Ticket to Ride: Where is Rangoon?

The emphasis of a space’s represented centre reveals how the author of that representation creates a hierarchisation of certain spatial practices in governmental discourses, although these discourses may be normative and fail to reflect the reality of the cityscape. However, the effect which this can have on an urban environment can be explored through Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s concept of the distanciated economy, where ‘work on urban economies has been framed in terms of points, lines and boundaries… cities have been seen as entities that can be cut up into centres and peripheries,’[1] and while their argument was to deconstruct the ways in which some urban cities are defined against others, this can equally be applied to how an individual city’s areas are defined against one another.


In the case of Rangoon, one of the most cited histories of the town from the colonial period, B. R. Pearn’s A History of Rangoon, was commissioned by the town’s municipal authorities and mostly relied upon municipal reports and first-hand testimonies from members of the municipal establishment to construct its history.[2] Due to this, the way in which Pearn’s history approaches matters of public transport emphasises the role in which the municipal authorities’ intended for it to fulfil. This end goal was for the town’s public transport networks to link areas of industrial production to suburbs further afield in order to depopulate the centre, the overcrowding of which was impeding the flow of traffic and worsening disease spread.[3] Due to this, the actions of the suburban in Pearn’s history have already become peripheral to the town’s economic centre and such a representation of the town’s history creates an operational definition which reinforces the municipal authorities’ actions: that the town is primarily a space for economic production,  which suburbanisation would help intensify, and the town’s inhabitants are economic units that can be rationalised for these ends. This can be understood by Pearn’s suggestion that the public transport networks were consistent failures because their establishment did not decentralise the town’s labour pool away from their places of production.[4] Such portrayals of the town’s history were ultimately designed to build up to Pearn’s justification of the municipal authorities’ exceptional expenditure of over Rs. 14,000,000 in creating this idealised delineation between the suburban and spaces of economic production at the end of his critique of the towns’ transport networks.[5]

However, what is missing from Pearn’s history of Rangoon’s transport networks are the circles of social activity that existed outside of the intended suburbanising effect. For instance, when the town’s tramlines were extended to the Burmese village of Kemmendine, the services saw a massive increase in usage from 3,433,540 annual passengers to 6,026,915, despite the fact that it is highly unlikely that many of the Burmese in Kemmendine worked in the town’s industrial sectors since they were based in the furthest and least accessible quarters from Kemmendine.[6] Indeed, the purpose of the trams were to decentralise the Indian workers living around the industrial centre, not to bring in new workers from further afield. Instead, the trams enabled new transportation options for other socio-cultural activities, such as the pilgrimage to the Shwedagon Pagoda, as suggested by representations such as a postcard of the pagoda line’s terminus depicting a tram being filled with Buddhist monks.[7] Similarly, the Burmese were also brought closer to their spaces of socio-cultural interaction by the trams with their extension to the newly established racecourse in Kyaikkasan and Kandawgale’s Burma Athletic Association playing fields, which saw the lines experience great popularity when events were being held in that area.[8] Additionally, the significance which the trams held for the suburban Burmese was emphasised by the fact that in death it was the wealthy Burmese and the Buddhist monks who used the tramway’s funeral service, carrying their bodies through their communities to be celebrated in public before alighting at the cemetery.[9] On the one hand, this was good business on the part of the tram company to tailor their services around the needs of the already suburban population who were most likely to use the trams’ services, but simultaneously this undermined the political objectives of the municipal authorities as these people were not using the trams to further the town’s economic functions, but rather used them to create new spaces for cultural interaction outside of the town’s centre.


The use of sources such as Pearn’s history reveals where the planner’s gaze saw the focal points of Rangoon. However, by reading between the lines of sources such as postcards, newspaper clippings, or the frustrated language of municipal reports, all productions of the colonialist, the actual centres of activity which created the experience of the cityscape for those who inhabited it can be unveiled.

[1] Ash Amin & Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Cambridge, 2002), 51.

[2] B. R. Pearn, A History of Rangoon (Rangoon, 1939).

[3] Ibid., 278-282.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 282.

[6] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1907-1908 (Rangoon, 1908), 20.

[7] Tilman Frasch, “Tracks in the City: Technology, Mobility and Society in Colonial Rangoon and Singapore”, Modern Asian Studies, 46: 1 (2012), 106.

[8] Ibid.; Pearn, A History of Rangoon, 281.

[9] Frasch, “Tracks in the City”, 107; “New Departure in Burmese Funerals”, Straits Echo, Singapore (26/04/1907), 5, <https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitsecho19070426-1.2.23?ST=1&AT=search&k=rangoon%20tram&QT=rangoon,tram&oref=article> [accessed: 20/02/22].

Modernity Through the Unmodern: Establishing a ‘Modern’ Architectural Style in Kuala Lumpur

One of the most prominent themes when encountering colonial literature is the notion of ‘modernity’. Whether it is a self-congratulatory remark on western-derived actions or the assertion of native ‘barbarism’, the language of modernity is a consistent tool utilised within primary source text. Elizabeth LaCouture, in her talk with the School of Transnational and Spatial History about her book, At Home in the World: Family, House and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860-1960, stated how modernity was constructed only in relation to the traditional1 In the examples of Tianjin domestic space, the western object was assumed as modern because of the ‘unmodern’ status applied to the Chinese object. LaCouture emphasises this concept in her description of the sofa in Chinese homes that distinguished Chinese living space from a traditional Chinese home from a ‘modern’ sitting room.2 By buying and placing a modern western object in a Chinese domestic space, the space had itself become ‘modern’. This definition of modernity is constructed in contrast to existing Chinese sitting furniture, where the sofa was established as modern in comparison to the unmodern Chinese alternatives, including the upholstered armchair or rattan chair.3 In her example, LaCouture emphasises that modernity in style is only constructed in contrast to traditional or unmodern other. I would argue that this understanding of modernity is also applicable to architecture in colonised spaces where the modernity of design was imposed by primarily establishing an unmodern traditional ‘other’ to contrast. This idea is exemplary in the British introduction of Indo-Saracenic architectural styles in Kuala Lumpur, where the style’s modernity was constructed by asserting the ‘simplicity’ of Malay-style domestic spaces. 

The establishment of an ‘unmodern’ other was the first step in establishing the modernity of British architectural styles. Common amongst officers in the Malayan Federated States were descriptions of the everyday life of the Malay people, especially their domestic space. A common term frequently used within the primary sources is ‘simple’. Malay dwellings are commonly described as primitive domestic spaces, simple in functionality, architectural style, and material usage. In its material composition, Richard Winstedt, a colonial administrator of British Malaya in the 1920s, heightens the modernity of European and Chinese dwellings based on the material composition of Malay houses.4 He emphasises their simplicity because the floors are constructed from split coconut trees fastened by rattan, or roofs made of palm leaves or wood could be imagined as ‘tents’.3 Under the pretence of the consistent urban fire outbreaks in wooden housing districts, wood as a material for housing construction is deemed an unmodern feature.5 In contrast, Winstedt highlights the modernity of Chinese and European housing due to their materiality, as both style housings used brick, tiles and glass, fireproof and sturdier materials.6 In addition, the multifunctionality of the Malay dwelling further emphasises the ‘simplicity’ of the Malay space as Winstedt asserts how one room is used for eating, sleeping and working, which contrasts to European domestic spaces, which were much larger and held separate spaces for each purpose. The limited size and multifunctionality constructed a less grandiose and unimposing structure within the urban environment, unlike Western-designed buildings. These descriptions highlight attempts to construct a narrative of ‘simplicity’ that emphasises the unmodern standard of Malay spaces, which is later used to support British architectural styles. 

It is evident that the modernity of the Indo-Saracenic architectural style was established by contrasting it with the Malay architectural styles under the pretence of functionality and material composition. In their article on the completion of the newly constructed Government Offices built in the Indo-Saracenic style, the Selangor Journal attributed the modernity of the building to the consistent use of brick, cement and steel as the primary material of construction.7 The materials are proudly described as fireproof that prevents the potential hazard of a fire breaking out in the complex like in Malay districts built entirely from wood.8 The emphasis on the fireproof nature of the building not only supports the style’s modernity but also contrasts it to Malay style dwellings, which have consistently been prone to fire outbreaks. In addition, the style’s modernity is also attributed to the functionality of the Offices as a grandiose space that appropriately supports the functions of the British colonial administration.9 Its functionality is defined not in terms of practicality, but its ability to represent British colonial power. As described above, the ‘functionality’ of the Malay dwelling was limited due to its small size ‘primitive’ use of space. Thus, the Malay dwelling is viewed as unmodern based on the parameters to support and represent colonial authority, which establishes the modernity of the British style.

It becomes clear that ‘modernity’ is not only the representation of what the object is, but it is also a representation of what the object is not. In relation to architectural styles, the British constructed Indo-Saracenic architectural style was deemed ‘modern’ by primarily establishing an unmodern ‘other’. LaCouture’s application of modernity raises interesting questions of how it speaks to wider discussions of how colonial power and authority is represented in colonised spaces. 


  1. Elizabeth LaCouture, At Home in the World: Family, House and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860-1960.(New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), p. 174. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid. [] []
  4. Richard O. Winstedt, Malaya: The Straits Settlements and the Federated and Unfederated Malay States (London: Constable & Co. Ltd, 1923), pp. 91-92. []
  5. Shapiza Sharif and Arba’iyah Mohd Noor, ‘The Brick-making Industry in Kuala Lumpur in the Late Nineteenth Century.’ Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 90, Part 1, No. 312 (June 2017), p. 62. []
  6. Winstedt, Federated and Unfederated Malay States, p. 92. []
  7. Selangor Journal: Jottings Past and Present, Volume V (Kuala Lumpur: Selangor Government Printing Office, 1897), pp. 219-222. []
  8. Ibid., p. 222. []
  9. Ibid., p. 222-234. []

Sato and Sand: A Curious Case of Primary Sources and Japanese Kitchens

Just as I cook rice in a rice cooker, some choose to use a pot over a gas stove. Japan is one such country that has transitioned from traditional wood fires, to gas, and finally electric rice cookers in the short span of two centuries. Although the rice cooker is now a quintessential item in many parts of East Asia, its history is often quite obscure and difficult to trace. Historical scholarship on the rice cooker, especially in English, appears to be quite sparse, save for Jordan Sand’s impressive account of Japanese kitchens in the Meiji Era.

A researcher on the topic would be hard pressed to turn to Japanese language sources, and rightly so. The famous insularity of Japanese research, and indeed Japanese publications as a whole means that much of the Japanese research done on the evolution of their kitchen culture is locked behind a language barrier. The result of this research existing in different realms to that of the rest of the world has produced some interesting results. Both Jordan Sand and the author of a short Japanese article in Jūtaku Kenchiku, The Housing Journal for Builders and Designers, written by Keisuke Sato (佐藤敬介) draw on similar sources to give the reader a snapshot of the kinds of technology available in kitchens during the Meiji and Taisho eras, alongside the technological innovations that changed the Japanese kitchen during this period. [1] At some points of the cross analysis of these two sources, I had to stop and question whether these were the same authors with different names, or even the possibility that Sato (due to his article being written in 2012 as opposed to Sand in 2005), had either read Sand’s work and taken inspiration or just plain plagiarised it. It only after taking a closer look at the latter parts of Sato’s article that made it apparent that both authors had chanced upon the same sources and used them in each of their respective works. Even so, it was quite startling that the narrative trajectories that each author took were so similar. From references to similar articles, to discussions of gas technology in the kitchen, and even the changing spatial nature of the “sitting to standing” role of the cook in the kitchen. It was completely flabbergasting to see almost the same topics being discussed, just in slightly different ways.

Analyzing a 2012 Japanese publication of Jūtaku Kenchiku, provided interesting insight into how kitchen technologies as a whole shifted significantly during different periods of Japan’s modernization. Sato does some excellent primary source research based on first-hand accounts of interviews and images taken from magazines throughout the Meiji and Taisho Era. Curiously, both Sato and Sand cite “Shokudōdraku” and use the exact same image from the kitchen of a certain Count Ōkuma Shigenobu. Funnily enough, the only difference in the image is that the 2012 Japanese rendering has colour, whereas Sand’s does not. Both took note that there was a large UK imported gas cooker and the implications that had on the function of this kitchen and of the shifting spatial forms in the Japanese kitchen in this era. [2] It is likely that the reason why both authors chose the image was because it was the best representation of the inner workings of a Meiji Era kitchen in an aristocratic household and provided insight into the types of appliances that were used. Perhaps it was just sheer chance that they came upon the exact same source and image, or perhaps this particular subfield of the spatial history of kitchens in Japan is so sparse that they there are few good examples to choose from. Whichever it is, it is most curious that both secondary sources converge at this specific image.

Sato’s use of ōkuma’s kitchen


Sand’s use of ōkuma’s kitchen

Whereas Sand comments on the bourgeoise nature of consumption. Sato appears to take a much more empirical and indeed personal approach to these representations in the kitchen, instead commenting on how specific appliances seem to have made the lives on housewives easier, alongside specific measurements in the form of Tsubo (the size of about 2 tatami mats) for the kitchen. [3] The easiest way to explain the differences in explanation for the exact same source would simply be the audience each author was writing for. Sand would be more interested in creating an account that was more consistent with academic forms of research that required theoretical analysis, whereas Sato was more interested in creating a practical account for those that wanted to draw inspiration from historical forms of the kitchen. You can see the split between the historical analysis and the contemporary comments on how to structure your kitchen based on change in content about halfway through Sato’s article.

Curiously, Sato appears to delve more into the quotidian aspects of kitchen life in his accounts. He took his research a step further by introducing accounts of a certain 工學博士清水家 (The House of Shimizu, Doctor of Engineering) during the Taisho era. Commenting on specific developments in gas technology that allowed “meals to be put in front of 17 people within the span of 30 minutes”. [4] These kinds of empirical accounts seemed to be of less interest to Sand as they didn’t serve to support the overarching narrative of the transformation of the Japanese woman in the kitchen. Sand’s concerns regarding the “laboratisation” of the kitchen was something that wasn’t quite discussed as much in Sato’s account, as well as accounts by other articles on kitchens that were present in an earlier 1981 article published in Jūtaku Kenchiku.

While both took different approaches to spatial practices in the kitchen and the various forms this took, there was a marked interest in gas as an innovation in kitchen technology and the transition from “sitting to standing” in the kitchen. Sato’s introduction of gas focused more on the gradual integration in Japanese society, from street-lamps in Ginza, to the advent of the gas water heater in the 35th year of Meiji. [5] Once again, similar references to gas appliance manuals and the ability of gas technology being “lit by a single match” appears. This section of Sato’s article is the only part that vaguely comments on the cleanliness of gas as an energy and cooking source, citing the lack of soot and dirt being healthier to the organs and eyes. Sand on the other hand, focuses on how gas appliances could replace the “unhygienic maid” in the search for modernity. [6] The transformation of the kitchen from a sitting to standing space was something that both authors paid very close attention towards. Sand discussed differences in the Kantō and Kansai kitchens and how the two stepped kitchens of many older models and rural environments. [7] The way that he comments on the “streamlining” of the kitchen from many individuals (such as maids and other helpers) to the single housewife was somewhat echoed by Sato, in much less specific forms. Specific references to “Taylorism” were even made by both authors as justifications for making the kitchen a space that was more “laboratory like” (to borrow Sand’s term). 


The point at which the two authors begin to diverge is in discussions of the applications of these innovations to the modern kitchen. Sato draws on his own experiences in modelling kitchens from the late 1970s to the modern day and makes certain references to an ideal “kitchen triangle” between the stove, sink and fridge in the modern home. [7] Sand ends his chapter with the main narrative point of the transformation of the kitchen as a space in Meiji Japan being a reflection of the bourgeoisie, hygiene and educational norms that were beginning to pervade throughout Japanese society. [8] The comparisons of these two pieces of research has aroused a certain sense of uncanniness that is sure to be of interest to any historian. The kinder hypothesis would be that both authors chanced upon the same primary sources and analysed them in different ways. This is possible as Sato intersperses primary source research from other accounts throughout his article. The much harsher criticism would be that Sand’s original analysis was used and repackaged for a domestic journal on kitchen design by Sato.

[1] Keisuke Sato, Daitokoro no Rekishi, Jūtaku Kenchiku432: 4 (April 2012) pp. 23-27.

[2] Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space and Bourgeois Culture, 1880-1930. (Massachusetts, 2004.)

[3] Keisuke Sato, ‘Daitokoro no Rekishi’, p. 23.

[4] Ibid, p. 23.

[5] Ibid, p. 25.

[6] Sand, House and Home, p. 78

[7] Keisuke Sato, ‘Daitokoro no Rekishi’, p. 25

[8] Sand, House and Home, p. 79


Can the Fellow Traveller Ever Belong? Uncovering the ‘Messy’ Urban Fabric of Shanghai through Fellow Traveller Experience

“I walked back through the streets of this jungle city where detectives and gangsters hunted all men and women who entertained any thoughts other than the official ones. Within half an hour the girl [an activist] would have moved her dwelling and be warning all her friends”.1

The problem of “messy urbanism” is not one restricted to modern-day theory. Of course, more recently, this concept has been formalised in an edited volume by Manish Chalana and Jeffrey Hou: Messy Urbanism: Understanding the ‘Other’ Cities of Asia.2 Here, the contributors aim to look beyond the spatial and imagined construction of East Asian cities and award agency to the informal practices of urban life, which are given meaning as processes which both subvert and interact with formal hierarchies of city planning and organisation. “Messy” urban practices, such as the autonomy of slum dwellers on the periphery of a city, are renewed as a dynamic expression of the inhabitants of the city which constitute its real meaning.3 The authors suggest that the layers of actors and actions revealed by the concept of ‘messy urbanism’ allow us to view urban life from a diverse, rather than hierarchical perspective. However, the search to understand “conditions and processes which do not follow institutionalised or culturally prescribed notions of order” has long been a task of historians, anthropologists, theorists, and travellers alike.4

The lament of the “jungle city” above belongs to Agnes Smedley, an American triple agent who worked for the Soviets, Chinese Communists, and the Indian Nationalists. She has been described as a “fellow traveller”- a term coined by Trotsky to describe someone who had Communist sympathies, without actually belonging to the party or nation in question.5 The line comes from her monograph Battle Hymn of China, which describes China in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War which she witnessed alongside Chinese soldiers and Japanese prisoners of war (POWs).6 Her dedication at the start is “to the soldiers of China: poor, glorious pioneers in the world struggle against Fascism” and is representative of her desire to uncover the lived experiences of the population at the birth of Communism.7 For Smedley, the war created the cultural conditions for the articulation of the lives of the Chinese population, which arguably, she saw as the messy “urban fabric” that lay beneath China’s imperialist history.8

Smedley’s description of underground activists in Shanghai is largely valuable for an accurate representation of “messy urbanism”. The war-trodden city is described as a “jungle”, which suggests that the concrete fabric of the city had dissolved in favour of a natural loss of order. Here, Smedley adopts an almost nostalgic tone, as she illuminates the hidden structures of the city which worked toward the Communist resistance. The proletariat is inherently connected with the “messiness” of the city to emphasise their origins of poverty and disconnect from the old hierarchical and imperialist vision of Shanghai. Smedley describes this through a contrast between the “detectives and gangsters” of the government and “men and women” who can be seen as a personification of the spatial and visual order of the city. The “detectives and gangsters” enforce order against the messier undercurrents of “men and women” of resistance, who inhabit the street corners and slums which Smedley describes first-hand. Her account demonstrates how the Communist resistance formed part of the everyday “forms of planning and engagement” with the city, by using street corners to advertise Communist literature and slums to house temporary Communist ‘libraries’.9 This spatial usurpation was exacerbated by the fact that the perpetrators in the case were not only women, but “girls”. This heightened the objective sense of urban messiness by removing the female from her traditional role within the house and placing her in a visible position of defiance on the street corner, which she had claimed as her explicitly Communist “dwelling”. These dwellings were significant as an undefined and restricted feature of the city because when their activism was threatened, the girl and her friends simply moved their dwellings and “warn[ed]” fellow activists through their network of communications which subverted the government’s attempts at restraint. This demonstrates the fluid reality of Shanghai’s urban structures, which did not conform to planning or zoning, but instead provided a flexible foundation for the inhabitants of the city, who defined and utilised the streets according to profession, ideology, and present-time experience or emotion. The changes in the energy, success, and motivation of Communist activists during this period was reflected in the changing makeup of the different districts of the city, as dwellings emerged, moved, or were destroyed. Consequently, Smedley’s account illuminates the “broader patterns of informalized urban orders” through her description of wartime resistance, which can be characterised as the “messy” urban fabric of Shanghai in the 1930s.10 Likewise, Smedley’s own text can be seen as an effective form of engagement with this “messiness”, in which she gives meaning to urban messiness as an immersed witness of emerging Chinese Communism.

Frequently identified as a “fellow traveller”, Agnes Smedley’s grappling between the role of external witness and immersed reporter is representative of the struggle that the ‘Messy Urbanism’ authors elucidate between the removed ideology of the city and the lived experiences of its inhabitants.11 Smedley’s unique role places her between in a gulf between the two, and her text is a continual struggle to represent the “messy” urban conditions of the rise of Chinese Communism without the impression of an urban, foreign, gaze of misunderstanding- a “paradoxical quest for attachment outside the nation”.12 Overall, the text is largely valuable for an understanding of the informal structures and practices of the city, which, as historians, allow us to avoid “historicising the city instead of doing history inside the city”.13 

  1. Agnes Smedley, Battle Hymn of China, (London, 1944), <https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.207541/page/n5/mode/2up> [accessed: 11 February 2022], p.56. []
  2. Manish Chalana, Jeffrey Hou, Messy Urbanism: Understanding the ‘Other’ Cities of Asia, (Hong Kong, 2016). []
  3. Chalana, Hou, Messy Urbanism, p.9. []
  4. Chalana, Hou, Messy Urbanism, p.1. []
  5. DWF Kerr, ‘Agnes Smedley: The Fellow Traveller’s Tales’ in DWF Kerr and J Kuehn (eds), A Century of Travels in China: Critical Essays on Travel Writing from the 1840s to the 1940s, (Hong Kong, 2007), p.1. []
  6. Agnes Smedley, Battle Hymn of China, (London, 1944), <https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.207541/page/n5/mode/2up> [accessed: 11 February 2022]. []
  7. Agnes Smedley, Battle Hymn, Title Page. []
  8. Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (California, 2011), p.47. []
  9. Chalana, Hou, Messy Urbanism, p.17. []
  10. Chalana, Hou, Messy Urbanism, p.5. []
  11. Kerr, ‘Agnes Smedley’, p.1.  []
  12. Maureen Moynagh, Political Tourism and its Texts, (Toronto, 2008), p.112. []
  13. Sheetal Chhabria, Making the Modern Slum: The Power of Capital in Colonial Bombay, (2019), p.9 []

Two Extracts of Tropical Travel Writing

James Ranald Martin opens his 1837 ‘Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta’, with a quote from Hippocrates on the title-page:


‘It is necessary for a Physician, when entering a city of which he knows nothing, to examine its exposure, the predominant winds, the seasons, the nature and elevation of the soil, the quantity of the waters of which the inhabitants make use, and the kind of life they follow’.1


However, rather than examining the habits and lifestyle of the inhabitants, Martin was one of many European travelers to “the Tropics” to look upon their lives with utter disdain. ‘The Foundation of an English School of Medicine’, he writes, ‘…must prove one of the most direct and impressive mores of demonstrating to the natives the superiority of European knowledge in general’ (italics in original).2 There is little of the Hippocratic call to examine and learn about the life or habits of the local population in Martin’s remarks. Instead, they reveal a sense of superiority, and a belief in the righteousness of European colonialism. Shang-Jen Li argues that as the 19th c. progressed, British medical practitioners were less and less inclined to learn from native customs or from indigenous medicine- it was now seen as a ‘loss of the white self’, as a sign of contagion.3  Tropicality, with its pseudo-scientific observations, creates the perfect environment for the cultivation of scientific racism. Unlike Orientalism, which is rooted in an interest in history, languages and cultures of South Asia, Tropicality takes its inspiration from science, nature and observation. Despite its seeming dedication to empirical evidence and interest in the environment, writings about the tropics frequently omit mention of the local population or local practices, and instead focus on discussing the discrepancies between the imagined tropics and the actual environment travelers encountered.

For instance, in Joseph Hooker’s 1855 Himalayan Journals he does little to hide his disappointment at the disparity between the tropics he had imagined in his mind, and the “tropics” he encountered. Of the Sunderbunds he writes “these exhibit no tropical luxuriance, and are, in this respect, exceedingly disappointing”.4 As David Arnold argues, despite their “scientific” backing, the Tropics were frequently romanticised. Romanticism in tropicality played the role of glorifying nature, selling travelers the idea of a wild landscape which was rarely found by the traveler upon their visitation.5 As we can see from Hooker’s memoirs, , “the tropics” for him are more a playground for the medic, the naturalist, the botanist, the geologist, rather than a place on equal grounds with Europe. The tropics in these writings exist for European observation, cultivation and improvement. Even Hooker’s desire to see true “tropical” and “wild” nature appears false. When visiting the botanic garden during his travels, he writes that instead of a beautiful tropical garden he finds ‘an unsightly wilderness, without shade (the first requirement of every tropical garden) or other beauties’.6 Clearly, the reality he was in did not match the very specific European conception of a wild, yet cultivated tropics.

Beyond his disappointment with the nature, Hooker’s account of his early travelling experience seems devoid of people. He dedicates paragraphs to describing plants he sees, or buildings he stays in, but there appears to be no mention of the native population. Therein lies the contradiction of the tropics: they must maintain wilderness, but also careful cultivation. They must be a place of novelty for the European, but the medicine, the food, and the buildings must be European in style. Most revealingly, however, travelers’ disdain for the experiences, voices, and habits of the indigenous populations of the places the visited show that tropicality was and continues to be an imagined place.



Arnold, David. 2005. The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape and Science 1800-1856. Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1954. Himalayan Journals: Notes of a Naturalist. London: J. Murray.

Martin, Sir James Ranland. 1837. Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta. Calcutta: G.H Huttmann.

Shang-Jen, Li. 2013. “Eating Well in China: Diet and Hygiene in Nineteenth-Century Treaty Ports.” In Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century, edited by Qizi Liang, Che Leung, Angela Ki, and Charlotte Furth. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

  1. Sir James Ranland Martin, Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta (Calcutta: G.H Huttmann, 1837), front cover. []
  2. Martin, Notes on the Medical Topography of Calcutta, p60. []
  3. Li Shang-Jen, “Eating Well in China: Diet and Hygiene in Nineteenth-Century Treaty Ports,” in Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century, ed. Qizi Liang et al. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013). p124 []
  4. Joseph Dalton Hooker, Himalayan Journals: Notes of a Naturalist (London: J. Murray, 1954), p1. []
  5. David Arnold, The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape and Science 1800-1856 (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2005), pp104-5. []
  6. Hooker, Himalayan Journals: Notes of a Naturalist, p2. []

Ditching Hegel: The Phenomenology of “Slum” Spirit

The professionalisation and academisation of advocacy for slum communities has furthered a construction of an abstract conceptualisation of the “slum” where the agency of the slum-dweller is dependent upon the nature of their representation by academics and professionals, making the navigation between these representations in an attempt to write a history more difficult. This begins by how academia tends to rationalise phenomena in order to fit it within a structuralist system of understanding the world, as it is through this system of comprehension that allows the academy to connect disassociated events together and justify the construction of such ideas by feeding them into wider metanarratives. A lot of the inspiration behind this method of knowledge construction comes from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in which Hegel described the origin of knowledge as coming from the distance between an object’s essence, its being in-itself, and the acknowledgement of that object by an agent’s consciousness, this acknowledgement creating a second object, that of the being-for-consciousness.[1] Therefore, since knowledge is created by individual consciousnesses, Hegel argued that the movement from knowledge to truth comes in the mediation between an individual’s original notion regarding an object and another individual’s antithetical notion, with the eventual coalescing around a common universal notion that overcomes both notions’ limitations.[2] It is during this explanation of how knowledge is created that Hegel likens the process to a social struggle, inspiring the understanding of the actions of social agents during historical events as being the result of those individuals self-perceiving their existence as a part of a dialectical struggle.[3]


However, this understanding of historical forces can lead to the disassociation of the historical individual from being an agent during historical events, instead relying on wider metanarratives as drivers of history. This can lead to the oversimplification of the motives of agents, as Marc Askew argues exists in the historiography surrounding slums which represents slum-dwellers as participating in wider struggles against the state and capital for the historians’ normative advocacy purposes.[4] The issue that arises from this is that the increasing abstraction of the historical agent as participating within wider struggles makes the historian’s representation of the original object, the potential primary sources offered by that agent, an obfuscation of differing narratives of the objects. For instance, in Shu Mei Huang and Hyun Kyung Lee’s representation of the eviction of residents from Huaguang, the authors argue that recording the heritages of this community can help create wider geographies of responsibility which would reconceptualise the usage of state power.[5] The authors achieve this argument in a number of ways, including by connecting the symbols of national identity displayed by residents to the histories of their ancestors, by recording the viewpoints of those gathered at a student protest against the state’s seemingly arbitrary measures to achieve eviction, and the likening of the plight of the residents of Huaguang to those of residents in other slums which have experienced eviction.[6] However, these generalisations of this community’s history fail to take into account the viewpoint of the individual, instead grouping the heritages represented in the book as part of a wider discourse of the push-and-pull between collective remembering and state power, which may explain why the authors fail to explain the community’s failure to effectively organise against the eviction of individuals.[7]

While this can be seen as an example of one of Askew’s points, that normative academic work on slums tend to highlight notions of communitarianism over the reality of individual responsibility, a more pressing question as to how this community’s heritage can actually function as a platform from which academia can create a geography of responsibility is raised when reading how other sources have represented the individual agents within this community.[8] For instance, how Cheng Wei-hui, one of the community’s leaders, has been represented in the Taipei Times offers an alternative view of the residents as failing to view the actions of the state as constituting part of a wider governmentality of arbitrariness. In one article, she is said to have complained that the government destroyed several dormitory units without warning because ‘it was rude that the work took place without prior warning,’[9] the emphasis being on the failure to communicate the impending action to the residents rather than on the actual policy of destruction itself. In another article, Cheng Wei-hui is quoted as saying ‘I was taught to love my country, but I didn’t know the country I loved was like this,’ adding that ‘it gives money to big corporations and condemns us people to death,’[10] which implies that the issue is not the state’s power in enacting eviction but with the misplacement of government policies on the side of capital, again failing to criticise that the state has this ability to employ its legal and security apparatuses to enforce eviction. While these two articles do link Cheng Wei-hui’s quotations to wider critiques of the government’s policies, none of these critiques are explicitly attributed to Cheng Wei-hui, which would suggest that she does not personally frame herself as existing in a dialectical contest against the punitive state. Instead, these perspectives are implied to be the views of the author, which again feeds into Askew’s perspective on the generalisation of slum politics as robbing the individuals living within them of their agency in describing social phenomena from their own perspectives.


What both the Taipei Times’ articles and Huang and Lee’s narrative on Huaguang offer are normative positions regarding state power, but both of them fail to explicitly highlight a moment in which the individuals involved in these events perceived themselves as participating in a slum-communitarianism/state-authority dialectical struggle. It is the abstraction of these events as existing within such a paradigm that turns the agent of the slum-dweller into an object to be represented, and if academia is to serve as a normative force to direct future social development through the representation of knowledge, it would be better to accurately record the histories of the individuals in these communities from their perspectives, perspectives which these two sources currently obfuscate through their framing of them within a wider abstract metanarrative. Askew argued for the deconstruction of how these communities are represented, and so maybe it would serve best to abandon the dialectical construction of these people through the creation of a common “heritage”, and instead ask who the slum-dweller is as an exception to these generalisations, how do they live, and how do they identify themselves and the world around them. This would serve to produce articles which could be considered to better represent the historical nature of the primary sources which they use.

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Germany, 1807; 1977), 55.

[2] Ibid., 80-86.

[3] Ibid., 111-119.

[4] Marc Askew, “Genealogy of the Slum”, Bangkok: Place, Practice & Representation (Abingdon, 2002), 139-169.

[5] Shu-Mei Huang & Hyun Kyung Lee, “Disarticulation and Eradication of Dissonant Place in Replicating Roppongi Hills in Taipei”, Heritage, Memory, and Punishment: Remembering Colonial Prisons in East Asia (Abingdon, 2020), 132-146.

[6] Ibid., 135-138.

[7] Ibid., 138.

[8] Askew, Bangkok, 144-145; Ibid., 141.

[9] Rich Chang, “Demolition Work at Taipei’s Huaguang Community Begins”, Taipei Times (24/02/2013), 3, <http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2013/02/24/2003555616> [accessed: 13/02/22].

[10] Ho Yi, “Refugees ‘Squatting’ on a Gold Mine”, Taipei Times (03/07/2013), 12, <http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2013/07/03/2003566212> [accessed: 13/02/22].

Constructing ‘Asia’: Despotism as a rhetoric tool of Civilisational Othering in 19th century Siam

Within colonial-era travel writing and orientalist discourse, ‘despotism’ is a common term used to describe Asia. Montesquieu applies the term ‘despot’ as a reflection of a civilisation’s ‘enslaved’ status.1 However, writers that utilise this term through orientalist language fail to expand on their application of despotism. Its definition, application and usage are vague and contradictory. Thus, I argue that in most historical discourse, engaging with the notion of despotism utilises it as a literary device as a form of othering, constructing barriers between a civilisational ‘us’ and a despotic ‘other’. Unsurprising that orientalist discourse is utilised to construct boundaries of ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’, my argument highlights the importance of distinguishing between rhetoric and concept within historical writings. Despotism and enslavement are not used as conceptual terms to describe a governmental system or nation state, rather, they are used as rhetoric tools to establish boundaries of civilisation.

‘Despotism’, within Montesquieu’s texts, is used to construct an idea of a ‘despotic Asia’, in contrast to the free and liberated Europe.2 Asia exists in a state of enslavement, either enslaved by other Asian empires or enslaved by their own people.3 Despite the existence of vast empires similar to those in Europe, those empires differ in that they are not truly free. Montesquieu provides the example of the ‘Tartars’ as ‘Asia’s natural conquerors’, describing how despite their military prowess in expanding their empires, the ‘Tartar’ people will eventually become enslaved.4 This characteristic is attributed to their eventual demise into ‘despotism’ as a desire to emulate the original conquerors of their newly acquired land.4 Thus, the ‘Tartar’ colonies become enslaved from arbitrary powers imposed on the colonised subjects. The example provided here describes despotism not as an intricate governmental system but rather as a rhetorical tool to invoke an idea of Asia and Asians as disenchanted, enslaved people. Despotism constructs Asia into both a geographic and ideational space in the minds of European readers.

This ideational spatiality is also applied in travel literature as travellers were important in constructing ‘Asia’ into the minds of their readers. The language of despotism is also applied within the writings of Howard Malcolm, an American missionary who wrote accounts of his travels to British India, Burma, Siam and Malaya during the mid 19th century. Notable mentions of despotism come in his description of Siam, where he constructs a dystopian image of Siam as opposed to Burma as a ‘civilised’ society.5 His descriptions of the Bangkok population fall upon orientalist discourse’s rhetoric as he views them as ‘crafty, mean, ignorant, conceited, slothful, servile, rapacious, and cruel.6 This assessment of Siamese character reflects on their ‘civilisational value’ as Malcolm attributes these characteristics to Siam’s ‘despotic’ state. Slavery is emphasised to support Malcolm’s despotic reflection of Siam as he argues that ‘men may sell their wives, parents and children, at pleasure; and often sell themselves’.7 By highlighting the arbitrary nature of the Siamese slave trade and how people ‘sell themselves’, Malcolm emphasises Siam’s despotic nature through its ‘enslaved’ population. Much like Montesquieu, Malcolm constructs an idea of Asia and the ‘Asian’ as a disenchanted and enslaved individual. This is not to challenge Malcolm’s observations of slavery, rather, I provide this example since Malcolm uses slavery to support notions of ‘despotism’ while also utilising slavery as a means of highlighting Burma’s civilisational prowess. As mentioned previously, despotism is ill-defined and vague, used in contradictory manners. While constructing a disenchanted image of Siam through its extensive slave trade, Malcolm argues how Burma’s well-structured regulations regarding slave maintenance and usage show Bruma’s civilisational prowess in relation to its neighbours.8 Additionally, Malcolm’s contradictory discourse on slavery disregards his national context as an American whose country still practised slavery during the time of his travels and publications.

Although it is unsurprising that colonial discourse is contradictory, it is important to unravel those contradictions to highlight the writer’s underlying messages and intended image. It becomes clear that Malcolm utilises dystopian rhetoric to construct an idea of a ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ Asia in the reader’s mind. Siam, through the rhetoric of enslavement, is othered as ‘uncivilised’, while Burma, through the same rhetoric of enslavement, is accepted as ‘civilised’. The contradictory application of despotism and enslavement highlight the weaknesses in his argument but also uncover the role of these terms as rhetoric tools rather than conceptual terminology. As a result, the imposition of an idea of Asia becomes the primary effect of Malcolm’s text as Asia becomes more than a geographic space, but it is an ideational space within the mind of the reader.

  1. Anne M. Cohler, Basia C. Miller and Harold S. Stone (eds.), Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge, 1989), p. 282. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid., pp. 282-283. []
  4. Ibid [] []
  5. Howard Malcolm, Travels in South-Eastern Asia: Embracing Hindustan, Malaya, Siam and China; with Notices of Burmese Missionary Stations and full account of the Burman Empire (Philadelphia, 1850), p. 161; pp. 320-322. []
  6. Ibid., pp. 320. []
  7. Ibid., pp. 321-322. []
  8. Ibid., p. 169. []

The Paradisiacal Haze: Understanding the Tropics through an 18th Century Gaze

“that treacherous perfidious race of Beings, whose natural piratical dispositions might, by the small size of our vessel, [provoke] them to some act of violence”.

John Septimus Roe was a British explorer, navigator, and surveyor who is most renowned for charting the Western coast of Australia in the 18th century. He recorded his expeditions both in the ship logbook, letters, and navigational and coastal sketches. These sources are largely valuable for their contrasting depictions of his journey through Southeast Asia to get to Australia. Within them, we are confronted with both scientific visual representation and a haze of tropical madness- the phenomenon of ‘tropicality’, whereby imperial preconceptions of the tropical climate and its inhabitants seeped into their lived experience of these ‘other’ countries. As historians our task is to navigate the fog and determine the value of these sources beyond their accusations, preconceptions, and racism. Felix Driver’s work on the ‘Views and Visions’ of the tropics is significant for beginning this task.

Driver presents the idea of the “view” and the “vision” as a means for distinction between ‘tropicality’ and the tropical. He defines the view as a process where “landscapes are depicted at a distance, their surface features translated into a recognisable visual code”.[1] In this way, landscape sketches became a means of scientific representation through their “topographic aesthetic”.[2] Meanwhile, Driver argues, the “vision” was a dangerously “transformative” concept.[3] It included the spectator as an active participant in the scene, creating an image of the whole which was influenced by the preconceptions, motivations, ‘haze’ which imbued the explorer. Both concepts are useful for determining the influence of ‘tropicality’ on 18th century visions of Asia and Southeast Asia.

The full entry from Roe’s logbook on the Tamar, which set sail in 1824, reads as follows:

“Traces of Malays, who come here to fish for Trepang (a kind of blubbery soft fish, which sells well to the Chinese) were everywhere seen, and put us on our guard against that treacherous perfidious race of Beings, whose natural piratical dispositions might, by the small size of our vessel, [provoke] them to some act of violence”.[4]

Here, Roe ‘others’ the Malaysian population, by implying that their geographical position on an island influences their psychological nature. He suggests that because of their coexistence with the sea as a life source, they have “natural piratical dispositions”, as if the wild coastline infiltrates their character. They are violent, unpredictable, and domineering- all according to the small “traces” of their existence which Roe has actually witnessed. The notion of the tropical landscape becoming synonymous with the characteristics of a population also adds to the thrill of Roe’s adventure. He adopts a self-congratulatory tone when he later marks himself immune from the influence of the climate, which “saps” the strength of his colleagues- “I feel great pleasure in being able to say that [my constitution] is exempt from that particularity”.[5] Whilst the analytical interlude in the first entry related to the Trepang fish gives us a small insight into the transnational relationships across Asia and broader economic features of the Malaysian population, the extract is dominated by Roe’s preconceived “vision” of the tropics. His writing attempts to reconcile the haze of ‘tropicality’, which sees Asia as both thrilling and degenerative, with the empirical evidence of his expedition. In doing so, the haze becomes stronger, as his preconceptions of ‘tropicality’ are projected onto the natural landscape.

By contrast, Roe’s accompanying drawings are a valuable insight into his journey and serve as both an empirical and historical source which provide a “view” of the tropics uninhibited by his own gaze.[6] In his coastal sketches, the mountains form part of a panoramic view which suggest that we too, are a witness to this unfamiliar landscape. The observational detail of these sketches continues to the edge of the page, situating the viewer at the edge of the boat from which the sketch was made. Drops of plantain juice on the parchment itself immerse the viewer in Roe’s view, providing tangible evidence of the tropics, not as a singular specimen, but as a vibrant and interactive whole. Consequently, they are valuable for their scientific accuracy and spatial placement- we are aware of the presence of the explorer, without their unwanted encroachment on the real view. Rather than being immersed in a tropical haze, we are immersed in the explorer’s empirical and representational gaze, which sought to create an accurate and uninhibited portrayal of their travels. Driver states that the drawings are evidence of “more personal aspirations” too, a testament to the explorer and his craft. As such, they are evidence of a very real passion, rather than a passionate haze of imperialist intention.

“If we look more closely at the archive of tropical travel…it is clear that [the travels] raised as many questions as they answered. How was the experience of travelling itself to be put into words and images?”[7]

As Driver notes, the view of the tropics is hard to decipher from amongst the multi-layered visions of ‘tropicality’ which infiltrated the explorer’s mind. The questions which it raised for the explorer however, are of equal importance to the historian when studying travel accounts of Asia and Southeast Asia- what were the processes, both empirical and psychological, which were behind the words and images?

13N 07driver (ds)

[1] Felix Driver, ‘Imagining the Tropics: Views and Visions of the Tropical World’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, vol.25, no. 1 (2004), p.4.

[2] Ibid, p.4.

[3] Ibid, p.5.

[4] John Septimus Roe, The Mermaid and Bath Letters, (1817-1823), <https://www.matthewfishburn.com/writing/2021/2/15/letters-of-john-septimus-roe> [accessed: 04 February 2022], p.124.

[5] Ibid, p.106.

[6] Felix Driver, ‘Imagining the Tropics’, p.10.

[7] Ibid, p.14

From Conquering Nature to Conquering Humans: Rangoon’s Response to the Plague.

Mary Sutphen argued in 1997 in favour of David Arnold’s position that germ theory did not affect the primacy of environmental determinism in the European doctor’s view of aetiology.[1] However, Sutphen’s article underplays the impact which bacteriologists’ linkage between plague and rats had upon municipal public health policy considerations. Sutphen is right to place colonial responses to bacteriology within the context of tropicality, but just because this new form of empiricism contributed to this hegemonic discourse rather than undermined it is not an indicator that such developments failed to make an historical impact. Indeed, there is a whole wealth of literature that highlights the role which the plague outbreaks of the 1890s and onwards had on the decisions that municipal authorities took in the name of public health, whether they be in road construction or the architecture of houses.[2]


In the case of Rangoon, Sutphen’s argument that, rather than diminishing the emphasis of environmental determinism, new biomedical knowledge had shifted its focus from natural miasmas to the insanitary conditions of cities’ slums is evidenced in the town’s Municipal Committee reports. It is no surprise that the committee’s first reported encounter with the plague in 1899 was accompanied in the same year’s report with a lengthy request for funds to perform land reclamation of the town’s suburb with the highest mortality rates, Lanmadaw, as it was only through improvement of the land that they believed disease rates could be reduced.[3] Not a single mention of rats appears in this report. However, when the plague finally did strike Rangoon in 1905, the destruction of rats was noted as one of the immediate measures to combat the epidemic, with requests for funds in order to change the sewer systems and to demolish the insanitary abodes of the town.[4] This same report does also bring up the need to reclaim the land of Lanmadaw, but this time the language had changed, without a reference to how the swampy soil contributed to the spread of disease as they had done in 1899, instead the necessity for reclaiming this land was entirely for the purpose of constructing new properties to offset the town’s rising house prices.[5] This shift in emphasis between the two reports would suggest that, as Sutphen argued, colonial authorities accepted the scientific link between rats and plague that bacteriology had made possible as the natural environment of these communities were no longer considered the main factor in disease spread, but rather the nature in which people lived. As the committee’s health officer reported:

‘the epidemic seems never to have been more severe in the… undrained and badly conserved quarters of Lanmadaw… than in the “Pucca Area,” which is better provided with… surface drains… but where the houses are often… four storeys in height, the lighting and ventilation very imperfect, and where over-crowding upon area attains its maximum… The only conditions common to all the infected dwellings were their general dirtiness and the absence of adequate light and ventilation, and the prevalence of rats in the vicinity.’[6]

However, Sutphen’s assertion that this ‘did not require colonial officials to change any of the routines they had used to control disease in the past’[7] was absolutely not the case in Rangoon, and the effects of this discursive shift bore itself out in drastically new approaches to municipal policy. For instance, in 1899 the committee sought to improve the drainage and infrastructure of the less urbanised sections of Rangoon, with the first response for prevention being the quarantining of ships from infected ports under the Venice Convention; there was little intention of changing how people living in these areas conducted themselves or organised their households.[8] Whereas, in the years following the 1905 report, with the blame for the plague’s spread being placed upon those dirty households attracting rats which the health officer had described, the committee started requesting designers to present examples of new ‘model houses for the poorer classes.’[9] With this, the rate of forced evictions increased as an amendment to the Burma Municipal Act of 1898 allowed for greater numbers of lower ranking officials’ signatures to count as providing sufficient authorisation for the demolition of buildings, a reflection of the increasing workload the rate of these demolitions were creating for the higher authorities in the effort to construct more free-standing masonry structures.[10] Finally, it is with the efforts to totally redesign the barracks provided by private businesses for their hired coolies that showed the extremity with which the plague had affected municipal policy, the 1910 report reading:

‘the want of power to control the laying out of private estates is a serious danger to the proper development of the town. The Committee is not eager to apply for these powers, but unless they are obtained and exercised or unless private owners exercise more liberality and foresight in the laying out of their estates… the health of the inhabitants of East Rangoon and other improved quarters will be imperilled by the existence of undrained, illventilated and grossly over crowded buslees which would put the slums of Liverpool to the blush.’[11]

A sentiment which was reflected across South Asia, with Robert Home directly linking the plague outbreaks to the development of new town planning techniques by taking a broader view of the discourses of colonial policy, a view which takes the impact of such developments into greater account than Sutphen’s focus on the immediate medical responses to such events.[12]


Therefore, it is clear that the link between rats and incidences of plague that bacteriology made possible greatly impacted the nature of municipal policy. The shift from theories that natural miasmas caused plague to plague being the result of human insanitary practices meant that local governments sought to exercise a new governmentality of biopower that increased controls over how indigenous people occupied domestic spaces. While it is important to note, to Sutphen’s credit, that the goals of colonialism existed similarly either side of the change from humanity needing to conquer nature to survive, to humanity needing to conquer humans to survive as both discourses sought to exploit foreign resources, the significance of this change lies in how the latter allowed the state to justify intensifying the regimentation of people’s lives. It is this change in policy that is absent in Sutphen’s article.

[1] Mary P. Sutphen, “Not What, but Where: Bubonic Plague and the Reception of Germ Theories in Hong Kong and Calcutta, 1894-1897”, Journal of the History of Medicine, Vol. 52 (1997), 81-113.

[2] Robert Home, Of Planting and Planning: The Making of British Colonial Cities (Abingdon, 1997; 2013), 149-199; Michel Sugarman, “Reclaiming Rangoon: (Post-)Imperial Urbanism and Poverty, 1920-1962”, Modern Asian Studies, 52: 6 (2018), 1856-1887.

[3] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality, for the Year 1898-99 (Rangoon, 1899), 18-19.

[4] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1905-06 (Rangoon, 1906), 11-12.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Sutphen, “Not What, but Where”, 112.

[8] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality, for the Year 1898-99, 29.

[9] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1907-08 (Rangoon, 1908), 21.

[10] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1909-10 (Rangoon, 1910), 14.

[11] Ibid., 16.

[12] Home, Of Planting and Planning, 149-199.

Newspaper Advertisements and the Promise of Hygienic Modernity

One of the most eye-catching aspects of newspapers, no matter what era, are advertisements. Ever since the advent of mass production and commercial sales, enterprising businessmen have attempted to sell a whole panoply of products. Chinese newspapers seem to have a penchant for advertising pharmaceutical products. A curious collection of diagrams published in 2017 highlights the overlaps between ads in the Shenbao and North China Daily News (NCDN) triggered an interesting deep dive into the appearance of specific ads in Chinese newspaper sources of the early 1900s. [1] These diagrams highlight an interesting evolution in the types of advertisements that appeared in Chinese Newspapers as perspectives on health evolved. Newspaper advertisements are powerful indicators of the zeitgeist of a region. In the case of pharmaceutical advertisements, it represented a powerful shift in the discourses surrounding hygiene and health in China. This was especially true in treaty ports, where increased accessibility to commodified drugs changed the nature of what health or weisheng (衛生) meant.

We begin with the primary source accounts found in newspapers from the early 1910s to the late 1940s, which denoted a marked shift in the number of pharmaceutical advertisements found in China-based newspapers. Shenbao in particular seems to have an eclectic mixture of pharmaceutical companies from Japan, the UK, the US and Germany. From 1914 to 1949, Bayer was commonly featured in both Shenbao and NCDN selling Aspirin and Cresival. While Aspirin is a household name in today’s day and age, used for the treatment of headaches and as a blood thinner. In the specific case of the Jiangsheng Bao (literally the sound of River Newspaper) a newspaper produced in Xiamen from 1918 to 1951, these pharmaceutical advertisements are so ubiquitous that most daily papers had at least one mention of medication. Once again, we see Bayer with a fairly large ad for Eldoform (anti-diarrheal) Mitigal (an ointment used to treat scabies) and Cresival. Of the many drugs advertised, Cresival seems to be the most mysterious. In the Jiangsheng Bao’s account of this medicine, it claims to clear phlegm and be the foremost cure for cough. In essence, a very good cough syrup. Bayer’s significant investment in Chinese newspaper advertisements seems quite unusual when taken out of context. Why would a German pharmaceutical company be interested in selling minor medications to people halfway across the globe?

Bayer Advertisement in 06/09/1932 Issue of Jiangsheng Bao [2]

The increased mentions of this medicine and for that matter, all types of medication indicated a significant shift in how Chinese people saw health as acquirable and consumable. In Ruth Rogaski’s Hygenic Modernity, she highlights how introduction to western culture increased the accessibility of ready-made remedies. [3] She discusses the wider adoption of Western hygienic norms throughout the 1920s and 30s in Treaty Ports throughout China: “For one and a half yuan, one could obtain weisheng in a pill.” Rogaski focuses most on the aggressive advertising of “Dr William’s Pink Pills for Pale People” a drug that was advertised heavily in the Shebao and NCDN from 1914 to 1949. [4] This pill was sold as a miracle cure for everything from “insomnia to intestinal worms”. She cogently comments on how these newspaper advertisements adapted themselves to the Chinese context, targeting a variety of figures such as the traditional male head of the household and their wifely counterparts. The ailments that these pills targeted were relevant to the discourses surrounding modernity and medicine at the time. [5]

The marked shift in how hygiene was seen as easily consumable and a mark of modernity drove pharmaceutical companies to set up shop in treaty ports such as Shanghai. Bayer set up its first Chinese factory producing Aspirin in 1936. [6] It seems that alongside the aggressive advertising in newspapers, Bayer was capitalising on this weisheng revolution and finding a market for commodified health. Their increased presence in newspaper advertisements across China was quite intentional. As the social discourse surrounding hygiene and modernity in China grew, so did the consumption of these “health consumables” that could improve not just the general health of the average Chinese person, but the health of the overall state and civilisation. These pharmaceutical newspaper advertisements in the Shenbao, North China Daily News and Jiangsheng Bao reflected on the rapidly evolving ideas on health and modernity in China that pervaded that period.

[1] ‘Circulations of pharmaceutical brands between the newspapers Shenbao and North China Daily News (1914-1949)’, MADSPACE, 5 May 2017,  <https://madspace.org/cooked/Drawings?ID=128> [accessed 5 February 2022].

[2] ‘Jiangsheng Bao’, Archive.org, 06/09/1932, <https://archive.org/details/jiangshengbao-1932.09.06/page/n6/mode/2up> [accessed 5 February 2022].

[3] Ruth Rogaski, Hygenic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China (London, 2004), p. 227.

[4] Ibid, p. 229..

[5] Ibid, p. 230.

[6] Bayer, ‘Bayer China History’ <https://www.bayer.com.cn/index.php/AboutBayer/BayerChina/2nd/History?l=en-us> [accessed 5 February 2022].