The Women of Bali and the Garden of Java: Touristic Visuals in the Dutch East Indies

The anthropologist Dean MacCannell argues that the tourist embodies the search for authenticity away from our daily lives.1 While modern mass tourism certainly grew more feasible as a result of greater mobility, safety, and disposable income, the demand for it increased due to the alienation inherent in the modern age.2 The Officiele Vereeniging voor Touristenverkeer, translated as the Official Tourist Bureau or OTB, was founded in 1908 to promote international tourism in the Dutch East Indies and did so by tapping into the modern need for perceived authenticity. By analysing visual tourist material produced by the OTB, as well as material produced by colonial transport companies such as KLM and KPM, we can analyse the different discourses which they utilised to capture the tourist’s desire for the authentic.

Figure 1: Trips in the Isle of Java, OTB 1909

Figure 2: Java: The Ideal Tourist Resort, OTB 1914

Figure 3: See Java, OTB 1937

Most prominent in the tourist material produced by the OTB for Java is the theme of unspoilt nature. From the earliest publications to the material produced just before World War 2, brochures depicted the same scene of tropical flora set before an imposing volcano in the background.  Even early proposed itineraries were preoccupied with the natural, mandating visits to the Botanical Gardens at Buitenzorg (Bogor), as well as recommending stays at the garden’s mountain branch at Cibodas, or a summit of Mount Gede.3 Nature was authenticity in its purest form. MacCannell describes it as the “original other”, once a uniting fear but in the modern world a source of awe and refreshed perspective.4 Even where evidence of human settlement is seen, as in Figure 3’s lonesome smoke plume, it is sparse and only serves to heighten this sense of awe through comparison between the grand scale of nature and the humble existence of humans. Of course, association between the tropics and vibrant nature was by this point an established trope, built upon the works of Humboldt and other early travel writers who formed the tropics in the western imagination.5 However, in Java, Robert Cribb argues that the theme of unspoilt nature is so prominent because early tourism followed the line of least resistance. It promoted areas where transport and accommodation were most readily available. On Java, these spaces were the colonial hill stations.6 As a result, the authenticity promoted for Java is the nature which would have surrounded the early Dutch colonisers on their retreats to the cool foothills.

Figure 4: OTB

Figure 5: KLM

Figure 6: KPM 1928

The dominating image for Bali, on the other hand, is the bare-chested woman. The roots of this stereotype derive from western image makers residing in Bali in the early 20th century. Men like Walter Spies and Dr Julius Jacobs, while also giving focus to the island’s culture, built upon pre-existing notions of tropical sensuality to produce an image of a sexually liberal Bali.7 This hybrid depiction of Balinese people, inclined towards sexual overindulgence but culturally richer than other “primitive” tropical races, made the people of Bali an alluring attraction.8 For Europeans and Americans who lived through the rigours of the First World War and the Great Depression respectively, this type of freedom offered an escape from their repressive societies.9 Bali had only been fully annexed by the Dutch in 1908 and so still retained much of its wild and mysterious image. The encouragement of this image by official arms of the Dutch colonial regime points to an attempt to profit off of another form of commercialised authenticity. Rather than awe-inspiring nature taking centre stage, it was interaction with Bali’s people, charming and untouched by modern convention as they were, which proffered the chance to experience the authenticity that was missing from modern western life.

Thus, we can see how the OTB and other arms of the Dutch colonial regime appealed to different aspects of “authenticity” in two parts of their empire: Java and Bali. While Java may have been the tamest, most heavily agriculturally exploited part of the Dutch East Indies, it nevertheless was branded as a paradisiacal, natural garden. This drew in tourists hoping to be refreshed by exposure to nature. In the case of Bali, its people were leveraged to present a promise of simplistic living and moral freedom. The Balinese could be thought to be living in a close to natural state, thus acting as an alluring proxy to access authenticity. Touristic materials can thus help us engage with the international discourses surrounding native landscapes and peoples, as well as telling us about the needs and desires of targeted western audiences.

  1. Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (London, 1976). []
  2. Shelley Baranowski et al., ‘Tourism and Empire’, Journal of Tourism History 7:1 (2015), p. 113. []
  3. Robert Cribb, ‘International Tourism in Java, 1900-1930’, South East Asia Research 3:2 (1995), p. 198. []
  4. Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (London, 1976), p. 81. []
  5. David Arnold, The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape, and Science, 1800-1856 (Washington, 2006), p. 113. []
  6. Robert Cribb, ‘International Tourism in Java, 1900-1930’, South East Asia Research 3:2 (1995), p. 202. []
  7. Adrian Vickers, Bali: A Paradise Created (Berkeley, 1989). []
  8. Ibid, p. 127. []
  9. Ibid, p. 142. []

‘YOUR HOME is incomplete if you do not possess a “HIS MASTER’S VOICE” Gramophone: The role of gramophones in Asian Cities

In his book Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, Su Lin Lewis articulates the role of soundscapes and cinema in globalising Asian cities. One interesting aspect explored is the impact of the gramophone in injecting new life into leisure entertainment.1 Lewis articulates that around the ‘gramophone and wireless created a new, mass experience of listening to music and stories, divorced from live experience and occurring in the comfort of one’s home, or in the home of one’s neighbour, or in a crowd on a street.’2 Essentially, the gramophone, emerging as a cultural conduit in ones home, severed the tether to live experiences, granting a global audience unprecedented access to diverse cultural expressions.

This discussion seeks to explore the role of the gramophone as a social space in globalising Asian cities.

Lewis notes that this phenomenon was not a simple diffusion from West to East but a complex interplay involving local and regional influences. Lewis places significant emphasis on the gramophone market in Burma. Narrated through a story in Ranghoon’s University College Annual, Lewis traces the clash of musical preferences between an ‘old-fashioned Burman’ and the younger generation, symbolising the generational divided.3 The influx of Burmese renditions of English songs, accompanied by instruments like Hawaiian guitars and Hilly Billy Banjos, created a sensory transformation. While concerns were raised about the potential influence of swing and hot-cha music, the adaption of jazz tunes by Burmese musicians interestingly led to the preservation of diverse musical traditions in Burma and exposed local audiences to both Western and Asian music. Lewis highlights the pivotal role played by the gramophone – divorcing music from live performances and bringing a mass experience of global sounds to Burmese homes, streets and communities.

Lewis proposes that the cultural adaption observed in Burma was not an isolated occurrence but rather part of a worldwide phenomenon.4 Therefore, this discussion will expand this exploration to Singapore during the early 20th century, with a particular focus on the role played by His Master’s Voice (HMV) Gramophone Company. As a global player, HMV, initially founded in London, established a noteworthy presence in Singapore, contributing to the cultural exchange facilitated by the technological advancements of the gramophone.

The gramophone’s ability to mechanically reproduce music facilitated a cultural exchange, exposing a multi-cultural city to various musical styles.

Similar, to the situation in Burma, HMV’s recordings in Singapore exposed local audiences to various forms of music, fostering a sense of cosmopolitanism and modernity. The adaptability of simple jazz tunes and the incorporation of diverse musical traditions became part of the sensory transformation of Singapore into a modern Asian city. The recordings not only preserved existing musical traditions but also played a role in the creation of new and modern popular genres.5

Figure 1, an advertisement of an HMV gramophone found in the Straits Chronicle 1915, provides valuable insights into the cultural impact of the gramophone. The title ‘your home is incomplete if your home does not possess a “His Master’s Voice Gramophone,”‘ conveys that the gramophone is more than a mere functional device; it is a status symbol and a valuable addition to one’s identity. Indeed, the gramophone came to be one of the prime symbols of class formation, modernity and social change. It was especially favoured by a small, yet distinct community known as the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore, for its capacity to acquire ‘culture’ and bring both global and local music to the home.6 It goes on the articulate that ‘you must realise its superiority over all other instruments, if you think for one moment just how many musical instruments are contained in one.’ This propagandist assertion underscores the gramophone’s technological advancements, showcasing an ability to reproduce diverse sounds, distinguishing between various local cultural and foreign instruments and styles with clarity. Indeed, gramophone recordings by the HMV in Singapore were a fusion of stylistic borrowing and localisation. Musicians adapted to changes in British colonial society, actively merging elements of commercial Anglo-American popular music wit Malay lyrics about the problems and hopes of ordinary people to generate new meanings.7


Figure 1. ‘Advertisements Column 3,’ Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, 4th March 1915.8

Furthermore, the invitation to ‘hear Caruso, Tetrazzini, Titta Ruffo, Melba, McCormack, Journet, Paderewski, Kubelik, Kreisler, the New Symphony Orchestra, Coldstream Guards Band, and a great host of hosts of others in YOUR house,’ emphasises how the gramophone acted as cultural bridge, bringing so many voices to the homes of ordinary people. This further highlights a new consumer culture in Singapore where variety was clearly appreciated.

Clearly, western technology and the colonial market system provided a hybrid, cosmopolitan and inclusive modernity that aimed to create a more modern society. This underscores and helps advance Lewis’s argument that the gramophone helped to globalise Asian cities.

  1. Su Lin Lewis, Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920-1940, (2016), p. 238 []
  2. Lewis, Cities in Motion, p. 228 []
  3. Ibid., p. 231. []
  4. Ibid., p. 232 []
  5. Tan Sooi Beng, ‘Negotiating “His master’s Voice”: Gramophone Music and Cosmopolitan Modernity in British Malaya in the 1930s and Early 1940s, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 169:4 (2013), p. 461 []
  6. Peter Lee and Jennifer Chen, Rumah Baba: Life in a Peranakan House, (Singapore, 1998), p.93 []
  7. Beng, ‘Negotiating “His master’s Voice,”’ p. 459 []
  8. Figure 1. ‘Advertisements Column 3,’ Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, 4th March 1915, p. 2 []

“Bad Perfume and Cheap Pomade”: The Tokyo Dancehall in Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask

Confessions of a Mask, originally published in 1949, was responsible for launching its author, Yukio Mishima to national fame. The novel follows its narrator, Ko-chan, as he struggles to fit into Imperial Japanese society. However, it is the final scene, set in a Tokyo dancehall during the American occupation, which is of particular spatial interest. As shown by Mackie and Field, novels were an important medium of representation of social spaces in Japan and China respectively.1 By analysing literary representations of the dancehall, we can learn about how they were imagined, not only by the author who described them, but by the wider society for which the novel was written. Though the dancehall presented in Confessions of a Mask is probably not a wholly accurate portrayal of any real establishment, it gives us insight into the connotations such spaces would have had for sections of the Japanese public, and their place within cultural discourse.

What is most apparent in Mishima’s description of the dancehall is its popularity. The intensity of the crowd within is emphasised as “cheek pressed against sweaty cheek” (pg. 198), and people extend their lunchbreaks to dance their fill. Indeed, during the post-war period, Japanese dancehalls were one of the rare sites of prosperity. Articles published in the Nippon Times testified to, and explained, the popularity of social dance spaces, arguing that they allowed ‘‘liberation from rigid wartime restrictions’’ and were representative of the growth of a new ‘‘democratic life”.2 This popularity meant profit. According to the Japan Times in 1948, the average dance hall musician received about 20,000 yen per month, compared to the basic wage of 3,000 yen for most office workers.3 Dancehalls were especially important sites of labour for veterans who had received musical training in the armed forces. Famous musicians such as the singer Oida Toshio, clarinettist Miyama Toshiyuki, and saxophonist Oda Satoru were among those who were able to successfully transition to civilian life.4 As such, Mishima’s bustling dancehall reflects the prominent place dancehalls held in the post-war Japanese zeitgeist, not only in its very use in the final scene of the novel, but in its textual description.

The novel also indicates the demographics and roles one expected to find within a dancehall. The first description of the hall’s interior notes that the crowd mainly consisted of office workers (pg. 198). The emergent figure of the “salaryman”, to which this is most probably referring to, represented the growing group of male white-collar workers who arose in Japan’s urban landscape in the early twentieth century. Their patronage of the dancehall indicates that such spaces were perceived as domains for male consumption. The few women in the scene, such as Ko-chan’s companion Sonoko to whom the dancehall is an unfamiliar space, are either brought there by men or are working hostesses. Mackie’s assertion of dancehalls as contradictory, gendered sites, supplying commodified leisure for men and labour for women, is thus corroborated.5

Lastly, the overt Americanisation of the dancehall reveals the cultural connotations these spaces would have held for Mishima and many others in Japan at the time. Mishima’s dancehall is almost overfilled with western music, Coca-Cola, and Hawai’ian shirts, all hallmarks of American culture. As Mackie argues, the dancehall was a venue where new structures of Euro-American hegemony could be enacted and reproduced.6 In fact, dance halls had been banned during the war but were reopened during the occupation to cater for Allied soldier.7 However, the image presented by Mishima clashes with the Mackie’s claim that while the dancehalls of the 1920s and 30s had been associated with modernity and Western dress, those of the Occupation catered to Allied expectations of exoticism.8 It is at this point we must consider the constructed, fictional nature of the novel as a source. Rather than naturalistically reflecting reality, Mishima’s writing was inevitably swayed by his fears over the loss of Japanese identity, and thus overemphasises the visibility of American culture.9 Such rhetoric is nevertheless useful, as while Occupation Japanese dancehalls may not have been so overtly Americanised as portrayed in Confessions of a Mask, they were certainly associated heavily with the Allied troops to which they owed their reestablishment. This inherent historical association between dancehalls and the Occupation makes it a convincing scene for Mishima to display his cultural concerns.

Mishima’s dancehall is thus a flawed, yet useful, reflection of reality. It seems to accurately capture the clientele and popularity of dancehalls in the post-war period and alludes to their gendered nature. However, his overly Americanised portrayal is more historically problematic. Rather, this segment of the novel can tell us about how social dancing spaces were positioned in the mind of the Japanese public. Post-war dancehalls were inextricably linked with western influence, and represented a new Japan, reborn from the desolation of war but irrevocably changed. Using a novel as a historical source thus lets us analyse how spaces were imagined by the public, providing a subjective perspective into how contemporary people constructed certain spaces in their own minds.

  1. Vera Mackie, ‘Sweat, Perfume, and Tabacco’ in Modern Girls on the Go, eds. Alissa Freedman, Laura Miller, and Christine Yano (2018) and Andrew Field, Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Modernity in Old Shanghai, 1919-1954 (2010). []
  2. E. Taylor Atkins, Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan (2001), pg. 187. []
  3. Ibid, pg. 176 []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Vera Mackie, ‘Sweat, Perfume, and Tabacco’ in Modern Girls on the Go, eds. Alissa Freedman, Laura Miller, and Christine Yano (2018), pg. 74. []
  6. Ibid, pg. 82. []
  7. Ibid, pg. 79. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Damian Flanagan, Yukio Mishima (2014), pg. 8. []

(Moral) Panic! at the 歌台

In his chapter “Important Attractions” Andrew Field relied mostly on the mosquito newspaper 晶報 Jing Bao (Crystal) to discuss the evolution of the ‘dance hostess’ as a vocation. In the social imagination of 1930s Shanghai, a dance hostess – previously looked down upon by a café waitress in courtesan-era Shanghai – was now a position that a film star aspired to. One inherent limitation of this source reliance is Field’s tacit, diligent acknowledgement that he could not overextend his argument when claiming dance hostesses’ self-identification in newspapers.1 Furthermore, Field was unable to confidently historicise the way gang activity ‘infiltrated’ dancehalls as spaces.2 Inspired nonetheless by this discussion, I explore in this post a parallel moral panic in the 1950s Chinese-language mosquito press within Singapore about the 歌台 getai (literally singing stage, but in effect a dancehall). Where Shanghai discourse examined the dancehall’s main figure of attraction – the hostess – in Singapore the mosquito press’ moral panic descended upon the peripheral figure (in performance terms) of the striptease performer. While both moral discourses had the same function of dislocating the controversial performer from their space, the parameters of each controversy was governed by specific expressions of nationalism.

Unlike contemporary imaginings, the getai in 1950s Singapore was a remnant of the Japanese Occupation when the Japanese administration used the Beauty World, Gay World, and Happy World amusement parks to host cinemas, stalls and gambling farms for fiscal revenue.3 While there were similar styles of variety shows that had originated from Shanghai in the 1930s, the three “Worlds” were the locus for getai activity in post-war Singapore.4 In an industry with low barriers to entry and exit, poaching of talent was common, and a getai was driven by a desire for immediate revenue. Thus, when taken in isolation, the striptease was but one of a repertoire of acts in this profit-driven enterprise.

Photographs of getai from Wang’s 新加坡歌台史话 in Ho’s M.A. Thesis

However, the peripheral getai striptease performer was invariably brought to the front within the distinct discursive spaces that were the English- and Chinese-language presses. In showing this, I first highlight the need to lend weight to 1950s Chinese-language ‘mosquito newspapers’ because of their broad-based popularity.5 Secondly, the Chinese-language press notably had direct traces of cultural discourse from the 1930s Shanghai press. One adaptation6 of the Chinese intellectual 劉吶鷗 (Liu Na Ou)’s words was his charge that art should be pursued to entertain the masses and present the “sensual pleasures of the urban city.”7 Where Liu was writing of 1930s soft-core films in Shanghai, a 1953 Saturday Review article appropriated Liu to lyricise the effect of watching a striptease: 心灵坐沙发椅 and 眼睛吃冰淇淋.8

The spotlight on striptease overshadowed the wider post-colonial moral panic in the 1950s surrounding “yellow” culture. Both English and Chinese language discourse excoriated moral depravity, known as “yellow” culture, within the epoch’s Overton window of “anti-colonial sentiments, burgeoning Malayan consciousness, anxieties over rapid urbanisation, and fears of rampant moral debauchery.”9 Yet, as Ho has shown, the 1950s discourse was destabilised precisely because the Chinese-language press (mosquito or otherwise) had no “homogeneously puritanical or left-inclined” moral position.10 Mosquito newspapers were often hypocritical and more concerned with performative condemnations of rival newspapers that endorsed striptease, slapping rivals with labels such as “yellow, influential publication”.11 On the other hand, mainstream Chinese intellectuals were divided, portraying strippers anywhere between 色情販子 (vendors of sex) and purveyors of art.12 Finally, strippers themselves were far less inclined to wax lyrical over the artistic value of their own profession.

Thus, the 1950s moral panic surrounding striptease in Singapore was largely framed by the specificity of social anxieties surrounding nationalism and urbanisation. When put in conversation with the 1930s Shanghai discourse, it becomes clear that these intellectually tenuous moral panics simultaneously engendered and were caused by despatialisations of popular entertainment. Regardless of their performative gravity, both the Shanghai dance hostess and the getai stripper were dislocated from their social spaces and their underlying power structures, only to be reconstructed within the vacuum of printed columns as lightning rods for moral significance.

  1. Andrew Field, Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919–1954 (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2010), pp. 137-140. []
  2. Ibid., pp. 134-136 []
  3. CM Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819-2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), p. 207. []
  4. Zhen Chun, Wang, 新加坡歌台史话 (Singapore: 新加坡青年书局, 2006), pp. 67-70. []
  5. This is especially relevant in the historiography of nationalism in Singapore because it rarely engages with the Chinese masses beyond the activities of student activists or intellectuals. Hui Lin, Ho, “The 1950s Striptease Debate in Singapore: Getai and the Politics of Culture” (M.A. Thesis, National University of Singapore), p. 11 []
  6. Saturday Review, Nov 21, 1953, pp. 15-17. []
  7. Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 92. []
  8. Taken literally, Liu writes that the soul was “resting on the sofa” and the eyes were “eating ice-cream”; Ho translates this as “repose for the soul” and “feast for the eyes.” Ho, “The 1950s Striptease Debate in Singapore”, p. 51. []
  9. Ibid., p. 54. []
  10. Ibid., p. 58. []
  11. 夜燈包 Ye Deng Bao, Mar 19, 1953, p. 2. []
  12. 生活報 Sheng Huo Bao, May 8, 1956, p. 7. []

Exporting imaginaries of Empire: Navigating soft diplomacy surrounding Japanese depictions of Manchuria at the Chicago World’s fair, 1933-34.

The puppet state of Manchukuo, created in 1932, was advertised by the Japanese Empire as a state “autonomous from Western influence”.1 This narrative was consistently reinforced through exhibitions, pamphlets and films produced by the Japanese government. To reinforce this narrative on a global stage, the Japanese invested a small portion of their exhibit at the World’s Chicago Fair in 1933 through a Manchuria exhibit in partnership with the Southern Manchuria Railway Company (fig.1). Concurrently, an American exhibit of the Golden Temple of Jehol (fig. 2), a province invaded by the Japanese Kwantung army and also an annexe of Manchuria at the time, was an expensively replicated and highly popular exhibit at the fair.2 This article uses Shepherdson-Scott’s work on the World’s Chicago fair supported by pamphlets and images of the event to illustrate that political diplomatic pursuits were consolidated through visual displays of authority.2 These imaginaries of Manchurian and Chinese territories served to assert specific narratives about contested legitimacy of Japanese authority in Manchuria at this time.

Defined by Young as the ‘Jewel in Japan’s Imperial Crown’, Manchukuo developed into a significant and profitable portion of the Japanese empire, however, public knowledge in the US about of the role of Japan in Manchukuo was controlled, Manchukuo was not recognised as a state by the US government and Japanese involvement in this territory was considered aggressive.3 Soft power, this is co-opting rather than coercion, in the form of elements of Japanese culture such as Japanese gardens or the exportation of travel guidebooks and pamphlets to private tour companies across Europe and the United States was widely accepted and proliferated in public discourses on Japan. In contrast, the acclimatisation of western audiences to imaginaries of Japanese Imperial power was confronted and countered by the US. Images of Japan were only accepted in the form that they were presented to a western audience when they were a exotic or visually appealing, thus, the trustees of the A Century for Progress fair capitalised on this reality by exoticising the Temple of Jehol and reinforced its Chinese heritage and the sovereignty of China. By challenging Japanese associations with the Manchurian Railway company and its assimilation of ‘Manchukuo’ into Japanese notions of modernisation and mobility, the temple of Jehol publicly rebuffed the relevance of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and intertwined national politics corporate public relations within the context of the fairground.2

Figure 1: Illustration of the Japan Exhibition complex, Manchurian pavilion is visible on the far right (1933-34).4

Figure 2: The golden Temple of Jehol at the Century of Progress World’s fair 1933-34.5


Figure 3: Cover of the Brochure for the Southern Manchuria Railway exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.6

In this period following the 1931 ‘Manchuria Incident’ when the legitimacy of Manchukuo and the role of Japanese occupation and the Kwantang army still proved to be an elephant in the room, these displays of consolidation and reputation by the Japanese and the US governments respectively reflected the sumbilinal power play between the two nations over the legitimacy of Japanese dominance in Manchukuo.2 In the official Southern Manchurian Railway brochure (fig.4), relations between the US and Manchuria regarding trade is phrase neutrally, ”Japan is serving as the major trade exchanger between the United States, and Manchuria and China” and yet it still alludes to Japanese hegemony in the region.7 Moreover, images in the brochure include, the capital city under construction by the Japanese, the Japanese Kwantung Army Government offices, and the central circle of government buildings in the capital, Changchun.8 In contrast to the cultural statement in the form of the temple of Jehol which gained significant praise for its dazzling quality and drew attention from visitors because of its beauty, the presentation of the Manchuria exhibit focused on acclimatising the American audience with Japan as an intermediary between the US and China/Manchuria. Whilst the temple challenged the political borders of Manchukuo and the authority of the Japanese exhibition, the production of knowledge that associated Japan with significant political and economic stakes in Manchuria’s capital and infrastructure and the physical positioning of the Manchurian exhibit within the Japanese exhibition proved to be a spatially powerful illustration of their authority in the region and their goals for the future.

Figure 4: Brochure for the Southern Manchuria Railway exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.6

In conclusion, the overt retaliation against Japanese constructions of Manchukuo at the Chicago World’s fair by the American embassy illustrate the limits applied to Japanese overseas diplomatic pursuits. The competing narratives created by the US to challenge Japanese assertions of Imperial power highlight that beyond military and policy based rebuttals of Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the early 1930’s, alternative and creative challenges to Japanese power were established within the public eye designed both to covertly manipulate public opinions of the power of the Japanese government but also to intimidate Japanese authority on foreign soil.

  1. Louise Young,  Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (London, 1998), p.1, p.22. []
  2. Kari Shepherdson-Scott, ‘Conflicting Politics and Contesting Borders: Exhibiting Japanese Manchuria at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1933-34’, The Journal of Asian Studies 74:3, (2015), pp.539-564. [] [] [] []
  3. Young,  Japan’s Total Empire, p.22. []
  4. Illustration of the Japan Exhibition complex, Manchurian pavilion is visible on the far right (1933-34), A century of Progress exposition in Chicago, 1933-34.  Accessed at: Yale University Library. []
  5. Image of The golden Temple of Jehol at the Century of Progress World’s fair 1933-34, Accessed at the Art Institute of Chicago, (Accessed 5/02/2024). []
  6. Cover of the Brochure for the Southern Manchuria Railway exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, Available at: (Accessed: 05/02/2024). [] []
  7. Brochure: Southern Manchurian Railway form the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, Available at: (Accessed: 05/02/2024). []
  8. Brochure for the Southern Manchuria Railway exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, Available at: (Accessed: 05/02/2024). []

Mystic Chinatown: the preference of Japanese culture at 1915 San Francisco’s World Exposition

Newspaper Article: Novel Features of Fair to Astonish and Delight ((‘Novel Features of Fair to Astonish and Delight’, Los Angeles Times, January 1915.))

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) of 1915 held in San Francisco showcased diverse national exhibitions, attracting participation from numerous countries, including China and Japan. A 1915 newspaper article, titled Novel Features of Fair to Astonish and Delight published in the Los Angeles Times, highlighted the magnitude of the Chinese representation, describing ‘The Chinese Village’ spread across several acres with an investment exceeding $250,000.1 Also, the article provided insights into the Japanese exhibition, positioning China and Japan within the same narrative. Yet, despite being neighbouring nations in East Asia, the coverage indicates a differential emphasis, implying that Japan’s cultural and traditional elements garnered more attention and exploration compared to China. This observation underscores a Western inclination towards Japanese culture, reflecting broader global dynamics and preferences during the exposition.

When contrasting the introductions to the exhibition halls of China and Japan, the author’s focus on distinct details underscores a clear Western preference. In discussing the Chinese exhibition, emphasis was placed on the logistical aspects and physical layout rather than the thematic content. For instance, the author highlighted practicalities such as the requirement for Chinese visitors and workers to obtain permission and be accompanied by a guard when leaving the enclosure, as well as the presence of a four-foot wall surrounding the grounds and brightly adorned pagodas.2 A comprehensive overview of the exhibition’s contents was absent, with attention directed towards peripheral details. In contrast, the discussion of the Japanese exhibition was characterized by clarity and richness. The author delineated various ‘villages’ within the Japanese display, such as The Australasian Village and the Tehauntepec Village2 , before delving into intricate descriptions of its elements. Captivating features like a colossal Buddha at the entrance, the majestic backdrop of Fujiyama, a sand diviner, dromedaries, and even dancing girls adorning the exhibition streets2  were mentioned. The author concluded by asserting that the Japanese exhibition faithfully reproduced ‘the appearance of life in these interesting parts of the world.’2 Evidently, the introduction of the Japanese exhibition surpassed its Chinese counterpart in detail, cultural richness, and specificity of layout, underscoring a notable discrepancy in Western portrayal.

However, was the Chinese exhibition perceived as dull at this exposition? Did it fail to adequately showcase elements of its own culture? In fact, William Peterson’s chapter on this subject reveals a different narrative. Peterson illustrates that the planners made concerted efforts to showcase Chinese cultural elements, exemplified by the meticulous replication of the ‘Forbidden City’ (Figure 1.). The replicated imperial architecture could demystify the enigmatic realm and signal China’s openness to global engagement.3 Besides, the Chinese exhibition contained a small section titled ‘Underground Chinatown’ featured mannequins engaging in activities such as gambling and opium consumption,4 which caused an immediate response in the local Chinese-language press.5 Despite the detailed efforts to infuse cultural elements at the PPIE, these nuances were absent in the newspaper. While the author mentioned features like replicated city walls built by Chinese workers, the author failed to explore the deeper cultural significance behind these structures, underscoring a broader media ignorance regarding Chinese cultural representation at the exposition.

Figure 1. The replica of Beijing’s ‘Forbidden City’.6

Additionally, while introducing the Chinese exhibition, the author interjected Japanese elements into the Chinese section. Following the mention of Chinese walls, the author swiftly transitioned to describe the nearby Japanese site as a beautiful Japanese garden. In stark contrast to the supposed plain ground of the Chinese exhibition (which was inaccurately depicted), the Japanese site boasted numerous ancient temples, including a replicated Japanese temple of Kinkakuji at Kioto, along with Japanese rocks, trees, shrubs, and sod.1 These details, however, were presented within the context of the ‘Mystic Chinatown’ section.

As the author noted, there was a rivalry for early attention between the Chinese and Japanese exhibitions.2 However, judging by the level of detail provided, it is apparent that the Japanese exhibition garnered more attention within the exposition. In this rivalry, it seemed the Japanese exhibition emerged as the clear winner.



Primary Source

“Novel Features of Fair to Astonish and Delight.” Los Angeles Times. January 1915.

Secondary Source

Peterson, William. Asian self-representation at world’s fairs. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020.

  1. ‘Novel Features of Fair to Astonish and Delight’. [] []
  2. Ibid. [] [] [] [] []
  3. William Peterson, Asian Self-Representation at World’s Fairs (Amsterdam, 2020), p. 94. []
  4. Peterson, Asian Self-Representation at World’s Fairs, p. 108. []
  5. Ibid., p. 109. []
  6. Ibid., p. 96. []

Narrating National Identity: A cultural tapestry on display at Singapore’s Peranakan Museum

In his book Aesthetic Construction of Korean Nationalism: Spectacle, Politics and History,  Hong Kal examines sites of exhibitions as a locus for the formation of national identity in twentieth century Koreas. KaI’s exploration of the relationship between space, vision and power, in the formation of Korean nationalism prompts an intriguing parallel with Singapore’s approach to the construction of a narrative of national identity.1. In both cases, exhibitions have served as crucial sites for shaping collective memory and fostering a sense of belonging within diverse and multifaceted communities.

Singapore, much like Korea, is a melting pot of diverse cultures, ethnicities and identities. The nation’s unique history, marked by colonial influence and waves of immigration has contributed to a rich and multifaceted cultural landscape. The challenge of Singapore lies in unifying these varied identities under a shared national narrative while respecting and celebrating individual uniqueness.2

KaI asks the question what crucial mechanism of representations allows a nation to be imagined. In doing so, he highlights the effectiveness of the 1915 exposition in Korea. This event, more than any other medium at the time, related to the masses the idea of the nation.3.  The Peranakan Museum in Singapore is similar. As a state-run institution the Peranakan Museum has purposefully constructed a ‘heritage’ from its pre-independence past that is relevant for Singapore’s post-colonial present and future. Indeed, the Peranakan museum, and the pragmatic use to which it has been put, services a part of government policy.4 It has become a cultural space wherein a particular vision and narrative of the past is represented and performed.  This is a discourse of hybridity.

From personal experience in visiting the Peranakan museum – the objects on display are designed for the visitor to draw lines of connection between the multifaceted culture of the Peranakans and the flavour of national self-identity promoted in Singapore today. This intentional manipulation creates a coherent and inclusive narrative.

Just as KaI explores how exhibitions influence perceptions of modernity and identity in Korea, Singapore’s museums act as agents in shaping how citizens perceive their history and cultural heritage. By presenting a curated view of the past, museums contribute to the formation of a collective memory that avoids conflicting identities and fosters a sense of national unity.

My mother’s experience as a docent at the Peranakan Museum has given me an understanding of the thoughtfully crafted narrative woven into the fabric of the museum’s tours. A visitor embarking on this cultural exploration starts at the ‘Origins Gallery,’ where they are given a speech which prompts them to observe the diverse array of faces in the wall. The first part of my mother’s speech prompts reminds the audience that ‘these are the faces of Peranakans past and present. ‘ And then asks them to notice that the faces are different and diverse. ‘This is not an ethnic race, it is a culture.’ These statements transcend the conventional discourse on ethnicity, and instead direct the focus towards the rich tapestry of Peranakan culture. It is an intentional choice – an invitation for visitors, irrespective of their ancestral ties, to connect with and appreciate the cultural mosaic that defines the Peranakan legacy.

As the tour progresses the narrative strands diverge, delving into the myriad manifestations of Peranakan culture which encompass the influences of many cultures – Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Eurasian/ Other ethnic minorities5 At one point in my mother’s tour, there is reference to the recreation of a Tok Panjang (long table). This simple word holds profound significance, unraveling the diverse strands of influence. ‘Tok’ means table in Hokkien, while ‘Panjang; means long in Malay.’ She goes on to explain, ‘gone was the tradition Chinese round table and in came the European style long dining table. These long table feasts were important in hospitality and all the dishes were shared around in true Asian family style. The porcelain on the table is fine style of ‘nonyawear’ from China, this unique to the Peranakan culture … notice the Chinese motifs… Butterflies remembered for eternal love.’ This attention to details showcases the fusion of different cultures and emphasises the dynamic nature of Peranakan heritage. The tour crafts a compelling story that goes beyond cultural boundaries, and each artifact on display adds to the overarching theme of multiculturalism.

Interestingly, the end of her tour concludes with a visit to the ‘Famous Peranakans Gallery,’ which serves as a historical archive and a bridge connecting the colonial roots of Peranakan culture, with their pivotal role in shaping an independent Singaporean nation-state. For example, she places significant emphases on a female lawyer called Kwa Geok Choo and her barrister’s wig, which is ‘an iconic symbol of British justice.’ Visitors are told that ‘she was the first Asian woman to get a first-class honours degree in law from Cambridge. She studied with Lee Kwan Yew and graduated ahead of him, becoming the first female barrister in Singapore helping to draw up the Singapore Constitution.’ Thus, the visitor understands the emphasis on Peranakan culture as one of the ancestors of Singaporean society. Additionally, information such as this reinforces the state’s policies regarding the coexistence of different ethnic and racial groups.

The government’s strategy in using the Peranakan museum as a space to minimise ethnic tensions and the purposeful selection of historical objects that speak to a culturally unified origin of the Singaporean nation is clear. However, Kal has rightly pointed out that, we cannot fully measure how the masses have experience[d] the event… the responses could be multiple and complex.’6 While acknowledging this complexity, it remains evident that the Peranakan Museum plays a pivotal role in providing the material conditions necessary for understanding a particular re-imagination of the nation. More specifically, the post-independent narrative of multiculturalism in Singapore.

  1. Hong Kal, Aesthetic Construction of Korean Nationalism: Spectacle, Politics and History, (2011), p.10. []
  2. Stephan Ortmann, ‘Singapore: the Politics of Inventing National Identity,’ Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 28:4 (2009), p. 30.  []
  3. Kal, Aesthetic Construction of Korean Nationalism, p. 30 []
  4. X []
  5. Eunice Tan and Tania Lim, ‘Consuming Asia: Culinary Tourism, Soft Power and Mediation of Peranakan TV, Proceedings of the 3rd Global Tourism and Hospitality Conference, (2017), p. 390. []
  6. Kal, Aesthetic Construction of Korean Nationalism, p. 40 []

Finding Empire in the 1922 Malaya Borneo Exhibition and British Malaya in the 1924 British Empire Exhibition

The Western exhibition of the Cairene, according to Mitchell, was defined by an “objectness of the Orient, as a picture-reality containing no sign of the increasingly pervasive European presence required that the presence itself.”1 While a key plank to Mitchell’s heuristic for explaining the particularity of the Western “exhibition” was the reflexive nature of Arabic sources, I ask if an exhibition’s location matters at all. By comparing the 1922 Malaya Borneo Exhibition in Singapore and the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, I argue the importance of colonial power relations that undergirded both exhibitions about “British Malaya”. Indeed, both led to ironic results: the former in terms of Singapore’s spatial realities and the latter in terms of the attempt to artificially engender the “kampung.” I conclude by demonstrating the lasting consequences of spatial representation in post-colonial societies.

The 1922 Exhibition was the brainchild of colonial administrators’ attempt to stimulate local trade. Held in Singapore from 31 March to 17 April 1922, it did so by portraying a singular, Malayan unity, especially under the eyes of the visiting Prince of Wales.2 Unlike previous exhibitions where Malay states were represented individually,3 the plurality of groups on display necessitated coordination with a gamut of organisers for the sprawl of “Sulu and Dyak dances, mak yong and menora dance forms from Kelantan, boria theatre from Penang, mek mulung theatre and wayang kulit shadow play from Kedah, regimental band music and even a Tamil fire dance.”2 Furthermore, the fair contained a “small model village” full of “real” Dayak and Murat representations “dressed in leopard-skin and full headdress.” Ironically, while undermining a “single Malaya”, the Exhibition was a success for private commerce built on the essentialisation of the “reality” of tribes from the Malay Archipelago. That the sight surprised visitors (urban Singaporeans) offered the most ironic demonstration of the simultaneous premises of “authenticity” and “distinctiveness” of the Dayak vis-a-vis urban Singaporean. Yet, under a colonial structure, they were hierarchically the same under the imperial gaze toward “Malaya Borneo.”

Two years later, the British Empire Exhibition in 1924-5 at Wembley articulated this vision more clearly by parading British Malaya (comprising Malaya Borneo, but decidedly not named as such) along other “trophies of empire.”4 Curiously, this naming discrepancy was rendered even more ironic since the British Rajah of Sarawak declined a collective showing under the Malayan banner to the chagrin of Andrew Caldecott.5 Of course, the actuality of “British Malaya” was a collection of Brunei, the Federated Malay States, the Unfederated Malay States and the Straits Settlements – each of which constituted a plethora of political and ethnic entities. Almost as a refraction of the metropole’s view of Malaya, The Times’ supplement on 23 April 1924 celebrated its “wonderful natural resources of a rich tropical country,” as spatialised by “adapted Musulman architecture.” The Times’ details of the Malayan Pavilion at Wembley were reproduced in Singapore via The Straits Times, emphasising to its readers the recreation of Malaya’s “tropical locale.”6 For the British visitor, “twenty Malayan artisans and attendants” that comprised “weavers, silversmiths, geological assistants… and carpenter to attend to the different sections” were housed in a “fenced kampong” at the rear of the building. The Pavilion eminently contained characteristics of the textbook “Exhibition” insofar as onlookers consumed “picture-as-reality,” unaware of its artificiality. Finally, it was morbidly replete with the irony of an alleged death of Halimah bte Abdullah due to the “kampung” conditions she was subject to.7

Both exhibitions, characterised by different ironies, yielded appalling evidence of Malaya’s imperial worth: its tin and its islands. Yet, both exhibitions were spatialised in radically different ways. In 1924, British visitors at Wembley went away with an identification of British Malaya in terms of “Moorish-Arabesque” (Figure 1) architecture. Yet, one surviving picture of the 1922 Singapore exhibition (Figure 2) shows no such instance of such architecture in precisely a constituent location of British Malaya, rendering the irony of exhibition as “reality” even more jarring. The second irony for this is the historical transmission of Indo-Islamic architecture. Indo-Islamic, or Indo-Saracenic, was a style brought out of British India and across empire by British architects after they had worked in or visited India.8

Figure 1 – the Indo-Islamic Style, associated with Malaysia, was brought out of British India by colonial architects

Figure 2 –

The historical, spatial irony of the Indo-Islamic remain spatially poignant today. On one level, tourist-facing resources slap this designation of “modern Arab” or “Moorish” architecture onto Masjid Sultan in Singapore. While the Mosque was originally built by Sultan Hussein Shah himself in 1823 like early mosques in the Malay Archipelago, the colonial architect Denis Santry in 1924 spearheaded an Indo-Islamic rejuvenation of the Mosque, in spite of the “presence of Arab, Indian, Tamil, Bugis, local Malay and Javanese representatives in the mosque committee.”9 Beyond the visitor’s gaze, the Mosque’s iconic architecture10 today has been cast as a foremost symbol of ethnic and racial pluralism in Singapore by the state and by Singaporeans. Near the Mosque is the Sultan’s previous residence, which had been acquired by the government in 1999 for the construction of the Malay Heritage Centre.11 Finally, this symbolism has been refracted outward into foreign relations. The street on which the mosque is situated – Muscat Street – hosts 8 metre-high granite arches displaying ornate Omani carvings, murals that were painted by Omani artists and tiles that were specially selected and imported from Oman.12 Plaques underneath the arches memorialise, in Arabic and English, the street’s redevelopment as a collaborative project between Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and Oman’s Muscat Municipality in 2012.

Having first demonstrated the ease with which one can problematise two colonial representations of reality, this post has then focused on the far-reaching implications of spatial representation. As the history of Indo-Islamic architecture indicates, what is far more deserving of academic attention is the ease with which memory and spatial representations travel. Embedded within these transmissions is the often ironic role of colonialist and imperialist power structures.

  1. Timothy Mitchell, “The World as Exhibition”. Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, no. 2 (1989): p. 228. []
  2. [] []
  3. Jesse O’Neill. ‘Reorienting Identities at the Imperial Fairground: British Malaya and North Borneo’, Design History Society Conference 2019: The Cost of Design, 5–7 September 2019, Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. []
  4. Chee Kien Lai, “Concrete/Concentric Nationalism: The Architecture of Independence in Malaysia, 1945-1969” (PhD Thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 2005), pp. 124, 129-145 []
  5. Assisting Secretary to the Federation government, and chief of the Malayan and Bornean exhibits. O’Neill, ‘Reorienting Identities at the Imperial Fairground’, p. 5 []
  6. Lai, pp. 143-45. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Lai, p. 109. []
  9. Lai, p. 110. []
  10. []
  11. []
  12. See: []

Human rights, a symbol for a new Taiwan

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC) is a semi-recognised sovereign state with an independent government but limited recognition state in East Asia with only 11 UN member states recognising it by the time of writing.1 Even though the name China appears on the name of Taiwan, the Taiwanese residents today, especially the younger generation see themselves as ‘Taiwanese’ rather than ‘Chinese’ despite the ROC being a remnant of the Chinese Civil War from 1945 to 1949 where the ruling Nationalist party (KMT) lost and established a rival government to the Communists (CCP).2 To understand this phenomenon of Taiwanese identity shift, this blog will explore the two sites managed by the National Human Rights Museum established in 2018. This blog argues that the construction of human rights-themed museums builds onto the Taiwanese identity to showcase to the outside world that they are different from authoritarian Mainland China as an indirect form of protest against the ‘Chinese’ identity being forced upon Taiwanese residents. The blog will start by contextualising the argument through a brief account of the recent history of Taiwan. Next, the Green Island Memorial managed by the National Human Rights Museum will be analysed. Finally,  a concise comparison of the museum with the Japan-British exhibition will be used as a discussion of the theme of museums and exhibits.

Taiwan or Formosa is an island located off the coast of Fujian, China separated by the Taiwan Strait. From 1895 to 1945, as a result of the Qing defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan became a colony of the Japanese Empire, seeing industrialisation and exploitation of Taiwanese resources for the Japanese war effort.3 In 1945 at the onset of the surrender of the Japanese, Taiwan was to become under the administration of the ROC, which at the time controlled Mainland China as well. However, with the onslaught of the Chinese Civil War and the defeat of the KMT under Chaing Kai-shek at the hands of the CCP led by Mao Zedong, the KMT established their government in Taipei, with the goal of eventually reconquering the Mainland.4 Under KMT rule until 1989, forms of opposition or suspicion of being communist spies were a target for arrests and execution, and any form of Taiwanese separatism, speaking Taiwanese Hokkien or praising the Japanese were seen as treason and a breach of national security reinforced by Martial Law.5 This policy was in line with the KMT policy to instil a sense of Chinese identity in the Taiwanese population to eventually retake the Mainland, and to promote itself as the ‘true China’. Fast forward to 1987, Taiwan lifted Martial Law and free elections were held, causing Taiwan to flourish as a young democracy.6 This has allowed for a broader room of discussion for topics that used to be banned such as Taiwanese identity, democracy, human rights, and free speech. This democratising environment eventually culminated in the 2000 presidential election of Chen-Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which promote a Taiwanese identity distinct from the Chinese-centric KMT, hence marking a shift in Taiwan’s history.7 Since 2000, Taiwan has become an established democracy with the KMT and DPP constantly vying for power with some notable cases of brawling in the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament). 

Under DPP administrations, the government has pushed for the introduction of liberal values that distanced itself from China. The promotion of human rights is a major policy for the Taiwanese government. The DPP administrations under Chen-Shui-bian (2000-2008) and Tsai Ing-wen (2016-2023) have pushed for a Taiwanese-centered identity which aimed to promote a Taiwan-centered society and de-Sinicise the education system.8 The establishment of the National Human Rights Museum in 2017 was a milestone in Taiwan’s quest to distance itself from an ever-aggressive China. According to the museum’s official website, it took over 15 years of donations from organisations and countless legislative obstacles to establish the museum managing two former sites used to imprison KMT political opponents to educate the public about the importance of freedom and reflecting on past mistakes. ( ( )) This demonstrates how the Taiwanese government under the DPP tried to establish former spaces of oppression to promote new Taiwanese values. I believe this was done to counter the growing assertiveness of the Chinese government in claiming Taiwan for itself.

The Green Island Human Rights Park was a former prison used to imprison political opponents during the Martial Law era and is now a museum site under the administration of the National Human Rights Museum. Located in Taitung prefecture on the east coast of the island, this 32 acre site used to be a former prison that housed activists who challenged the government.9 By turning the site into a museum that commemorated the victims of the KMT regime, it demonstrates a power shift. Under the DPP administration, the KMT past, especially the era under Martial Law was seen as a period where innocent Taiwanese were imprisoned because of promoting free speech created a new discourse that the KMT and China were foreign invaders of Taiwan and were not native to the land. This shows how the DPP is attempting to construct a discourse of Taiwanese identity that aims to distance itself from China in light of the heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait. As China is increasing its crackdown on human rights and individual freedoms, Taiwan sees itself as the bastion of freedom against the communist regime across the Straits. By coming to terms with the past human rights abuses and promoting a sense of Taiwanese identity, this museum exhibit aims to educate the public that human rights is an important aspect of post-Martial Law Taiwan. By directly turning a former site of political oppression into a site that educates the public on values of democracy, it demonstrates that the government under the DPP is attempting to create a discourse that the past KMT-centered government is responsible for numerous atrocities and that the Taiwanese identity is central to a new discourse. This showcases how the DPP aims to construct that the new Taiwan was born under the abandonment of the China-centric approach by the KMT, solidifying the political narrative. With museums, it is an effective measure to promote to the public as it uses summarised and condensed narratives on how particular political progress is achieved.

In comparison to the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910, the transformation of the Green Island Museum draws parallels. The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 aimed to promote Japan’s imperialism and justify having an empire over territories like Taiwan and Korea whereas the Taiwan one aimed to promote human rights as part of national identity construction.10 Similar to how the Japanese wanted to project their empire to the West, the Taiwanese aimed to use the human rights museums to promote that they are in line with the West in democracy against the authoritarian China much like how the Japanese did 100 years ago. In short, although there is a 100 year gap between my elective reading and the example used in this elective reading, fitting in with Western values often signify a sign of civilisation, in which colonised populations hope to achieve and become a part of it.


  1. []
  2. []
  3. Dawley, Evan Becoming Taiwanese: Ethnogenesis in a Colonial City 1880s-1950s  []
  4. Manthorpe, Jonathan, Taiwan: Forbidden nation  []
  5. TIEN, HUNG-MAO, and CHYUAN-JENG SHIAU. “Taiwan’s Democratization: A Summary.” World Affairs, vol. 155, no. 2, 1992, pp. 58–61. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Feb. 2024. []
  6. TIEN, H.-M., & SHIAU, C.-J. (1992). Taiwan’s Democratization: A Summary. World Affairs, 155(2), 58–61. []
  7. CHANG, BI-YU. “From Taiwanisation to De-Sinification: Culture Construction in Taiwan since the 1990s.” China Perspectives, no. 56, 2004, pp. 34–44. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Feb. 2024. []
  8. []
  9. []
  10. Hotta-Lister, A. The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910: Gateway to the Island Empire of the East. 1 edition. Richmond: Routledge, 1999. []

Victoria Park: A caricature of Hong Kong’s difficult history and conflicting values

Hong Kong has been known to many as the financial hub and gateway to the East with its vibrant culture and food scene earning the nickname ‘Pearl of the Orient’. Under this guise, however, few in the West are unaware of the complex history of this place which Western values come into play with traditional Chinese family values and how 156 years of British rule created a sense of identity that comes into conflict with that of its behemoth sovereign China.1 Instead of focusing on the political aspect of Hong Kong which newspapers and scholars do a much better job at, I will take a look at Victoria Park, the second largest public park and green space in Hong Kong by land area and how its existence captures the conflicting values of Hong Kong discretely. I argue that the statue and this large space is representative of how Hong Kong’s complex interactions with China and the West created and destroyed certain values like free speech and it also acts as a ground of cultural representation for its secondary function. The park will be compared to the Sanam Luang (Royal Field) in Bangkok at the end.

The park was built on reclaimed land from the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter and was so named Victoria Park because of a statue of Queen Victoria. The bronze statue of Queen Victoria was originally built to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and was located in Statue Square in Central, a 7-minute metro ride away. During the Second World War, the statue was stolen by the Japanese to make way for arms production. It was not until the 50s that the statue was recovered and coincidentally, the area around the old Causeway Bay typhoon shelter has been reclaimed and it was decided that a park was to be built on the reclaimed land measuring 19 acres. The park was to be named Victoria Park because of the statue.2


Figure 1: Aerial overview of Victoria Park

The statue of Queen Victoria, symbolising British control over Hong Kong was smeared with red paint and the nose was broken one year prior to Hong Kong’s handover in 1996 by an artist who criticised Hong Kong’s colonial art culture.3 The colour red is significant because in colonial Hong Kong discourse, the colour red is associated with communism or the mainland’s government in general, with it being especially sensitive in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Coincidentally, since 1989 until the enactment of the National Security Law in 2020, every year on June 4th, hundreds of thousands of individuals will gather to commemorate the victims slaughtered by the Chinese government through candlelight vigils as in China it is a banned topic.4 The gathering of the masses in a park with the name of the British monarch showcases an act of resistance by local Hong Kong activists to demonstrate that they cherish the values of democracy and freedom which does not sit well with the Chinese government.

With the Chinese government wanting to increase its grip on Hong Kong, it chose to assault what Hong Kongers cherished the most, open expression of a sense of identity. The park signified resistance in the form of an annual tradition, being featured on international outlets like the BBC and CNN. By using the pandemic as a pretext, the six football pitches where individuals used to gather have been cordoned off by the police in 2021 and 2022 showcasing how the Chinese authorities have been increasingly clamping down on Hong Kong in recent years.5 In June 2023, a patriotic fair that sold Chinese goods and promoted Chinese peace and values was set up in the place of the vigil according to a report from Radio Free Asia.6 This clearly shows a power shift and an overarching power of the Chinese authorities over the former established institutions as the Queen’s statue has faded into the background. In other words, the value of spaces changes over time and is synonymous with power dynamics and in the case of Victoria Park, it signifies the value of authoritarianism crushing civil liberties. It further aligns with the Chinese government’s vision of making Hong Kong ‘Chinese’.

For its secondary function, the park is a place for recreation and symbolises the livelihood of Hong Kong, an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Having six football pitches, six basketball courts, an Olympic-standard indoor swimming pool, a tennis stadium, a jogging track and a picnic ground, it has abundant space for individuals to stay healthy and enjoy socialising.2 I remember going to swimming classes with my secondary school during the summer term for Physical Education (PE) classes and the park seems so tranquil whenever I go there, a great escape from the city.

Sanam Luang in Bangkok plays a symbolic role like Victoria Park. As Sanam Luang is a large open field located near the Royal Palace and a major Buddhist temple, the use of the space by groups like monarchists and protesters signifies the vibrant nature of different voices in Thailand.7 By hosting royal funerals and being near the palace, it demonstrates a power line that the monarch remains the most important figure within Thai society and the lese majeste laws that forbid slandering the monarch compliments the ‘peace’ of Sanam Luang. This draws parallels to how the Security Law creates a sense of ‘peace’ as opposed to the protests towards the Chinese government prior to the law.

In conclusion, the use of parks and open spaces alongside legislation showcases how certain authorities try to use space as an expression of power or enforce new values upon the population.

  1. []
  2. [] []
  3. []
  4. []
  5. of its political functions, the park captures the livelihood of Hong Kong. []
  6. []
  7. Chalana, Manish, ed. Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017. Ch 5 The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest []