Polynucleation and Houseboat Communities in 19th Century Bangkok

     ‘There it was, spread out largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had yet suffered no white conqueror; an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river (…) Some of these houses of sticks and grass, like the nests of an aquatic race, clung to the shores, others seemed to grow out of the water; others again floated in long anchored rows in the very middle of the stream.’[1]

Such was the view that greeted Joseph Conrad as he ascended the central prang of the Temple of Dawn in Thonburi, the royal district of 19th century Bangkok. Located on the Chao Phraya river, 35 km north of the Gulf of Siam, this city, apocryphally dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’, captured Western imaginations with its unique spatial hierarchy between the land and the water. For the first 50 years of its existence, beginning with the movement of the capital to Thonburi under Rama II in 1782, the right to reside on land was almost exclusively granted to nobles or to Buddhist institutions. Accordingly, by the mid-19th century, 350,000 members of the rapidly growing city lived in semi-permanent rows of houseboats, anchored several layers deep on the Chao Phraya’s riverbanks.[2]

This arrangement, unlike any other in SE Asia, allowed a fluid, impermanent version of urban life to dominate. Houseboats were multipurpose dwellings, incorporating verandas which functioned both as commercial shopfronts during the day, as well as social spaces during the evening, when wooden frontages could be put up. Houses hence formed ‘streets’ and communities roughly corresponding to trade and/or ethnicity, albeit with the added advantage of mobility. George Earl, writing in the 1820s and 30s, wryly noted indeed the advantages that such an arrangement had for avoiding the flooding caused by seasonal monsoon rains, as well as the added benefit of being able to eject troublesome neighbours or move away from commercial competitors.[3]

Such a fluid, decentralised urban layout, bears a striking resemblance to the utopian vision of cities famously articulated by Lewis Mumford. Rather than focusing on urban spaces as purely physical, essentially static entities, Mumford’s view of the city was primarily as a social institution; an organic, fluctuating entity that functioned as ‘a theatre for social action’.[4] He moreover argued that in order to counter the social disconnections caused by modern cities becoming ever more massive and chaotic, it would soon be necessary to build ‘polynucleated’ cities, with multiple social and commercial focal points enabling all to participate in the drama of local social networks.[5] This vision of cities as encompassing multiple independent systems of social, economic and cultural exchange, with opportunities for fluidity created by an ever changing urban layout, is illustrated well by the dynamism of early Bangkok. This is both due to the strength of local associations found in the many polynucleated ethnic and commercial communities, as well as the ever-changing spatial layout of the city permitted by movement of living and commercial spaces.

The Bangkok witnessed by Conrad was gone in a fleeting instant. The Bowring treaty, and the onset of large scale commercial shipping, largely sounded the death knell for mass floating communities, with almost all houseboats cleared by municipal authorities by the 1920s. One observer indeed remarked that by the 1890s, the so called ‘Venice of the East’ had become merely an ‘Eastern Rotterdam’, of factories and wharves.[6] Traces of the old ethos still survive in Bangkok’s layout however. Even today, the lack of any single commercial or historical centre demonstrates the cities postmodern characteristics, with skyscrapers haphazardly scattered randomly across the city. In the brief history of Bangkok’s houseboat communities therefore, it is possible to see an accidental forerunner in many ways of Mumford’s influential ideas on polynucleation, with streets of boats forming urban communities in microcosm, characterised by fluid social dynamics and ephemerality.


[1] Joseph Conrad, ‘The Shadow Line’ (1917), in Maryvelma O’Neil, Bangkok: A Cultural History, (Oxford University Press, 2008), p.78

[2] Ibid., p.8

[3] George Windsor Earl, ‘The Eastern Seas of Voyages and Adventures in the Indian Archipelago in 1823, 1833 and 1834, in Ibid., p.79

[4] Lewis Mumford, ‘What is a city?’, in Richard LeGates and Frederic Stout (Eds.), The City Reader, (Routledge, 2003), p.94

[5] Ibid., p.96

[6] O’Neil, Bangkok, p.26

Heterotopias – Historical Evidence.

Figure A: Colonial buildings of Taipei.

At first I struggled to understand Michel Foucalt’s theory on Heterotopia, a theory which states that spaces have multiple meanings or relationships that do not immediately meet the eye. Yet, upon completing the prescribed chapter within ‘Taipei: city of displacements’ the idea of Heterotopias all fell into place. As Foucalt states, these spaces are found in all communities and in the case of Taipei this can be seen in the colonial administrative buildings built by the Japanese. These grand buildings as seen in Figure A are based upon European architectural design, announcing to the inhabitants of Taipei the colonial power of the Japanese. These spaces are designed to imply a colonial utopia, demonstrating the superiority of the Japanese as well as their efforts to modernise. It is interesting to note that following World War II, these buildings were adopted by the Chinese national government and took on another meaning. The buildings’ Japanese colonial history was expunged and instead the buildings became symbols of power for the national government. The reason I highlight this is that it offers an excellent example of Foucalt’s second principle within his theory on Heterotopia, demonstrating the impact of the passing of history on society.[1] What is important to understand here is that Heterotopia’s function can change over time as society develops.

              My curiosity was piqued from having made the connection between Taipei’s colonial buildings and Heterotopias and so, I decided I wanted to find some more examples to be able to explore Foucalt’s theory. Focusing upon colonial buildings still, I stumbled upon an article by Maggi Leung titled the ‘Fates of European Heritage in Post-Colonial Contexts: Political Economy of Memory and Forgetting in Hong Kong’ and found an excellent case study in Star Ferry pier and the Queens pier. As Foucalt states in his third principle, Heterotopias can juggle multiple spaces, sites which are incompatible with one and other.[2] These piers proved to be exactly that, offering spaces for the people of Hong Kong to ‘express their sense of local, national and global citizenship.’[3] The Chinese, on the other hand, saw them as symbols of British colonialism.[4] I can be seen that as mirrors of society, heterotopias can represent many different mental spaces, where the eye of the beholder plays an important part in unlocking certain spaces. This is demonstrated by the difference in meaning of the piers from a Chinese and Hong Kong perspective.

The power of heterotopias as imagined spaces is represented in the picture below, highlighting not only the variety of mental space, as seen by the plethora of buildings, but also the potential for change and decay as society evolves.

Figure B: Heterotopia in summary.

[1]Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias (1984), p. 5.

[2]Ibid, p. 6.

[3]Maggi W. H. Leung, ‘Fates of European Heritage in Post-Colonial Contexts: Political Economy of Memory and Forgetting in Hong Kong’, Geographische Zeitschrift 97:1 (2009), p. 34.



Secondary Sources:
Leung, Maggi W. H., ‘Fates of European Heritage in Post-Colonial Contexts: Political Economy of Memory and Forgetting in Hong Kong’, Geographische Zeitschrift 97:1 (2009), pp. 24-42.
Adkin, Paul, Heterotopias, 6 April 2013, <https://pauladkin.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/heterotopia/>[03 November 2019].
Allen, Joseph Roe, Taipei: city of displacements (Seattle, 2012), p. 34.

Bunds and Buildings as Spaces of Empire in East Asia

In his work, ‘The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of Asia’,  Jeremy Taylor attempts to examine the bund as a generic spatial form; analysing its importance in both sustaining the lifestyle of European residents and its significance to the Western residents of the treaty ports as space with military, commercial and lastly recreational functions[1]. He concludes by hoping that his work will stimulate further debate surrounding the questions of space and power within the treaty ports. Outside of treaty ports, Taylor’s work is part of a burgeoning field of historical discourse examining the importance of European urban expansion on cityscapes across the world. This can be seen in works such as Antony King’s Urbanism, Colonialism and the World-Economy: Cultural and Spatial Foundations of the World Urban System. Interestingly the Shanghai Bund arguably demonstrates King’s thesis that these colonial spaces are eventually integrated into what he calls the single world economy, transitioning from a colonial space with primarily military and economic functions to one that is largely recreational in its nature and ultimately part of the broader world economy[2]. Although Taylor demonstrates its importance to Westerners, he does not explore Chinese understandings or conceptualisations of the Shanghai Bund as a space[3]. However, a comparison of the Shanghai Bund with colonial buildings and Korea and Taiwan demonstrate that, despite fulfilling similar functions, most colonial spaces found in treaty ports and colonial cities have in fact been treated differently to the bund, which has arguably endured as an important space after the colonial period.

In Korea, the construction of the Japanese Western style colonial building in front of the Kwanghwa palace disrupted and challenged the ancient geomancy calculation known as Pungsu, which sought to enhance the vital energies of the ruler[4]. The intentions of the Japanese in overturning the cognitive map of the Koreans by constructing a modern western-style government building on this site is clear. In Taiwan, the central government building and redevelopment of downtown Taipei was finalised by the completion of the Sōtokufu in 1919. Although nothing was demolished to construct this building, the Japanese did raise the Yamen in 1931 to build the Old City Hall[5]. As with the bund, the construction of these sites was both conscious and deliberate. They were centrally located, western style buildings designed to convey both the modern and civilising intentions of the colonists as well as establish their dominance in the spaces in which they were created. Parallels with this can arguably be seen with the bund which remained a space of power through its use as an economic center and space which military might could be demonstrated. As these building were ultimately used as spaces that convey power, it is unsurprising that in many cases these buildings continued to be used until the end of the 20th century. In Taipei, the Chinese were quick to occupy many of the buildings that were part of the Japanese colonial occupation, occupying the central colonial buildings and only bothering to switch on Chinese character in the name[6]. However, although they remained politically significant in both Korea and Taiwan these spaces continue to be contentious. In Taiwan the city government challenged the nationalist government’s building by moving ‘away from the downtown and into a new spatiality’[7]. Even with the demolition of the government building, restoration of the Kwanghwa gate and creation of the Kwanghwa square in 2009, the spatial configuration of  downtown Seoul remains intrinsically linked to their identity and history[8]. Ultimately the importance of these buildings as spaces of empire is now lost and unlike the Shanghai Bund, many are beginning to lose their significance as nations begin to recognise the colonial origins of these space’s associations with power.

Returning to an examination of the Bund, it is clear that perhaps the Shanghai Bund’s association with finance and business within the Chinese identity that has perhaps ensured its continued importance as a centre in Shanghai. In order to fully understand the typology of the Shanghai Bund as a space of empire, it is perhaps important to consider its perception amongst the Chinese in Shanghai, who have arguably enabled its transition from a space of empire to a space of economic entrepreneurialism.

[1] Jeremy E. Taylor, ‘The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of East Asia’, Social History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 125-142

[2] Antony D. King, Urbanism, Colonialism, and The World Economy: Cultural and Spatial Foundations of the World Urban System, (London, 1990), pp1-12.

[3] Talyor, ‘The Bund’, p128.

[4] Hong Kal, Aesthetic Construction of Korean nationalism: Spectacle, Politics and History, (Oxford, 2000), p45.

[5] Joseph R Allen, Taipei: City of Displacements, (Washington, 2012), p43.

[6] Allen, Taipei, p35.

[7] Ibid, p65.

[8] Kal, Aesthetic Construction of Korean nationalism, p1.

Rickshaw Revolution

When I close my eyes and think of the most common images of Beijing, the first ones that come to mind are Mao’s portrait at the gate of the Forbidden City and a rickshaw leaning against a grey wall outside of a Hutong. The history behind this second mental image is described in the second chapter of David Strand’s “Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s.” The chapter, titled “The Rickshaw: machine for a mixed-up age” illustrates the social dynamics of rickshaw pullers in 1920s Beijing. The early 20th century was an extremely turbulent time in Beijing. In 1900, Boxer rebels besieged the city. Eleven years later, the Qing dynasty fell and a republican government came to power under Yuan Shikai. The republican government was not able to consolidate control over the country and many smaller cities and rural areas were plagued by varying degrees of lawlessness and the corrupt rule of warlords.  Over this chaotic period, rickshaws became a tool of survival for those whose lives were upended. The famous author Lao She noted that the population of rickshaw pullers in Beijing was largely made up of those who had been laid off as a result of the end of the Qing dynasty and the subsequent breakdown of the bureaucracies and institutions that had brought stability to the city.[1]

Strand’s remarkably readable and detailed history of Beijing’s rickshaw pullers strikes me as significant because of the way it transcends its micro-historical scope to comment on broader class relations. Rickshaw pullers embodied the collapse of Qing-era social relations and Beijing’s transition into the contemporary world. Strand remarks that if “rickshaw pulling provided a channel for upward and lateral mobility among immigrants and the urban poor the job also functioned as an occupational life raft for downwardly mobile urban residents.”[2]  The rickshaw itself, despite ostensibly being a simple piece of technology, was a very modern form of transport at the time. It could be taken on both paved major roads as well as mud and dirt side streets. Between 1910 and 1920, rickshaws overtook mule-carts as the main mode of transport and tripled in number.[3] The more they proliferated, the more convenient they became for people who could afford it. Rickshaw pulling became an accessible and stable form of labour for those who had no alternative occupation. Strand alludes to the notion that the rickshaw pulling business stimulated a form of urban class consciousness. For the “downwardly mobile” like former Qing bannermen or officials, pulling a rickshaw was degrading, almost inhumane labour. The end of the dynasty and the advent of republican rule had caused their downfall and perhaps they sought an alternative that would promise them dignity if not prosperity. For the upwardly mobile, pulling granted them relative comfort. While they made a meagre wage, they could afford to feed themselves and live humbly provided they didn’t have many dependents. By being a part of an urban poor that were struggling but not totally deprived, they became a part of the largest social class in the city. They were also making daily contact with those of higher social status – making them reliant on the good-will of their passengers but also degraded by their physical juxtaposition. For both upward and downwardly mobile rickshaw pullers, one can speculate that the social dynamics of their occupation contributed to an elevated awareness of their social status and – subject to more research – more inclined to support the communitarian ideals that would soon sweep across China.




David Strand, “The Rickshaw: Machine for a Mixed-up Age” in Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s (Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 1993).

[1] Page 31

[2] Page 32

[3] Page 27