Conversation’s with a Khan: Invisible cities and Spatial Theory

Invisible cities was written in 1972, Italo Calvino’s work explores the themes of imagination and the imaginable through a dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. The work contains a description of around fifty cities which are explored in the form of prose poems which are interspersed with conversation between Polo and the Khan. Although the poems themselves are separated into separate groups relating to numerous themes, such as death, desire and memory. The book itself was both celebrated and critiqued upon its release, with some claiming that in the work, “Calvino the mature postmodernist became exactly what he feared as a young man, that is to say, a solipsistic thinker removed from the exigencies of history’.[1] The idea imagination of any city or space is ultimately and exercise in imagining oneself is both a profound and unsettling one, however not one as divorced from the exigencies of history as literary critics might assume. Einaudi’s invisible cities in fact reflects a number of key themes and ideas touched on in spatial history and historiography, albeit in a roundabout manner. Perhaps the most telling section of the work can be found in the conversation between Polo and Kublai in the opening of chapter 6:


Dawn had broken when he said: “Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.”

“There is still one of which you never speak.”

Marco Polo bowed his head.

“Venice,” the Khan said.

Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?”The emperor did not tum a hair. “And yet I have never heard you mention that name.

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.”

“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”[2] 


Although it may not have been Einaudi’s intention, the idea that we ultimately remain grounded in our own imagination and ideas when describing new spaces is an important warning to the historian. The problem of anachronism within history is a longstanding issue and one that historical theorists have always attempted to tackle. The idea that a description of a time or space is ultimately a reflection of the context of the person imagining was one of the key criticisms of the Historist school of historical thought. Polo’s description of his fantastical cities is flavoured by the context in which he explains them, more particularly his venetian background, which influences his ideas about cities as he explains them. All of his cities are described based on their relationship to his understanding of Venice.


Aside from more obvious historiographical tropes, the work also suggests numerous aspects of spatial theories within the poems on cities. The idea that ‘The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things’ is certainly reminiscent of Lefebvre’s idea of representational spaces that have a system of signs and symbols that help conceptualise space.[3] Furthermore, in Cities and Signs 3, the idea that ‘In every city of the empire every building is different and set in a different order: but as soon as the stranger arrives at the unknown city and his eye penetrates the pine cone of pagodas and garrets and haymows’ has similarities to Lefebvre’s idea of representations of spaces, as spaces that can be conceptualised and that ‘the imagination seeks to change and appropriate’.[4]


Although these similarities and associations are merely speculative, the book was nonetheless an interesting reflective peace that raises important questions for the spatial historian and an important warning:


‘No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it’.[5]

[1] John Welsh, ‘Erasing the Invisible Cities: Italo Calvino and the Violence of Representation’ in Working papers in Romance Languages, Vol 1 Issue 2 Summer 2007, p1.

[2] Italo Calvino, invisible Cities, (London, 1972), p86.

[3] Calvino, Cities, p13; Henri, Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Oxford, 1991), p38.

[4] Calvino, Cities, p34; Lefebvre, Space, p39.

[5] Calvino, Cities, p61.

The Politics and Economics of Gandhi Hats in 1930 Bombay

At the onset of the 1930s, anti-Gandhi hysteria amongst the British in India was close to boiling point. This was largely thanks to the now iconic Salt March, where over 24 days, he led a non-violent protest to the Arabian Sea in protest at salt taxes. The British clamped down on this movement, arresting tens of thousands, including Gandhi himself on the 5th May.[1]

This event sparked civil disobedience throughout India. The response of the British was one of righteous indignation, with one paper reporting that, ‘consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Gandhi is playing a dangerous game. In the name of Ahimsa he is actually promoting violence, not only in feeling but in act. Within the week just ending all the Presidency towns and every city has witnessed scenes of wilful rioting and excesses by mobs’.[2]

I was surprised therefore, when in the very same newspaper I read the following, terse report from Bombay dated a couple of weeks previously:

‘The bullion, cotton share and cloth markets in the city have posted special notifications forbidding admission of all Indians wearing foreign head-gear to their respective places of business. Gandhi caps are being freely distributed’.[4]

These hats had long been associated with the home-rule movement, first being worn by Gandhi in 1919, and soon entering into mainstream popularity, being sold at pro-independence meetings in the early 1920s.[5] The British response had been swift, with cap-wearers suspended from Government jobs, fined or even beaten.[6] Such hats have therefore maintained political significance up to the present day, with the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (common man) Party dishing out tens of thousands of these cheaply made caps emblazoned with party slogans at rallies from 2012 onwards.[7]

AAP Gandhi Hat (Andrew Whitehead)

Against this backdrop therefore, this report seems somewhat paradoxical. Having previously banned it, and at a time when Gandhi was coming to be considered pariah-in-chief in India, the British authorities seem to have tolerated the open distribution of one of his most iconic symbols.

What conclusions can we draw therefore from this anecdotal news article? The fact that three of the most important markets in the city had banned ‘foreign’ head-gear seems significant, as it suggests that domestic cloth manufacturers were feeling the strain of competing with foreign imports (coupled with the ongoing economic fallout from the Great Depression). The fact that Gandhi caps were being freely distributed as well points to the open support of independence by some of the leading merchant’s associations of the city. In this context then, the British tolerance of the manufacture and distribution of Gandhi hats, even to the detriment of imports, can also be seen in light of needing to prop up Indian industries. It also potentially demonstrates how Indian cloth merchants could use this rising nationalist tide to spur and stimulate their own industries, using it as an excuse to prevent competition. This isolated case therefore demonstrates the often grey area between political and economic nationalism, with the latter frequently fuelling the former across South East Asia in the 1930s.

[1] ‘Salt March’,, 16th Jan 2020

[2] Rangoon Gazette and Weekly Budget, 5th May 1930, p7

[3] Ibid., p24

[4] Rangoon Gazette, ‘Free Distribution of Gandhi Caps in Bombay: Bullion and Other Markets object to foreign headgear’, 14th April, p2

[5] Andrew Whitehead, ‘Radical Objects: The Common Man’s Gandhi Cap’, History Workshop, 17th April 2014

[6] Lata Singh, Popular Translations of Nationalism: Bihar, 1920-1922, (Delhi 2012)

[7] Andrew Whitehead, ‘How India’s iconic Gandhi cap has changed sides’, BBC, 28th April 2014

‘Cautionary Tales’, The State of Burmese Cinema in the 1930s

Of all art forms, film has often found itself most susceptible to government censorship. This became clear when I was conducting research for a project on Indo-Burmese relations in 1930s Rangoon. Whilst in the British Library, poring over a very large and exceedingly dry copy of the Burma Gazette (filled for the most part with regional judicial and forestry commission reports), I randomly came across a bi-annual report from the Police Commissioner’s office, showing the activities of the Burma Board of Censors. This provided not only an intriguing insight into the early Burmese film industry, but also the colonial government’s attempt to police the thoughts of its captive audience.

Firstly, the Burmese film industry appeared to be very healthy despite its relative newness, with the first Burmese film having only been released a decade earlier, in 1920.[1] From 1st January to 28th April 1930, fifty-three new films were submitted for certification.[2] Nor was this industry seemingly dominated by a couple of major companies, with over sixteen different studios submitting applications over this period. The vast majority of these films (thirty-six), are classified as ‘Burmese’, presumably indicating their language and the origin of their producers. Certain major Burmese companies included the British Burma Film Company, as well as the Burmese Favourite Company, headquartered in Rangoon at No. 276, 39th Street and Sule Pagoda Road respectively. Together they produced a range of Burmese language films designed for a purely domestic audience, with titles ranging from ‘Thidagu’ to ‘Khemathee’.[3]

What is especially interesting however is the prevalence of Chinese films, comprising 15 in total. Despite being produced by a range of different studios, the most important company appears to have been the so-called Star Motion Picture Company, headquartered in Shanghai. Here the films appear to have been more along the lines of so-called ‘blockbusters’, featuring English language titles such as ‘Three Knights in the Army’, ‘The Young Heroine’, and ‘Knight of Burning Temple’. Importantly however, Chinese English-language films were also permitted even if they were explicitly political, as is clear from the title of one approved film, the ‘Northern Expedition of Nationalists’, produced in 9 parts by the San Bim Film Company.[4]

In light of this, censorship of this cinematic mix appears to have been very light. Every film on the list is approved, with some Burmese films even referenced as having passed the censorship test ‘Without Examination’. Indeed, only one film appears to have been subjected to censorship; a regional Burmese news report where the censors appear to have noted certain particularly graphic scenes, for example ‘The holding up of the bloodstained clothes which are presumably exhibits’.[5]

The evidence from this report therefore suggests that Burma enjoyed an unexpectedly vibrant cinema culture under British occupation, with healthy levels of competition between local and international studios, presided over by a seemingly light censorship hand. It also provides a cautionary tale about how the development of the arts can easily be reversed. With the onset of military rule, all cinemas were nationalised in the 1960s, with the industry instructed to broadcast the ‘march to Burmese socialism’. From a peak of 244 cinemas, Burma in 2011 was therefore reduced to 71 as popularity dwindled, with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) continuing much of the censorship apparatus of the military junta which preceded it.[6] Documents like this can therefore help to throw the problems of Burmese cinema today into sharp relief.



[1] Mark Magnier, ‘Myanmar’s once-proud film industry a flicker of its former self’, LA Times (1st April 2013)

[2] ‘Register of Cinematograph Films examined by the Burma Board of Censors, Dated Rangoon, the 15th May 1930’, in the Burma Gazette, Part IV, pp. 945-947

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 947

[6] Aung Kaung Myat, ‘Military Rule May Be Over, But Myanmar’s Film Industry Remains in a Tawdry Time Warp’, Time (22nd August 2018)

Yuanmingyuan: Reconciling Layers of History


Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, fits into Manish Chalana’s idea of a spacial palimpsest, similar to Sanam Luang Park in Bangkok.[1] When considering the history of these spaces, one can almost feel as if they are looking at fossil layers in the earth. Sanam Luang was at first a regal space, reserved for royal ceremonies and cremations. In the 20th century it became a contested political space where students staged protests against Thailand’s military junta governments and now it is a space for Bangkok’s well-known vices such as prostitution. Yuanmingyuan has a similarly turbulent history. Each layer of Yuanmingyuan’s history is imbued with the political, social and economic upheaval China has experienced over the past 150 years.

Yuanmingyuan was the primary retreat for Qing emperors who found the Forbidden City and urban landscape of Beijing to be stifling. In contrast to the cacophony of inner Beijing and the austere but imposing Forbidden city, Yuanmingyuan was supposedly a place of great natural beauty. The retreat was designed to resemble the Jiangnan region, a southern area where famous Chinese painters and poets came from.[2] It’s gardens and man-made lakes were said to have made Yuanmingyuan into an oasis and a paradise on the outskirts of Beijing. The Qianlong emperor included a European-style section to the palace gardens, drawing on the recommendations of his Jesuit advisors. British and French forces, having established a military presence in northern China as a result of the Second Opium War, came to blows with Chinese Imperial forces and marched into Beijing after the emperor had already fled the city. A British legation, led by Harry Parkes, was killed by Imperial troops during the conflict.[3] Anglo-French troops responded by razing and looting Yuangmingyuan, dealing a personal and symbolic blow to the emperor, who had grown up on the summer palace grounds.

Today, the Yuanmingyuan park is a paradoxical space. It represents the scars left by foreign exploitation, but it is also represents the renewal and resurgence of China. It is both a “gradenscape” and “ruinscape.”[4] Visitors to the park witness the broken marble columns where the  French and British troops laid waste to the palace and looted its most valuable art. On the other hand, they are also able to enjoy the beautiful recreational landscape Yuanmingyuan has become. As Haiyan Lee articulates, “the pain of loss and humiliation is always acknowledged, but pleasure is never far from consideration.” [5] Significant investment from the government has helped to renovate the area and turn it into a family-oriented recreational park, similar to Western-style botanic gardens. Yet it is also still a memorial, a place whose main intention is to immortalise history. Yuanmingyuan’s history carries a significant amount of weight. The ruins are a reminder of the decadence of the Emperor and the injustice China endured in the face of colonial powers. More than anything, the space symbolises the ways in which China has changed and how it has decided to memorialise its troubled and violent past. Yuanmingyuan is no longer just an enclave reserved for imperial corruption and decadence, nor is it blatant evidence of China’s weakness and foreign incursion. Rather it is a space for the public to engage in memorialisation of Yuanmingyuan’s collective past and enjoy it as a place for recreation and well-being.

[1] Noobanjong, Koompong. “The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest.” In Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia, edited by Manish Chalana. Hong Kong University Press, 2016.

[2] Li, Lillian. “The Garden of Perfect Brightness.” Visualising Cultures.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2012).

[3] Ibid

[4] Lee, Haiyan. “The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan: Or, How to Enjoy a National Wound.” Modern China 35, no. 2 (2009): 155-90.

[5] Ibid

‘Everything old is new again’: Contrasting discourses on modernity in Western and Japanese Colonial Enterprises

Much has been written on the benevolent, patriarchal language and discourses of empire that surrounded the Western colonial projects of SE Asia. These models sought to justify European imperial expansion on the grounds of restoring the material, artistic and myriad other cultural glories of SE Asian states and kingdoms. In doing so, colonial powers became guardians, or stewards, of subject peoples waylaid and fallen into depravity and decadence, who required educating on their own historical achievements to attain a higher level of civilisation.[1]

Evidence of this is abundant within both the French and British contexts. Within the former, French colonisation of Cambodia included initiatives to promote traditional arts, the restoration of a national museum, as well as crucially the restoration of monuments from the Angkorean period, including the site at Angkor Wat. As Andaya notes, ‘by resurrecting the glories of Angkor, the French provided the Khmer people with a permanent reminder of their former greatness and a powerful symbol of Cambodia as a nation’.[2] This both allowed the French to frame themselves as a benevolent force undertaking a mission civilatrice, as well as cementing the symbolic connection between the Khmer and the French.

This framework is also shown in Sir Stamford Raffles plan for a college of Native Learning in Singapore. As justification, he points for example to Great Britain’s long history in ‘promoting the truth and diffusion of knowledge’, and ‘to the improvement of the condition of her new subjects’.[3] On the grounds therefore of ‘exciting the intellectual energies and increasing the individual happiness of the people’, he therefore proposed the establishment of an Institution of Higher Learning in Singapore, ‘having for its object the cultivation of the languages of China, Siam and the Malayan Archipelago; and the improvement of the moral and intellectual condition of the inhabitants of those countries’.[4] This moreover had the additional advantage of training a new class of bureaucrats, skilled in local languages, to cement Imperial control.

These cases form a marked contrast however to the Japanese form of Imperialism, which eschewed the improvement of indigenous peoples. Instead, upon the annexation of Manchuria in the 1930s, the seemingly open, barren landscape was perceived as an opportunity to liberate the colonising Japanese themselves, through new infrastructures of urban modernity. The civilising mission in this case hence was directed inwards, with Meiji conceptions of Korean and Chinese cultural and economic backwardness providing the justification for Imperial expansion.[5]

This ideal was illustrated by large-scale and ground-breaking urban projects. The trading town of Changchun was transformed into the new Imperial capital of Xinjing, with wide open green spaces, and axial formations of boulevards radiating outwards from key monuments to Japanese modernity (for example a War Memorial , the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, a train station etc). Under the urban planner Sano Toshikata, it moreover became the first Asian city where all buildings were equipped with water closets. This hence paved the way for large scale immigration, with the civilian population of Manchuria being swelled by 800,000 mainly middle-class Japanese immigrants from 1930-41. .[6] Japanese colonial discourse therefore helped to disseminate of a new, urban utopia, with the idea that this would inform and inspire similar improvement schemes back in Japan, though such grand schemes were ultimately abandoned due to financial constraints.[7] Nevertheless, such a case study is instructive in illustrating the marked ideological contrast between European and Japanese discourses on colonisation and modernity. Whilst the former purportedly looked to the past to find inspiration for modernising its indigenous subjects, the latter kept its gaze firmly fixed on the future, for the supposed betterment of its own population.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (Penguin, 2003), Introduction

[2] Leonard Andaya, ‘Ethnicity in Pre-colonial and Colonial South East Asia’, in Norman Owen (ed.), Handbook of Southeast Asian History, (Routledge, 2014), p.273

[3] Sir Stamford Raffles, Formation of the Singapore Institution: A.D. 1823, (Mission Press, 1823), p.5

[4] Ibid, pp.3-6

[5] Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism, (University of California, 1999), pp.255-258

[6] Ibid., pp.262-263

[7] Ibid., p.281

The persistence of exclusionary spaces from the Canton system to colonial Hong Kong

Throughout the 19th century, Asia became home to the unrelenting forces of globalisation. Across Asia, anti-foreign violence and exclusionary policies like the Canton system separated the lives of Chinese and foreigners in virtually all areas but commerce. After imperial powers had gained extensive influence in China, foreign entities instituted their own policies of exclusion by regulating space to keep out natives and preserve their imposed dominance in the colonies. Despite the increased contact between Asia and the West throughout the 19th century, spatial arrangements strictly demarcated what was native space and what was foreign space.

In Qing-era China, the Canton system was the pinnacle of isolationist and exclusionary policy. However, preventing foreign entities access to the colossal commercial potential of the Chinese hinterland proved ineffective as British merchants still found ways to smuggle opium into various Chinese port cities. When the Chinese population became inundated with the adverse effects of the drug, the Qing imperial government attempted to crack down on foreign trade and the British responded with force, resulting in the First Opium War and the establishment of the Treaty Port system.[1] Efforts to stifle the spread of Western imperialism failed and the country was opened to the influence of imperial powers and international trade. Paradoxically, once Western imperial powers were able to open China to outside influence, they sought their own ways to limit cross-cultural contact. The British colonial government in Hong Kong provided one of the most potent examples of this through their manipulation of aesthetic and spatial arrangements in an effort to segregate the colony between the coloniser and the native.

The art historians Alex Bremmer and David Lung discuss the British policies of segregation in Hong Kong’s residential districts in the late 19th century. They assert that by creating areas that excluded native Chinese, the British residing in Hong Kong attempted to create what they deemed as an “orderly, civilised, visually coherent, and identifiable urban environment that reinforced the identity and interests of the dominant cultural minority.”[2] By the 1880s, Chinese outnumbered foreigners in Hong Kong by fourteen to one. As foreigners made up an increasingly small part of Hong Kong’s population, the colonial government sought to concretely demarcate which spaces were for foreigners and which were for Chinese. The ethnic homogeny of residential areas was of particular concern to the colonial government. Europeans generally held the belief that the Chinese population had unsanitary habits and would spread disease.[3] Apart from this overt racism, segregation was justified using the fear of a Chinese-driven mutiny on the colony. The Arrow War between 1856 and 1860 deepened resentment for the British in Hong Kong and the Qing government encouraged Chinese citizens in the colony to turn against the foreigners. In 1904, a bill was passed that formally reserved the peak area of Hong Kong for anyone who was “non-Chinese.”[4] The policy lasted until 1946.

Exclusion and segregation upon ethnic lines were ubiquitous in spatial arrangements between imperial China and foreign entities. The Canton system limited foreign commerce to a closed area and resulted in the opening of China by force in the First Opium War. As Bremmer and Lung show, colonial officials in Hong Kong made concerted efforts to separate themselves from the Chinese population, using racist arguments as well as the possible threat of violence against foreigners. No matter how strong their commercial ties were, the exclusionary spatial arrangements between Britain and China showed that ethnic tension and animosity persisted in significant ways leading into the 20th century.

[1] Spence, J. The Search for Modern China. Third Edition, (2013).

[2] Bremner, G Alex, and David P Y Lung. “Spaces of Exclusion: The Significance of Cultural Identity in the Formation of European Residential Districts in British Hong Kong, 1877–1904.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21, no. 2 (April 2003): 246.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

SMPA: May 30th Incident

Reports Made 1916-1929 – Strike Situation – Important Happenings, Meetings, Propaganda, Etc 1449

While the Shanghai Municipal Police Archives hold a wealth of records, the police reports tracking the aftermath of the May Thirtieth Incident caught my attention. While the file holds several different reports, they all hold a significant amount of detail in the records of meetings, demands and overall sentiment of the protestors indicating the police were either infiltrating meetings or getting detailed reports from informants. Before detailing the reports, some context of the incident helps clarify the importance of these documents.

The May 30th Incident occurred following nationalistic reorganization. In 1924, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members joined the Kuomingtang (KMT) to centralize nationalistic ambitions and mobilize support from a more diverse support base.[1] This reorganization saw several branches with the Department of Youth, Women, Labor, Peasants, Merchants, and Propaganda established, amassing more support for their larger ambitions of gaining Shanghai from the foreign powers who held it.[2] The anti-imperialist sentiment was called on to gain mobilize merchant support who long felt burdened by economic restrictions however, their own interests at times conflicted with the agenda of the KMT. [3] Students were recruited within KMT subsidized institutions like Shanghai University and Kwangtung University while legalized trade unions in 1924 Canton were meant to gain working-class support.[4]

In 1925, frequent disputes between a Japanese owned cotton mill (no. 8 on Naigai Wata Kaisha) occurred.[5] The conflict came on May 15th when a Japanese foreman shot dead a Chinese worker by the name of Ku Chen-hung.[6]  This event created mass outrage with a large memorial service and several arrests of students who were distributing pamphlets about the event.[7] The arrest intensified the tensions and following police shooting into a protesting crowd on May 30th, a widespread movement erupted. Different branches of merchants, workmen, students, etc. took part in an extended strike. Students created twelve demands which were passed on and included in the 17 demands of the Shanghai Federation of Merchants, Workers, and Students Organization on June 7th.[8] Demands like the end of martial law, the end of extraterritorial rights for foreigners and the release of all arrested protestors were evident in the first file.

In the file, the first document describes a meeting of the federation on June 9th with details of the meeting’s discussion. Police had knowledge of where strikers were posting fliers, where they were staying, future meeting places/times as well as the rhetoric and claims they were using to gain support. The third report details a subtle calm with more people returned to work indicating they believed the worst of the strike was over. However, it would not be fully settled until late August when most workmen returned back to the Japanese mills.[9] What is striking in these documents is the level of attention, awareness, and detail in these reports. The concern and vigilance demonstrated reflected the disruptive power strikes, especially one with such a wide-scale support base had for the entire city. Anti-foreign sentiment is very clear in the workmen’s demands and meetings as is the police’s concern and awareness towards the potential trouble these activities could cause them.



[1] Hung-Ting Ku, ‘Urban Mass Movement: The May Thirtieth Movement in Shanghai’, in Modern Asian Studies 13 (1979), p. 198

[2] Ibid., p. 198

[3] Ibid., p. 199

[4] Ibid., p. 199

[5] Ibid., p. 201

[6] Ibid., p. 201

[7] Ibid., p. 201

[8] Ibid., p. 207

[9] Ibid., p. 210

The Soundscapes of East Asian Cities

In his work, ‘Sounds of the City: The Soundscapes of early modern European towns’, Garrioch examines the formation of a semiotic system in early modern towns, arguing that the system was useful for conveying news and ‘helping people to locate themselves in time and in space’.[1] Although this auditory system was gradually eclipsed by modern modes of information, it was nonetheless an important and underexplored historical phenomenon. Garrioch cites the noise of horses, street vendors and church bells as vital examples of the semiotic system that helped townsfolk in the Early modern period to locate themselves within a city. However, how would these soundscapes compare to that of an East Asian city like Tokyo?


Analysis of the soundscapes of East Asian cities has already been undertaken by a number of scholars many of which arguably point out a number of similarities between East Asian cities and those in the west.[2] In fact, a number of the points raised by Garrioch are equally applicable to the soundscapes of East Asian cities. In terms of the sounds of the street it is fair to argue that very little can be differentiated between the early modern East Asian city and that of its counterpart in Europe. In Europe market days were distinguished not by a single sound, but by a conjunction of noises indicating unusual levels of commercial activity. Examination of the Woodblock print, Night view of Saruwaka Street arguably indicates the noises and soundscape expected from a bustling street in historic Tokyo.[3] As in Europe it is likely that the vendors situated in the street selling food, had achieved a ‘high level of audibility’.[4] Furthermore, in European cities the lack of noise was equally informative as noise within the semiotic system. In Europe, silence was closely associated with both secular and religious power in the form of court rooms, which conveyed authority, or churches in which silence was expected as a matter of respect.[5] Like churches, temples in East Asia were often places of quiet for better facilitate reflection and meditation in a manner not dissimilar to churches. In this regards, the ability to produce or demand silence was a privilege of authority and another similarity in the soundscapes of both Europe and East Asia.


It is also likely that, with the rapid modernisation of Japan, this soundscape likely became eclipsed in a manner not dissimilar to in Western European cities. The short educational film Children of Japan from 1941 shows the extent to which the traditional Japanese soundscape had been largely eclipsed[6]. Bustling streets in the film show pedestrians, cars and cyclists in western attire as well as trams and trains in the new cityscape. Although the vendors still exist, it is clear that this semiotic system has been largely been replaced by modern technologies. Although it is not possible to find out exactly what an east Asian soundscape would be, it is likely that in many instances it shared key similarities with its western equivalents and was also eclipsed with the advent of new technology.

[1] David, Garrioch, ‘Sounds of the city: the soundscape of early modern European towns’ in Urban History, Volume 30, Issue 1, May 2003, p5.

[2] Freek, Colombijn, ‘Toooot! Vrooom! The Urban Soundscape of Indonesia’, Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 22, No. 2 (October 2007), p255.

[3] Utagawa Hiroshige, ‘The Night view of Saruwaka Street’ <—FROM/8BDCCCABCF350172> [Accessed 11/12/19].

[4] Garrioch, ‘sounds of the city’, p8

[5] Ibid, p13.

[6] Children of Japan, ERPI Classroom Films, Inc.

<> [Accessed 11/12/19].


Luddites of the Far East? The Hidden Dimension of the 1905 Hibiya Riot

The Hibiya Riot is famous for being the first major social upheaval in modern Japanese history. Angry at what was perceived to be the disappointingly minor concessions gained following the end of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, a heterogenous group of lower and middle class rioters brought Tokyo to a standstill for three days, at the end of which 311 people had been arrested, and 17 people were killed.

Japanese propaganda had obscured a Pyrrhic ending to the conflict. Japan had suffered 80,000 fatalities in a drawn-out, attritional war, with total costs incurred coming to 1.7 billion yen; eight times the cost of the Sino Japanese War of 1894-1895. Andrew Gordon’s account hence demonstrates clearly how public fury was directed at visible signs of Government authority. For example, nearly three quarters of all the neighbourhood police boxes were destroyed in the city, whilst clashes resulted in injuries to 450 policemen and 50 firemen.

However, the roots of this riot can be found in more than just anger over tainted national pride. There is also evidence for a more subtle, economic dimension to this groundswell of popular protest. Besides the police boxes, the other public institution to be specifically targeted was the recently opened streetcar system. Tokyo had invested heavily in its tram system as a potent symbol of the new Imperial and democratic Japan. However, they were expensive, and beyond the means of many of the city’s lower classes. They were also a disruptive presence, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of rickshaw drivers in the city. Nor indeed was this a one-off occurrence. Upon the anniversary of the riots, a rise in streetcar fares spurred a new rally in Hibiya Park, which again ended with the smashing of dozens of streetcars, as well as an attempt to storm the streetcar offices. [1]


Image from The Tokyo Riot Graphic, No. 66, Sept. 18, 1905, (Kinji Gahō Company, Tokyo)

Such a case therefore illustrates the simmering tensions between the ‘old’ city of Edo and the ‘new’ metropolis of Tokyo. The transition between the two is discussed by Henry Smith in the ‘Edo-Tokyo Transition’. He refers to the distinction in Japanese intellectual thought between the shitamachi and the yamanote. Whilst they began as geographical designations (shitamachi referred to the lower class Eastern downtown of the city, whilst yamanote was associated with the elite Western upland areas), Smith argues that by the early 20th century, they had come to embody two competing ideological frameworks, with the former representing the old, traditional ‘plebeian’ ethos of Edo, whilst the latter instead heralded the new, modern and Imperial Tokyo.[2]  

What conclusions can be drawn from this? In terms of the destruction of modern technology, there are obvious parallels between the Hibiya Riot and the 19th century Luddite movement in Britain, where textile workers attempted to destroy textile machinery that threatened their employment.[3] What is interesting about the Japanese case though, is how this struggle against streetcars formed part of a deeper, ideological battle for the very soul of the city; with competing notions of modernity versus tradition helping to shape urban social protest in early 20th century Japan.

[1] Andrew Gordon, ‘Social Protest in Imperial Japan: The Hibiya Riot of 1905’, MIT Visualising Cultures, <> (accessed 9/12/2019)

[2] Henry Smith, ‘The Edo-Tokyo Transition: In search of Common Ground’, in Marius Jansen and Gilbert Rozman (eds.), Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji, (Princeton, 1986), pp. 370-374

[3] Evan Andrews, ‘Who Were the Luddites’, in History Today, (26.6.2019), <> (accessed 9/12/2019)

Tianjin Foreign Concessions and Cross-cultural Exchange

The history of foreign concessions in Chinese treaty-port cities like Tianjin pose a strikingly unique take on colonialism in China. Foreign entities, namely those from Britain, France and Germany constructed their concessions in treaty ports for the purpose of physically separating themselves from the Chinese community that they deemed as lesser and often as unclean. However, the initial purpose of the foreign concessions did not last. As Zhang Chang and Liu Yue note in the chapter “International Concessions and the Modernisation of Tianjin” the concessions, particularly those in Tianjin, became conductors of cross-cultural confluence – between China and the outside world but also between the colonial powers themselves. The cosmopolitan, ostensibly harmonious nature of early 20th century Tianjin seems to contradict the serious conflict that occurred between the colonial powers and within China itself.

Since the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, foreigners had maintained a history of violence and oppression in China. The actions of colonial powers like Britain, France and later Japan helped to instigate nation-wide conflict like the Boxer Rebellion but also smaller incidents like the Tianjin Massacre of 1870. Decades long turbulence, in combination with racism and jingoism, constituted some of the main reasons why foreign entities established isolated areas or “concessions” within Chinese cities. The concessions were walled communities that were meant to separate the poor Chinese from colonial residents and provide the same general amenities they could find back in their home countries. The physical and social barriers set up through foreign concessions created a distinctive spatial layout in China’s largest mercantile cities like Tianjin and Shanghai. The history of the foreign presence in Tianjin is not totally absolved from animosity with local Chinese, but Zhang and Liu’s chapter indicates that the first decades of the 20th century saw a productive relationship between foreigners and Chinese flower.

The foreign presence in Tianjin helped to spread new ideas to Chinese elites. Arguably the most import foreign export in Tianjin was local democratic government. The foreign concession was run by an elected council and their systems inspired local Chinese authorities in Tianjin to establish China’s first democratically elected governing body that was officially recognised by the Qing government. (94) Perhaps even more consequently, the move to adopt democratic provincial institutions in Tianjin was directly endorsed by Yuan Shikai, the future President and self-declared Emperor of China. Neither foreigners nor Chinese were immune to the effects of cross-cultural confluence. Foreign children who were nannied by Chinese amahs often spoke Chinese as their first language and didn’t fully absorb their home country’s language until they attended school in the concession. Language skills in Chinese and various European languages were also important for career advancement. Foreign subjects working in customs houses were required to learn Chinese. As the foreign presence in Tianjin grew, Chinese citizens could become a part of the “social elite”  by learning European languages and studying abroad. (99)

The wealth and modernisation that flowed through Tianjin as a result of its bustling trade and significant colonial presence saw western-style materialism spread to wealthy Chinese outside of the concessions. Wealthy Tianjin businessmen adopted western-style exuberance. Some of these businessmen built European-style estates but added touches of traditional Chinese culture, such elaborate gardens. Through cultural exchange with foreign entities, Tianjin turned into a diverse, thriving city where cross-cultural confluence became a part of the urban fabric.

Zhang Chang and Liu Yue could engage further with this period in Tianjin’s history by discussing how the events of the First World War and the Sino-Japanese conflict affected the concessions and the citizen’s willingness to engage with those from other countries and absorb cultures. Despite this gap, they make it clear that Tianjin became a site of positive confluence between China and the outside world.





Chang, Zhang, and Liu Yue. “International Concessions and the Modernization of Tianjin.” In Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment in Asia, 1840 to 1940, by Victoir, Laura, and Victor Zatsepine, eds., edited by Laura Victoir, and Victor Zatsepine. Hong Kong University Press, 2013. Hong Kong Scholarship Online, 2014.