Last month I attended the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies, held in Toronto. It was a very special experience to see and meet so many other Asian Studies scholars, many of whom I hadn't seen in years if not decades.
I have spent most of the past twenty years living in the Asia Pacific region. The last time I was at an Association for Asian Studies (AAS) conference in North America was probably in San Diego in 2004. Before that, I had attended one or two AAS conferences in DC and Boston. As a graduate student I always found them a bit intimidating. Talking to grad students that the AAS Toronto conference held in March 2017, I found many of them felt the same way.
My one distinctive memory at an AAS conference back in my own grad school days is meeting the eminent China historian Fred Wakeman. He was very helpful as I was researching my thesis on the history of Shanghai, and offered much sage advice. Of course, these conferences are important for graduate students, who must learn how to overcome their inhibitions and meet important scholars, who might help light their way to a successful career. It helps to have a good advisor. My advisor at Columbia, Dr. Madeleine Zelin, was a student of Dr. Wakeman's, and she introduced me to him during my first AAS conference in DC, and that led to great things.
Grad students must also learn the ropes of how to present themselves and their topics to the scholarly world. I do not remember giving a paper at AAS, or ever feeling ready to do so during my graduate years. I always thought it was a brave thing for graduate students to present their work at such a large and important conference.
Another source of delight and awe was the book section of the conference. With dozens of stalls lined up representing prominent academic publishers, and with dozens of books prominently displayed in each stall, I always wondered what it would feel like to someday see my own book on display. I finally had the chance to find out while attending the AAS conference in Toronto. Of course, it would be an even better feeling to receive one of the awards offered to the most outstanding publications. I was very glad to learn that my China studies colleagues and fellow Dartmouth alums, Dr. Chris Rea was awarded the post-1900 Joseph R. Levenson Prize for the best book in the field of Chinese studies. This was for his study of humor in late Qing and early Republican China, The Age of Irreverence. Chris received the honor along with other scholars during the opening ceremony on the morning of March 17. This reflects well on Dartmouth's Chinese language program and on our original Chinese teacher, Professor Susan Blader.
I attended both the keynote speech and the opening address by AAS President Laurel Kendall, who spoke about her ethnographic research on the material culture of religion in East and Southeast Asia. These two speeches with their emphasis on cross-cultural scholarship, site research, and theory in an interdisciplinary and multinational context set the perfect tone for the conference.
Both speeches were introduced by former President Timothy Brook, who looks like the kind of professor you would see in a movie about academia. I have long admired the work of Dr. Brook, and his graceful onstage persona matches his elegant research on Ming dynasty Chinese society and culture.
When attending such a large conference, one must choose among a great variety of offerings. Each panel session features multiple panels, hundreds in all over the 4-day event. In addition there are special sessions and gatherings for particular groups of people, including associations, councils, and societies as well as alumni groups. Then again, you might prefer to just spend some quality time with dear old colleagues and friends. So each day requires a balancing act among many opportunities.
Last year I was approached by a young scholar named Roanna Cheung to join a panel she was organizing on the topic of spectacles of modernity. This panel included two other young panelists, Fong Fong Chen and Jiacheng Liu, who gave papers on late Qing and Republican Era Chinese urban culture. Roanna focused on sexual health ads in Guangzhou in the Nationalist era, Jiacheng gave a paper on actresses in Beijing in the 1910s, and Fong Fong looked at images and paintings of women by the artist Wu Youru from late Qing Shanghai. All in all I felt that their paper presentations came together quite well.
As young scholars and freshly minted PhDs, they did a wonderful job of presenting their ideas to a highly engaged audience, showing great promise for their futures as teachers and in the world of scholarship. I did my part, providing a brief synthesis of their talks and offering up questions of my own. Dr. Lisa Claypool, an art historian focusing on visual arts in Shanghai, presided over the panel and did an excellent job of keeping it all together. Despite starting at 8:30 am on Sunday morning, the panel was well attended, and my colleague at UNSW, Louisa Edwards, was there as well.
Over the three-day conference, I attended many panels, particularly those involving friends who were presenting their own papers. John Crespi and his group put together a fantastic panel on cartoon media in 20th century China, which spanned several different eras from the Republican period to the present day. John as usual gave a fascinating presentation on manhua or cartoons from the wartime era (nobody presents manhua better than John). Eileen Chow, our colleague at Duke, did an amazing job of synthesizing the significance of these papers.
I also attended a few other panels, at least two per day. One of the standouts was the presidential panel organized by Laurel Kendall, which brought together ethnographers and historians of religion focusing on different countries in Asia to discuss the significance of specific religious artifacts they had each chosen for the panel. I especially enjoy these inter-cultural panels which bring out the best that AAS has to offer.
Being a documentary film buff, I saw three films over three days as part of the AAS Film Expo organized by Jason Finkelman. The first, People Are the Sky, was about a Korean American woman's journey into North Korea to find her original home village. It was a touching if unavoidably narrow view of North Korean society, grounded in a personal and national history that was very critical of the US military interventions in the 1940s and '50s. The second film I saw, Silk Road of Pop, followed groups of Uyghur youths in Urumqi and Kashgar who are musically inclined. Given my own interest in music in China, this was a must for me. This revelatory film showed the tensions of Uyghur society and Uyghur-Han relations, but also the enormous musicality, humor, and creativity of the Uyghur people. It was beautifully filmed and captured the stark landscape of Xinjiang well. The third film I saw, BulkLand, focused on the city of Yiwu in Zhejiang Province, known for its ability to manufacture cheap mass-produced goods. The film followed several characters including a British businessman, a German factory owner, a Chinese merchant, a Belorussian dancer, a Yemenese businessman, and a Chinese migrant worker. It did a great job of capturing that manufacturing city in a time of change. I told the producer, who joined us after the film for a skype call, that he should come and do a similar treatment of Kunshan. It was also good to catch up with Jason, who had screened our film Down: Indie Rock in the PRC at a previous conference in Macao.
The rest of my time was spent catching up with old friends and introducing myself and Duke Kunshan to new colleagues. I attended the Columbia reception, where I was stunned to see so many Columbia grads, including many of my classmates from the years I spent studying there in the 1990s. They are all professors and deans now, and they have all earned solid reputations for their scholarship. I also enjoyed meeting the younger scholars and graduate students. It was nice to see Dr. Haruo Shirane, the chair of the EALAC department in which I earned my PhD, still going strong and wise and sharp as ever. I also attended the Berkeley reception, a late-night affair held in one of the grand ballrooms. There I ran into many other colleagues and friends from times past, including Prof. Eddy U, a sociologist at UC Davis whom I first met while researching in the Shanghai Archives twenty years ago. Dr. Ari Levine, with whom I'd TA'd under Dr. Martin Kern at Columbia back in 2000, has grown a beard and looks like a wise old rabbi. It was good to see Prof. Andrew Jones after many years, whose work on Chinese musical history has always resonated with my own research, and I was excited to find out that he is working on a book on the circulation of pop music in Asia in the 1960s-70s. For the first time, I finally met Dr. Ryan Dunch in person, who for years I had shared the duties of being an editor of H-ASIA. I also met Matthew Sommer from Stanford, who has been doing outstanding work on Qing dynasty social history. And many others as well.
Every time I met somebody I hadn't seen in years or was meeting for the first time, I always asked the same question: Are you working on a new book? I find that my colleagues are usually eager to share their latest book projects with somebody who cares enough to ask about them. So for young scholars who feel intimidated by the prospect of meeting more seasoned ones, I recommend asking this question.
For three whole days, I didn't see the light of day but spent nearly all of my time inside the hotel running from conference room to conference room to ballroom to restaurant to bar. I lost track of time and slept and woke at odd hours. I would wake up early in the morning (jet lag) and go for a swim in the hotel. The Sheraton was a great venue for the conference, and the hotel features an indoor/outdoor pool. It was fun to swim out into the cold morning air while being warmed by the pool.
A special app designed by AAS made it easy to navigate the labyrinthine rooms of the conference halls and find out where I needed to go. Kudos to AAS for doing this--it made everything so much easier. My only caveat about the hotel is that they could have offered us hot or at least warm drinks in the conference rooms. Imagine that--offering ice cold water to Asian Studies people!
Other highlights of the conference included running into my former Columbia professor David Der-wei Wang, who made a cameo appearance in the restaurant down in the lobby. It was good to catch up with Graham Hodges, an American historian I met in Shanghai a few years ago, and have dinner with him and his wife and fellow China historian, Yunxiang Gao.
On that same evening in the hotel bar, we had a drink with Gail Hershatter, perhaps the top scholar in the field of women's and gender studies in China. I was pleased as punch to clink beers with Gail, and even more pleased when she told me she'd just reread my first book, Shanghai's Dancing World.While I enjoyed talking to these senior scholars and catching up with them, for me the most fun part of all was meeting and talking to young scholars, including the three women on our panel. It was exciting to hear about what subjects they are researching and what sorts of new angles they are taking as they inject new blood into their fields. I was also happy to tell them about the mission of Duke Kunshan and share the news that we are hiring in waves and intend to build up a robust and intrepid body of faculty to teach our innovative curriculum. And it was encouraging to find out that some of them had applied for academic positions at DKU.
On the final day of the conference I spent some time with my old friend and colleague Toby Lincoln, and met some of his fellow panelists in the area of urban studies. I also had tea with Donia Zhang, a new acquaintance who will be giving a talk later this year at DKU. It was nice to get to know her story and learn about her research on courtyard neighborhoods in China.
Finally, after many unsuccessful attempts to get together over the conference, I met up with my old friend Claire Conceison, who now teaches drama at MIT after leaving Duke not so long ago (we were sad to lose her but I can tell she is happy in Boston, and the folks at MIT can use her magic!). She and I caught up over a late dinner in the hotel bar while watching Duke lose to South Carolina, who advanced into the Sweet Sixteen. This was a painful moment for Coach K, for the Duke team, and especially for Claire.
Now that I have renewed my acquaintance with AAS and realize again what a unique experience this conference offers and what an amazing collection of intelligences it brings together, I am looking forward to the next meeting. It will be held in DC next year, and I hope this next time round I will give a paper. That would be a first for me.