A Multi-Cultural or Plural Society? – Burma, the Colonial State and Literati societies.

As Su Lin Lewis asserts, muti-cultural societies were nothing new to the Southeast Asia which have had long histories of the co-existence of various ethnic and religious groups. The naturalisation of having different houses of worship side by side in the streets led these cities, notably port cities to have an inherent cosmopolitan quality that fascinated colonial powers, who saw this multi-culturalism as the natural conclusion to the development of the public sphere (1). Yet, this informal system of religious tolerance was disrupted by this very colonial presence, their enforcement disrupting the generations of understanding that had been built up between the different religious and ethnic groups in the cities. In the case of Burma, religious toleration was maintained through the Buddhist kingship, monasteries provided a network of political cohesion across the country, and all tribes and ethnic groups had been treated the same under one law. After the British took control, the Burmese court was destroyed, monasteries were cut off from each other and became autonomous, the tribes from upper Burm were cut off from the Burmese and became governed under their own administrative units, and significantly British recruited different ethnic groups into their army such as Karens, Kachins, and  the Chinese to suppress Burmese resistance, thus actively creating social disintegration and ethnic tension (2). J.S Furnivall even argues that colonisation prevented the historic unification already in progress, installing not the enlightenment ideal of multi-culturalism, but a plural society. It if for this reason, that he then sought to create the Burma Research Society.


Furnivall characterised the plural society as one which is home to multi-ethnic groups who live alongside each other but rarely interact. As he remarks when discussing the research society ‘It was the first attempt to provide Europeans and Burmans a common meeting ground other than the marketplace, or the racecourse, where they met to make money out of each other.’ (3) By only interacting economically, ‘Burma was transformed from a human society into a business concern. As a business concern it flourished, but as a human society it collapsed.’ (4) To him the curse of the plural society was that it got rid of citizens collective social will, thus affecting their ability to provide social welfare. The only way to reintegrate plural society, was to increase cultural understanding between groups, and to foster Burnese nationalism.


Such goals are evident for looking at the April 1918 edition of The Journal for Burma Research Society. Immediately, by analysing the names of its 200+ members, it becomes clear that the a sizeable number of the society’s patrons were from a Southeast Asian background. While most of the core committee were British the society itself wasn’t an imposed imperial project, like the Royal Asiatic Society, but a collaboration between Indian civil service officer Furnivall and leading Burmese politician U May Oung to ‘increase the good feeling and mutual respect between Briton and Burman’, evidenced by having one of the Vice-president and the journal’s editor itself be from a Burnese background (5).


This edition, being the first one to open its meeting to the general public and link to an arts and culture exhibition, apt to explore how they encourage this cultural nationalism (6). The contents of the journal range from articles about Burnese history, linguistics, Buddhist philosophy and reviews of local literature. One article critiques Western disdain for the architecture Burmese temples (7). The society even seemed to hold regular competitions on Burmese songs, and poetry amongst its members (8). Furnivall himself appears as a contributor, highlighting the need to encourage Burmese art and culture.


Given Furnivall’s open critique of Britain’s contribution to the plural society, and the ouvert celebration and cultivation of Burmese nationalism, can we characterise multi-ethnic literati societies such as the Burma Research Society as inherently anti-colonial? While some have characterised Furnivall’s efforts as anti-colonial, Julie Pham argues against this characterisation, rooting his belief more in Fabianism. Fabianism, which was the primary form of socialism in Britain, viewed the community as a ‘social organism’ that constantly needed nurtured through different groups conversing with each other, and conducting extensive research to promote progress, reform and protection for vulnerable and colonised people But while Fabian scholars often critiqued the colonial state, they still believed in having a administrative elite to oversee the smooth running of the social organism (9). Furnivall championed Burmese nationalism, but not the strand that demanded immediate sovereignty as he didn’t believe they were ready to independent yet. In his article, his encouragement of Burmese arts was framed by Britain leading the Burmese people ‘We have led Burma to the market place…there is no reason why we should not lead it further by encouraging literature, art and science’ (10). This attitude is mirrored in other areas of the journal, most tellingly that it informs us the Lieutenant-Governor has been elected as the patron of the society (11). J. Stuart’s paper which analyses a copy of the Moulmein Chronicle from eighty years prior, is also characteristically Fabian (12). While Stuart is critical of the editor’s careless tone and apoltical coverage, what bothers Stuart most is the overestimation of economic prospects in the region which remain unfulfilled, as in the lack of progress in the region, rather than the paper’s general ignorance of the Burmese. Discussion of this paper in the society elicited similar responses of embarrassment from the British members (13). However, paradoxically the way to earn prestige in these societies was to highly informed on Burma culture and history, therefore U May Oung critiqued the article’s lack of inclusion of Burmese experience during this colonial period (14). As such, while the British members may be more conservative on their critique of the colonial state, the multi-cultural nature of the society fostered debate inherently more critical.


Ultimately, the literati societies like Burma Research Society, arose to mend the cultural gap left by the pluralisation of colonial state. They saw multi-culturalism only possible through promotion of understanding between foreign and indigenous people. These societies became a place where local nationalism was both fostered and shaped, while also understanding how these societies fit into the wider world.


(1)    Lewis, Su Lin. Cities in motion: Urban life and cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920–1940. (Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp.100-101

(2)    Furnivall, John S. “Burma, past and present.” Far Eastern Survey 22, no. 3 (1953), pp.21-26, p.22

(3)    Cited in Lewis, ‘Cities in Motion’, p.114

(4)    Furnivall, ‘Burma’, p.23

(5) Cited in Lewis, ‘Cities in Motion’, p.115, ‘List of Members’, Journal of Burma Research Society, 9, (April, 1918), pp.75-79

(6) J.S Furnivall, ‘Sunlight and Soap’, Journal of Burma Research Society, , (April, 1918), pp.199-212, p.199

(7) G.H. Lace, ‘The Greater Temples of Pagan’, Journal of Burma Research Society, 8, (April, 1918), pp.189-198

(8) ‘Proceedings of Burma Research Society’, Journal of Burma Research Society, 8, (April, 1918), pp.69-74, p.71

(9) Julie Pham. “JS Furnivall and Fabianism: reinterpreting the ‘plural society’in Burma.” Modern Asian Studies 39, no. 2 (2005), pp.321-348, pp,325-33

(10)                             Fiurnivall, ‘Soap and Sunlight’, p.204

(11)                             ‘Proceedings’, p.72

(12)                             J. Stuart, ‘Glimpse of Burma Eighty Years Ago’, Journal of Burma Research Society, 8, (April, 1918), pp.1-8

(13)                             ‘Proceedings’, p.7

(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, https://www.artic.edu/artworks/235402/golden-temple-of-jehol (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: http://travelbrochuregraphics.com/blog/2014/01/09/brochure-south-manchuria-railway-from-the-1933-chicago-worlds-fair/ (Accessed: 05/02/2024). [] []
  7. Brochure: Southern Manchurian Railway form the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, Available at: http://travelbrochuregraphics.com/blog/2014/01/09/brochure-south-manchuria-railway-from-the-1933-chicago-worlds-fair/. (Accessed: 05/02/2024). []
  8. Brochure for the Southern Manchuria Railway exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, Available at: http://travelbrochuregraphics.com/blog/2014/01/09/brochure-south-manchuria-railway-from-the-1933-chicago-worlds-fair/ (Accessed: 05/02/2024). []

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 – https://biblioasia.nlb.gov.sg/vol-17/issue-3/oct-dec-2021/prewarphotography/

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. https://biblioasia.nlb.gov.sg/vol-17/issue-3/oct-dec-2021/prewarphotography/ [] []
  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. https://www.sg101.gov.sg/resources/connexionsg/sultanmosque/ []
  11. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/budget-debate-istana-to-be-restored-malay-heritage-centre-redeveloped []
  12. See: https://www.mfa.gov.sg/Newsroom/Announcements-and-Highlights/2017/12/Muscat-Street []

Accessing the ‘Other’: Brooklyn’s Botanical Gardens as an access point to the ‘Land of the rising sun’

By examining the constriction of access to and behavior within the Japanese garden, situated in the Brooklyn Botanic gardens, I argue that the Garden’s commissioners aimed to maintain Japanese ‘otherness’.  By using an additional behavioral standard’s and enforcing a code of conduct deemed unnecessary across the rest of Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. By controlling how the Japanese garden was perceived and restricting how it was used by the public, the gardens’ commissioners established their authority over writing Japanese culture in an American context. 1 This article uses images, maps, manuals and entrance signs of Japanese parks in western foreign countries to illustrate that despite the absence of an enclosure garden as a consistent tradition in Japanese culture, in the west, Japanese gardens are enclosed and purposefully detached from the larger garden. The separation and containment of Japanese gardens in the West highlights the containment and fetishization of these spaces and also the use of isolation as a form of exerting power over the the translation of Japanese culture in Western public discourse.2

Figure 1: Image of the Flowing Crab in Japanese Garden from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record, 19343

Rather than being immersed in the surrounding context of a public park, the Japanese garden is frequently isolated and this practice is justified by marketing the Japanese garden as a superior garden and yet it perpetuates a hierarchical binary between ‘the west and the rest’.4 For the Japanese garden in Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, established in 1915 and designed by Takeo Shiota, restrictions over behavior and use of space have constrained it to become a disciplinarian space.  the Boston Botanic Gardens enclose the Japanese garden with a wooden fence which is justified as an element of tradition, however, there a plethora of cases in Japan where this does not apply, and this wall was erected fifteen years after the Japanese garden was officially opened.5 The physicality of the separation between conceptions of Japanese horticulture in the eyes of American observers comparatively to its ‘authentic’ purpose within Japanese culture. Frequent financial support provided by  the Japanese government to support the establishment of Japanese gardens in western cities highlights that whilst the Japanese government intended to enforce soft power through diplomatic advances like financial support to establish Japan within the vision of the American Garden-observer, commissioners who controlled public parks made significant spatial choices which limited the assimilation of Japanese tastes into American gardens by consistently organizing Japanese gardens as a traditional, formalized novelty.

Specific, traditional behavioral codes were enforced on entrance to the Brooklyn’s Japanese Garden which operated to restrict creativity and freedom of movement in the space.  Signs around the garden advised visitors to ‘stroll’, there are no benches and it is stipulated that walking on the grass is prohibited.6 Similarly, children were to be accompanied at all times in fear that they would disrupt the tranquil atmosphere and case noise and disrupt the reflective atmosphere.7 The active performance of enjoyment due to the limited interaction allowed with the garden restricts it from becoming a “lived space” where people are able to create memorable interactions and explore freely. By exoticizing the Japanese Garden the gardens commissioners removed its capacity to integrate into Brooklyn’s spatial politics and local culture because it was associated with the foreign and unfamiliar behaviors and sensations enforced by the park itself.

The mystification of the components of the Japanese Garden and their contribution to its cultural significance in turn establish the authority of curating the general knowledge accessible to the American public regarding these spaces to the commissioner of the Botanic gardens. In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbook on Japanese gardens from 1968, the Japanese garden sis described as illustrating, “the peculiar attitude of the Japanese towards life, in which they join nature with everyday living’.8 By presenting the Japanese ‘mentality’ as separate and therefore distant, foreign, exoticized and ultimately for consumption the language used in this handbook highlights how a powerful construction of knowledge through the containment of the Japanese garden as a phenomenon purposefully separated from the holistic botanic garden structure served to establish a binary in the American mind between western, familiar conceptions of the use and behavior within a park or garden and the ‘otherness’ of the Japanese garden.  Indeed, the language used also served to describe ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ understandings of garden composition in opposition to each other, ‘the symmetry, uniformity and rectilinearity of Western gardens is disregarded in the Japanese garden’ .9 Resultantly, the western authorities prevailed in establishing control over the ‘otherness’ of the Japanese garden within the context of the public park. By dispensing mystified, vague and shifting details on the significance of the stones, lanterns and bridges present in the Japanese garden, the casual romantic exoticism of the ‘orient’ in American spatial politics prevailed.

To conclude, information and behaviors inscribed onto the Japanese garden by commissioners and local councils in an American context have served to fundamentally alter the conception of the Japanese garden and thus the curated image of Japan ‘mentality’ within the American observer. The interests of local authorities to present the Japanese garden as a concentrated impression of the ‘core qualities’ of an exoticized Japan conflicted with the assimilation of Japanese culture into the American observer that was desired by the Japanese government.

  1. Christian Tagsold, Spaces in Translation: Japanese Gardens and the West (Philadelphia, 2017), p.137. []
  2. Tagsold, Spaces in Translation, p.138. []
  3. Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record, (Brooklyn, 1934), p. 10 []
  4. Tagsold, Spaces in Translation, p.137. []
  5. Tagsold, Spaces in Translation, p.127. []
  6. Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Kan Yashiroda,  Handbook on Japanese Gardens and miniature Landscapes (Brooklyn, 1968), p.6. []
  7. Tagsold, Spaces in Translation, p.130. []
  8. Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Kan Yashiroda,  Handbook on Japanese Gardens and miniature Landscapes (Brooklyn, 1968), p.6. []
  9. Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Kan Yashiroda,  Handbook on Japanese Gardens, p.9. []

Cambodia, a land of gentleness? A comparison between an old and modern tourist perceptions

Cambodia, a country located on the Indochinese peninsula in Southeast Asia is often referred to as a hidden gem for international tourists. With bordering countries Thailand to its west, Vietnam to the east and Laos to the north, Cambodia is constantly overshadowed by both its western and eastern neighbours as Thailand has been known to international tourists for decades and Vietnam has been known for its long war with America and a rapidly growing economy in recent times.1 As democracy is restored to Cambodia, its rich history, especially the globally renowned UNESCO world heritage site of Angkor Wat has attracted millions of tourists every year and has even featured on the current national flag of Cambodia despite the fact that it was discovered when Cambodia was under French rule.2 This blog post will compare how an old foreign travel account from The Geographical Journal written by Lord Curzon in the 19th century and a 2023 Chinese travel agency’s article views Cambodia and what sites they feature prominently. After doing a brief comparison with Bali, the article will conclude that the images of tourism in Cambodia are shaped by power dominance given how it remains a poor state and that the nationality of the individual writing about it plays a key role in shaping narratives about the country.

The first account from The Hon. Lord Curzon, a prominent British politician published in The Geographical Journal published in 1893, it details his travels across French Indochina in what is now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In his account, he generalises the lives of Cambodians as native and exotic as he notes how swift they are at building wooden huts on top of the Tonle Sap Lake. First, following the French colonial administration, he reinforces the account of the ‘Indochinese’ people by dividing them into categories. He describes the ‘natives’ as more effeminate and shorter in stature the deeper south you go and that the landscape is abundant with crops and crops.3 Subsequently, he describes their eating habits as ‘barbaric’. This demonstrates that at that time when not much technology was around, tourism was limited to the upper class and that generalised accounts, especially by the privileged like Lord Curzon were seen as authoritative and acceptable to be published in magazines like The Geographical Journal. Next, he offers a description of a travel itinerary from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat. The journey he undertook involved riding on a French steamship and then embarking by land on oxen carts and sampans operated by native Cambodians. Following up, he offers a brief description of the ruins on how they illustrate a once-glorious empire now being controlled by the French and under constant threat from invasion by the Siamese (present-day Thailand).4 This indirectly justifies imperialism and showcases the weakness of Cambodian culture as by showing the ruins of an extinct great empire, it shows how the power is now rested in the French, that is controlling Indochina and the Siamese, who resisted colonialism and constantly putting pressure on French interests in the region. As a result, it can be seen that in the heyday of imperialism, travel was limited to the colonial elite and native cultures of the people under European control were subject to exoticisation and generalisation. 

Fast forward to the 2020s, Cambodia, although managing to free itself from colonialism and the horrors of the Khmer Rogue with its strong economic growth, its development standards lagged behind global standards. In place of the French, the Chinese now have a strong presence in the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative to provide infrastructure aid to developing nations across the world to achieve its status as a great power.5 Although it was claimed that the investments were to benefit Cambodia’s growing economy, it has raised concerns among experts that Cambodia is becoming too dependent on China and that China is attempting to use its economic might to chip away at Cambodia’s sovereignty.6 By looking at tourist numbers by nationality, China ranks third after Vietnam and Thailand as the largest source of tourists outside of Southeast Asia.7 In the travel guide published by China International Travel Service Guilin Co. Ltd, it lists out the top sites for travel in Cambodia, which not suprisingly Angkor Wat appearing on the top, then it advertises certain Buddhist temples, the royal palace in Phnom Penh and numerous beaches along the southern coast with a short paragraph stating Cambodians as pure and nice.8 Unlike Lord Curzon’s account which describes Angkor Wat and the people of Cambodia in detail, the Chinese account simply just lists out sites that are culturally ‘Cambodian’ in nature and a complete guide to Cambodian cuisine. Furthermore, the account states that the friendliness of Cambodians and the affordability nature of the country is definitely a reason to visit the country. This demonstrates how with changing geopolitics and modes of travel, the nature of tourism also changes, and in the case of the Chinese, they are the main power influencing Cambodia.

What is interesting to me is that the Chinese site leaves out the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. I believe that the reason is because in order to court Chinese investments, the current Cambodian government, filled with members from the brutal Khmer Rogue regime (1977-1979) is making an effort to downplay anything that will contribute to angering China hence showcasing how bilateral relations often shape the style of tourism.

Linking to the compulsory readings, I see parallels with the case of Cambodia with Bali not too far away. Similar to Cambodia, Bali was under Dutch colonial rule and subject to international accounts exoticising its culture.9 Bali was also subject to having its narratives controlled by external forces as while the Dutch conquered it, it was seen as savage, but after pacifying it, the Dutch played a key part in creating images of ‘Peaceful Bali’ by demonstrating its unique mystical characteristics and ornate temples. Even after independence, the multi-cultural state of Indonesia actively promoted Bali as a peaceful paradise for foreigners to attract economic activity while the natives barely got a voice in the construction of their identity. This elucidates how the Dutch colonial government and the Indonesian government all played a part in exoticising Balinese culture similar to what the European travellers and Chinese government did to Cambodia. In short, power plays a part in shaping tourist narratives.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/oct/28/-sp-cambodia-tour-two-weeks-holiday-itinerary []
  2. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668/ []
  3. Curzon, George N. “Journeys in French Indo-China (Tongking, Annam, Cochin China, Cambodia) (Conclusion).” The Geographical Journal 2, no. 3 (1893): 193–210. https://doi.org/10.2307/1773660. []
  4. Curzon, George N. “Journeys in French Indo-China (Tongking, Annam, Cochin China, Cambodia) (Conclusion).” The Geographical Journal, vol. 2, no. 3, 1893, pp. 193–210. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1773660. Accessed 26 Jan. 2024. []
  5. https://china.usc.edu/what-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-means-cambodia []
  6. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/substitute-07232020153513.html []
  7. https://www.thestar.com.my/aseanplus/aseanplus-news/2023/11/30/foreign-tourist-numbers-skyrocket-in-cambodia#:~:text=This%20marked%20an%20increase%20of,%25)%2C%20expanding%20by%20497.5%25. []
  8. https://www.citsguilin.com/article/gonglue/jianpuzhailvyougonglue.htm []
  9. Vickers, Adrian Bali: A Paradise Created (2012 [1996]) []

“Kampung House” Experiments

Chua’s chapter “Modernism and the Vernacular” explains how the different spatial configurations of the kampung and of Chinese squatters’ housing led to different socialisations of “public space” in the modernist Housing Development Board (HDB) housing estate. The HDB’s vision was one of “overwhelming conformity” with some form of abstract designs of which their purpose is to “serve as ‘place markers’ in what would otherwise be placeless continuum of similarity.”1 While Chua’s chapter elucidates a theme central to the historiography of housing in post-colonial Singapore, Chua’s unilateral presentation of HDB’s housing vision can be nuanced by investigating the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) journal Rumah2 during the first phases of HDB’s development. The “modern” and the “vernacular” were envisioned as a possibility and spelt a vision of “public space” completely different to that of the HDB.

The SIA in its September 1961 issue presented the HDB’s raison d’être as one of continuity and change. The HDB’s initial work was launched off the final of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT)’s reports on housing.3 Yet, this Report entailed the post-colonial government’s “basic reassessment of aims and policies” in terms of “rental of housing units, densities of development, standard of accommodation, scale of building programme and many others.” Geographically, the HDB would begin by renewing “obsolete properties in the central areas” before a gradual, radial process of undoing marginal, slum properties.4 This was in concert with the HDB chief architect Teh Cheang Wan, who agreed with the remit of the HDB in relation to SIT. His words were confirmed by Lim, who argued that this strategy was needed as a “lasting solution to the urban housing problem prior to major economic development, industrialisation and a basic solution to employment,” indeed emphasising that this would also be the terms the HDB would be judged on.5

Thus the SIA, while accommodating the aforementioned writings from both HDB officials, was also very deliberate with student development. The Student Section, while bearing the stamp of the Singapore Polytechnic Architectural Society (SPAS), was open to any letters from the public. The SPAS also seemed aligned with how Chua characterises the HDB – “modern architects’ socialist sentiments” infused with the early twentieth century British “Garden City” movement.6 The page bore the SPAS’ “manifesto” – in which students emphasised the primacy of “public spaces”, “parking facilities” and the relationships buildings held within the unit of a formalised “Town Plan.”7

Pages 54-56 of the “Student Section” of Rumah, Sep 1961

However, the entries in this issue were just as concerned with the “vernacular”. All the entries were concerned with “Village dwellings”, with Second Year student Wee Chwee Heng’s entry detailing a topographical study following fieldwork Wee conducted. Wee was also the only student to submit a design for a “Temple to Kuan Yin” which he submitted as a “third year project preceded by field studies on Chinese temples in Singapore.” In contrast with schematics that Chua uses in his chapter, Wee focused his drawings on wide-angled views rather than bird’s eye projections of his studies. Wee’s drawings place the “vernacular” firmly within the “modern” – his temple is designed with an “entrance from Nicoll Highway.”8

The bulk of the other drawings responsed to a call for a “Kampong House prototype”, including an entry by Tay Kheng Soon when he was still a Second Year student. Tay’s envisioning of a kampung on stilts visualises the elements that Chua describes in the kampung – the clear features of the stilts and the serambi (verandah) are immediately obvious. Yet, just like Wee, Tay’s conception of the “vernacular” kampung house imagined both “modern” and “vernacular”. Tay pictures a car pulling into the paved flooring, leaving still a bench in the serambi for a resident to use, even if the car’s intrusion into this “public space” is not clear. In fact, Wee’s last submission bears a similar imagination in “prototyping” a “Kampong House” focused on envisioning the “modern” and the “vernacular”. Yet, both students did not identify “public” space necessarily as an area of discontinuity, and instead found ways of picturing them both inside and outside the kampung.4 For these architectural students, therefore, Rumah columns became a platform for experimentation – just as public housing would eventually become for the HDB.

  1. Beng Huat Chua, Political Legitimacy and Housing: Singapore’s Stakeholder Society (London: Routledge, 2002), 74-75. []
  2. Bahasa Melayu for “Home” []
  3. The Report is not available in the issue but is discussed by William Lim. Lim later gained prominence for his architectural achievements and social activism. William SW Lim, “The Singapore Improvement Trust 1959,” in Rumah (Sep 1961): 58-59. []
  4. Ibid. [] []
  5. All quotes are from Teh’s article is at the front of the issue. Teh, “Public Housing in Singapore,” in Rumah (Sep 1961): 5-9. []
  6. Chua, Political Legitimacy and Housing, 75. []
  7. “Student Section,” in Rumah (Sep 1961): 49. []
  8. “Student Section,” in Rumah (Sep 1961): 54-56. []

Between Client and State: Lee Fatt Dreams of a Three-Room Flat

Jordan Sand in House and Home argues that Meiji Era social reformers redefined the meaning of “home” and the roles of the persons physically present in the “home” for the sake of the nation-state. In selectively maintaining continuity with agreeable tenets of hitherto home life while simultaneously co-opting Taylorist practices pertaining to “home” in the West, Sand argued that Meiji Era journals, school curricula and newspapers reproduced this new praxis of the “home”. In line with Sand’s approach to studying the reproduction of “home”, I have examined the Lee Fatt Furniture & Electrical Company’s 1968 product brochure and its advertising in Singapore newspapers between 1964 and 1973 just as the nascent Housing Development Board (HDB) began to widen its public housing. Its brochure and advertising strategy, I argue, refracted both a shift in a rent-based to a leasehold-ownership-based form of housing ownership and characterised the new homeowner as the individual seeking upward socio-economic mobility on behalf of one’s family.
At the time of the People Action Party (PAP)’s attainment of internal self-government from the British, the PAP had inherited a growing population that had either been “living in over-congested shophouses in the city area” or in “wood-panel and thatched-roof houses in urban-fringe kampong”.1 Within a decade, the HDB had resettled much of the population into public housing flats; and by the turn of the twenty-first century 90% of Singaporeans lived in public housing. Most owners of these state-subsidised flats hold their flats under leasehold “homeownership” for a period of 99 years. The HDB’s work in public housing was and remains “the PAP government’s signal achievement, as a testament to its social democratic impulse, and as a foundation of its legitimacy and longevity in parliamentary power.”2
In recency, socio-economic studies3 of public housing have served as an avenue of texturing the unevenness of the physical safety and low-cost, multi-cultural harmony that housing ministries and statutory boards argue Singaporean public housing has helped to engender. Historically, however, this apparently linear trajectory only took place after 1964. Between 1960 and 1964, its first batches of flats required tenants to share toilets, bathrooms and laundry spaces; representing not much of an improvement over the hitherto predominant housing conditions available for the masses. In 1964, however, two important schemes changed the nature of public housing and home ownership. The HDB upgraded its provisions by starting production of “three-room flats, which referred to two bedrooms and one sitting room in HDB nomenclature” not including a kitchen and a bathroom-cum-toilet.4 Furthermore, the introduction of the Home Ownership Scheme alleviated financial difficulties for prospective homeowners and eased the financing of HDB flats that had hitherto been meant as rental flats. Further changes after 1964 allowed individuals to use their social security savings to offset the costs of purchasing flats. This newfound model of ownership, and widened accessibility, can be gleaned through a host of newspaper advertisements and brochures distributed by furnishing and electrical companies in the 1960s and 1970s.
Page 1 of Lee Fatt's 1968 brochure
Lee Fatt Furniture & Electrical (利發木器傢俬) belonged in this category as a furniture and electrical supplier that took root in the 1960s. It placed its first furniture advertisement ion 26 November 1964.5 In 1966, it opened a new branch at 14 Jalan Tiong, in addition to its existing headquarters at the former Nelson Road, and in 1968 it published a 40-page brochure that was targeted at the growing number of new home owners in Singapore. The brochure a variety of household furniture items such as desk chairs and mattresses, advertisements from associated retailers and a range of household appliances. On page 1 its preface emphasised its “various modern designed” goods that were “exquisitely and exclusively designed” for the new prospective homeowner, while offering furniture that could be “made to order according to specific designs, and if necessary, with the guidance of our experts.”6
Page 40 of Lee Fatt's 1968 brochure
Beyond the front of the brochure, Lee Fatt wrote on the last page of the brochure its personalised messages to prospective patrons in Bahasa Melayu, Mandarin and English. One reason for this may have been the abundance of available Mandarin-language books in Singapore in this period which had its first pages at what we would consider the “end” of the book. Its messaging, subconsciously or otherwise, envisioned its customer base as new homeowners who were on the cusp of a new phase beyond just “modernity” but the uplift of a “happy family”. The messaging in Bahasa was gender neutral, appealing to both men and women (“tuan2/puan2”) while the messaging in Mandarin phrased purchases as “for the sake of one’s family” (“曾否打算為你的家庭佈置一套精緻!舒適!耐用的傢俬”).7
Page 21 of Lee Fatt's 1968 brochure
Lee Fatt’s brochure even alluded directly to the new model of a HDB flat. Page 21 of its brochure idealised how furniture would fill space in a blueprint of a three-room flat. The image showed a three-room flat with cabinets, beds, lamps, desks and sofas in a configuration that was idealised as befitting a new family. The caption made explicit mention, writing in English that this image was an ideal of “Furniture For Housing Planning [sic.] Flat Units”. In Mandarin, the link was more explicit, writing that this envisioning pertained specifically to the regulations and parameters of a new HDB flat (“以建築發展局組屋面積而設計完成故最適合組屋採用”).(( Ibid., 21 ))
Therefore, when situated in relation to the HDB’s burgeoning capabilities, the Lee Fatt brochure is an exciting source that suggests the particularities of advertising and consumer culture in the 1960s. This cursory exploration of the brochure encourages further research possibilities across different media, languages and economies of consumption in post-colonial Singapore.

  1. Beng Huat Chua, Liberalism Disavowed (New York: Cornell, 2017), 73-76. []
  2. Ibid., 75. []
  3. For an example see: Annas Bin Mahmud, ‘“There You Eat, There You Sleep, There You Study”: Housing Concerns and Needs of Low-Income Malay HDB Tenants in Singapore’. M.A. Thesis, National University of Singapore (Singapore), 2020. []
  4. Chua, Liberalism Disavowed, 75-76. []
  5. Advertisements Column 5, The Straits Times, 26 November 1964, 19. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/digitised/article/straitstimes19641126- NewspaperSG (accessed November 14, 2023) []
  6. “Lee Fatt Furniture & Electrical (利發木器傢俬),” Singapore Graphic Archives, 1. []
  7. Ibid., 40 []

Building on Tradition: From Kampong to High-Rise, the ‘tropical city’ and its manifestation in Singapore

The elusive topic of tropicality has pervaded conversations surrounding the design and function of Singaporean architecture since the imposition of Western architectural styles and layouts following the ratification of the Treaty of Singapore in 1819. This article will argue that the categorisation of Singapore as a ‘tropical city’ comprised of ‘tropical architecture’ is the product of colonial power that was integrated into the production of knowledge about the built environment and is therefore inherently responsible for the continuation of discourses that associate Southeast East cities as the ‘other’ to those in Western, temperate climates.1 However, as architects like Mr Tay Kheng Soon illustrate the term ‘tropical city’ has also served as a reclamation of Singaporean independence and the celebration of the city’s culture and agency through a selective incorporation of European modernity.2 This article analyses a Straits Times interview conducted in 1989 by Patrick Daniel and Caroline Chan of the Singaporean architect Mr Tay Kheng Soon who applied his vision of the tropical city to Singapore to detach the independent city-state from the epistemic conquest of British hegemony.3

Figure 1: Article in The Straits Times, “Concept for future city: Living in a work of art”.4

Tay envisioned an “intelligent tropical city” and argued that a tropical city could emancipate Singaporeans from the economic dominance of Britain in the region.5 He aimed to re-politicise urban planning by separating the city from the “mono-cultural compactness” of colonial offices and housing by designing Singapore to be a “work of art” and a compact city capable of “increasing business opportunities” and “providing a medium for intense, social, cultural and economic exchange.6 By using the tropical city concept, Tay identifies that the architectural aesthetics of tropicality were attached to colonial and post-colonial power relations and seeks to separate Singapore from these streams of power. By designing a city which prioritises “poly-cultural compactness”  to form a  “support structure for their [people’s] activities… and yet contribute to the cooling of the city as a whole” he illustrated that colonial power was ingrained in the construction of Tropicality. Equally, he highlights that Signporean architects had the necessary tools to begin deconstructing this discourse.7

The introduction of ‘tropical architecture’ established a sphere of knowledge which ran through Imperial networks during the colonisation of Singapore and was utilised by the Colonial Office to ‘other’ Southeast Asian architecture in opposition to temperate architecture.8 The term tropical architecture prioritises the climate in its terminology whereas temperate architecture is categorised by regional geographic zones or nations, imposing a homogenous staticity onto Singaporean urban development.9 Tropicalisation involved the surface-level modification of Western governmentalities to tropical conditions rather than the necessary transformation.10 Tay emphasises that in the 1980s tropicality was not considered “another symbol of modernity” and he asserted that the “big bland blocks” of highrises that covered the city were “still a sign of the captive mind”.11 Indeed, the “captive mind” he refers to in the Straits Times interview illustrates the power-knowledge concept and the overt control colonial powers had over conceptions of tropical architecture and their subsequent limitation of the built environment to benefit colonial wealth and power.12  The perpetuation of this reductive understanding of the city’s needs justified the colonial administration’s choice to prioritise Singapore’s sanitation and fears of reassuring contamination issues, rather than holistically solving civic issues through the optimisation of the built environment.13

Tay’s Straits Times interview and his successive proposals for tropical urbanism began to combat the circulation of British colonial networks and their epistemic conquest over the focal point of Singapore’s housing strategies by proposing socio-economic structural problems were addressed which would in turn resolve sanitation issues.14 By proposing that the tropical city is defined by its interconnectedness, Tay defined the tropical city by its, “combination of tropical rain forest with the city by increasing transpiration”.15 To establish Singaporean independence from colonial power relations Tay designed a climate-responsive built environment, working in favour of its citizens.16 His holistic approach to the city and its economy assimilated tropical architecture into the tropical climate rather than adopting temperate architectural models that exacerbate the urban heat island effect.17 As Chang explains, the architectural aesthetics of tropicality are inseparably bound to colonial and postcolonial power relations and the implementation of Western hegemony through ideals of social order and the application of policy.18 These concepts are closely linked to the sanitisation movement and the colonial government’s preoccupation with contamination, these fears greatly influenced the structure and organisation of Singapore’s housing and the developments that occurred beyond the European socio-spatial enclaves of the city.19

Tay’s reclamation of the term ‘tropical city’ reflects the complex relationship between language and the built environment in Singapore’s postcolonial legacy. Alongside other regional architects, Tay produced a deviating discourse on tropical architecture that challenged the cultural and economic supremacy of the West by proposing a multi-tiered city. By prioritising the city’s functionality, his urban planning methods and vision were ahead of their time and later were used to distinguish Singaporean identity as heterogonous and separate from Western notions of tropicality.

  1. Chang Jiat-Hwee, A Geneology of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience (New York, 2016), p.7. []
  2. Chang, A Geneology of Tropical Architecture, p.1. []
  3. Chang Jiat-Hwee, “Deviating Discourse: Tay Keng Soon and the Architecture of Postcolonial Development in Tropical Asia”, The Journal of Architectural Education, 63:2 (2010): 153. []
  4.  Kheng Soon Tay, “Concept for the future city: Living in a work of art”, The Straits Times, Singapore, 8th May 1989, p.16 Accessed at: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/digitised/article/straitstimes19890508- (Accessed 24/10/2023) []
  5.  Kheng Soon, “Concept for the future city: Living in a work of art”. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Chang, A Geneology of Tropical Architecture, p.5 []
  9. Ibid, p.6 []
  10. Chang Jiat-Kwee, “Tropicalizing Planning, Sanitation, Housing and Technologies of Improvement in Colonial Singapore, 1907-1942”, in Robert Pecham and David Pomfret (eds.) Imperial Contagions: Medicine, Hygiene and Cultures of Planning in Asia, ( Hong Kong, 2013), p.41. []
  11. Kheng Soon, “Concept for the future city: living in a work of art”.  []
  12. Chang, A Geneology of Tropical Architecture, p.6. []
  13. Chang, “Tropicalizing Planning, Sanitation, Housing and Technologies”, p.37. []
  14. Chang, “Deviating Discourse”: 154. []
  15. Kheng Soon, “Concept for the future city: living in a work of art”. []
  16. Ibid. []
  17. Chang, “Deviating Discourse”: 157. []
  18. Chang, A Geneology of Tropical Architecture, p.2. []
  19. Chang, “Tropicalizing Planning, Sanitation, Housing and Technologies”, p.38. []

Prince of Wales Island: A British ‘tropical paradise’

As the Europeans expanded their imperial domains across the globe in order to secure lucrative commodities, they colonised lands that were vastly different to their home countries, with the climate being the most pressing difference as it affected how people lived, the gastronomy and the animals that inhabited there.1 In this context, the primary account written in 1804 by George Leith, the first Governor General of Prince of Wales Island, known as Penang Island in the present day will be used as a centrepiece to illustrate the biased and flawed attitude the Europeans had towards the tropics and how this source ties into the wider theme of tropicality.

Given that the account was published during the time the British were seeking to expand their hold overseas to dominate trade under the Napoleonic Wars, cutting French supplies and establishing a foothold in the Malacca Straits was a top British priority as stated in the source.2 In order to make the colony functional, the British had to build infrastructure and provide amenities for the both the coloniser population, new immigrants and the locals. In the source, Leith explicitly states that the island is abundant with water and soil, the harbour is well shielded by the Malay peninsula, overlooks the Straits of Malacca, has reasonable high altitude hill retreats to escape the dry season, and the biggest settlement, George Town has brick buildings, hospitals, roads and houses which implies a sign of modernity. By stating all those factors, it can be assumed that Leith is attempting to encourage settlement on the island as all those factors make it attractive for colonists looking to maximise their profits in an expanding empire. Secondly, he notes how the island has a reasonable climate as compared to India. This point strikes me because, in the secondary readings, it was often assumed that the Indian subcontinent was the epitome of ‘tropical romanticisation’ due to its abundant natural resources and relative similarities to how the British or other Europeans envisioned a ‘tropical society’ where there are abundant resources and good weather.1 By shining the island’s potential in a positive light, it allows the Europeans to see that its climate is favourable and suitable for economic investment. This is in stark contrast to my elective secondary source reading on French Indochina, in which the French saw their colony as a deathbed with a 2% death rate and that the average life expectancy of a Frenchman is only around the 40s as the colony was filled with diseases.3 As a result, the ‘tropical climate’ or European colonies with hot weather can vary from being romanticised as a paradise or described as a place filled with disease and ‘bad air’ like how the French saw Indochina. As a result, the tropics are often ‘imagined’ in the European mindset.

Leith explicitly classifies occupations and characteristics of certain races in a sub-section called Inhabitants. He describes the Chinese, Parsees and Chooliahs as the races doing most of the hard work and are well-behaved which makes them useful as coolies and labourers to successfully run a colony. Conversely, he describes the Malays as indolent, vindictive and treacherous because they are an uncivilised race and are useless for labour. This signifies that inhabitants in the tropics are often seen by the Europeans are more lazy which is based on ancient Greek ideas of how the hotter the climate, the lazier and less warlike an individual becomes as illustrated by Hippocrates.4 This signifies that ‘tropicality’ is not based on science but rather supported by pseudo-philosophy by ancient philosophers like Hippocrates which do are not grounded in scientific methods and create a racial division line that separates races according to their ‘usefulness’ and perceived ‘nature’.  Therefore, it is evident why ‘tropicality’ is a flawed and biased concept. In the case of the British Strait Settlements, the British like Leith perceived that the Malays are lazy and uncivilised, Chinese and Indian labour had to be bought in from other colonial possessions in order to maximise profits, thus altering the settlement pattern and demography of present-day Malaysia and Singapore.

To sum it up, the concept of ‘tropicality’ is biased in the sense that it was based on pseudo-science, assumptions and, imaginations hence making it flawed.

  1. Arnold, David John. The Tropics and the Travelling Gaze: India, Landscape, and Science, 1800-1856 Introduction + Ch 4 From the Orient to the Tropics [] []
  2. Leith, George, Sir, A short account of the settlement, produce, and commerce, of Prince of Wales Island, in the Strait of Malacca  []
  3. Jennings, Eric Thomas. Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina Ch 1 Escaping Death in the Tropics []
  4. Hippocrates v. 1 ‘Airs Waters Places’ XII-XVI pp. 105-117 []