, (Syracuse, 2003) []
  2. Wilson, B. D., “Chinese Burial Customs in Hong Kong”, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 1 (1960), p. 115 []
  3. Michael Paton, Five Classics of Fengshui: Chinese Spiritual Geography in Historical and Environmental Perspective, (2013) []
  4. Lily Kong and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, The Politics of Landscapes in Singapore: Constructions of ‘Nation’, (Syracuse, 2003), p. 53 []
  5. Kong and Yeoh, The Politics of Landscapes in Singapore, p. 65 []
  6. Su Lin Lewis, Cities in Motion, (Cambridge, 2016), p. 120 []
  7. Kong and Yeoh, The Politics of Landscapes in Singapore, p. 61 []
  8. Ibid, p. 72 []
  9. Deena Winter, ‘Minneapolis Removes Memorials and Barricades From ‘George Floyd Square’, (2021), []

How convincing is the ‘From-race-to-class-segregation’ argument when discussing if income was the significant factor affecting the makeup of neighbourhoods in desegregated Indonesia 1930-1960?

When examining city planning in the Southeast Asian colonial context, a commonly held view is that ethnic or racial categories formed the main division of residential areas, reinforcing residential patterns that mirrored ethnicity divisions in society. Historian, T.G. McGee describes the colonial city as a “mosaic of ethnic quarters” with this trend of separation between different ethnicities persisting until the 1960s[1]. Although the Raffles Town Plan was based upon the spatial layout of Singapore, it is a great example of how spaces were reserved for a separate and specific race and function: i.e., the “European Town”, “Arab quarters” and “Kampong” areas within the colonial city[2]. Before independence in Indonesia, the same historical quarter system existed.

Ethnic divisions in colonial times were made more visible through the legal classification between indigenous, foreign Orientals and Europeans. The law code that was developed in the mid 19th century required strict categorisation of a citizen as: European, non-European (which included Chinese and indigenous) and Foreign Oriental, which developed as a category later in the period. However, as the categories of classification expanded, so did their flexibility; you could apply to move categories based on a number of factors including income and profession. For example: in 1899 Japanese residents successfully transferred from ‘foreign Orientals’ to the ‘European’ category. In essence, this development show us that although racial distinction was common within everyday colonial life, it was not stringent in the same way of the African colonies.

Dutch historian Freek Colombijn proposes the ‘From-race-to-class-segregation’ thesis which postulates that residential patterns were strongly influenced by changes in the social status system. After independence in Indonesia, and de-segregation of society, Colombijn argues the main factor determining residential patterns and their divisions was no longer ethnicity but income and economic status. His maintains that even before independence, ethnic groups lived in more mixed communities than given credit for. For example: in Subraya, indigenous people lived in neighbourhoods designated for Chinese and Arabs[3]. This was because traders chose to live in the same communities; it was their profession in common (i.e., Earthenware and brass workers) that brought them to live in the same neighbourhood. Therefore, he promotes the idea that racial segregation as the basis for residential patterns is over-emphasised within the historiography because of the evidence supporting the claim that professional specialisation had an influencing factor on a person’s motivation to live in a specific neighbourhood.

In this way, it can be said that living in a neighbourhood based on class and economic status, was a general continuation of the pattern of living in areas based on professional specialisation. People that worked in the same jobs, would generally earn the same wage and therefore form a class amongst themselves. After conducting several interviews with those living in independent Indonesia, the author found a recurrent theme to be that housing was found through social networks, especially through work colleagues, strengthening the argument that it was social class that dictated residential patterns in the later twentieth century.

A key problem with the theory is that the issues of race and social class are strongly related to one another. Within the colonial system, native Indonesians failed to receive the same level of education and would often need to begin working earlier in their lives to support their families. With no access to high paying jobs, and limited accessibility into white collar work, the colonial system effectively froze the social mobility of the country. Therefore, the ‘from-race-to-class’ thesis becomes less convincing because even after independence was granted, natives born, and non-European citizens were not trained to take up jobs that were higher paying.

To answer the question first set out, I agree with the author that the ‘from-race-to-class’ thesis is a convincing argument, to an extent. I think that it has been proven to a reasonable degree that there were normalised exceptions to the racial classifications in society, such as indigenous people living in Arab and Chinese quarters. Although the categories existed and intermixing casually was not the norm, the racial segregation was not as embedded in society as African colonies which makes it more realistic to think that people would choose to reside in neighbourhoods based on other factors such as profession and income. I believe that there are faults with the argument too; firstly, that it invites a pro-Dutch perspective within the context of Indonesian colonialism, which is problematic. Secondly, that it infers after Indonesia gained independence that social mobility would be fluid and that the obstacles put in place by the colonial government would be gone just because the government was. Although there was a white-collar workforce of Indonesians, these were men born into their privileged positions and challenges remained for indigenous people to become qualified and educated to apply for bureaucratic jobs. Nevertheless, this thesis’s greatest strength is the focus on the changing status and economic power of the emergent middle class. These were the families who began working in fortuitous industries (i.e., traders and workmen) which encouraged them to move to neighbourhoods with people which they worked.

[1] McGee, T.G, The Southeast Asian City; A social geography of primate cities of Southeast Asia. London, Bell.

[2] Plan of the Town of Singapore, Lieut Jackson, Survey Department Singapore, Survey Department Singapore (London, 1828).

[3]Colombijn, Under Construction: Race, Class and Segregation, p.85

Beyond Objectification: The Role of Women in the Wartime Economies of Japan and Vietnam

While stationed in Yokosuka during the American occupation of Japan, the cartoonist Bill Hume began drawing cartoons featuring a character named “Babysan,” a highly sexualized caricature of Japanese women.  Babysan: A Private Look at the Japanese Occupation was published in 1953 and in 1965, Tony Zidek published a similar collection of cartoons called Choi Oi! The Lighter Side of Vietnam, while serving in the Vietnam war.  Published as “morale-building” material for deployed soldiers as well as nostalgic accounts for those who had returned to the US, the books depict the interactions of American soldiers with Japanese and Vietnamese women.  Looking beyond their overt objectification of women, they provide insight into the roles these women played in the economic systems which developed under the American presence.

The women depicted in Babysan belong to “the greyer category of what were sometimes referred to as onrii (from ‘only’ or ‘only one’), or women who engaged in serial, ostensibly monogamous relationships with ‘only one’ uniformed lover at a time, and who received various forms of material compensation in return.”1 Although Japanese women are portrayed primarily as objects of American consumption, the cartoons suggest that women held considerable power over financial transactions.  One cartoon features Babysan remarking, “No dependent?” as she looks over her boyfriend’s tax form.2 Hume describes how the boyfriend is not only expected to support Babysan financially, but in some cases her family as well.  Women are depicted as being dependent upon the support of American soldiers, but also as financially intelligent and using their “resources” (American soldiers) as effectively as possible.  Hume states that, “Japanese women are traditionally the holders of the purse strings, so Babysan knows of many more practical ways of using his okane.”3 Not only do women control the “purse strings” of American soldiers, but Hume suggests that many women had multiple American partners and therefore multiple sources of income.

To ensure their financial security, women relied on networks of information to learn the whereabouts of their partners.  In Babysan, Hume describes how “She and her girl friends, with apparently the help of everyone else in town, have a highly efficient communication system that the Americans call the grapevine,” a system which “gives them a forecast of their economic future.”4 Although Babysan makes no direct references to black markets or prostitution, they were highly successful around American bases and likely relied on similar systems of communication.  Around 70,000 women were employed legally as prostitutes and thousands more worked on a private basis.5 Each of these ventures relied on the capital provided by Americans, combined with an internal network of information.

Like Japan, Vietnam saw the rise of black market operations following an influx of American soldiers.  “American goods dominated storefronts and street vendors’ stands in Saigon, Hue and Da Nang, putting a tight pinch on local manufacturing which could not compete. American soldiers and civilians, and the United States government, had money to spend… Vietnam realised with equal cleverness that there was money to be made.”6 As black markets flourished in Vietnam, so did currency fraud which was facilitated by informal street vending stalls or “Howard Johnsons.”  One cartoon from Choi Oi remarks, “Saigon’s ‘Howard Johnsons’ do have a flair for providing ‘extra’ services also.  Numbered among them is the illegal exchange of money.”7 Another cartoon depicts a Howard Johnson advertising the daily exchange rate of piastres to dollars and an exchange between the woman running the stall and an American soldier.8

Vietnamese, particularly women, often played the role of go-between in these schemes. For example, a soldier might get wind of an upcoming MPC conversion date… A soldier would take X piastres to the US exchange at a particular installation and purchase US dollars. He (or his Vietnamese house servant or girlfriend) would then take the dollars to the black market and purchase X + Y piastres, Y being the difference between the rate at the American exchange and the black market rate of exchange.9

Women were both “go-betweens” for Americans as well as the ones exchanging money and operating stalls.  Their role extended beyond that of wife or girlfriend, and even beyond the Vietnam War itself.  After socialist forces took and renamed Saigon, “In Ho Chi Minh city women from the middle and upper classes were involved more in socio economic activity, they were also more active in business and financial transactions, and in the black market.”10 Even after the American presence in Vietnam disappeared, women continued to play important roles in the economic systems that had taken hold as a result of the war.

While the women in Babysan and Choi Oi appear as sexualized objects of humor and entertainment, the cartoons suggest that their real role in post-war and wartime economies was varied and complex.  The American presence in Japan and Vietnam was a major contributing factor to the economic hardship faced by Japanese and Vietnamese women, but while American soldiers were present, women used soldiers both as a source of income and as a way to make the most of the financial situation caused by their presence.

  1. Kim Brandt, “Learning from Babysan,” review of Babysan, by Bill Hume, Japan Society, 3 []
  2. Bill Hume, Babysan: A Private Look at the Japanese Occupation (Tokyo: Kasuga Bocki K.K., 1953), 56-57. []
  3. Hume, Babysan, 92. []
  4. Ibid., 98. []
  5. Brandt, “Learning from Babysan,” 2, 9. []
  6. William Allison, “War for Sale: The Black Market, Currency Manipulation and Corruption in the American War in Vietnam,” in War & Society 21 no. 2, (2003): 135. []
  7. Tony Zidek, Choi Oi! The Lighter Side of Vietnam (Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1965), 34. []
  8. Zidek, Choi Oi!, 35. []
  9. Allison, “War for Sale,” 146. []
  10. Tran Phi Phuong, “Work and family roles of women in Ho Chi Minh City,” in International Education Journal 8 no. 2, (2007): 290. []

The Miniature of Shanghai: Case Study of Ward Road Gaol in the early twentieth century

Ward Road Gaol, also known as Tilanqiao prison, locates in the Hongkou district of Shanghai. It was one of the first modern prisons in China. Ward Road Gaol was proposed by Shanghai Municipal Council in order to complement Shanghai Municipal Police so that SMP could have charge of the post-conviction treatment of all offenders without relying on others.1 The other motivation for building this new prison is that it was “in the interest of civilization so that China might learn that punishment can be effectual without the employment of barbarous methods which are in vogue throughout the Empire.”, said the British Mixed Court Assessor.2 It was a means to show the advanced prison system of the West and a step to modernise Shanghai. Therefore, Ward Road Gaol differed from the conventional jails in the late Qing period. It was designed and operated by British and Singaporeans, modelling on the structure of western prisons and management systems. However, the motivation of showing the power and advantage of modernization did not get the expected results of the British bureaucrats located in Shanghai. The gaol had experienced failure of administration, problems of mistreatment of prisoners and conflict between the regulations of Chinese and western laws. The gaol shared a similar destiny with Shanghai itself, the transplanted western modernization projects and ideas, and the local reaction and chaos created by this imposed modernity. This blog will explore Ward Road Gaol as a miniature of Shanghai in the early twentieth century.

Figure 1

Figure 2: (source: Waitanyixi)

The intended establishment of modernity of Ward Road Goal was revealed by its architectural construction and administrative system. The building of the prison was in the shape of a cruciform, the intersecting point of the cruciform is the only source of natural light. Figures 1 and 2 also show that this architectural design enabled warders to monitor prisoners from different levels. The spatial arrangement of Ward Road Gaol is what Bentham called a “panopticon”. As Foucault argues, the panopticon’s main function is to monitor the behaviour of prisoners. It is a non-violent way to discipline prisoners.3 The principle of using a panopticon as a disciplining method is different from the principal method used to manage prisoners in a conventional Chinese prison. A traditional Chinese gaol emphasized the application of cruel physical punishment as a deterrent to prisoners. Torturing their bodies was believed to be an efficient means to punish people who are charged with guilt.4 Though Ward Road Gaol aimed to become a modern and ‘civilized’ gaol in China, violence towards convicts was not rare. The discipline was still vigorous. There were medical reports on the assaults of warders on the prisoners. The cause of this situation may be approached from two aspects.

For Chinese warders, treating prisoners violently could be an inheritance from the traditional prison management method. Since Ward Road Gaol was one of the very first modern prisons in China. It was hard to change the long-lived persistent habits. The other cause of it could be the existence of racial hierarchy in Shanghai as a mixed-ethnicity international settlement. Isabelle Jackson observed that violence towards local people was common in the Shanghai police system among Sikh policemen, who were considered to have a higher status than local Chinese. Indians were also hired as warders in Ward Road Gaol by the British.5  According to one of the prisoners’ complaints, Indian warders were called, and allegedly gave more than ten slaps and a punch to a Chinese prisoner who gave his diet to one of his fellows.6

This hierarchical power dynamic did not only exist between prisoners and warders, but also among prisoners themselves. Prisoners of different nationalities could receive different treatments. Extraterritorial prisoners enjoyed more privilege than non-extraterritorial prisoners such as Russian, German and Polish. Similar to what happened to the Shanghai police system that there was more than one force operated in this city, prisoners could be regulated and sentenced by different courts and laws, but sometimes be held in the same prison. Extraterritorial prisoners were allowed to have meetings with their family and friends, their families could send food and letters to them at least once a month. However, non-extraterritorial prisoners did not receive equal treatment, thus non-extraterritorial prisoners somehow turned into “white slaves”.7  The mixture of different legal regulations and the identity of prisoners catalyzed the reshaping of the hierarchy which was different from the world outside of the prison. These hierarchies in prisons also reflect the hierarchy of the whole city.

Therefore, the small and isolated world in Ward Road Goal reflected the contemporary situation in Shanghai, such as the difficulty of adapting western practices to an eastern context, the new racial hierarchy among people of different ethnicities, and the chaos of jurisdiction and confusion created by extraterritoriality. In addition, there was a strike that took place in Ward Road Gaol led by the Indian warders, which matches what Jackson has mentioned that there was a rising of nationalism among the Indians who worked in Shanghai. The intention of building a modern prison in China companies with the defects of modernization of prison and of Shanghai as a city.

Nowadays, Ward Road Gaol is more frequently seen as a symbol of the strong will and firm faith held by activists, intelligent and patriots who were arrested and contained in the prison through the propagandization of the media and the government, and a representation of elite, since it is now used to contain people who committed financial crimes. Also, it is now listed in the urban planning schedule, waiting to be removed, in order to build a new cultural park at its original site.

  1. Frank Dikötter, Crime, Punishment, and the Prison in Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 308. []
  2. Ibid, p.308. []
  3. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment, part 4. []
  4. Li Wenbing, Zhongguogudaijianyushi, p. 148-149. []
  5. Isabella Jackson, “The Raj on Nanjing Road: Sikh Policemen in Treaty-Port Shanghai,” Modern Asian Studies 46, no. 06 (November 2012), p. 1690-1691. []
  6. Frank Dikötter, Crime, Punishment, and the Prison in Modern China, p. 318. []
  7. Ibid, p. 322. []

Examining the 1933 Shanghai Power Company Strike – A Prospectus

In the autumn of 1933, some two thousand workers at the Shanghai Power Company went on strike over the dismissal of a number of employees over the previous four years. With such a large strike at a company vital for the daily life of Shanghai’s citizens, the prevailing opinion was that the company would give in to the strikers demands instead of risking power outages across the city. However, after about three months of striking, the workers returned to the company, defeated and in need of wages, which the company loaned out to them upon their arrival. Using newspaper articles, correspondence between trade unions, as well as reports from the Shanghai Municipal Police, this essay examines the reasons for the failure of the strike, as well as how the factors influencing the strike’s failure offer insight into the legal and social realities present in Shanghai in 1933.

There has been a growing list of works on Labour movements within early twentieth century Shanghai. While S.A. Smith’s work “Like Cattle and Horses: Nationalism and Labor in Shanghai, 1895-1927” focuses on the time period before this strike, the conclusions drawn by Smith are still present in 1933. While a national identity is recognised by Chinese workers, struggles for recognition are still present during industrial action, as seen by certain opinion pieces covering the SPC strike. Furthermore, a lack of unity within these disputes still hampers the effectiveness of strikes, as Chinese public opinion was split over their necessity, and other unions offered little more than respectful financial support for the strikers.

This essay found that the factor offered by most media observers as having caused the failure of the strike was the fact that the Shanghai Power Company was foreign owned, having its headquarters in America and not China. This allowed the company to listen less to the opinions of Shanghai’s Chinese citizens, who were broadly in favour of the strikers at the commencement of industrial action. In particular, “the obstinate attitude on the part of the Company” was seen as a key reason why a settlement was not quickly reached – something which would likely be different had the Company been based within Shanghai itself.

However, it should be noted that the weak national government, as well as the legal complexities within Shanghai undoubtedly made the task of the strikers much more difficult. Both the strikers and the Shanghai Power Company used legally questionable methods over the course, the former by intimidating workers wishing to return to the Company, the latter by employing thousands of strike breakers and sequestering Chinese workers within the power plant so they could avoid interacting with the strikers. Here the narratives created around the strike by newspapers played a vital role in harming the objectives of the strikers. The intimidation of workers by those on strike was emphasised, and used as proof that the Water and Electricity Union was being run by violent radical individuals, who were holding the rest of the workers hostage during the strike. As the union itself struggled to combat these characterisations, public sentiment quickly turned against the strikers, leaving them without the motivation or financial support necessary to continue their action.

Overall, this essay argues that the three broad reasons for the failure of the strikes – the international nature of the SPC, the lack of government adjudication of the strike, and media characterisations of the strikers, show how Shanghai’s political and social situation in 1933 limited the progress trade unions, particularly Chinese-based unions, could achieve. Such a confused legal space, with strong divisions surrounding ethnicity, allowed strike breakers to be employed within days of industrial action commencing, crippling the impact of such strikes. Furthermore, the fears present in Shanghai surrounding Communism made it easy for strikers to be presented as subverting the state, a characterisation which diminished their popularity. In Shanghai, a city socially and ethnically distrustful, as well as one so legally complicated, creating a labour movement that could remain united against foreign-owned companies was a difficult task, and one which the 4th District Water and Electricity Workers’ Union were unable to achieve in the latter half of 1933.

Natures Resistance: The Spatiality Aspects of Trees Within Urban Areas

‘It probably would be safe to bet that more people take pictures of cherry blossoms than any other subject in Japan – but of all the millions of pictures captured, only a small percentage capture the subtle beauty on film. ‘1

The space which Cherry blossoms occupy is difficult to categorize because of its temporality.  Therefore, springtime in Japan has become a favourite time for tourists to visit the country and flock around cherry blossom trees in full bloom.  As a consequence of the cherry blossoms’ appeal to both tourists and the Japanese, many of the spaces which these trees occupy have become public spaces such as parks and pedestrian routes. Despite modernity taking over and urbanizing Japan, sacred parts of nature have ensured that modernity has had to be built around them, rather than over them. This is similar to the alun-alun in Malang, which is a large space occupied by the banyan tree. The alun-alun holds similarities because the sacredness of the banyan and the beauty of the cherry blossom ensuring that these spaces cannot be remodelled into a product of modernity. Not only that, but the act of cutting down these types of trees was and still is associated with superstition and uneasiness. Therefore, tourism and superstitions have aided in the progress of creating these green spaces into a social setting in which tourists or locals could benefit from.

However, much like the alun-alun in Malang, there is difficulty in defining what the spaces in which trees such as the Banyan and cherry blossom occupy are. The people who gather in these spaces are not there to primarily consume or socialize, but as a result of planting such trees, products of consumption and space for socializing are created. Therefore, defining such spaces becomes complicated due to the conflictive uses of the space. Without the cherry blossoms, these spaces become pathways, parks, and green spaces, but the temporality of the trees allows these spaces to transform into a place to consume, observe, socialize, and entertain.

Although the alun-alun is different in its purpose, the banyan tree aids in how spaces can be defined differently depending on how it is used. ‘The banyan tree, which was once considered sacred in the context of Javanese culture, was deprived of its aura as the crowd of modern-day tram passengers used it casually as a tram shelter.’ 2 Therefore, what the banyan tree provides is a safe place for indigenous Javanese to step out of the exclusiveness that westernization has brought to society and seek sanctuary under the banyan trees in the alun-alun. Sacred attachments to nature allow spaces such as the alun-alun and those which cherry blossom trees occupy, to strengthen the cultural value which modernity has threatened.

However, if the indigenous people could not take part in the colonial social activities inside the buildings surrounding the alun-alun, they could at least defy the Western life-style.’3 Furthermore, this ability to escape into a space that functioned outside of westernization and modernity was aided by the banyan trees which allowed not only shelter but a connection to culture and history that was being overshadowed by a changing society. Although this is perhaps an environmental factor, the trees construct how a specific space can be used for social and leisure means.

‘In Hindostan, where it reaches the greatest perfection, a famous tree stood on the banks of the Nerbudda. It was said that formerly 7,000 men could find shelter beneath its shade.’4 

The result of this has meant that urbanisation has had to be shaped in a way that accommodates trees such as the cherry blossom and Banyan because they are rooted into local culture and history. In cases such as the banyan, superstition has protected them because of the act of cutting it down being to risky. Therefore, enabling a unique space to be formed around them. However, in terms of the Cherry blossom, there are multiple factors which have enabled their survival, which are centred on culture and tourism.

  1. Pacific Stars and Stripes, Cherry Blossoms expected to lure millions to Parks (Tokyo, 1961) p.7. []
  2. Purnawan Basundoro, The Two alun-alun of Malang (Brill, 2015) p.282 []
  3. Ibid, p.281 []
  4. Scientific American, The Banyan Tree (1890) p.215 []

Big-Eared Du: A Mob Boss’ Rise to Power in Shanghai’s Underground World

The life of a gangster is never simple or pleasant. Not least the life of the ‘Godfather’ of Shanghai, a city crawling with endless opportunities for ambitious criminals. Du Yuesheng’s life of lawlessness was borne out of a troubled childhood, with the early loss of his parents and his sister being sold into slavery. From an early age, Du grew an appetite for gambling and gaming, an aspect of his personality that Martin claims, ‘instilled in him a certain self-discipline that curbed his natural outbursts of violent temper.’1 This is likely a trait that aided his rise to leadership of the Green Gang, one of the world’s most infamous secret criminal organisations. This blog aims to consider the life of the gangster against the unique backdrop of extraterritoriality and Japanese occupation. Whilst his full story is worthy of a full and extensive biography (see Zhang Jungu and Xu Zhucheng’s accounts), this post will highlight his rise to prominence and maintenance thereof in the labyrinthine political environment and dark and murky spaces of Old Shanghai.


After a childhood of petty hooliganism, theft and mischief, he impressed the then ‘bigshot’ of the Green Gang, Huang Jinrong, whose power derived from his illustrious and efficient career as the leader of the Chinese detective squad in Shanghai’s French Concession. His ability to negotiate and extort from his network of informants and contacts was paramount to his power. Wakeman’s depiction of these detective squads highlights their inescapable association with the criminal underworld.3 Whilst supposedly ‘solving crimes’, they were also assisting their allies in trafficking opium, running brothels, casinos and protection rackets.4 Having impressed Huang, Du swore the oath of brotherhood to the Gang and quickly began to make his impression. Martin notes how his full embracing of secret society values  and rituals and ‘rags to riches’ story helped generate influence of ‘legendary proportions’.5Indeed, power over the Green Gang was his after Huang Jinrong’s arrest in 1924. It is extremely important to note this ‘reputation’, which, comparably to Chicago’s Al Capone won him political clout and influence in elite government circles. His dominance of the opium trade, which remained rife throughout the Nanjing Decade, drew him close to General Chiang Kai Shek, leader of the Republic. Images like the one below, have in many ways come to crystallise the social space of Shanghai as decadent, debauched and rife with vice. The narco-economy was seen as a vital source of income for the Republic, and it is characteristic that Du was put in charge of the ‘Shanghai Opium Suppression Bureau’, which ultimately gave the Green Gang a monopoly of the market and extra income from tax and license fees.6 Such a bureau indeed simply acted as a guise for the government to control and earn more revenue.


The spaces Du Yuesheng controlled and operated were spaces of shade and criminality and in a city like Shanghai this made him important to the invading Japanese force in 1937. By 1939, the Japanese had offered Du safe passage and protection to Shanghai (having fled after backing the Kuomintang Army), to mobilise the Green Gang and operate the opium trade on their behalf.8Perhaps in a move out of character, he turned down the opportunity, instead favouring to find his own ways of smuggling opium into Japanese territory. Why he did this is unclear, however it is likely he was still ideologically committed to Chiang and Dai Li and preferred to supply his narcotics to the Nationalists. This puzzling decision is perhaps representative of the complex network of relationships between gangs, their rivals, businesses, municipal councils and invading forces in Shanghai. Indeed, Du himself could not conquer all of Shanghai. The Shanghai Municipal Police were a constant foe in his battle to deal opium legally in the International Settlement.9

A key aspect of Du’s administration of power was his extensive network of secrets and his control over hierarchy. An example of this was his ‘Endurance Club’, which was a smaller collective of individuals with social standing considered useful to Du. Elites such as industrialists, financiers, police and government officials were all brought into a clandestine arrangement which Du administered personally.10The operation of such a club relied on the practice of secrecy. Sworn oaths, rackets and protection payments kept the Endurance Club running. One can imagine the teahouses and mansions such meetings Du would have held and the spatial practices that would have characterised them. A meeting with Big-Eared Du would have been intimidating and daunting. Those to displease him or speake out of turn would have been few and far between.

The remainder of Du’s story, outlined in detail by his biographers, is one of relative anti-climax. After the conclusion of Japanese occupation, he was not welcomed back to Shanghai, bringing an end to his premiership as the City’s mob boss. He appears to have travelled to Taiwan and Hong Kong, but much of this period remains unclear.

A fascinating spatial history of his houses and meeting places is waiting to be written. One suspects it may lack the glitz, glamour and romanticism of his American counterparts; however, his operation was remarkable and had a profound effect on Shanghai’s reputation as the Asian capital of vice.

  1. Brian G. Martin, “The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919–1937” (Berkeley, 1996) p. 41 []
  2. Du Yuesheng, c. 1930, []
  3. Frederic Wakeman Jr., “Policing Modern Shanghai”, The China Quarterly, No. 115 (Sep. 1988), p. 415 []
  4. Zou Huilin, “Du, the godfather of Shanghai”, Shanghai Star, (June, 2001), Accessed 7 March 2023, []
  5. Martin, “The Shanghai Green Gang”, p. 40 []
  6. Zheng Yangwen, “Shanghai Vice”, in The Social Life of Opium in China, (Cambridge, 2012), p.191, Frederic Wakeman Jr., The Shanghai Badlands: Wartime Terrorism and Urban Crime 1937-41, (Berkeley, 1996), p.11 []
  7. Opium Den,1932,, []
  8. Wakeman Jr., The Shanghai Badlands, p.12 []
  9. Martin, “The Shanghai Green Gang”, p. 180 []
  10. Ibid, p. 181 []

The Entertainment Function of Museums seen in Singapore’s Botanic Gardens

In 1949, Sir John Forsdyke, Director of the British Museum, lectured to the Royal Society of Arts on how ‘the most important educational service, common to all museums is the entertainment and instruction of children’’.1 He explained how museums could feature two forms of popular entertainment; ‘music and the cinema’.2 Forsdyke’s lecture reflected Gareth Knapman’s observation that during the 19th century, museums were ‘as much about entertainment as research’3 , and the audience that museums attracted ‘was looking for entertainment’.4 I found this shift towards museums becoming spaces for popular entertainment instead of practices for solely academically important topics interesting, as this shift also occurs within Singapore’s Botanic Garden. This blog post focuses on how the development of the museum into a space of entertainment also occurs in Singapore’s Botanic Gardens. This is an important focus as it is a useful contribution towards my broader long essay idea that the Singapore Botanic Gardens was Singapore’s first museum. The Singapore Botanic Gardens strayed from its defined purpose of a space for ‘the scientific study of plants’ as it increasingly accommodated entertainment practices.5 The specific entertainment practices in the Singapore Botanic Garden that this blog post will examine are the Gardens’ weekly band performances.

The significance of band performances within the Singapore Botanic Gardens is immediately apparent through their mention in the first by-law published in the Official Guide to the Gardens, printed by the Singapore government in 1889.6

‘The Botanical Gardens shall be open to the public daily from sunrise to sunset, and, on nights when the Band plays, to 11 p.m.’7

This specific mention highlights the importance of entertainment to the Gardens because the by-laws represented the official rules of governance and conduct indicating that entertainment was a formally approved function of the Gardens. Furthermore, extending the opening hours from their regular timings illustrates the Garden purposely catering to the performances and their audiences, suggesting entertainment practices were not only approved but encouraged. The official guide served as the principal medium by which the government communicated to visitors how they wanted the gardens to be viewed and used. Thus, this reference to band performances within the first page publicised not only to officials but also to ordinary visitors that the bands, and other entertainment events, were an integral, standard, and unquestioned service of the Gardens despite their lack of relation to the Gardens’ traditional focus on scientific research. The performances were also a focus of the Garden’s Annual Reports, which featured a section for ‘concerts’.8 This section recorded the number of performances that year and other shows, such as ‘variety shows’ staged in the Gardens.9 This official practice of recording the entertainment practices further emphasises how the entertainment function of the Gardens was considered important because it was monitored in the same way and within the same medium as the Gardens’ scientific practices. This illustrates how similar to museums, the Singapore Botanic Gardens developed into a space that was ‘as much about entertainment as research’.

Alongside the band performances featuring in the Gardens’ official publications, multiple Singapore newspapers published articles on the performances and advertised when they would occur. For example, the Singapore Monitor included a column covering the time and specific band that would be performing that week in the Gardens.10The bands performed ‘every Sunday’, and the types of bands ranged from school bands, such as the ‘Bartley Secondary School Band’, to official police bands, such as the ‘National Police Cadet Corps Combo’.9 This inclusion of school bands demonstrates the Garden’s spatial practices again aligning with Forsdyke’s focus on museums entertaining children indicating how the themes within the development of museums’ spatial practices are also applicable to Singapore’s Botanic Gardens. Moreover, newspapers detailing the time and type of bands reveals how the public were interested in attending the Botanic Gardens for these events. This again suggests how not only in official discourses such as the by-laws and annual reports was the Garden considered a space for entertainment purposes, but within general society, the Garden was consistently advertised and considered as a space of entertainment.

Part of the RA band that gave a concert at the Botanic Gardens11

Crowds of people at the Singapore Botanic Gardens listen to the concert by the RA Band.12

Overall, the process of entertainment activities becoming an increasingly central spatial practice within museums also occurs in Singapore’s Botanic Garden. The Gardens hosted weekly music performances that it would stay open longer than usual for, and ‘concerts’ were tracked and monitored in official government reports on the Gardens. These characteristics reveal how, within official discourses, entertainment was considered a dominant spatial practice within the Gardens. Furthermore, national newspapers continuously informed the public of these performances highlighting how the Gardens were also becoming known in popular society through these entertainment practices signalling how entertainment became a critical service within a space, that similar to the museum, was traditionally confined to non-entertainment services. This similarity between the two spaces demonstrates a characteristic that indicates the Singapore Botanic Gardens should be considered Singapore’s first museum.


  1. John Forsdyke, “The Functions of a National Museum,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 97 (1949): pp. 506-517,, 513. []
  2. Ibid., 514. []
  3. Sarah Longair and John McAleer, Curating Empire (Manchester University Press, 2012), 91. []
  4. Ibid., 82. []
  5. John William Purseglove, “History and Functions of Botanic Gardens with Special Reference to Singapore,” Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore, 1959, pp. 125-154, 125. []
  6. Guide to the Botanical Gardens (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1889). []
  7. Ibid., 1 []
  8. Annual Report of the Botanic Gardens Department (Singapore: Government Printer, 1950), 4. []
  9. Ibid. [] []
  10. “Miscellaneous Column,” Singapore Monitor, March 9, 1985, 18. []
  11. Singapore Listens, Malaya Tribune, November 29, 1948, 8. []
  12. Ibid []