A Spatial Construction of Dual Identities: South Asian Convicts Labourers in the Strait Settlements

For the long essay, I aim to discuss the use of South Asian convict workers in the construction and maintenance of Strait Settlement colonies by the British in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I will provide a particular focus on Penang and Singapore, presenting how these colonies were both spaces of imprisonment and spaces of individual freedoms.

On a theoretical level, I have drawn influence from Lefebvre’s conception of space as socially constructed, constituted of multiple layers, each with its unique set of meanings.[1] Strait Settlements were spaces of life imprisonment where the agency of individual labour was requisitioned and used for colonial expansion and maintenance. However, Strait Settlements were spaces where convicts could construct heterotopic identities, one of perpetual imprisonment and one of individual agency and value.

Additionally, I have drawn heavily upon Anand Yang’s recent publication, Empire of Convicts and his argument of a duality of identity experienced by convict workers. He highlights how the necessity for labour in distant colonies created an environment for which convicts could express a degree of agency in their own lives, calling themselves Company ke Naukar (workers of the company) rather than Bandwars (prisoners).[2] I plan to present the spatial construction of Strait Settlements as conduits for convicts to express this duality of identity.

In terms of primary sources, the National Archives of Singapore provides an excellent base to acquire Strait Settlement government reports (A08-A24 Penang Consultations), maps (Singapore Survey Department), and newspaper articles (Straits Times, Malaya Tribune, Singapore Free Press) on the use of convict workers in Strait Settlement colonies.[3] Blue Books and Consultation notes provide statistical data and activities on the movement, use and disposal of south Asian convict workers.[4] These sources provide knowledge on the scale of convict worker usage and the nature of how they were used in settlement construction and maintenance. Letters and correspondence from governors such as Francis Light, George Leith, Robert Farquhar and Stamford Raffles highlight direct correspondence with the East India company on discussions related to the usage of convict workers. Finally, I aim to look at Calcutta criminal and judicial records to provide information on individual convicts who arrived in the colonies.

However, one of the main limitations of the project are the limited voices of the actual convict workers who laboured in the colonies. Most of the literature focuses on the perspective of the colonial government, which makes it challenging to ascertain viewpoints of convict imprisonment from the perspective of the convict. To alleviate this issue, I plan to look at how spatial conditions and policies were created for the convicts to express the duality of identity. An example of which being the construction of Convict Lines, residences for the labourers. The space was created to hold convicts and was designed to prevent escape, displaying a space of imprisonment.[5] However, the Lines were constructed in the centre of the city, separate from the local jail and correctional centre, which was placed away from the city centre – displaying a distinct sense of identity from being just a convict.[6] Their spatial location and distinct separateness present the creation of identity above the status of a convict.



Primary Sources:

Internet Archive, Blue Book for the year 1873, 1873 <https://archive.org/details/dli.granth.73418> [accessed 28th October 2021].

McNair, John, F.A., Prisoners: Their own Wardens (Westminster, 1899).

National Archives of Singapore, A25: Penang Consultations, 1826, <https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/> [accessed 28th October 2021].

National Archives of Singapore, Survey Department, Singapore <https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/maps_building_plans/source-details/651> [accessed 28th October 2021].

Newspaper SG <https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/> [accessed 28th October 2021].

Secondary Sources:

Lefebvre, Henri, The Production of Space (Oxford, 1974).

Yang, Anand, Empire of Convicts (Oakland, 2021).


[1] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, 1974), pp. 11-14.

[2] Anand Yang, Empire of Convicts (Oakland, 2021), pp. 95-143.

[3] National Archives of Singapore, A25: Penang Consultations, 1826, <https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/> [accessed 28th October 2021];

National Archives of Singapore, Survey Department, Singapore <https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/maps_building_plans/source-details/651> [accessed 28th October 2021];

Newspaper SG <https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/> [accessed 28th October 2021].

[4] Internet Archive, Blue Book for the year 1873, 1873 <https://archive.org/details/dli.granth.73418> [accessed 28th October 2021].

[5] John, F.A. McNair, Prisoners: Their own Wardens (Westminster, 1899), p. 16.

[6] Ibid., p. 23.

Haw Par Villa’s Starving and Triple Buddhas: A Perplexing Diorama

Starving Buddha


Having realized that I erroneously wrote two blog postings on secondary sources (because of how interesting the ideas that they offered were), I will do my penance and analyse a primary source that I gathered myself over the summer. The image in question is sourced from Haw Par Villa, one of the zaniest places in Singapore with the most cursed energy I have ever seen from a recreational space. The park itself was the pet project of the two brothers, Aw Boon Haw (胡文虎) and Aw Boon Par (胡文) that founded and ran a lucrative empire selling Tiger Balm, a medicinal salve that is still popular throughout Southeast Asia today.

Due to the sheer chaos that is the nature of this source, I am unsure as to whether it’s even possible to make a clear analytical point. One could discuss the synthesis of Daoist and Buddhist iconography in having Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, what I would assume to be Nezha and Dharmapalas (protectors of the Dharma) in the same image or even just the artistic choice of how these figures were depicted. As such, I have decided to focus purely on the significance of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas depicted in the image.

The diorama appears to be attributed to the Lingshan Buddhist Group (霊山佛祖) based in Chaozhou (中国潮州). Further investigation showed that the place is indeed close to the city of Chaozhou, but is still a fair distance from it. Historical records of this particular Buddhist group are likely to be fairly scarce, and may have indicated that they paid for the particular diorama. Even the character for “Ling” is difficult to find and seems to either have been miswritten, or no longer exists in the current Chinese lexicon so much so that I was unable to input the exact character into my phone or computer.

The main figure depicted is an emaciated Buddha, a reference to the Gautama Buddha’s experience starving himself when he first left royal life. This form of voluntary starvation was seen as a form of ascetism and a symbol of how a person could gain ultimate control over their body (to the point of rejecting sustenance). The quite hilariously done, poorly-installed cord linking the larger statue to a smaller bowing figure in the background is a depiction of him achieving enlightenment (shown as ascendance) and meeting what I would assume to be the Buddhas of the Three Ages.

Typical descriptions of the Buddhas of the Three Ages would include Maitreya (representing the Future) and Gautama Buddha (who is notably absent in this depiction). The Prajnaparamita Sutra refers to the Buddhas of the Three ages in a single phrase (tryadhva-sarva-buddhāḥ) perhaps suggesting that the three are one reincarnated. It is without a doubt that the choice of these three specific Buddhas are deliberate and have enormous significance to story, but at a level that I cannot discern nor understand.

Maitreya is clearly depicted with his massive earlobes and belly, and Bodhisattva Guanyin with her classic hairstyle and vase. However, there is a Buddha that is difficult to discern based purely on appearance. The mysterious third Bodhisattva with a Ruyi (Chinese Sceptre). The plaques right above them is meant to clarify which Buddhas are being depicted, with Maitreya and Guanyin being fairly recognizable as “弥勒佛”and “观世音菩萨” respectively. The middle name, seemingly depicting the figure on the far right “世济佛菩萨” is mentioned in many Mahayana scriptures but is unknown to me.

The reasoning choice of Buddhas in this specific diorama may reflect which Buddhas the artists considered culturally important in this era. Or it may be an entirely arbitrary choice. Whichever it is, it certainly a fascinating and curious piece of historical Buddhist art.

Fengshui’s Conception of Space: The Material and Metaphysical Divide in Practice

A thought that has been brewing in my head since MO3354 (East Asian Intellectual History) was the nature of the Ontic/Epistemic divide in Eastern Philosophies. In my limited study of Buddhism, I believe that they can bridge this gap through the concept of Enlightenment (barring the Yogachara School). This divide is even more difficult to understand in the context of the Yi Ching and Fengshui. As Feuchtwang describes it, “Fengshui offers plausible hypothesis, but never proofs”. [1] It is possible that practitioners of Fengshui aren’t concerned with the epistemology of their craft, much less the ontic/epistemic divide. To look at Fengshui under this split draw away from the issues that scholars of the Yi Ching and Fengshui deem important. To consider the ontic/epistemic divide in Fengshui is not necessarily important, rather we should look at the material/metaphysical divide that is more evident in ancient and modern debates in different schools of Fengshui.

The most obvious split between more materialist and metaphysical perspectives on Fengshui is between the School of Forms and Orientations. The School of Forms emphasizes concrete topological features and draws an interpretation from material phenomena to decide whether a place has good Fengshui or not. The School of Directions is much more complicated and encompasses cosmological aspects including the Five Elements, Numerology based on the Bāgùa, and even planetary alignments. [2] What we can see here is a clear split between how Fengshui is conceptualized. The School of Forms sees Fengshui in a materialistic light, where the School of Orientations looks at it in a more metaphysical sense. This divide between emphasis on the material and metaphysical has interesting implications on the practical applications of Fengshui on spaces. There appear to be fewer examples of specific modern practices based on the School of Forms compared to Orientations. This is likely due to the intrinsic adaptability of each School’s basic principles.

In terms of application, the materialist leaning of the School of Forms has lent itself well to larger-scale planning and in areas where space is abundant. For instance, Ming Dynasty Beijing’s city planning seems to follow principles from the School of Forms. With their dragon-shaped city planning and the artificial hill behind the Forbidden City. The central line of the city forms a giant winding dragon from north to south, with two large gates as its eyes. [3] We also see the rules in the School of Forms being especially strictly adhered to in burial practices, particularly in places such as Taiwan; where space constraints are less severe and topological features abundant. Entire south-facing hillsides in areas north of Taipei are dotted with mausoleums and horseshoe-shaped graves. Based on these examples, it is evident that the School of Forms and subsequent schools that follow a materialist interpretation of Fengshui are more suited towards the planning of larger areas, incorporating and using topology on a larger scale.

On the other hand, the School of Orientations with its various modern interpretations such as the Bāgùa and Flying Star Schools has found itself being applied much more generously in places such as an office or household context. The Flying Star School, with its heavier focus on numerology, can be adapted towards floor planning. With favourable number combinations used for bedrooms and offices, and less favourable combinations for less important spaces. [4] There are also examples of small Bāgùa panels with a mirror in the centre being hung above main doors. In the Chinese diaspora of Singapore and Hong Kong, household Fengshui seems to be informed by general practices in the School of Orientation, especially in the placement and direction of furniture; especially beds. The emphasis on the metaphysical rather than the material meant that the School of Orientations’ practices were much better suited to modern adaptations and interpretations.

Thus, the divide in the School of Forms and Orientations has resulted in varied applications of Fengshui in spaces. With practices from the School of Orientations and its derivatives dominating modern approaches to Fengshui. It would be interesting to read further into Fengshui practices and the Yi Ching. Especially, to determine which Schools and their derivatives have been propagated more widely.

[1] Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Fengshui (2008), p. 90

[2] Ibid, p. 151

[3] Madeleine YueDong and Reginald E. Zelnik, Republican Beijing: The City and its Histories, (2003), p. 8

[4] Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Fengshui (2008), p. 52

Between the Municipal and Inhabitant: The Push and Pull of Power

The battle for power expression and control between the municipality and their inhabitants is a recurring theme in many of the stories that discuss cities and their development. These groups are by no means monolithic and many have substantial splits in their interests, however, as analytic units, it is fair to categorise them as such. From Shanghai to Singapore, Beijing to Changchun, there were also, subtle interplays of power and class that hint towards wider power structures. It is this combination of push and pulls between the municipality and its inhabitants, and the way that power was negotiated that is the main subject of this post.

In the case of Shanghai, an often hilarious but deeply saddening state of affairs was the segregation of Chinese and European populations. The imagined signposts saying “No dogs or Chinese”, although more a myth than reality, is a reminder that many European municipal councils had clear ideas over specific racial usages of space. [1] In the Shanghalander case especially, desires to enforce extraterritoriality and full sovereign control would have meant within these “European spaces” whether represented or real, were backed by real expressions of power.

For Singapore, the representations and usage of space laid out by the plan strongly indicated that colonial and later municipal authorities struggled to identify and assert control over the various Malay “Kampungs” (living areas). This was mostly because many lived outside of the main areas that were of interest to Raffles and Farquhar and that language provided a formidable barrier to understanding these places. [2] The Chinese areas were also dominated by various bāngqún (幫群) organisations that represented the inhabitant population. These “bāng” held considerable power that sometimes ran against colonial designs for the city. [3]

For both of these cities, there were clear examples where attempts to assert municipal or colonial control were either subverted or resisted. Although there has not been much mention of Malay or Indian resistance towards certain municipal policies. The Chinese community in Singapore, being larger in size and power, did actively mobilise their influence. In response to the unilateral passing of Police Acts in 1857, the entire Chinese community went on strike, effectively halting the economy for a few days. Despite this strike not being an act of open and violent revolt. It nonetheless serves as an example where local inhabitants expressed power through shockingly effective strategies. For Shanghai, unarmed demonstrations against what was presumably the exclusion of Chinese from public parks and spaces amongst other measures is a good example of inhabitant resistance towards assertions of municipal power. Furthermore, Chinese requests for better municipal representation could also be counted as legitimate bids to integrate inhabitant interests into municipal decision making.

That being said, the case of Shanghai is unique, as what qualified someone as an “inhabitant” was quite nebulous. Did the community of White Shanghailanders count as inhabitants? Or was this definition limited to the Chinese. The somewhat cop-out answer of “both”, makes the most sense. While local Chinese were most definitely counted as the original inhabitants of the city, many Europeans eventually were considered ‘local’ inhabitants of the area. The main difference was that often Europeans were allowed to actively participate in the decision-making processes that ran through the SMC, while the Chinese struggled to acquire that privilege. [4] Singapore’s definition for “inhabitant” was often a lot clearer, the existing Chinese, Malay, Indian and Orang Laut settlements created a distinct divide between European colonisers and local communities.

This leads us to the interesting intersection of class and race in both Singapore and Shanghai. In both cases, English educated and typically Chinese businessmen were sometimes permitted to join the ranks of municipal decision-makers. This was more so the case in Singapore where businessmen of considerable stature such as Seah Liang Seah, founder of the Ngee Ann Kongsi and Choa Giang Thye, also a prominent member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, actively participated in municipal politics and advocated for the Chinese Community as early as 1857. [5] The English language ability of these higher-class Chinese businessmen afforded them access to the primarily European sphere of politics. They often acted as interlocutors for local populations, albeit only to a degree. Their lack of sustained and direct involvement in Clan and Bāng organisations may have impacted their ability to fully represent their constituent compatriots. In Shanghai, SMC postings were barred to the Chinese until 1920, the ‘virulent racism’ of Shanghailanders often prevented even prominent Chinese businessmen from entering the municipal sphere.

In conclusion, throughout any spatial story, there was often a battle for power expression and control between the municipality and their inhabitants. This was sometimes mediated by prominent members of the inhabitant community (often Chinese) that could communicate in English and thus partially enter into municipal decision-making. The reality is that the interests of municipal bodies and the actual inhabitants did not always coincide, whether due to racism or language (mostly racism). Although the impacts of this are not necessarily felt today, we can certainly see the struggles of the voiceless coolie, or hawker store vendor, that rarely had a voice in how their city was run.

[1] Robert Bickers ‘Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937’ Past and Present (May, 1998), p. 205 

[2] The Jackson Plan (Singapore, National Library of Singapore, 1822

[3] Brenda Yeoh Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore (Singapore, 2003) p. 39

[4]Robert Bickers ‘Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937’ Past and Present (May, 1998), p. 205

[5] Brenda Yeoh Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore (Singapore, 2003) p. 61

Prostitution in Trade Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid., pp. 869-70

Heterotopias within French and Japanese Imperialism

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

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

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

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

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







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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid., p. 274

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

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

[8] Ibid., p. 54

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