Where does Asia begin and end? Is “Asia” merely a designation on the maps of the European colonizers? Or is it in any sense a real, binding, and coherent identity, a dense fabric of cultures, beliefs, experiences and ideas woven over time and space? If so, how can this identity be shared in common by 60 percent of the world’s population? And if Asia really exists, where is its center and what are its peripheries?
As the Japanologist Harry Harootunian points out in his book History’s Disquiet, the Asian Studies field and its biggest conferences and journals--notably AAS and JAS--are in a sense dinosaurs, relics of an earlier age of map-making, a way of dividing and conquering the world by the Dutch and British East India Companies and the British Empire and later taken up by post-WWII America. Yet we still seem to find Asia and its sub-categories of East, West, Central, North, South, and Southeast useful for describing this part of the world.
The designation of Southeast Asia is used to encompass the coastal and island nations lying south of China and east of India. Southeast Asia includes the countries of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Burma might be considered a member of Southeast Asian nations as well, or it might be considered part of South Asia depending on one’s perspective. The geographical term of Southeast suggests a cluster of leftover places, marginalized and thrust into the corner by the giants that surround them.
If there is any coherence to the Southeast Asian identity, it rests in the strong connections of these countries and cultures to the Pacific and Indian oceans and to oceanic trade and commerce, migrations, and journeying. Only one of these countries, Laos, is landlocked, although it still has the Mekong River to connect it to the others. Many of these countries are made up of hundreds or even thousands of islands inhabited by different peoples and woven loosely together into nations by the modern forces of western colonial imperialism and its antitheses in the post-WWII era.
Another key feature that becomes apparent when visiting these countries is the confluence of cultures and peoples from other parts of Asia and the world. In particular, one notices how deeply embedded and infused the cultures of these countries are with the civilizations and peoples of China and India. In addition, trade over the centuries with the Arab world has also added spice to the mix and produced the largest Islamic populations on the planet.
Little wonder then that one great reason to visit Southeast Asia is for the food. The blending of Indian, Arabic, and Chinese cultures with each other over the centuries as well as with the cultures “native” to the islands (going back to their aboriginal populations) has created so many wonderful cuisines. For seafood lovers, Southeast Asia is heaven. For those of us who prefer meats and especially for the vegetarians among us, it’s a fabulous region to sample all the different varieties of sauces and spices, pickles, curries, and stews, and all those combos of sour, hot, sweet, pungent and bitter that make up Southeast Asian cuisine. Then there are the fruits, so many luscious tropical fruits that you don’t see elsewhere, with odd-tasting Durian being one of the most popular among tourists these days.
Of course, it all started with food—namely, spices. It was the quest for the legendary spice islands that originally brought the Dutch, Portuguese and other European conquerers and colonists sailing out to this part of the world in the first place. Even Columbus was searching for an alternative route to these fabled islands, when he accidentally “discovered” the Americas.
I am an Asianist who specializes in the region known as East Asia. Basically, this means China and its neighbors Korea and Japan, both of which inherited a great deal of classical civilization from China. Yet when you think about it, the cultural blending I just wrote about vis-à-vis Southeast Asia was happening in this region too, namely with the influence of the Silk Road and the cultures it brought from Central and South Asia, particularly the religion of Buddhism. That said, Buddhism was “sinicized” early on and is now more associated with East Asia than with India, although India remains its undeniable source.
Southeast Asia can also claim to be one of the world’s great Buddhist regions, although the competition among religions is somewhat fiercer there, particularly with the pervasiveness of Hindu and Islamic faiths as well as the powerful influence of Christianity. For people such as myself who enjoy visiting temples and places of worship of all sorts, Southeast Asia offers myriad opportunities to do so.
Most of my time in Asia has been spent living in East Asia, i.e. Mainland China, and to a lesser extent, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. I have not spent much time in either South or Southeast Asia, although I did spend five years in Australia which is bracketed into the Asia Pacific region. Lately, because of my job with DKU, I have travelled to Southeast Asian countries much more frequently, and it’s been a real eye-opener. As I shared in some of my entries last year, my journeys through both South and Southeast Asia have opened my eyes once again to the vastness and diversity of this world region and have also given me some valuable comparative insights into the development of the the different countries and cities that Asia encompasses.
My latest trip was last week, Oct 23-31, when I visited the two cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I have been to these cities several times over the past two years for conferences and recruiting. Each time I go, I learn a bit more about these cities and the diverse people who inhabit them, and each time I’m left with more questions. It’s like working on a big jigsaw puzzle: I feel I’m getting close to the finishing the edges, but I’m still a long way from filling in the middle parts.
This time I traveled once again to Kuala Lumpur for the annual EARCOS conference on school leadership and governance, and since this was the 50th conference, it was a special event indeed. I was greeted heartily at the registration area by none other than Dick Krajczar, the ebullient conference director, who told me that our Head of School Marcel was going to do 50 pushups to celebrate the occasion. Dick told me with great admiration that Marcel can do 16 pullups, which if true is certainly a feat worth remembering. Dick was retiring from his position and later at the end of the conference he was given a proper ceremonial sendoff for all his great work on behalf of the organization.
I also visited the University of Malaya, considered the top university in Malaysia, which is home to faculty and students from over 85 countries including many of the Asian and Middle Eastern ones. I learned from the director of international relations there that the number one country outside of Malaysia represented in the student and faculty body is Iran. For students who wish to taste the diversity of this country and the region of which it is a part, this would be an ideal place.
On my last day in KL, I took a walk up to the the KL Tower and took in the view of the city and environs from nearly 300 meters in the air. The high buildings of the KLCC featuring the famed Petronas Towers stood out in the view, but what really impressed me were the mountains lying beyond, which you simply can’t see at street level. Cloud formations added drama to the view, and in the distance one could see rain falling in concentrated areas of the city and beyond. In order to look out in the different directions through the windows, I had to make my way through dense crowds of photo-snapping Malaysian, Indian, European and Chinese tourists and visitors who were also enjoying the views. The Malaysian women were dressed in colorful outfits and hijabs. The observation deck is basically a microcosm for the diversity of Malaysia.
Later that evening I met up with a colleague from my business school days, Dr. Willem Smit, who is working for a fairly new b-school in KL. We went over to a live music club called the Bee, which happens to be located in a shopping mall in another district in the city. That night there was a concert of Malaysian rappers. The concert culminate with the local star of the Malaysian rap scene, Ical Mosh. He was joined on stage by the other rappers in a great big finale. I discovered that Malaysian language with its staccato syllables lends itself well to the art of rapping. It was interesting to see how an underground music scene operates in this part of the world and how many youths showed up for this event. Most of them were male, but there were quite a few young women there as well.
Afterwards we checked out a nightclub called Suzie Wong’s, located not far from the Shangri-La where I was staying. I found the mixture of décor, design, dance and music refreshingly odd. The place was filled with swing chairs on which perched ladies who were part of the show. The audience was a mixture of locals, expats, and tourists. A couple of groups were celebrating birthday parties with champagne trains of Moet & Chandon brought by the ladies who had been swinging on chairs when we entered the club. Among the staged performances were some scenes from the Disney movie The Little Mermaid with a cast of costumed characters dancing and lip-synching tunes from the soundtrack, which was quite impressive actually. Between their two sets, a Filipino rock band played some recent hits as a crowd of Dutch and Chinese customers danced energetically around their tables. After the live performances were over, a female DJ started playing clubbing music, and we called it a night.
The following day I was on a flight to Singapore for meetings at Yale NUS and Duke NUS. This was my second visit to Yale NUS, a good potential exchange partner for DKU, and also my first visit to Duke NUS medical center located on the grounds of Singapore General Hospital. One of the highlights of my visit to Yale NUS was meeting some students and having lunch with them in their cafeteria, which served a tasty set of dishes. When they tire of the cafeteria food on the Yale NUS campus, students and faculty can venture out to the much larger NUS campus to experience a wider variety of choices.
Prior to visiting Duke NUS, which is basically one very tall building on the grounds of the hospital, I had a stroll around Clark Quay and up into Fort Canning Park located on a hillock above the city. This was a beautiful place to greet the early morning sun while learning more about the early history of the city.
I had a free afternoon on the second day of my brief sojourn in Singapore. Through a friend in Shanghai, I had arranged to meet Adeline Foo, who is the author of a number of popular children’s books and more recently a screen-writer for TV shows. She also wrote a book about cabarets and hostesses in 1930s Singapore, which were connected to the Shanghai scene in many ways. We met at the Central shopping center in Clark Quay and had a delicious lunch at a Sumatran café called Rendezvous.
Adeline then took me over to the Peranakan Museum, which was a splendid way to spend my final afternoon in Singapore. I had not really known much if anything about Peranakan (“native born”) or Straits Chinese culture until I visited this museum. A docent named Eleanor gave us and some others a very informative tour of the museum and its various exhibits, focusing on the 12-day long marriage rituals and the daily lives of the Peranakans.
I was surprised to learn that Mrs. Wellington Koo, the wife of the Chinese diplomat of the Republican Era who showed up frequently in accounts I read of Shanghai’s nightlife in the 1930s was from a Peranakan family, and indeed there was a life-size painting of her in the museum. Her father was a famous sugar magnate.
There was also an excellent photo exhibition in the museum, curated by Peter Lee, whose book on Straits Chinese culture I purchased in the gift shop. Peranakan culture represents just another piece of the vast inter-cultural puzzle of Singapore and Southeast Asia. Next time, Adeline told me, I should visit the Baba House. Peranakans are known as Baba and Nonya, which are basically the male and female designations for the culture. So the house, which is a male space (one of ownership and prestige) is Baba, whereas food, which is prepared by women, is known as Nonya cuisine.
After visiting the museum, Adeline and I braved a downpour, sharing an umbrella as we made our way to a bus station and headed over to a shopping area called Bugits, where we had tea along with some Singaporean treats. Before parting in the subway station, Adeline signed a copy of one of her children’s books called Chilli Padifor my 9-year old daughter Hannah, who later devoured the book upon my return to Shanghai (as I write this entry she is rereading it again).
That evening I met up with Rob Kos, a former student of mine from my UNSW days in Sydney. Rob has been living in Singapore for many years now, where he has taken on various jobs and is now training to be a yoga instructor. He took me on a walking tour of the Geylang district, a famed red light district on the edge of the city. The brothels look like regular suburban houses except with big flashy numbers on them and scantily clad ladies –Chinese mostly it appears—waiting for customers inside the open doors.
We walked around the neighborhood, which otherwise is a regular working-class area filled with shops, restaurants, temples, and karaoke parlors. The regular old neighborhood life was quite a contrast to the streets lined with brothels, but then again, this is not too different from many neighborhoods in urban China including Kunshan where I now live. We spent most of our time in Geylang hanging out in a couple of Chinese restaurants on the street corners, eating Chaozhou noodles and washing them down with Tiger beer while watching the locals and tourists pass by on the road. I ended up talking to the waitresses in Chinese. One of them wanted to set Rob up with her shy 30-year old niece from Fujian. She was very serious about it.
After getting a glimpse of the seedier side of this otherwise squeeky clean city, the following morning I was hoping to take a morning stroll in the colorful “Little India” area of town before catching my flight back to Shanghai. However, I ran out of time and had to be content with a 40-minute boat ride from Clark Quay under the river bridges and out to the harbor to catch a view of the city skyline and the famed Marina Bay Sands hotel.
I stayed at the back of the boat where I had an unobstructed view of the riverside restaurants and bars and the bridges and museums and hotels that passed by on the way to the harbor. I was joined by a very lively group of Mainland Chinese tourists snapping plenty of photos of themselves, who had no idea that the laowai sharing their boat ride could understand every word they said.
Like any tourist or business trip visitor, I find I only get a superficial experience of the city life every time I go to these Southeast Asian cities, but at least I learn little bit more about these places each time. Right now I’m just enjoying nibbling the cake around the edges. Of course it would be nice to spend more time and do a deeper dive into these cities and countries some day, and maybe even pick up another Asian language or two. While it may be too late for me to learn another Asian language well, I certainly hope to facilitate the ability for our students to do so as part of our study abroad programming. In fact, I hope that Southeast Asia will be an essential component of DKU study abroad, since I believe that this region holds the key to understanding Asia as a whole.
By the way, I’m planning to attend the next APAIE conference in March 2019. Last year it was held in Singapore. This time it will be in Kuala Lumpur, and if I can work it out I will do the rounds again and visit Singapore as well. This makes sense as it is just a short flight from KL. However, what I’d really like to do, and what Adeline and Rob both encouraged me to see, is to visit the old city of Malacca in between these two Southeast Asian mega-cities. That place, they assure me, is where the REAL Southeast Asia lies.