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. []
  2. []
  3. Curzon, George N. “Journeys in French Indo-China (Tongking, Annam, Cochin China, Cambodia) (Conclusion).” The Geographical Journal 2, no. 3 (1893): 193–210. []
  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, Accessed 26 Jan. 2024. []
  5. []
  6. []
  7.,%25)%2C%20expanding%20by%20497.5%25. []
  8. []
  9. Vickers, Adrian Bali: A Paradise Created (2012 [1996]) []

The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) and its revolutionisation of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a sprawling metropolis with over 7.3 million individuals situated in a combined area of less than London and where land is scarce with 90% of its territory covered by mountains. Despite the challenges it faced with the population explosion after the Second World War, today Hong Kong is regarded as a city with one of the best transport systems in the world due to its punctuality and affordability, even gaining the title of having the best transport in the world.1 For this article, I will be focusing on the Mass Transit Railway or MTR which is arguably the backbone of Hong Kong’s efficient transport system. I will first analyse its beginnings, then followed by its association with the Hong Kong identity, and then analyse the negative association with higher living costs and being complicit with the Hong Kong government’s crackdown on civil liberties during the 2019 Anti-Extradition protests.

Prior to the construction of the MTR, there was only the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) that opened in 1910, running a single-track line from Kowloon station in today’s Tsim Sha Tsui, through the then-rural areas of the New Territories and eventually crossing the border into mainland China through the Shum Chun river (today’s Shenzhen.2 Therefore, not many trains were needed and a single-line track to China sufficed as many individuals looking to flee the mainland from Communist persecution made use of the railway to reach the haven of Hong Kong.

However, the influx of population to nearly 4 million in 1970 and the overcrowding of urban areas and buses in Hong Kong and Kowloon proved to be unmanageable for the Hong Kong government and a new approach was needed. To complement the development of New Towns in the New Territories spearheaded by then-Governor General Barron Murray MacLehose, not only will the existing KCR line be double-tracked and electrified, a brand-new underground system initially running from the densely-populated housing districts of East Kowloon to the economic hub of Tsim Sha Tsui and eventually crossing the harbour into Central was constructed from 1975 and completed in 1979, completely transforming the way Hong Kong residents commuted.3 In particular, my family benefitted from the MTR construction as their daily commuting lives shortened from over an hour on buses to a mere half an hour by train from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island.


Figure 1: A diesel hauled train of the Kowloon-Canton Railway pre-electrification (circa 1960s colourised)

Figure 2: The first MTR train to ever run (Source: South China Morning Post)

The MTR has completely revolutionised people’s lives. According to a 2005 article by Man Hui Po a Hong Kong newspaper, it has become a pillar of the majority of Hong Kongers’ lives no matter which district they live in as since 1979 to the present day, the MTR has expanded to cover every district and its dominance over Hong Kong cannot be underestimated.4 The affordability and timeliness of the MTR is what makes it attractive. Even in non-peak hours, people can expect a train to arrive every 5 minutes unless it is the train lines for the less crowded districts. I have taken the MTR for granted as I have relied on it for my everyday commute to school since primary school all the way until my matriculation at St Andrews. I miss the jingle of trains, station announcements and people going on their daily lives for myself these sounds characterise the identity of Hong Kong. Although there are always people misbehaving on trains like playing music loudly, shouting obscene words or not covering your mouth when coughing, it is the MTR that makes Hong Kong function as without it, the idea of ‘Hong Kong efficiency’ will not be born as Hong Kong is known for being a city that never sleeps with individuals always rushing about to complete as much tasks as possible.5

Despite all the positive associations of the MTR, it has not been without its problems. For instance, after the merger of the MTR and KCR in 2007 in which the KCR systems have become under the operation of the MTR, it has become the sole monopoly of rail service provider of Hong Kong, hence limiting competition.6 The merger has also become a source of frustration among the local populace as it was rumoured that the MTR cooperation has been neglecting maintenance due to the increasing number of accidents that partially paralysed commuters, generating inconveniences among the commuters. Besides this, the MTR cooperation has also been portrayed as being complicit in the ‘Sinicisation’ of Hong Kong culture as not only does it have control over vast swaths of property and malls located close to stations with land prices being one of the most unaffordable on the planet. The discontent with the system came to a boiling point in the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests in which protesters initially calling for a controversial law allowing fugitives to be extradited to Mainland China for trail became a protest for free speech and democracy as the Hong Kong leader did not make concessions.7) The MTR has been criticised by the pro-democracy camp for assisting police officers by allowing them access to paid areas of stations to make arbitrary arrests and close stations where demonstrators gathered, as the police have been under fire for using excessive brute force against demonstrators.8

As a result, what was once Hong Kong’s pride can lose its prestige among its citizens within a short time as even places of mobility can become very politicised in the era of the digital world. Therefore, the MTR, although an inseperable part of Hong Kong’s identity and life can also be subject to criticism especially in recent years which society has become politicised.

Figure 3: Police cracking down on demonstraters at Prince Edward station on 31st July 2019. Source: Mainichi Shinbun


  1. []
  2. John M. Carroll, A Concise History of Hong Kong (2006), p. 171). Up until the late 1960s, the northern areas of Hong Kong Island and most of Kowloon remained the core areas of Hong Kong with most of the business activities and industrial production centered around these two parts. In contrast, the New Territories remained a world of its own mainly focusing on agricultural production and village life. ((Frank Welsh, A History of Hong Kong (1997) []
  3. Frank Welsh, A History of Hong kong (1997) []
  4. []
  5. []
  6. 港鐵,邁進新紀元,2007版 []
  7. Michael C. Davis, Making Hong Kong China (2019 []
  8. []

Quantifying Our Home: Content study of an Urban Mass Housing Magazine

This blog explores findings from a quantitative analysis of the contents of HDB Our Home Magazine. Specifically, the first issue (October 1972), an issue in its 5th year (October, 1977), an issue in its 10th year (October, 1982), and its final issue (Aug-Sep, 1989).  ‘Our Home’ was a magazine run by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in Singapore from 1972-1989, free to its residents (and 50 cents to non-residents) it provided articles and advice on cooking, housing and cultural topics. This study looked at the quantity and genre of different types of content in the magazine issue. Due to language limitations, only the English content is included here. Overall, the results suggest that while there was a surprising lack of dialogue between advertisements and articles; while the advertisements pushed the narrative of modernity and domesticity through products and services related to modern interior design and new technology, the editors of the magazines were far more concerned with highlighting the harmonious, diverse community of HDB.


Contributions – Content that included contributions from the community (e.g. Q&A, recipes, opinions)

Notice & Housekeeping – Content that is presented as important information to residents (e.g rent info, maintenance, housing reminders)

Fig. 1-4 Breakdown of the spread of different types and content topics in each of the 4 magazine issues respectively

While this is a limited data sample, spaced at appropriate intervals over the magazine’s run, some insights can be gleamed. Advertisements are the category to display the most changes over the 4 issues, beginning with 10 different advert genres initially, then having an unusual year in 1977 with only 2 genres and 6 adverts in total, before stabilising at 6 different types for the next two issues. While this likely fluctuates in issues beyond the data set, I think the high number in the first issue is likely a reflection of the investors and the advertorial team not knowing what the magazine’s readership or purpose was yet. This uncertainty is present with both the adverts and articles in the featuring beauty and fashion in the first issue and abandoning them in the subsequent issues. Potentially, they realised they had broader appeal than just women, or perhaps the editorial team decided they wanted to mould the home, not the housewife. Either way, it’s clear they moved away from being a women’s magazine to being a home magazine. In terms of content the articles started to lean more consistently towards community and instructional guidance, while adverts focused on interior design and technology as their primary promotional content.


Fig. 5-6 Culminative number of different content type in advertisements and articles across the 3 magazine issues.

The breakdown of the technology adverts largely consisted of sound technology, cooking machinery and Sony products. The interior design adverts ranged from furniture salesrooms, tilers, and kitchen upgraders. While it would be tempting to use this to draw a parallel between HDB’s approach to technology and the modern home to what Tatiana Knoroz describes as an obsessive drive to keep technologically up-to-date in Japan’s mass housing of Danchi to justify its value as middle class housing, this magazine doesn’t support this link (1). While this may be the narrative of the adverts, none of these issues have an article about technology. Even in the 3 interior design article there is no push towards modern interior design, indeed in one of them compares a modern and traditional home interior and concludes they are both equally ‘cosy’ (2). Their focus is more on building community relations through profiles on people and communities, advice on living in HDB residences, and instructional articles. This is reflected in the 3 languages that the magazine is presented in. Another technique they are keen to push is community contribution to the magazine, in the contents page of the four issues, but contribution consistently remains low in this data set, perhaps indicating a lack of engagement or desire for this type of interaction.

Ultimately then, while this small quantitative study seems to mirror some narratives of modernity’s effect on post-war mass housing, the articles’ themselves don’t seem to mirror the same drive to modernise and westernise interiors and equipment. While adverts are a part of the magazine’s value system and narrative, the lack of dialogue between them in this data bears some highlighting.


  • Tatiana Knoroz, Dissecting the Danchi: Inside Japan’s Largest Postwar Housing Experiment. (Springer Nature, 2022), pp. 41-112
  • ‘Vast Variations’, Our Home (Singapore, House and Development Board) August-Sep, 1989, p.28

Reference list:

Our Home (Singapore, House and Development Board), October, 1972

Our Home (Singapore, House and Development Board), October, 1977

Our Home (Singapore, House and Development Board), October, 1982

Our Home (Singapore, House and Development Board), Aug-Sep, 1989



The Comparison between the Shanghai’s shantytown and lilong: the presentations of the class stratification

Image 1.1 The shantytown in Shanghai

Image 2.2 Lilong in Shanghai

This blog explores the prevailing conditions of Shanghai’s shantytown and lilong between 1930 and 1950. It will explore the demographic composition of residents, the quality of buildings, and the overall living standards, in order to highlight how these contrasting residential areas epitomised the prevailing social hierarchy in Shanghai. The shantytown primarily served as hubs for individuals from the lower strata of society, reflecting their challenging living conditions. Conversely, lilong represented spaces where the social elite and respectable members of society resided, manifesting the progressive strides of the era. These distinctions were tangible reflections of the societal disparities within the hierarchy.

To depict the authentic realities of Shanghai’s shantytowns (Image 1) and lilong (Image 2), this blog draws from Hanchao Lu’s depiction of lilong and Wang Lanhua’s firsthand experiences as a resident of Fangua Lane, a renowned shantytown in 20th-century Shanghai. The visual representations above vividly illustrate the stark contrasts between these prevalent residential areas. The shantytown exhibited a worn-down appearance, while lilong boasted a sense of orderliness and thoughtful design. However, these disparities extended far beyond mere surface appearances.

Primarily, the demographic makeup of residents in these areas was notably distinct. Shanghai experienced a significant influx of migrants after 1930, significantly complicating the city’s demographic landscape. According to Lu, Shanghai’s population surged to over 3 million in 1930, a drastic increase from the approximately 1 million residents in 1900.3 This surge in population affected both the shantytown and lilong, albeit in different ways. The shantytown, such as Fangua Lane, predominantly became sanctuaries for refugees, exemplified by the experiences of Wang Lanhua and her husband. As Denise Ho highlights, the post-1945 civil war brought a significant influx of refugees to Shanghai, resulting in Fangua Lane accommodating between 3,000 to 4,000 shantytown residences inhabited by over 16,000 refugees.4 Wang Lanhua notably referred to these shantytown dwellings as gundilong 滚地龙, the symbolic portrait of working people’s lives in Old China.5 In contrast, lilong experienced an influx of predominantly elite residents, including rich landlords, merchants, literati, bureaucrats, shop assistants, clerks, schoolteachers, and artisans.6 Despite the influx of migrants, social class remained a determining factor in residents’ choice of dwelling, ultimately shaping the demographic landscape of these neighbourhoods.

The contrast between the amenities and facilities in the shantytown and lilong was also stark. The shantytown dwellings were often constructed from random materials, and subject to frequent demolitions. As noted by Wang Lanhua, usually, she would put up a shelter each night and take it down each morning in order to avoid the International Settlement police.7 In sharp contrast, lilong residences boasted sturdy reinforced concrete structures,8 offering greater security and durability, making them less susceptible to easy demolition. This architectural contrast was also reflected in a broader divide in interior facilities. From the 1930s onward, lilong houses underwent a modernisation surge, integrating modern amenities such as sanitary fixtures (bathrooms with a bathtub and flush toilet) and a gas supply for cooking and hot water.8 Additionally, some residences began incorporating garages, indicating the residents’ ownership of private automobiles.9 In contrast, shantytown dwellings lacked modern conveniences and endured harsh conditions. Wang Lanhua’s poignant account indicated that she gave birth to her second child on the mud floor of a gundilong.10 While lilong residents embraced modernisation and its benefits, shantytown inhabitants lived with simplicity and austerity, devoid of such amenities. These differences in material convenience are the practical expression of the class distinction.

The stark disparities between the shantytown and lilong, evident in their demographic composition and housing facilities, underscore a substantial gap between these residential areas. Life in the lilong, without a doubt, epitomised comfort, modernity, and convenience, starkly contrasting the perpetually turbulent, arduous, and austere existence in the shantytown. The demographic composition of the residents is the best evidence of the social stratification, as it directly reflects the eventual flow of Shanghai’s migrant population. Moreover, the contrasting housing amenities in the shantytown highlighted the physical manifestation of the class stratification. Lilong houses were equipped with modern conveniences, a material practice of higher social status. This contrasts with the humble facilities of the shantytown buildings. As the essential residences for Shanghai’s transient population between 1930 and 1950, the shantytown and lilong epitomised the living conditions of different social classes. A comparative analysis of these areas can help to gain a comprehensive insight into the living conditions of different social strata in Shanghai during that period.

  1. Straw huts over stagnant water source: H1-21-8-21, Shanghai Municipal Archive, <> [accessed November 22, 2023]. []
  2. Hanchao Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century (Berkeley, 2008), p. 147. []
  3. Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights, p. 162 []
  4. Denise Y. Ho, Curating Revolution Politics on Display in Mao’s China (Cambridge, 2018), pp. 65-67. []
  5. Ho, Curating Revolution Politics on Display in Mao’s China, p.65. []
  6. Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights, p. 156. []
  7. Ho, Curating Revolution Politics on Display in Mao’s China, p.79. []
  8. Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights, p. 150. [] []
  9. Ibid., p. 151. []
  10. Ho, Curating Revolution Politics on Display in Mao’s China, p.67. []

Stainless Steel Sinks: Shaping modern Japanese homes and transforming the lives of middle-class women.

In Laura Neitzel’s book, The Life we Longed For: Danchi Housing and the Middle-Class Dream in Postwar Japan, she highlights how the seemingly mundane kitchen sink holds its own rich history. Its history, she contends, serves as a poignant reflection of the evolving ideas surrounding home, family life, and the relentless pursuit of ‘modern living.’1 As she briefly touches upon the centrality of the stainless steel sink, this discussion endeavours to delve deeper into the narrative, offering a more comprehensive analysis that unveils the transformative role that specific amenities have on shaping the function of a space. In this case, this narrative will form around the transformative role that the stainless steel sink had on postwar middle-class women in Japan.

Neitzel’s exploration focuses on the pivotal role played by the Japan Housing Corporation (JHC) in the formation of Danchi apartment complexes – a development that unraveled the very fabric of middle-class life in postwar Japan. Neitzel identifies that the danchi served as a test bed for housing technology development, which played a pioneering role in standardising and modernising interior living spaces. This book is nestled in the broader historical context of the aftermath of World War II. The war left Japan’s urban areas in ruins, promoting an urgent need for reconstruction. Recognising the significance of housing in this rebuilding process, the Japanese government established the JHC in 1955. Its primary focus was on finding innovative solutions emblematic of a new era of modern living.2

Enter Miho Hamaguchi, a notable architectural visionary, whose influence in the 20th century has come to resonate through time. Neitzel mentions the work of Miho Hamaguchi and highlights her seminal 1950 book, The feudalism of the Japanese Home, which pioneer a paradigm shift in architectural planning. In this work, she advocated for a non-hierarchical planning, seeking after an egalitarian society without gender or class difference and believed that residential design was the tool to achieve this. The JHC recognised the potential of Miho Hamaguchi ideas and sought her collaboration.3 Indeed, Hamaguchi’s architectural philosophy, rooted in the rejection of hierarchical structures, aligned with the ethos of the danchi and became a successful collaboration that became a catalyst for change. Together, the work of Hamaguchi and the designs for the danchi breathed in a new design of space where residents could coexist harmoniously, liberated from the constraints of historical hierarchies.

What exactly was the role of the sink? How did the incorporation of a stainless steel sink symbolise ‘modernity’?

Hamaguchi assertion, as reiterated by Neitzel, ‘before the stainless-steel sink was put in, the dining-kitchen (DK) was a horrible place.’4 Indeed, the stainless steel-sink brought in a new aesthetic that helped to alter the entire function, practicality and efficiency of the kitchen.

Figure 1 captures the pre-stainless steel sink era, depicting a typical rural kitchen characterised by an uninviting ambiance. The image showcases an earthen floor, a lock of proper storage for pots, minimal lighting from a small window, and the absence of running water for dishwashing. (( Simon Partner, ‘Taming the Wilderness: The Lifestyle Improvement in Rural Japan, 1925-1965,’ Monumenta Nipponica, 56:4 (2001), p. 493. )) It represents the inconvenient and unhygienic space typical of many pre-war Japanese kitchens.

Figure 1. An ‘unreformed’ rural kitchen, 19495

Figure 2. A stainless-steel kitchen module. A replica of an orginal interior of Tokiwadaira Danchi built around 1960.6

In stark contrast, figure 2 represents a radical departure – a visually enriched and efficiently designed space centred around the stainless-steel sink. This layout not only introduces aesthetics but also revolutionises the practicality of the space. With designated spaces for pots, food preparation and dishwashing, this image represents how Japanese women found emancipation from their traditional roles in housewife duties.

With the introduction of this stainless-steel sink, the space of the kitchen altered becoming more efficient, thus Japanese women found themselves doing less and now had more time for other cultural activities. Furthermore, the sink created more space which in the context of the danchi allowed for the development of ‘Dining-Kitchens’ (DK). This saw the introduction of Wester-style table and chairs placed next to the kitchen facilities which further liberated women from excess movement and enabled them to talk with family members while cooking.7

The significance of this amenity is profound, as the mere addition of a more aesthetically pleasing and efficient sink facilitated a shift in the entire dynamics of the kitchen space. This ushered in an era of modernity that not only enhanced the visual appeal but also facilitated subsequent developments, ultimately reshaping the traditional role of a housewife in Japan.

The two images help capture this development. As figure 1 evokes a poignant image of a housewife toiling in dim, unhygienic, and solitary conditions, creating an atmosphere where she was more like a servant to the kitchen than a master of her domain. Whereas, figure 1 highlights a change in her narrative as it evokes the housewife navigating a space that is not only safer and brighter but more efficient, allowing her to move beyond the realm of housewife duties, where some middle-class women got jobs.

Recognising the profound impact of specific amenities on a space is crucial to understanding the intricate tapestry of social and cultural change. In this context, the introduction of seemingly mundane elements, such as a kitchen sink, is a powerful analytical tool, to unveil the layers of transformation within the fabric of society. Indeed, one is able to understand a deeper transformation in the way that individuals perceive and interacted with their living spaces.

  1. Laura Neitzel, The Life we Longed For: Danchi Housing and the Middle Class Dream in Postwar Japan, (2016), p. 41. []
  2. Neitzel, The Life we Longed For, p. xiv. []
  3. Tatiana Knoroz, Dissecting the Danchi: Inside Japan’s Largest Postwar Housing Experiment , (2022), p. 65 []
  4. Neitzel, The Life we Longed For, p. 42. []
  5. Figure 1. An ‘unreformed’ rural kitchen, 1949, image in Simon Partner, ‘Taming the Wilderness: The Lifestyle Improvement in Rural Japan, 1925-1965,’ Monumenta Nipponica, 56:4 (2001), p. 493. []
  6. Figure 2. A stainless-steel kitchen module. A replica of an orginal interior of Tokiwadaira Danchi built around 1960, image in Tatiana Knoroz, Dissecting the Danchi: Inside Japan’s Largest Postwar Housing Experiment , (2022), p. 69. []
  7. Neitzel, The Life we Longed For, p. 43. []

Mass Media Domesticity: Comparing Ling Long and Shufu no Tomo

The early twentieth century saw rising literacy and expanding commercial popular presses in China and Japan. As such , the interwar period ushered in a boom in women’s magazines. These publications targeted female issues and became guides for household management and taste. However, the approaches to domestic control espoused by Chinese and Japanese counterparts differed. By comparing the contents of Shufu no Tomo and Ling Long, we can see the diversity of domestic revolutions occurring in China and Japan in the interwar period.

Shufu no Tomo, commonly translated as Housewife’s Companion, was first published in 1917, and by 1925 was the most popular Japanese women’s magazine, selling over a million copies a month.1 Its pages contained articles concerning budgeting, housekeeping, fashion, and dance. Ling Long, meaning elegant and fine, was published in Shanghai between 1931 and 1937.  It contained tips on how to raise children, outlined typical household duties, and covered Hollywood films and pop-culture.2 At about five by four inches in dimension, it became popular as an accessory just as much as a publication. Zhang Ailing claims, “every female student had an issue of Ling long magazine in hand during the 1930s”.3

A notable difference between the two are the types of advertisement featured in each. Sand notes that the items advertised in Shufu no Tomo were overwhelmingly small, personal items such as medicines and cosmetic products. There were rare instances of kitchen appliances being advertised. However, there is a complete lack of furniture.4 Instead, there was a focus on what Japanese women could make themselves to spruce up the home.  For instance, the edition published in June 1926 encouraged women to sew their own curtains to adorn cabinets and windows during the summer time.5 In contrast, Ling Long contained advertisements for furniture in almost every edition.

Advertisement for dining room furniture, Ling Long Issue 1

Advertisement for a chair, Ling Long Issue 40

Advertisements such as these promised the transformation of the home into a site of happiness through purchase of furniture. They were positioned as objects of desire, and purchasing them ensured entrance and acceptance into the leisure class.6 Apparent is the discrepancy in the intended audience of the two magazines. The readers of Shufu no Tomo evidently were presumed to have less purchasing power than their Shanghai counterparts. While Ling Long encouraged the creation of a comfortable middle class through consumerism, Shufu no Tomo emphasised thrift available to all classes of society. Perhaps this is systematic of Ling Long’s more elite urban readership, but it also shows the differing approaches to creation of domestic spaces. The fact that the latter half of all early Ling Long editions was dedicated to the consumption of Hollywood culture emphasises how Shanghai women were more deeply entrenched in global economic networks, which spilled over into the methods by which they shaped their homes.

Instead of promoting the control of domestic space through the exercise of economic power, Shufu no Tomo encouraged a more hands on involvement throughout the process of making homes. In a volume about middle class housing published by the women’s magazine, readers are warned to hire young architects instead of old carpenters as they will be more sympathetic towards desires for western style housing. Whereas the old carpenter would associate such style with schools, post offices, and other public buildings, the architect will be more open minded about implementing western building practices in the home.7 Indeed, one author in the November 1921 edition of Shufu no Tomo stated, “we have left the era of living for the house and must now progress into the era of building houses for living”.8 From this and other articles critiquing and promotion of certain architectural trends, we can see that readers of Shufu no Tomo were envisioned as having a significant role in the design and construction of homes. Japanese interwar women could partake in this traditionally masculine sphere in order to have greater input on the fundamental formation of their domestic spaces.

In addition, Shufu no Tomo encouraged readers to take up newly rationalised domestic practices. While the kitchen is a notably absent space in Ling Long, as cooking was seen to be the responsibility of servants,9 the kitchen took on new significance for Japanese women in the interwar period as domestic work came to be seen through a scientific lens.10 Household work came to be seen as an important part of promoting a family’s wellbeing and efficiency,. Taught in new Japanese Women’s Higher Schools, knowledge was then further disseminated by publications such as Shufu no Tomo. The kitchen thus became a site for Japanese women to utilise their knowledge of nutrition and hygiene to support their families, and exercise domestic power.

The types of domestic control espoused in Shufu no Tomo and Ling Long are thus divergent. While Shufu no Tomo promotes the domestic shaping through the practice of daily chores, handcrafted decoration, and architectural input, Ling Long promotes the consumption of prebuilt domestic styles, with agency being found in choices of consumption. By buying sets of furniture and emulating homes seen in Ling Long, Shanghai women were participating in a more global creation of middle class domesticity, borrowing from and performing for western audiences. These conflicting representations of domestic control presented in Ling Long and Shufu no Tomo illuminate the different ways in which interwar Asian women were able to exercise agency within the domestic spaces.

  1. Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan (Cambridge, 2003), p. 163. []
  2. Louise Edwards, “The Shanghai Modern Woman’s American Dreams”, Pacific Historical Review 81:4 (2012), p. 574. []
  3. Elizabeth La Couture, Dwelling in the World (New York, 2021), p. 194. []
  4. Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan (Cambridge, 2003), p. 346. []
  5. Ibid, p. 347. []
  6. Elizabeth La Couture, Dwelling in the World (New York, 2021), p. 203. []
  7. Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan (Cambridge, 2003), p. 275. []
  8. Ibid, p. 317. []
  9. Elizabeth La Couture, Dwelling in the World (New York, 2021), p. 211. []
  10. Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan (Cambridge, 2003), p. 94. []

Let them Play: Singapore’s playful evolution to health and hygiene

In the contemporary Singaporean landscape, one expects the pleasure of pristine air, meticulously groomed parks housing vibrant playgrounds, and immaculate neighbourhoods. Yet, through a newsprint article, this discussion will explore how such a picturesque scene was not always reality.

Figure 1. The Straits Times, 8 June 1947, 1

The newspaper article titled ‘Let them Play’, printed June 8th 1947 in the Straits Times, sheds light on the challenging conditions faced by Singapore during a period of rapid urbanisation and high population density, all transpiring under the umbrella of British colonial rule.

The historical backdrop adds depth to the narrative, emphasising resilience of the Straits Times as it resumed publication after the disruption caused by the Japanese occupation during World War II. Against this backdrop, the article vividly captures the stark reality of overcrowding and the associated health challenges that plagued the city. Terms such as ‘tuberculosis,’ ‘germs,’ and ‘breeding,’ evoke a vivid picture of the public health issues intertwined with the burgeoning urban landscape. In essence, the narrative highlights the broader challenges faced by Singapore as it navigated through post-war reconstruction, urban expansion, and the complexities of colonial administration.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Singapore, like many rapidly growing urban centres, confronted the health challenges that accompanied a surge in population.2 Notably, tuberculosis emerged as a significant public health concern.3 As revealed by figure 1, there was a prevailing belief that disease could be mitigated through ‘proper housing.’ A convincing statement that is reiterated and further explored by Brenda Yeoh in her research Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment.  In this book she delves into the impact of tuberculosis on public health policies, delving into the municipal responses that ensued transforming housing and sleeping conditions. Her work is a welcomed and well-respected contribution to the intersections of hygiene sanitation and the impact of disease on the transformation of housing and the lives of Singapore’s residents. This research is an invaluable insight that enriches ones understanding of Singapore’s journey towards improved health and hygiene standards.

However, this source proves invaluable as it not only complements but also extends the scope of Yeoh’s research. As Yeoh’s research illuminates the many facets of Singapore’s housing development, this source draws attention to the role of recreational spaces in also shaping Singapore’s development in health and hygiene. It notes that ‘the provision of adequate playing fields’ is just as ‘essential’ as ‘proper housing.’

Indeed, the article stresses the urgent need for ‘adequate playing fields or grounds where children can exercise healthily to strengthen their bodies and keep germs of the dread disease away.’ This conveys and understanding held that the development of playgrounds was not merely for amusement but would be a sanctuary where the vitality of Singapore’s future was to be nurtured. In the words of the article, a compelling narrative begins to take place, that the health of children was paramount for the future success of Singapore. In this source playgrounds are described as ‘lungs’ which conveys the understanding of these spaces as vital breathing grounds of the city’s health. This metaphorical framing emphasises the crucial role that playgrounds will play in allowing the city to ‘breath,’ as children will have a safer outlet for physical activity, no longer ‘cooped up in small rooms’ or playing on dangerous ‘streets.’ The powerful phrase ‘let them play’ is a symbol of the city’s commitment to better health and hygiene. This sentiment encapsulates a resounding call to action, carrying with it that children’s play was not just a pastime and therefore the idea ‘we must have these playgrounds in operation as quickly as possible,’ helps shed light on the importance of recreational spaces to the nation’s long-term success.

This article is a historical snapshot, illustrating the multifaceted dynamics of a city in transition, grappling with the consequences of rapid growth in a challenging post-war era. It highlights the role of recreational spaces as another useful tool in combating the challenge of health and hygiene.


  1. Figure 1. ‘Let them Play,’ The Straits Times, Singapore, 8 June 1947, p. 6 ,<> [accessed 10 November 2023].  []
  2. Charlotte, Furth, ‘Introduction: Hygienic Modernity in Chinese East Asia,’ in Qizi Liang, Angela Ki Che Leung, and Charlotte Furth, Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century, (2010), p. 16 []
  3. Brenda S. A Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment, (2003), p. 94 []

Cai Fei Lu: Women confined themselves to the domestic space

Figure 1. the manifestation of foot binding

Elizabeth LaCouture’s perspective highlights the central role of women in the domestic space in Republican China’s domestic space, positioning them as subjects of the state and family or ‘jia’.1 Her opinion indicates that in late imperial and early Republican China, women primarily occupied a passive subject in the domestic space. Their significance within the family was often underscored by the public recognition conferred upon them. For example, women brought political recognition to the family when they were bestowed the honor of chaste widows or virtuous women by the imperial state.2 Also, women usually took the responsibility of preparing and placing ritual offerings at the ancestral altar.3 LaCouture’s stance implies that women attained subjecthood within the household through an external acknowledgment or by publicly assuming significant roles in family-related affairs. It was the external forces that made women the subject of the household.

However, this blog seeks to scrutinize LaCouture’s viewpoint and introduce another prevalent practice during that era—foot binding. The blog argues that women actively and independently consolidated their centrality in the domestic space through foot binding. This is contrary to LaCouture’s view. Women are not passive actors in the domestic sphere. Referencing the book Cai Fei Lu, published in the 1930s and compiling contemporary interpretations of foot binding as a social practice, this blog aims to refute the claim that women were confined to the “jia” sphere solely due to external influences. Instead, it asserts that female autonomy played a significant role, challenging the notion that women were merely subject to external factors in shaping their roles within the household.

Cai Fei Lu, compiled by the Republican scholar Yao Lingxi, delves into the history and practical implications of foot binding in Republican China. Considering these two dimensions, it’s reasonable to argue that the widespread practice of foot binding was a result of women women’s autonomous choice.

The book repeatedly narrates a shared sense of the origin of foot binding that was created by an imperial concubine PanFei, “潘妃作俑於一時。”4 She practised foot binding to curry favour with the emperor. The practice of foot binding steadily gained popularity and grew to be regarded as a viable method for women to attract men, “良家婦女乃以為取媚男子之道在是。”5 Even though its historical origin cannot be substantiated, the prevailing social idea depicted in the book suggests that it was motivated by women’s pursuit of beauty, “婦女纏足。初意必以美觀而起。”6 This spontaneous desire requires women to engage in the physical practice of foot binding, seeking to attain the beauty they deemed desirable. Furthermore, foot binding did not only reshape the female feet, but also reconfigure their identity in the domestic realm, or ‘jia’. On the one hand, due to their desire for beauty, which was primarily for getting male attention, their distorted feet became a product of male preference, though they voluntarily bound their feet. They allowed their physical selves to be conceptually linked to male family members. Foot binding, although a female behaviour, was essentially impacted by male consciousness, or what women perceived as male preference. On the other hand, because of the foot binding, women confined themselves in the physical domestic space. Consequently, women’s mobility would significantly reduce, rendering them unable to walk for extended durations and impeding their ability to move freely between the physical domestic space and the external environment. That is, “行動艱苦。”7 Consequently, women assumed a prominent role within the domestic sphere due to their extended presence. The practice of foot binding, therefore, was a choice made by women, became an autonomous necessity, and reshaped their identities and positioning within the domestic realm.

Elizabeth LaCouture argues that women were at a disadvantage when it came to establishing their identity in the domestic space. In late imperial and Republican China, women could only assert their centrality in domestic space through public recognition. However, after analysing the Republican publication Cai Fei Lu, the blog offers an alternative perspective, arguing that women’s limitations in the domestic sphere were not entirely due to external forces. Women’s autonomy drove them to practice foot binding. This act physically constrained their mobility, psychologically tethered their physical form to the preferences of male family members, and consequently shaped women’s central identity within the domestic space.

*Cai Fei Lu:

  1. Elizabeth LaCouture, Dwelling in the World: Family, House, and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860-1960 (New York, 2021), p. 102. []
  2. LaCouture, Dwelling in the World, p. 19. []
  3. Ibid., p. 102. []
  4. Yao Lingxi 姚靈犀, Caifeilu 采菲錄 (Tianjin: Tianjin shidai gongsi, 1936), p. 4. []
  5. Yao Lingxi, Caifeilu, p. 49. []
  6. Ibid., p. 134. []
  7. bid., p. 151. []

Arnoldi in Buitenzorg: V. M. Arnoldi’s 1909 Notes on the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens

Vladimir Arnoldi - WikipediaIn 1909, Russian botanist Vladimir Mitrofanovich Arnoldi visited the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens. Though he was primarily concerned with the contributions of the gardens to botanical knowledge and rarely commented directly on politics, we can see in his account the footprint of the Dutch colonial project.1 In his praise of the Dutch garden Director, Melchor Trueb, his dealings with the Indonesian staff, and his awe at the aesthetic force of gardens layout, we can observe how Dutch colonial oppression was articulated within the space of the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens.

Apparent in Arnoldi’s notes is his occupation as a scientist and his resultant veneration of the garden’s organisation which privileged scientific knowledge. As he describes it, the gardens are run by “European chiefs”, that is Dutch botanists, whose orders are followed by “a large staff of small Malay employees”.2  During the early decades of the twentieth century, colonial officials began to pivot the justification of Dutch colonialism in the direction of scientific merit. By creating a space in the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens which was dominated by scientists pursuing pure science, unpolluted by economic motives, the Dutch colonial project could be seen to have merit and value for the wider world.3 However, the subordination of native people to the whims of the Dutch showcased here holds vestiges of the earlier “civilizing mission”, which intended to Europeanise, and thus modernise, native Asian cultures. Arnoldi himself echoes this kind of sentiment, hoping that in a decade “yesterday’s cannibals and savages [will pass] into a semi-cultural state”.4 Here, the enforcement of Dutch control over native people for the research and cultivation of their own native flora is epitome of the “civilizing mission”. Though Arnoldi sees this as the idyllic prioritisation of scientific knowledge, it is in reality the prioritisation of European knowledge.

This oppression is further revealed by Arnoldi’s comments on staff salaries. According to his notes, most ordinary native workers receive between eight and ten guilders a month, while even the most experienced of them, “a very intelligent person who knows not only native, but also the Latin names of plants” , earned sixty guilders a month. In comparison, the lowest wages for European workers is quoted as two hundred guilders monthly.5 Though this is presented with some indignation by Arnoldi, he falls victim to minimising the contribution of native people himself, as he marvels at the transformative impact Professor Treub oversaw during his directorship, stating that the improvement of the gardens into one of the finest Botanical centres of the world was wholly due to “the work of his hands, his energy”.6 Evidently the work of native people in the running and improvement of the gardens was not recognised in any meaningful way by Arnoldi or the management. As a result they are subordinated in a fashion consistent across the Dutch East Indies, such as in the countless rubber plantations spawned from the gardens at Buitenzorg7, or in the cities of colonial Indonesia with their strict racial zoning.8

Of the garden itself, Arnoldi notes its structured, monumentality. He describes an alley of Canarium trees,  noting how their “large spreading crowns closely adjoin each other with their branches, forming an almost closed canopy”.9 It is a striking visual image and a feat of landscape design, allowing us to see the control the Dutch exerted over nature. This reflects the role of nature in the expression of Dutch power in town  planning, as noted by  Colombijn and Cote, who emphasise the importance of ordered nature as a means to engender order in native populations.10 Savitsky also notes the resemblance of the trees’ description to the description of the governor general’s palace, which was adjoined to the gardens. It is described by Arnoldi as “an elegant white building with a slender colonnade”.11  Thus colonial, neo-classical style architecture can be seen to have been forced upon Indonesian nature, echoing and amplifying the prestige of the colonial government. The proximity of the palace to the gardens, essentially being intertwined,  only strengthens this connection. In this way, the physical design of the garden rearticulated the supremacy of the Dutch Empire.

The snapshot of the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens in 1909 provided by Professor Arnoldi is a useful one in examining how colonial power was expressed within the bounds of the gardens. Evidently, the Dutch “civilizing mission” was built into the very fabric of the gardens, from its physical layout to its employment and organisational structures. The Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens can therefore be seen to be a physical representation of the the Dutch subjugation of native peoples, their cultures, and natural resources.

  1. E. E. Savitsky, “Botanical Gardens as Colonial Institutions”, Novaya i Novejshaya Istoriya 63:6 (2019), p. 55. []
  2. Ibid, p. 56. []
  3. Andrew Goss, “Decent Colonialism? Pure Science and Colonial Ideology in the Netherlands East Indies”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40:1 (2009). []
  4. E. E. Savitsky, “Botanical Gardens as Colonial Institutions”, Novaya i Novejshaya Istoriya 63:6 (2019), p. 50. []
  5. Ibid, p. 53. []
  6. Ibid, p. 55. []
  7. P. T. Bauer, The Rubber Industry (London, 1948) []
  8. E. E. Savitsky, “Botanical Gardens as Colonial Institutions”, Novaya i Novejshaya Istoriya 63:6 (2019), p. 56. []
  9. Ibid, p. 57. []
  10. Freek Colombijn and Joost Cote, ‘Modernization of the Indonesian City, 1920-1960’ in Cars, Conduits, and Kampongs, eds. Freek Colombijn and Joost Cote (Boston, 2015), p. 3. []
  11. E. E. Savitsky, “Botanical Gardens as Colonial Institutions”, Novaya i Novejshaya Istoriya 63:6 (2019), p. 57. []