Hell on Earth: Spatial Representations of Pain as a Moral Deterrent

My investigation into the 10 Courts of Hell as part of my long essay has led me down some interesting paths looking at various depictions of hell in parks and temples within the East Asian and South-East Asian context. In the European context, hell and various forms of the underworld are most often depicted in the form of art, essentially a 2D rendering, and lacks a physical and spatial representation. Although Buddhist and Daoist conceptions of hell do exist in a similar artistic form, it appears that many have made the jump from canvas to statue, and from statue to entire walk-in spaces. Both Haw Par Villa’s ‘Ten Courts of Hell’ (which is quite ironically being renovated to be air-conditioned) and Thailand’s Wat Mae Kaet Noi, both have explicit spatial depictions of hell, in park form that are ripe for analysis.

When I visited Haw Par Villa this summer, it was a shame that the Hell portion was closed for renovations. However, this particular part of the park is what exists in the living memory of many Singaporeans as being the most unsettling part of it. The purpose of this Chinese (in a mostly Daoist way) depiction of Hell had a clear moral purpose. Firstly, depictions of hell generally are seen as warnings and deterrents. As a writer from the New Yorker quite eloquently put it “The afterlife is an old room in the house of the human imagination”. Both Haw Par Villa and Wat Mae Kaet Noi’s spatial depiction of Hell fills this room with images of unimaginable pain and torture to those who commit sins or acts that are deemed immoral by society. This form of guiding morality through spatial representation has been used more positively, for instance in certain parts of Beijing’s parks in the Republican period. Where Republican ideals are enshrined in statues and poems on walls. However, perhaps the creators of this park understood that often fear is a more powerful motivator than the promise of reward.

This form of moral education through deterrent was applied to specific immoral acts that had corresponding punishments. In the case of Wat Mae Kaet Noi, that depicts a Buddhist conception of hell, Naraka. We see graphic representations of adulterers and promiscuous individuals experiencing the most severe forms of genital mutilation, scenes of badly-behaved schoolchildren having their tongues pulled out of their bodies and the sort of gore that would be perfectly at home in a horror film.

Haw Par Villa’s approach to depicting the punishments for specific crimes are done in a much more structured way. Each of the Ten Courts of Hell is meant to judge different sins and the strong Legalist undercurrent that pervades through Chinese culture is evident here. In each court presides a Yama (यम)a Hindu and Buddhist deity of the underworld. In both instances, they act as lawgivers, enforcers of the Dharma and punishers of wrongdoing. This concept must have appealed to existing Confucian concepts of fair judgement and punishment even in the afterlife and incorporated into Chinese conceptions of Hell.

After an initial trial in the First Court, which determines whether the virtuous acts in your life outweigh the evil. A person will either be sent across a “bridge” to reach paradise or to a corresponding Court of Hell that will mete out their punishment. The different crimes that each Court is responsible for are seemingly quite disparately organized, with rapists and rumour mongers being sent to the same Seventh Court. At the Tenth Court, offenders are handed a magical cup of tea and reincarnated. Similarly, to Wat Mae Kaet Noi, there are also grisly depictions of amputation, decapitation and being boiled alive. Neither parks are for the faint of heart and are intended to be as gruesome as possible.

One key aspect of both representations of Hell is that they are both cyclical. Whereas Christian conceptions of Hell are that of a terminus, Buddhist Hell may be considered more as purgatory if seen from a Western perspective. The existence of the Wheel of Reincarnation (related to the Buddhist concept of Nirvana) simply sees hell as a transitionary place where individuals go to receive punishment for their crimes before moving on to either paradise, whether in a 極楽 (Gokuraku) Pure Land Sense, or a Nirvana sense. In each instance, there is always hope for redemption. This strong soteriological message suggests that the fundamental conceptions of life and death, crime and punishment, in societies influenced by Buddhism was different.

Both depictions of Hell encourage virtuousness and morality in the current life that one is living in by graphically depicting what will happen if they don’t. More importantly, the existence of these depictions in the form of dioramas and parks were to convey this message to those that couldn’t read. Despite the original intention of these depictions being for the illiterate, they still serve as a powerful reminder to those that can. Showing, rather than telling us what may happen if we don’t lead a virtuous life.

Note: As the images are too graphic to be displayed on this blog, below are the links to both parks:

Ten Courts of Hell: Haw Par Villa, https://www.wheresidewalksend.com/court-of-hell/
Wat Mae Kaet Noi: https://matadornetwork.com/read/scariest-temple-thailand/

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.

 

Bibliography:

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.

Badly Drawn Maps

Badly Drawn Maps and what they can teach us

What makes a good historical map? Do detail and accuracy outweigh aesthetics and simplicity? Alternatively, what makes a bad historical map? Plenty of contemporary pop culture articles find entertainment in examining strange historical maps, assuming their scientific inaccuracy is something comical. But within these ‘inaccuracies,’ can we find historical insight we might have otherwise overlooked? This is the essential question Martin Bruckner seeks to answer. Don’t dismiss a historical map based on assumptions of what makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ map, argues Bruckner, rather we should explore why these definitions exist in the first place.

When examining maps, we make various assumptions about the relations of the map: the territory itself as existing independently of the map, north/south being top to bottom, east/west being right to left, and so on.[1] The “old” method of understanding historical maps, according to Bruckner, suggests that ‘good’ maps have unmistakable meanings, and ideals like truth and error are conceptually presented through them. They are the products of empirical science.[2] The map is a representation of a place. Yet, from the 1990s, ‘place’ began to be thought about more broadly, and scholars began treating maps as “subjective representations of social locations and human activities.”[3] This understanding also treats maps as places themselves.

In this view, maps are considered text-specific locales, or sites, shaped by a variety of contexts, ranging from the biography of the mapmaker to the geography of map production to the language of maps.”[4]

For Bruckner, however, our analytic approach to maps should go a step further than this text-based understanding. Historical maps are representations of places deeply endowed with sociality, being both man-made and “man-used.”[5] He argues for considering maps as products of social practice, shaped by all of the aspects that go into their creation; they are moulded by the engraver, painter, ink and paper suppliers just as much as the scholars and librarians who consume them.[6] Similarly, Matt Reeck views maps as “architecture of mind”. He argues they are a dynamic component of a historical process of commerce and settlement: “The advent of good maps is the advent of control over the land…”[7] For Reeck, mobility and movement of peoples is directly connected to cartography, and yet maps too often seek to standardize this; they aspire to “place places outside of time.”[8] Maps are social constructions, they push political agendas and represent societal attitudes. Their creation is often greatly influenced by power interests completely outside of the cartographic industry. Thus, can historical maps truly be deemed either ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

 

Taking Bruckner’s social approach, empirically ‘bad’ historical maps can now be considered useful and insightful in how they relate to issues other than physical geography. We can provide maps, seemingly objective creations, with historicity and time. Although developed in an American context, Bruckner’s approach can be equally applied to historical maps from East Asia. Examine this 1906 (Meiji 39) map by Japanese cartographer Yamane Akisato:

 

 

This atlas page shows 7 maps of various East Asian cities. Included (from left to right) are Hong Kong, Singapore, Vladivostok, Saigon, Bombay, Busan, and Wonsan. The maps show details of the city plan (roads, rivers, railways, etc.), the coastal outline, and major buildings, such as military stations. They are drawn in a simplistic black and white line drawing, which allows for a focus on the layout and structure of the cities and makes them easy to compare. These city maps were published in the atlas in between more detailed and coloured maps and illustrations, and the atlas includes text in both Japanese and Chinese. You may notice that these simple drawings are particularly ‘inaccurate’, or, in the very least, lacking detail. The coastline in the top-centre city (which I assume is meant to be Singapore, although it is difficult to tell) is comically simple, as if included in the compilation as an afterthought. In comparison, the coastlines of Busan and Wonsan on the right are drawn with more extreme detail. Deer Island in Busan’s Bay is especially noticeable, and details of smaller islands and water depth is even included. Although the map of Hong Kong (located far left) is denser, several of the streets are mislabelled in comparison to the reality of their positionality to one another. This strange picking-and-choosing of what details to include and what details to leave out by Akisato, the cartographer, is what makes this map so fascinating. If we now apply Bruckner’s social approach to analysing this map, it opens up the potential for historical interpretation and insight to be gained from it.

 

Drawn from the Japanese perspective in 1906 (Meiji 39), the map tells us how Japanese citizens might have seen and understood the world, and the importance of other cities in East Asia in comparison to their own. Placing these maps within the historical context of Japan’s activities in 1906, it makes sense for the map of Busan to detail so clearly the coastline and water depth around the city. Busan was a treaty-port which the Japanese held particular influence over around the time this map was published, and in which a strong Japanese presence had existed since the 15th century. Busan was the foothold through which Japanese forces established their control over the Korean peninsula prior to annexation in 1910.[9] It is likely Akisato may have visited Busan directly during his life, although not much is known about the cartographer himself and this is merely hypothetical. Regardless, as a Japanese citizen Akisato would have had, at the very least, more readily available access to information about Busan than to information about Singapore, for example, which was under British colonial control at the time.

More acutely, these maps tell us how Akisato thought these cities should be presented in his atlas, and thus to those learning from his atlas. This highlights what he might have thought relevant, or in this case, not relevant, to be teaching other Japanese consumers about the wider world and about other cities across Asia, especially in comparison to Japan’s own major cities. There is a similar insert page in the same atlas that depicts Tokyo and its surrounding areas, Kyoto, and Osaka. These maps, meant to act as educational tools in the same way as the first 7 we examined above, are extremely dense, showing the grid block layouts of these cities in exact detail.

 

 

Considering the Japanese colonial context under which these maps were created once again, we can invoke Bruckner’s social approach to understand why these Japanese cities are presented more carefully. In the book How to Lie with Maps, Mark Monmonier argues that nations often enhance map features that support their point of view on the world and leave out details on the features that sit contrary to this.[10] Is this what is occurring here with Akisato’s atlas? Potentially, but further insight into this would require more research on his career and the publishing details of the atlas itself. At any rate, these maps are shaped deeply by Japanese colonialism and the power relations at play in East Asia in the early 1900s.

J. B. Harley maintains that historians of cartography often simply accept the cartographer’s suggestions of what historical maps are meant to represent, and advocates for greater scrutinization of maps as forms of knowledge creation. [11] The relationship between representation and reality contained within maps affects our relations to and perceptions of the material world, which is all the more pertinent considering a historical context far prior to the information technology era. These historical Japanese maps of various East Asian cities provide a good example of how we can scrutinize as Harley suggests, and they offer a great entry point for further research in this area.

 


[1] Searle, John. R., ‘Chapter 4: The Map and the Territory,’ in Wuppuluri, S. & Doria, F. A. (eds.) The Map and the Territory, Springer International Publishing (2018): p. 72

[2] Bruckner, Martin, ‘Good Maps, Bad Maps; or, How to Interpret A Map of Pennsylvania,’ Pennsylvania Legacies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (November 2009): p. 40

[3] Ibid, p. 40

[4] Ibid, p. 40

[5] Ibid, p. 40

[6] Ibid, p. 41

[7] Reeck, Matt, ‘A Brief History of the Colonial Map in India – or, the Map as Architecture of Mind,’ Conjunctions, No. 68, Inside Out: Architectures of Experience (2017): p. 185

[8] Ibid, p. 185

[9] Kang, Sungwoo, ‘Colonising the Port City Pusan in Korea: A Study of the Process of Japanese Domination in the Urban Space of Pusan During the Open-Port Period (1876-1910)’, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Oxford (2012): p. 86

[10] Monmonier, Mark S., How to Lie with Maps, 3rd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2018): p. 132

[11] Harley, J. B., ‘Deconstructing the map,’ Passages, University of Michigan Library https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/passages/4761530.0003.008/–deconstructing-the-map?rgn=main;view=fulltext [Accessed 09/10/21]


Primary Sources:

Akisato, Yamane, “Buson, Wonson, Vladivostok, Saigon, Bombay, Hong Kong.” from New Atlas & Geography Table (Bankoku chin chizu chiri tokeihyo), Nakamura: Shobido, Meiji 39 (1906) https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~313791~90082699:Buson–Wonson–Vladivostok–Saigon-?sort=Pub_List_No_InitialSort&qvq=q:vladivostok;sort:Pub_List_No_InitialSort;lc:RUMSEY~8~1&mi=11&trs=12# [Accessed 08/10/21]

Akisato, Yamane, “Tokyo and environs, Kyoto, Osaka.” from New Atlas & Geography Table (Bankoku chin chizu chiri tokeihyo), Nakamura: Shobido, Meiji 39 (1906) https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~313790~90082700:Tokyo-and-environs–Kyoto–Osaka?sort=Pub_List_No_InitialSort&qvq=q:author%3D%22Akisato%2C%20Yamane%22;sort:Pub_List_No_InitialSort;lc:RUMSEY~8~1&mi=21&trs=36 [Accessed 10/10/21]

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