Monthly Archives: April 2013

An American Woman Dating Thai Men in 1950s Thailand

I recently found an interesting article in the 24 July 1952 Siam Rath Weekly Review about a young white American woman attempting to date in 1950s Thailand. Identified only as “ingénue,” she talks about how hard it is to find a man as an intelligent and witty woman. Despite being told “lurid stories of their evil ways” brought on by the hot climate, the writer still sees Thai men as good potential love matches.

Thai, Thailand, men, women, dating, date, 1950s

She tells us that although “young Siamese men seem eager enough” when they first meet her, they quickly become incredibly nervous and find an excuse to leave the conversation only to “grin sheepishly across the room” for the rest of the evening.

Thai, Thailand, man, women, dat, dating

On the other hand, many of the older men she meets at parties and social events are the “I’m-old-enough-to be your father” types and expected her to act as a little girl with few opinions.

In the end, the author finds that both young and older men want to be flattered and feed as if they were “mentally deficient and had an insatiable appetite.” Not a pretty picture.

Selling Oatmeal to Southeast Asia

Of all the many successful products marketed to Southeast Asia from the United States, Quaker Oatmeal does not seem to have made the list. However, in the 1950s, the company was pushing hard to market their product. They handed out thousands of free bowls of the stuff at the Thai 1954 Bangkok Constitution Fair, but apparently few Thais enjoyed it.

Bangkok, Thailand, Constitution Fair, Oatmeal, Quaker

Later, advertisements appeared across Southeast Asia that seem to play on locals’ fears of being able to compete in the labor market. Here are some pictures from the Borneo Bulletin in 1959. Apparently if you eat Quaker Oats you will be a more successful Malaysian!

Quaker, Oatmeal, Borneo, Malaysia, Advertisment

Talking About Race in Southeast Asian History

Recently there has been some good writing done about race in Southeast Asia. Before this, most of the history that dealt with race was pretty influenced by Eurocentric ideas or nationalist narratives that supported a particular race’s “uniqueness.” But this new stuff is pretty, so here is a little intro to the newer ideas floating around out there.

In Southeast Asian historiography, the construction of racial knowledge has largely revolved around and evolved from European ideas of race, nationalism, and coloniality. From John Sydenham Furnivall’s notions of a “plural society” to more recent “clash of cultures” theories, thinking on the racialization of the Southeast Asian body and state has been fairly limited.  However, recent work by a number of scholars in fields such as history, anthropology, and sociology are begging to challenge these older understandings. These authors seek to reevaluate the place of race in daily practice, the formation of modern postcolonial states, and even see implications for transnational race formation that occurred between colonizers and the colonized.

            Charles Hirschman’s article, “The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology,” Sociological Forum, 1, No.2 (Spring, 1986): 330-361, is a great starting point for this project as he seeks to demonstrate that what we now identify as discrete racial groups in Southeast Asia are in fact legacies of imperial structures from the colonial period. He uses the case of “race relations” in Malaysia to argue that “direct colonial rule” created these racial “byproducts” as a result of classification, stratification, and labor-based exploitation of the colonial subject. While Hirschman acknowledges that pre-modern Southeast Asia was a world of “ethnocentrism,” he argues that the “racial ideology of inherent difference” was a European import. Western ideas of the “lazy Malay,” entrepreneurial Chinese, and the willing Indian laborer caused a “qualitative shift” in the economy and society which hardened local understandings of race.

            These stereotypical ideas of racial differentiation were not merely a popular understanding or a natural outcome of transforming means of production, but rather, according to Daniel P.S. Goh’s article “States and Ethnography: Colonialism, Resistance, and Cultural Transcriptions in Malaya and the Philippines, 1890s-1930s,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 49, No.1 (2007):109-142, these differences were created as part of a colonial logic which combined scientific racism and social Darwinism to “make legible” the colonial subject and create systems of knowledge and control. Here Goh argues that the “transcription” of local peoples, knowledge, and methods of resistance allowed colonial officer-ethnographers to debate native peoples’ level of civilization on a sliding scale from “degenerated medievals” which were currently incapable of progress to “model medievals” nearly in line with Europe’s past. While this model employed by late nineteenth century ethnographers did in theory allow for the possibility of progress, in also froze different races in pre-modern time based on cultural differentiation or resistance to white rule and allowed white Europeans domination of racial distinction and classification within the colonies.

            This idea that “white” imperialists brought racial classifications to Southeast Asia and implemented power structures based on the production of the social economy or ethnographic knowledge is challenged by Paul Kramer’s article “Empires, Exceptions, and Anglo-Saxons: Race and Rule between the British and United States Empires, 1880-1910,” The Journal of American History, 88, No.4 (Mar., 2002), 1315-1353, which seeks to demonstrate that some of the idea of whiteness, or more precisely Anglo-Saxonism” were created in the colonial world and not in the metropole. Kramer argues that the American and British empires shared an “inter colonial” production of “Anglo-Saxon” racial exceptionalism that was created in the empire itself. Rather than bringing hard, pre-formulated notions of race to the Philippines and Malaysia, Kramer demonstrates that these ideas of racial superiority were partially crafted in transnational peripheries to support, organize, and legitimize empire. Anglo-Saxon identities thus were created “in relation to empire.”

            But if Anglo-Saxons could create racial identities in relation to empire, surely colonial subjects in transnational social systems and economic flows could do likewise. Chua Ai Lin’s article “Nation, Race, and Language: Discussing Transnational Identities in Colonial Singapore, Circa 1930” Modern Asian Studies, 46, Special Issue 2 (March 2012): 283-302, explains that just as white racial identity was formed in transnational spaces, racial knowledge of Indian and Chinese Malays were created in a complex mix of local and global influences. As British subjects living in Malaya with ties to familial origins in India or China, these “non-Malay” people utilized notions of language, citizenship, and place in their own logics of race. Primarily concerned with maintaining their identity as “Straits Chinese” and Malay Indians, Lin tells us that these people simultaneously embraced British subjecthood and “gained pride” from the “rising international status of India and China.” Again, this process can be seen as creating harder and clearer cut racial identities where previously other forms of social knowledge and representation existed.

These sharp distinctions in race formation, knowledge, and self-identification would outlive the colonial period and, in many ways, come to define the parameters of race and nationalism in postcolonial Southeast Asian nations. Daniel P.S. Goh’s article “From Colonial Pluralism to Postcolonial Multiculturalism: Race, State Formation and the Question of Cultural Diversity in Malaysia and Singapore” Sociology Compass, 2, No.1 (2008): 232-252, takes up this issue and argues that unlike “postimperial societies,” postcolonial societies “built on colonial racialization” came to view race as integral to nationalism thus creating a societies in which “multiculturalism” was a problematic “fact”; a “dilemma to be dealt with from the beginning of nation building.”

While all of these articles add new ideas and ask a series of interesting questions, they also seem to share a common set of problems. Partially based on their foucauldian analytic methods, they seem to attribute tremendous power to the state and focus away from individual response, reason, and (ir)rationality. Moreover, as these authors seek to sidestep American and European racialization and observe transnational Southeast Asian constructions of race (even the Anglo-Saxon ones) they rely only on English-language discourse and primary sources. Also, some of the authors’ ideas of race fall apart in the light of comparison to say the American Civil War, Jim Crow laws, and continuing forms of racial differentiation often referred to under the contemporary euphemism of “development.” Any compelling notions of race and race production in Southeast Asia must contain these comparative models and ask broader questions. How did Japanese technological progress and claims to be “white” affect the racial ideology of other Asians? How did American, Dutch, and British racism vary and did this have an effect especially on the peripheries of empire? How might America’s internal “decolonization” of black peoples and communities compare to decolonization in postwar Southeast Asia? Such questions combined with a greater use of local sources in non-English-language sources would surely expand the field and produce new and interesting theories and knowledge.  

Disneyland Diplomacy

In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev embarked on a ground breaking mission to visit the United States during a tense period of the Cold War. The Soviet leader met with President Eisenhower and even attended a star-studded lunch in Hollywood on September 19th. However, the visit turned sour over a somewhat unusual set of circumstances. Khrushchev was furious that he would not be allowed to visit Disneyland. Khrushchev, Soviet Union, 1959, Los Angeles, Disneyland, Disney

Since that time, high ranking foreign dignitaries coming to the United States, particularly “third world” leaders the United States hoped would lean toward democracy, have routinely been taken on a tour of the Magic Kingdom as part of the American experience. Famous guests have include The King of Nepal Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in 1960, Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961, The Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1962, Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie in 1967, Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu in 1970, and Emperor or Japan Hirohito in 1975 among others.

Ceausescu, Disney, Disneyland, 1970, President Why did Disneyland become such a routine element of American foreign policy during the Cold War? Was America trying to portray the benefits of consumerism, an open public sphere, or just a better Tomorrow Land?