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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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). []

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Primary Source

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

Secondary Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human rights, a symbol for a new Taiwan

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

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

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

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

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


  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-67978185 []
  2. https://tw.news.yahoo.com/%E6%B0%91%E8%AA%BF-76-7-%E8%87%AA%E8%AA%8D%E6%98%AF%E5%8F%B0%E7%81%A3%E4%BA%BA-%E4%B8%AD%E5%9C%8B%E8%AA%8D%E5%90%8C%E5%B7%B2%E7%B6%93%E5%80%8B%E4%BD%8D%E6%95%B8-044006112.html?guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAMa3tYOVvzOCVYWYQfcdY3JVR-V-tDwjxGpcmLNCusfFh3acFRPJnKI5hcA0YdS4FewkhElwHzleI0hXC2-GpoAqhJot16047_x8OV8yv60InDnCCx9klHRCio-zR7lo2ARrRFLe1ectntl9KfRXnPIDxrR2mlNEwNAhxYR8jAVQ []
  3. Dawley, Evan Becoming Taiwanese: Ethnogenesis in a Colonial City 1880s-1950s  []
  4. Manthorpe, Jonathan, Taiwan: Forbidden nation  []
  5. TIEN, HUNG-MAO, and CHYUAN-JENG SHIAU. “Taiwan’s Democratization: A Summary.” World Affairs, vol. 155, no. 2, 1992, pp. 58–61. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20672340. Accessed 4 Feb. 2024. []
  6. TIEN, H.-M., & SHIAU, C.-J. (1992). Taiwan’s Democratization: A Summary. World Affairs, 155(2), 58–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20672340 []
  7. CHANG, BI-YU. “From Taiwanisation to De-Sinification: Culture Construction in Taiwan since the 1990s.” China Perspectives, no. 56, 2004, pp. 34–44. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24051939. Accessed 4 Feb. 2024. []
  8. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2023/12/29/taiwan-questions-the-role-of-chinese-literature-and-history-in-education_6384023_4.html []
  9. https://www.nhrm.gov.tw/w/nhrm/GI_History []
  10. Hotta-Lister, A. The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910: Gateway to the Island Empire of the East. 1 edition. Richmond: Routledge, 1999. []

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

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

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


Figure 1: Aerial overview of Victoria Park

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

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

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

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

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

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/hong-kong-history-explain-relationship-china []
  2. https://www.discoverhongkong.com/tc/explore/great-outdoor/urban-retreat-at-city-parks.html [] []
  3. https://web.archive.org/web/20150924101554/http://www.scmp.com/article/180291/queen-victoria-has-successful-nose-job []
  4. https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/trad/chinese-news-48511746 []
  5. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/03/asia/hong-kong-june-4-tiananmen-nsl-intl-mic-hnk/index.htmlOutside of its political functions, the park captures the livelihood of Hong Kong. []
  6. https://www.rfa.org/cantonese/news/htm/hk-fair-06042023104236.html []
  7. Chalana, Manish, ed. Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017. Ch 5 The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest []

The Garden of Ten Thousand Animals: Beijing’s First Public Park

In 1906, a delegation of court officials returned to Beijing from Germany with a host of exotic animals. The lions, tigers, zebras, and elephants they brought back were placed on imperial land, and thus the Garden of Ten Thousand Animals, or Wanshangyuen, was born. Two years later, it would open to the public, charging sixteen coppers for adults and eight for children.1 While this was an unprecedented space in China, similar zoological parks had been present in Asia since the mid-nineteenth century. The first was established in Batavia in 1864 and another followed soon after in Singapore in 1875.2 However, though they were superficially similar spaces to the Wanshengyuen, Beijing’s zoological park took on extra cultural meaning due to the historical context it arose in. While the Singapore and Batavia zoos existed within a colonial framework and thus served to perpetuate the existing colonial regime, the Wanshengyuan was used as a tool to herald a new urban age for Beijing.

Figure 1: Map of Beijing 19033

The Wanshengyuan was located just outside the walls to the Inner City, built on land which had previously held two imperial temples and their gardens. This space is visible in Figure 1 in the top left corner, labelled “Garten der Wohltätigkeit”. Since the fourteenth century, the city of Beijing had followed strict spatial delineations, with concentric walled segments dividing people by class and status.  The Forbidden City was the home of the emperors: the centre of Beijing and, metaphorically, the universe. Here, open spaces were prevalent, in the gardens and courtyards of temples and palaces. As one moved outwards into the Imperial City, which housed high ranking imperial officers, the Inner City, occupied by bannermen and other officials, and finally the Outer city, the availability of open space gradually decreased.4 Open space thus was a marker of status and inextricably linked to the imperial house. The foundation of the Wanshengyuan and the creation of a public space on formerly imperial and temple grounds, was radical. Much like the Singapore zoo, it attracted non-elite members of society to marvel at its animals.5 However, in Beijing this held extra weight, due to the pre-existing norms and connotations of open space. Though most visitors were of the middle class, it was still a significant reshuffling of the status quo.6

Figure 2: The Experimental Agricultural Complex7

As Mingzheng Shi suggests, the Wanshangyuen was a spatial representation of the growth of the public sphere in early republican China.8 Prior to the nineteenth century menageries had been the sole purview of rulers and the wealthy. They were private celebrations of the control exercised by the privileged over the natural world. Animals in Beijing’s menageries were often used in imperial rituals such as the Royal Ploughing Ceremony or the Spring and and Autumn Royal Hunting Ceremonies.9 A zoological park open to the public, however, had different connotations. It was a message that a government could provide for its citizens, an image the early republican Chinese government wished to pursue.10 Much like the zoo in Batavia and Singapore, the Wanshengyuen was attached to a Botanical Garden and various research facilities. In Figure 2 we can see the complex in which the Wanshengyuen (A) was housed, as well as various experimental agriculture beds, a museum (D), and sericulture hall (C). However, unlike the colonial institutions, the Wanshengyuen inherently appealed to the common citizen given its novel place in Beijing’s spatial culture. Thus, the Wanshengyuen could be connected to a wider project of research intended to improve the lives of all citizens, unlike the zoos in Batavia and Singapore which were seen more as colonial tools.

The Wanshengyuan is an interesting case study into the ways parks could be used by governments in different Asian contexts. While the zoological gardens of Singapore were certainly seen by the public as a symbol of modernity, as they bemoaned the absence of such a symbol in their city once it had been closed, that was never its purpose for the colonial government.11 Rather it was an extension of the botanical gardens projection of colonial control and power, self-aggrandizing rather than communally uplifting. The Wanshengyuen, on the other hand, was used by the early republican government to show that they were abandoning the exclusionist policies of the past and emphasising public welfare.10 As such, though the Wanshengyuen was perhaps spatially similar to previous zoological parks in Asia, it was in fact a culturally distinct entity.

  1. Mingzheng Shi, “From Imperial Gardens to Public Parks: The Transformation of Urban Space in Early Twentieth-Century Beijing”, Modern China 24:3 (1998), p. 229. []
  2. Timothy Barnard, Nature’s Colony (Singapore, 2016), p. 85. []
  3. Peking – Contagion – CURIOSity Digital Collections (harvard.edu) []
  4. Mingzheng Shi, “From Imperial Gardens to Public Parks: The Transformation of Urban Space in Early Twentieth-Century Beijing”, Modern China 24:3 (1998), p. 220. []
  5. Timothy Barnard, Nature’s Colony (Singapore, 2016), p. 96. []
  6. Mingzheng Shi, “From Imperial Gardens to Public Parks: The Transformation of Urban Space in Early Twentieth-Century Beijing”, Modern China 24:3 (1998), p. 250. []
  7. Xin Shixue, “From Imperial Menageries to Public Zoological Garden: Captive Wild Animals at the Qing Court”, New History 29:1 (2018), p. 24. []
  8. Mingzheng Shi, “From Imperial Gardens to Public Parks: The Transformation of Urban Space in Early Twentieth-Century Beijing”, Modern China 24:3 (1998). []
  9. Xin Shixue, “From Imperial Menageries to Public Zoological Garden: Captive Wild Animals at the Qing Court”, New History 29:1 (2018). []
  10. Mingzheng Shi, “From Imperial Gardens to Public Parks: The Transformation of Urban Space in Early Twentieth-Century Beijing”, Modern China 24:3 (1998), p. 233. [] []
  11. Timothy Barnard, Nature’s Colony (Singapore, 2016), p. 111. []

Five pavilions in Jingshan Park, Beijing: The absence of special items forges the national sentiment and shapes collective historical memory

Jingshan Park in Beijing is located next to the Forbidden city. (Figure 1) For many years, this park has been imperial and not opened to the public until 1928. Like many other imperial places, the park was invaded and destroyed when foreign troops entered Beijing in the late imperial period. This blog will refer to a tour guide article published in 2012 on a local Chinese tourism website, to discuss the impact of historical traumas on the park’s architecture, asserting that despite the foreign invasion caused severe architectural destruction, a deliberate decision by the government for not restoring some Buddha statues within the traditional pavilions in Jingshan Park can further cultivate national sentiment. By selectively choosing which historical aspects to restore, the government intends to shape collective memory and crafting a shared narrative that resonates with the broader populace.

Figure 1. Map of Jingshan Park and the Forbidden city

According to the website’s article, Jingshan Park has five traditional pavilions, each housing a copper Buddha statue representing one of the five tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, acrid, and salt.1 Regrettably, during the siege of the international legations in 1900, foreign soldiers removed four of these statues,2 directly compromising the integrity of the five tastes. There was only one statue in Wanchun Pavilion (Figure 2.) being preserved.

Figure 2. Wanchun Pavillion

Although this statue was preserved during the 1900 event, it was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s when fervent individuals destroyed all Buddhist-related objects within the park.3 The removal of the first four statues symbolises the traumatic loss of Chinese traditional treasures due to Western powers, while the destruction of the second one mirrors the upheaval within Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution. Notably, the government’s response to these losses diverges. The Buddha statue, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, was restored in 1998, signifying a commitment to reclaiming historical heritage. However, a proposal by Li Yuling in 2006 to restore the remaining four statues was rejected during the conference.4 This discrepancy in handling restoration projects reflects the government’s selective emphasis on historical narratives. Likely, the website does not mention the destruction of the statue in Wanchun Pavilion during the Cultural Revolution, underscoring the nuanced ways historical narratives are presented.

The historical narratives surrounding Jingshan Park reveal a discernible selectivity on the website, omitting certain facts and focusing on specific aspects. The absence of the four statues connected to the foreign invasion serves as a poignant reminder of a national tragedy inflicted by the West. Their non-restoration perpetuates a historical memory of loss, casting a shadow that lingers with visitors. The enduring pain of losing these traditional artifacts persists, leaving an impact on those who visit the remaining four pavilions. In contrast, the statue in Wanchun Pavilion, tied to internal chaos, underwent restoration in 1998. This act of restoration seeks to efface the traces of its destruction and erase the memory of violent actions carried out by the Chinese themselves. These selective restoration projects reflect the government’s effort to reshape historical narratives selectively. It brings to mind Zheng Wang’s book, Never Forget National Humiliation, where he introduces a concept of the Choseness-Myths-Trauma complex. He suggests that the government strategically select certain historical events to construct a chosen historical memory, invoking national sentiment.5 The revived statue in Wanchun Pavilion, distinct from the four forever-lost statues from the foreign occupation, symbolises the enduring Chinese tradition and spirit despite the challenges posed by Western invasion. It stands as a carefully chosen memorial object, contributing to the construction of a resilient national identity.

In this week’s elective reading on Taiwan park, the author highlights the replacement of Kodama Gentaro and Goto Shinpei’s statues with those of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, claiming it demonstrates another type of ‘colonial’ occupation and changing political landscapes.6 This blog asserts that beyond the visual impact of statues, the absence of traditional objects in specific spaces can significantly contribute to shaping national sentiment and moulding selective historical memory. It posits that not only do specific historical events construct national sentiment, but the simultaneous presence and absence of exhibit items in historical spaces can also influence historical interpretations, directing the emphasis on sentiment and memory.

Figure 3. The restored Buddha statue in Wanchun Pavilion

Figure 4. Russian Occupation of Jingshan Park, 1900



Primary Sources

‘Jingshan Park’, Travel China Guide, March 2012, < https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/beijing/jingshan.htm> [accessed 29 January 2024].

Secondary Sources

Allen, Joseph R, ‘Taipei Park: Signs of Occupation’, The Journal of Asian Studies 66: 1 (2007), pp. 159–199, <https://doi.org/10.1017/s0021911807000010> [accessed 29 January 2024].

“Jingshan Gongyuan de Wuzuo Tingzi” 景山公园的五座亭子, Beijingshi Renming Zhengfu 北京市人民政府(2017), https://www.beijing.gov.cn/renwen/jrbj/sjc/201703/t20170309_1874497.html.

“Luoshi Huifu Jingshan Wuting Lishiyuanmao Zhengxietian Jiaoliuhui Zaijingjuxing” 落实恢复景山五亭历史原貌政协提案交流会在京举行, Fojiao Zaxian (2006), https://web.archive.org/web/20140106033017/http://news.fjnet.com/jjdt/jjdtnr/200605/t20060524_26414.htm.

Wang, Zheng, Never forget national humiliation: Historical memory in Chinese politics and foreign relations (New York, 2014).

  1. ‘Jingshan Park’, Travel China Guide, March 2012, <https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/beijing/jingshan.htm> [accessed 29 January 2024]. []
  2. ‘Jingshan Park’. []
  3. “Jingshan Gongyuan de Wuzuotingzi” 景山公园的五座亭子, Beijingshi Reming Zhengfu 北京市人民政府(2017), https://www.beijing.gov.cn/renwen/jrbj/sjc/201703/t20170309_1874497.html. []
  4. “Luoshi Huifu Jingshan Wuting Lishiyuanmao Zhengxietian Jiaoliuhui Zaijingjuxing” 落实恢复景山五亭历史原貌政协提案交流会在京举行, Fojiao Zaxian (2006), https://web.archive.org/web/20140106033017/http://news.fjnet.com/jjdt/jjdtnr/200605/t20060524_26414.htm. []
  5. Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (New York, 2014), p. 39. []
  6. Joseph R. Allen, ‘Taipei Park: Signs of Occupation’, The Journal of Asian Studies 66: 1 (2007), p. 177, <https://doi.org/10.1017/s0021911807000010> [accessed 29 January 2024]. []

The Padang: A Living Chronicle – Unveiling Layers of History Through Urban Palimpsest

Koompong Noobanjong’s chapter ‘The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest,’ offers a compelling lens through which one can unravel the historical layers of a specific space. This exploration of Sanam Luang as a polysemic urban palimpsest serves as a valuable framework that can be applied to unravel and comprehend the historical tapestry of another iconic space – Singapore’s Padang. From functioning as a cricket ground to becoming the location of pivotal moments in wartime history and national independence, the Padang stands as a silent witness to the evolution of Singapore’s social fabric since its establishment in 1822.1

The Padang, a lush expanse nestled in the heart of Singapore, transcends its physical limits because it is an iconic feature, which now belongs to the Singapore Cricket Club (SCC) which was founded in 1852. This site has metamorphosed from a cricket field – a relic of British colonial influence – to become a multifunctional space, encapsulating the essence of Singapore’s societal shifts. Noobanjong’s spatial analysis theory invites us to delve into the layers beneath the greenery to uncover moments of historical significance.

Noobanjong’s unfurls a captivating tapestry where coexistence, convergence, contradiction and contestation seamlessly interweave.2 This is more than just a physical space. Noobanjong showcases how Sanam Luang became a manifestation of royal authority, an expression of military ambitions, and a symbol of the people’s struggle for civil empowerment, liberty, equality, national unity and modern polity.3 Translating this lens onto the Padang, one can witness a similar narrative unfolding – a narrative brought to life by figure 1. This painting serves not just as a visual representation but as a tool for theorising, thematising and contextualising the ‘messiness’ of Singapore’s Padang.4

Figure 1. The Esplanade from Scandal Point (1851). A painting by John Turnbull Thompson, the first Governor Surveyor of Singapore.5

Figure 1, The Esplanade from Scandal Point (1851) is a painting by John Turnbull Thompson which records what the Padang would have looked like during British colonial rule. While the commissioner and the purpose behind the painting remains unknown, the essence of the Padang is vividly portrayed. The artwork underscores the Padang’s ability to adapt and accommodate diverse recreational activities, serving as a communal space for various ethnic groups. This suggests that the Padang stood at the heart of social life in the 19th century, embodying an idyllic vision of multicultural harmony in Singapore. It functioned as a space where different ethnic groups could promenade or exercise. The image captures the versatility of the Padang highlighting the space’s role as a dynamic and inclusive space.

Moreover, the image conveys the imposition of European culture. This is evident in the portrayal of Europeans positioned on an elevated plane, either on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages. In contrast, Asians are predominantly depicted standing or seated on the field. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the two figures adorned in white clothing, symbolising a stark juxtaposition between the dominant European presence and the Asian subjects in the scene.

A curious and inexplicable aspect of the painting lies in the ghost-like figures in the background. The absence of contextual information leaves room for speculation on how these figures were intended to be viewed. Metaphorically, these figures serve as a poignant reminder of the Padang’s status as a palimpsest. The faded figures evoke the idea that the Padang carries echoes of countless historical moments, akin to the layers of paint on canvas. This serves as a poignant reminder of the Padang’s enduring significance, weaving itself into the fabric of Singapore’s narrative across time.

Indeed, the Padang has played a pivotal role in manifesting and legitimising ruling authority. Its origins as a cricket ground during British imperial rule cemented its place as a colonial playground. Over the years, the Padang’s emergence as Singapore’s most important colonial civic space was organic as it also functioned as a location for many state ceremonies, military parades and national events. One of the earliest ceremonies to take place was the firing of the salute by the artillery in 1824 to commemorates King George IV’s birthday.6

The theory of urban palimpsest helps to articulate the Padang as a contested space. Although figure 1 is an idyllic representation, the Padang has also been witnessed to the imprint of various political happenings. Indeed, it became the site for the display of Japanese imperial power when the Padang became an assembly ground to hold and interrogate the European population (civilians and prisoners of war) before marching them off to internment camps in Changi and Katong.7 Moreover from colonial demonstrations – such as the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950 – to post-independence rallies, the Padang has absorbed the imprints of diverse identities and struggles, making it a canvas where historical narratives overlap, contradict and coexist.8

More recently, the Padang has had an important historic function since it was the site where Prime Minister Lee unilaterally declared Singapore’s independence in 1963.  Clearly. it has been the centre of key historic milestones and has now become a symbol of national pride and unity.

Together, this narrative suggests that places are prodigious historical recorders. The Padang, with its amalgamation of forms and meanings across historical epochs, serves as a narrator of Singapore’s human legacies. Viewing the Padang through the lens of an urban palimpsest reveals a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of space in Singapore. Much like Bangkok’s Sanam Luang, the Padang encapsulates the totality of Singaporean society, embodying continuity and change, political struggles, diverse cultural expressions and ultimately unity. It stands as a resilient urban palimpsest, inviting us to decode its multifaceted meanings and appreciate the dynamic interplay of Singapore’s past and present.

Overall, Noobanjong’s spatial anaylsis acts as a guiding tool, inviting the readership to appreciate how urban spaces encapsulate the ebb and flow of societal narratives. As one traverse the Padang, it becomes apparent that you are not merely treading on grass, but beneath lies strata of history, culture and identity. Therefore, it is clear that understanding space is not just about the present; it is about peeling back the layers of time.


  1. Yoke-Sum Wong, ‘The Chaos of Dainties: Singapore and the Confections of Empire, 1819-1930,’ (Thesis, University of Alberta, 2003), p. 9. []
  2. Koompong Noobanjong, ‘The Royal Field (Sanam Luang: Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest,’ in Manish D. Chalana (ed), Messy Urbanism: Understanding the ‘Other’ Cities of Asia, (Hong Kong, 2017), p. 81 []
  3. Koompong Noobanjong, ‘The Royal Field (Sanam Luang: Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest,’ p. 88 []
  4. Ibid., p. 84 []
  5. John Turnbull Thompson, ‘The Esplanade from Scandal Point,’ oil painting, 1851, Singapore <https://www.roots.gov.sg/Collection-Landing/listing/1052004> [accessed 30th January 2024]. []
  6. Kevin Tan, ‘A History of the Padang,’ Biblioasia: National Library Singapore, April/June 2022 <https://github.com/isomerpages/nlb-biblioasia/blob/staging/_apr-to-jun-2022/A%20History%20of%20The%20Padang.md> [accessed 30th January 2024] []
  7. Kevin Tan, ‘A History of the Padang,’ Biblioasia []
  8.  Ibid.  []

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. []