Daily Archives: November 5, 2015

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Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Janet HOSKINS

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Performing the Divine: Mediums, Markets and Modernity in Urban Vietnam
Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2011, 244 p.

The resurgence of popular religion in Vietnam has attracted the attention of a large number of scholars, who have recently published works on the music (Norton 2009), hero worship (Phạm Quỳnh Phương 2009), transnational spread (Fjelstad and Nguyễn Thị Hiền 2011) and modernity (Taylor 2007) of the colorful rituals. Kirsten Endres’ Performing the Divine: Mediums, Markets and Modernity in Urban Vietnam takes its place among these other valuable studies, and advances a number of complex re-evaluations of contemporary theory in relation to new empirical studies.

Endres tells the story of how she discovered lên đồngg rituals in 1998 while doing research on village festivals, observing a ceremony in a village that informants had told her was prohibited by the authorities and never performed. Eight years later, the capital city of Hanoi was full of private shrines dedicated to the Mother Goddess and the music from Four Palace ceremonies wafted down from the top floors of the narrow town houses in trendy, affluent neighborhoods as well as more popular ones. Her research took place in the increasingly public sphere of competing master mediums, folkloric performances and new ideas of spirit mediumship rituals as part of an “intangible cultural heritage” which defines Vietnamese identity.

The Four Palace rituals are sometimes described as a “religion of prosperity” in the “alternative modernity” of Vietnam’s new market economy. Recently, they have gained legitimacy and a measure of official recognition through their description as the “Religion of the Mother Goddess”(Đạo Mẫu), seen as the indigenous religion of the Red River Delta, the homeland of Vietnamese tradition. Studies by folklorists like Ngô Đức Thịnh, Nguyễn Thị Hiền and Phạm Quỳnh Phương played an important part in both documenting these practices and arguing that they should be recognized as authentic local culture.

But, as Endres argues, this process of documentation is also a complex one, since it selectively emphasizes certain elements (performance and connections to business success) at the expense of others (healing and divination). It may also lead to a certain standardization of a pantheon once characterized by its fluidity, flexibility and openness to individual innovation.

The vital multiplicity of Vietnamese forms of spirit worship has been subject to some form of administrative control since imperial times, when particular deities were issued imperial certificates of investiture ( sặc phong) and assigned ranks in official hierarchies. This rank did not necessarily correspond to the popularity or influence of the deity, however, since people thronged to the temples of deities perceived to be spiritually efficacious, whether or not they were sanctioned as historical heroes or heroines. Many of the most responsive deities were, in fact, women who had been wronged: who had been wrongly suspected of infidelity or immorality, who had died young and tragically, and whose cult had been neglected in official centers, only to resurface by possessing new spirit mediums and gaining attention through healings.

Spirit possession was for a long time a peripheral cult of “troubled women,” condemned by communist authorities as a form of superstition and fraud. This profile is now changing, and while women still predominate as ordinary mediums, many if not most of the best-known urban mediums are now male. This transformation has effected what Endres calls the “various political and cultural agendas” that have been played out in the creation of Đạo Mẫu. Among those that she explores are the connections between Đạo Mẫu and commerce, the aesthetic values of performance, gender fluidity and what she calls the “heritagisation” of Four Palace mediumship in today’s Vietnam.

Drawing on Victor Turner’s theories of the ritual process and Bruce Kapferer’s ideas of the dynamics of ritual performance, Endres analyzes a number of specific ceremonies to discern how“the symbolic system of the Four Palace religion is inscribed into the novice medium’s body as lived experience” (p. 24). This process begins with ideas that certain persons have a “spirit root”( căn đồng) or a “destined aptitude for mediumship” based the idea of a karmic debt that can only be repaid by serving the spirits in this life. A personal crisis, a string of bad luck, disturbing dreams or a serious illness can all be symptoms of this “spirit root.” Endres argues that to understand how a medium can benefit from becoming a medium we must pay attention both to the narratives they present about their pathway into mediumship and to the ritual process through which they come to feel newly empowered by the spirits.

Ritual performances themselves can be highly contested. They have changed significantly from the French colonial era through the period of suppression by the secular state to the present moment of efflorescence. The rise of a new consumer culture has transformed deities once seen as vengeful supernatural beings who punish even the slightest mistakes into more tolerant“exchange partners” willing to work with their mediums to conjure wealth and prosperity in this world. A female dominated cult has also become increasingly male led, with transgendered “celebrity mediums” emerging in recent years as Vietnamese society in general has become more open to gender fluidity.

In the past two decades, Four Palace spirit mediumship has been reborn as “Đạo Mẫu,” at the impetus of a number of Vietnamese folklore scholars and anthropologists. Instead of seeing these rituals as a way of serving the gods and deities (in effect, an intense and more dramatic form of ancestor worship), these intellectuals have helped to re-define it as a religion, a pathway with its own implicit ideas and doctrines. Đạo Mẫu makes claims to embody a more authentic and ancient heritage in which the painful events of the twentieth century are completely absent—a telling sort of “historical amnesia” that elides an age of ideological conflict to take refuge in an imperial pantheon of heroes, highland ladies, princes, and princesses.

In this respect, the impetus to standardize and get recognition as “Vietnamese indigenous religion” is similar to the impetus that the leaders of the colonial era “new religion” Caodaism felt, when they moved to define a nation that did not yet exist in terms of a spiritual heritage that emerged from Vietnam’s history and colonial experience. But while Caodaists embraced syncretism, and boldly encompassed Jesus Christ and many Christian themes into the overarching East Asian pantheon headed by the Jade Emperor, Đạo Mẫu advocates are moving in a different direction, asserting the modernity of cultural elements once relegated to the domain of rural folklore, tying the destiny of urban businessmen to remote temples scattered across the countryside.

The new Đạo Mẫu has been cleansed of its “superstitious” connections to fortune telling and other “unscientific” functions and recuperated as “an aestheticized performance of spiritual music and dance, worthy of being preserved as part of Vietnam’s cultural heritage” (p. 184). In her final chapter, Endres indicates some more recent aspects of these transformations—the ways in which ethnic minorities have been “hybridized” by their depictions in the performances, and the influence of overseas Vietnamese returning to their homeland to sponsor new rituals and introduce a more sudden, spontaneous form of possession. The old imperial deities have become “cosmopolitan travelers in the transethnic and transnational spiritscapes” (p. 199) inhabited by the newly mobile populations of those who worship them. Endres herself has proved an insightful and perceptive guide along these journeys.

This is an important book as much for the conceptual challenges it presents as the new ethnographic details. It is a theoretically sophisticated study that asks questions about the role of particular agents and power relations in resurrecting and reconstituting a once suppressed set of ritual practices. The answers that it provides will appeal to scholars of religion, ritual and Vietnamese studies.

Janet Hoskins
Anthropology Department, University of Southern California



Fjelstad, Karen; and Nguyễn Thị Hiền. 2011. Spirits without Borders: Vietnamese Spirit Mediums in a Transnational Age. Contemporary Anthropology of Religion series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Norton, Barley. 2009. Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Phạm Quỳnh Phương. 2009. Hero and Deity: Trần Hưng Đạo and the Resurgence of Popular Religion in Vietnam. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.

Taylor, Philip, ed. 2007. Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-Revolutionary Vietnam. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Man-houng LIN

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Linking an Asian Transregional Commerce in Tea:
Overseas Chinese Merchants in the Fujian-Singapore Trade, 1920–1960
Leiden: Brill NV, 2010, 252 p.

This book is a product of Jason Lim’s research into Chinese newspapers in Singapore from 1880 to 1930, where he first learned of Anxi migrants’ involvement in the tea trade between Fujian and Singapore. Anxi had been a crucial tea-growing region in southern Fujian, a province in southeast China, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the 1920s, social unrest led to an exodus of people from Anxi county into Singapore. In the early twentieth century, Fujian’s tea market shrank as a result of the trade competition in tea from Ceylon, India, Japan, and Taiwan. The market in Singapore between 1920 to 1960 played a compensatory role. Lim focuses his research on the relation between politics and the tea trade between Fujian and Singapore by devoting two chapters respectively to the periods 1932–47 and 1945–60, and three background chapters to either Fijian’s tea production or the links between Singapore and Fujian.

Between 1920 and 1960, changes in the political regimes in both Fujian and Singapore had a subsequent effect on the location and types of archives Lim used. On the Fujian side, the ruling government was that of the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) respectively before and after 1949. The ROC moved archives from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949 while the PRC stored their archives in Fujian after 1949. Singapore, a British colony since 1819, was occupied by Japan in 1942–45, and turned from a British colony to a part of Malaya from 1945 before becoming independent in 1959 and breaking away from Malaysia in 1965. Through the use of archival and other related materials obtained from Singapore, Fujian, and Taiwan, as well as those collected in United Kingdom and Australia, Lim describes the Singapore-Fujian tea trade history in this book (which is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation). His clear and detailed account vividly reveals the interactions between the overseas Chinese cultural network and international politics.

The large influx of Anxi people into Singapore in the 1920s enabled these migrants to replace the Chaozhou group which had previously dominated Singapore’s tea trade (pp. 28, 75). From 1920 to 1960, the tea merchants’ association was formed and controlled by the Anxi group with some particular dialect (p. 95). Even though these migrants had left Anxi, they maintained connections to affiliates or lands in their native province thereby establishing a system to bring Anxi tea or other Fujian tea into Singapore. They represented the tea merchants in Singapore and sometimes coordinated with other tea merchants association in Southeast Asia to strengthen contacts with the Fujian provincial government for the purpose of improving the tea trade relating to quality control, exchange rate, and taxes (p. 97).

As the ROC’s nationality law was based on blood (( jus sanguinis), these Singapore-based Chinese still claimed themselves as Chinese before the 1960s. They kept asserting that Taiwan’s tea was inferior to Fujianese tea because customers were used to the taste of the tea from their own native province. Tea from Taiwan, then a colony of Japan, was deemed an “enemy product”(p. 121). When Japan controlled Singapore and the coastal area of China, Anxi tea was still brought into Singapore, sometimes through Hong Kong (p. 139). Even though the Anxi people were in Singapore, they strongly continued to identify themselves with the motherland. They contributed money and directly participated in the war to help the ROC government resist Japan. They often donated money for social welfare other than remittances to their own respective families. Thus, selling tea from Fujian became a form of patriotism aimed at promoting “national products” (p. 122). However, the Anxi migrants increasingly purchased tea from Taiwan by deeming it to be “essen-tially Chinese” (p. 172) after their estates on the Chinese mainland were nationalized by the PRC government and the ROC government moved to Taiwan maintained a private ownership system which was supported more by overseas Chinese.

In 1928, China was unified by the Nationalist Army and further attempts to improve tea quality were introduced. China was unsuccessful in adopting those plantation systems that were introduced in Ceylon and India. Instead, China set up experiment stations to test new tea plants within small land plots. As China was continually under threat of war between 1920 and 1949, revenues did not suffice for large-scale improvement. In particular, when the Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War between the communists and nationalists broke out, unfavorable exchange rates were levied against patriotic Anxi Singaporeans. While Singapore was occupied by Japan, some tea merchants purchased more tea from Taiwan (p. 98). Nevertheless, when the Communist government took over their home properties, these Chinese emigrants based in Singapore still tried to import tea from the homeland. However, Communist China more and more sold tea through a national company to countries within the Soviet bloc (p. 162). In the Republican period before 1949, Fujian tea was categorized and differentiated into tea for the domestic market, tea for the foreign market, and tea for “the overseas Chinese” market (pp. 131–133). In the 1960s, Anxi Singaporeans took citizenship in the newly independent Singapore and no longer laid claim to their former nationality (pp. 183–186).

There are a number of problems with this book. For example, the distinction between baozhong tea and wulong tea has been blurred (p. 75). Wulong tea is actually fermented more than baozhong tea. Furthermore, the book does not elaborate on some other aspects relating to overseas Chinese cultural networks and international politics.

Firstly, with regard to cultural networks, Lim points out that Anxi people only constituted 3 percent of Singapore’s population, of which 75 percent was Chinese. Of these Chinese, Fujianese emigrants accounted for more than half (pp. 26, 189). Lim mentioned that in the 1930s, tea from Ceylon, India, Japan, and Taiwan competed with tea from Anxi in Singaporean shops (p. 114). Western firms were also importing other teas (p. 116). Lim did not describe the competition between Anxi tea and other teas for non-Anxi or non-Fujian consumers in Singapore. Lim mentions that Taiwan also had Anxi migrants (p. 27). In fact, these Anxi migrants were crucial for Taiwan’s tea business, but Lim does not delve into the question of whether this group helped facilitate the tea trade between Taiwan and Singapore.

Secondly, in regards to international politics, Lim does not discuss in detail the interaction between the ruling Singaporean government and the Chinese government, nor does he compare it with other Southeast Asian governments in connection with the tea trade. The Japanese government was active in soliciting the cooperation of the overseas Chinese in Java in the 1910s to persuade the Dutch government to continue purchasing tea from Taiwan, tea that was, in effect, a kind of Japanese tea (Lin 2001). Lim mentions that the Singaporean government kept surveillance over the overseas Chinese anti-Japanese boycott movement in the 1930s and the share of Taiwan tea in Singapore increased from 1925 to 1933 (pp. 114, 118). The governmental policy on the Singapore side needs more elaboration.

Notwithstanding the above issues, on the whole, this book helps us understand more about migration and identity, war and trade, the overseas Chinese, and intra-Asian trade.

Man-houng Lin 林滿紅
The Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica


Lin, Man-houng. 2001. Overseas Chinese Merchants and Multiple Nationality: A Means for Reducing Commercial Risk (1895–1935). Modern Asian Studies 35(4): 985–1009.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Joel DAVID

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Glimpses of Freedom: Independent Cinema in Southeast Asia
Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2012, viii+246 p.

The thrill of going over a volume on contemporary popular culture is compounded when the activity betokens a celebrity system whose members may be already enjoying a measure of popularity, and whose fame has the potential of reaching a wider public. The reader could casually drop a statement like “Oh, I knew that artist before she became a global household name” to admiring colleagues, and in effect replicate the outward spread of stardom whose processes new media have enabled and fast-tracked.

The original proponents of film auteurism, however, had more urgent concerns in mind, notably the dismantling of Classical Hollywood influence in the prestige productions of post-WWII pre-New Wave France (Truffaut 1976 [1954], 233–235).1) No one begrudges these critics for achieving fame and fortune as filmmakers (and occasional performers), in light of the fact that the larger film movement that their aesthetic activism occasioned resulted in the demise of the Classical Hollywood system as well as the emergence of cinemas not just from Europe, but also from non-Western countries.

Glimpses of Freedom, a recent volume from Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program, attempts to provide an impression—a snapshot, as it were—of how a New Wave-inspired mode of practice has been reshaping film activity in the region. Fifteen articles from a mix of scholars and practitioners demonstrate a wide array of stylistic presentations—from autobiographical accounts to interviews to close textual analyses to empirical studies of such current hot-button topics as piracy, queer politics, and non-mainstream (independent, per the book’s subtitle) production, with only a necessarily open-ended introduction providing an overview of the book’s contents.

Certain problems can be predicted from this type of catch-as-catch-can approach. The most significant one would be the absence of contextualization—a more serious problem for this material, considering that any discussion of independent cinema would be twice removed, at the very least: from any country’s mainstream film production, as well as from its audience’s preferences (noting here, as Andrew Higson had reasonably prescribed, that any national cinema behooves its evaluators to take into account the presence of global film distribution [1989, 36–46]). The effect in this instance of isolating a phenomenon, no matter how laudatory its political intentions are, is to restore a great-man humanist system where the players may be less insidiously patriarchal, or even openly anti-patriarchal, but still hopeful of attaining a status of “greatness” nevertheless.

One’s response to this self-congratulatory package will depend on one’s tolerance for displays of performances calculated to maximize potential readers’ admiration for individual cleverness and proximity to mainstream stardom (hidden from view, as already noted). Since my persuasion admittedly falls far outside the net of uncritical acceptance that would allow followers to be swept up in what we may term the indie-film crusade, the anthology’s articles that have engaged me might be precisely the ones that indie-film fans might find lacking in terms of the auteurist “signatures”that the New Wave’s proponents and followers upheld (Monaco 1976, 5–8). Benedict R. O’G. Anderson’s “The Strange Story of a Strange Beast,” as an example, makes no pretense of laying claim to possessing an analysis of and prescription for Thai cinema, but instead narrates its author’s journey toward understanding local reception to an internationally celebrated release, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Sud pralad [Tropical Malady] (2004).

More productive for a community of practitioners (although not necessarily for any specific filmmaker), the article by one of the editors, May Adadol Ingawanij, problematizes a nonmainstream showcase, the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, in relation to the issues of autonomy and containment. With a modicum of historical cues—the coup d’etat and the censorship of another Weerasethakul film, both occurring in the same year (2006)—the author succeeds in assessing the challenge posed by the festival to a mainstream presumably being endorsed and maintained by conservative social forces. Another article (“Independence and Indigenous Film”), by Angie Bexley, is even more impressive in articulating and explaining the urgency that film as modernizing force plays in a nation, Timor-Leste, recently making the painful transition to postcolonial independence while still reeling from the tragic upheavals wrought by European colonization and, even worse, by neighboring Indonesia’s occupation.

What distinguishes these few essays is their avoidance of a disturbing trope that marks the rest (from my admittedly single reading of the entire volume). That trope, or more accurately tendency, is manifested in the form of a championing of a player, whether an individual or an institution, subtly or openly, in the purported interest of upholding independent practice vis-à-vis mainstream lack or excess.2) Although the larger dualities (of indie being preferable to mainstream as well as Euro-art films and events being superior to anything American) characterize the volume as a whole, and are probably inevitable given the scope of the project, the personality-based thinking that grips the region’s critics and practitioners weakens, and sometimes completely hinders, the possibility of turning toward creative subversions from, say, the appropriation of mainstream prerogatives to the consideration of the potentials of regional cooperation.

In fact, the latter issue, which would require an actionable formulation of the qualities that constitute “Southeast Asian cinema,” recalls an earlier historical project: that of the politicization of Latin American cinema, which had productive consequences for then-emergent Third Cinema theorizing. Whatever else one might think of the star potentials of the practitioners brought together by Glimpses of Freedom, a contribution on the order of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s “Towards a Third Cinema” (1983 [1969], 17–27), much less the New Latin American Cinema’s conceptualizations of hunger aesthetics and cannibalist production,3) might as well belong on a different continent—which in fact is literally the case.

It may be argued that the moment for ground-breaking political activism has been superseded by technological transformation and convergence, with Asia now poised to wrest the lead from the West. Yet the Asian centers involved in technological innovation all lie (so far) not far from, but definitely outside, the Southeast region. And more unnervingly, some of the most articulate contributors—partly owing to the official stature of English as one of their country’s national languages—come from the Philippines, which, if Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman is to be believed, shares more in common with Latin America’s banana-republic economies than with the rest of Asia (Krugman et al. 1992, 1–78). Yet an earlier generation of local indie practitioners, names such as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal (both deceased) now being constantly acknowledged by current film artists, behaved then as if they were aware of these contradictions, and took pains to ensure that they were consistently resolved in favor of the mass audience: foreign festivals provided them a means not of self-sufficiency but toward a way of legitimizing their film output prior to their final confrontations with censors, critics, and distributors.

While the argument that the current terms of film production and consumption have changed too radically to necessitate this requisite is inarguably valid, the assumption that mass responses are secondary at best is problematic and, in blunt terms, hypocritical for people who ride on the qualified stardom proffered by auteurist status. Glimpses of Freedom unwittingly illustrates this predicament in the prominence it gives to the late Filipino critic Alexis Tioseco (the entire volume is dedicated to him as well as to its co-editor, Benjamin McKay; another book, by renowned American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum [2010, v], had preceded the present tribute in being dedicated to Tioseco and his Slovenian girlfriend, Nika Bohinc). Administrator of a website popular among local indie practitioners and followers, Tioseco (having grown up in Canada) was a relatively recent returnee to the Philippines, and attained a higher level of recognition after he and his foreigner girlfriend were brutally murdered by people directly in his employ (“Fil-Canadian Film Critic” 2009, n.p.).

Tioseco’s written output was largely in foreign outlets, and non-Filipino critics (as well as a small circle of Filipino netizens) hail him mostly for his championing of a select group of nonmainstream film personalities. Lost in the entire romanticization are certain realities that qualify his victimhood, of which two would be instructive: he had returned to handle the family business but was more distracted by his support for indie-film activities, including trips to foreign events (taken by his admirers as evidence of his dedication to their cause); and he had operated in serious negligence of personal security, despite the fact that the Philippines, like many developing countries, is rife with stories of violent class conflicts. The dialogical implication of his death—that the type of people who killed him were the ones that his type of people had been overlooking—could serve as an unnecessarily and excessively tragic illustration of what lies in store for popular-culture practitioners who prefer to defer the implications of what exactly “popular” means.

Joel David
Inha University, College of Social Science



Fil-Canadian Film Critic, Lover Shot Dead in QC [Quezon City] Home. 2009. ABS-CBNnews.com September 2: n.pag. Last accessed August 25, 2012, http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/metro-manila/09/01/09/fil-canadian-film-critic-lover-shot-dead-qc-home.

Higson, Andrew. 1989. The Concept of National Cinema. Screen 30(4): 36–46.

Krugman, Paul; Alm, James; Collins, Susan M.; and Remolona, Eli M. 1992. Transforming the Philippine Economy. Manila: United Nations Development Programme.

Monaco, James. 1976. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pines, Jim; and Willemen, Paul, eds. 1989. Questions of Third Cinema. London: British Film Institute.

Rocha, Glauber. 1979. Hunger Aesthetics versus Profit Aesthetics. Translated by Jon Davis. Frame-work: The Journal of Cinema and Media 11(Autumn): 8–10.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. 2010. Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sarris, Andrew. 1982 [1968]. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968. Reprint, New York: Octagon, 1982.

Solanas, Fernando; and Getino, Octavio. 1983 [1969]. Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiments toward the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World. In Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan, pp. 17–27. Translated by Julianne Burton and Michael Chanan. London: Channel Four Television, BFI Books.

Stam, Robert; and Xavier, Ismail. 1990. Transformations of National Allegory: Brazilian Cinema from Dictatorship to Redemocratization. In Resisting Images: Essays on Cinema and History, edited by Robert Sklar and Charles Musser, pp. 279–307. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Truffaut, François. 1976 [1954]. A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema. In Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols, pp. 224–237. Translated by Cahiers du Cinéma in English. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weerasethakul, Apichatpong, director and scriptwriter. 2004. Sud pralad [Tropical Malady]. Prod. Backup Films, Anna Sanders Films, Downtown Pictures, Kick the Machine, TIFA, and Thoke Moebius Film Co. 118 minutes.

* The author would like to acknowledge the helpful exchange of ideas with Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr., also a close observer of Philippine independent cinema, notwithstanding his farther distance from the country.

1) Mistranslated as the “auteur theory” by the recently deceased American critic Andrew Sarris (1982 [1968]), the politique des auteurs (author policy) was the means by which a select circle of critics-turned-filmmakers, originally based at Cahiers du Cinéma, proposed to revaluate Classical Hollywood, by looking at movies in terms of directorial credit; the true auteurs, per their assertion, would exhibit certain stylistic markers that would serve as their “signatures.” See Monaco (1976).

2) The individuals and/or institutions can already be gleaned from portions of some of the articles’titles: “Fourth Generation of Malaysian-Indian Filmmakers”; “Martyn See”; “Yasmin Ahmad”;“James Lee”; etc. Some of the collection’s authors are themselves filmmakers, purportedly setting out to conduct well-meaning projects—John Torres using the film piracy “distribution” network to circulate his films, Chris Chong Chan Fui interviewing the organizer of a Muslim country’s queer film festival (titled Q!FF). The fact that such attempts are destined either to fail in the first case or to partially succeed in the second provides a noteworthy record of struggle, yet also results in self-lionization—a replication of the heroic-individualist trope that marks Western media history, and that might have been tempered if a higher ideal (akin to the Third Cinema discourse to be presently brought up) had been articulated.

3) Third Cinema (cf. Pines and Willemen 1989) was meant to be distinct from (though derivative of and overlapping with) Third World Cinema; it stemmed from the observation that certain modes of Third World film production actually sought to replicate Hollywood themes and standards, as well as from the acknowledgment that even in the First World, certain forms of Third World-like or -inspired production could be found. Hunger aesthetics and cannibal production were prescriptions in Brazilian Third-Cinema practice: in hunger aesthetics (Rocha 1979, 9), low-budget and low-end productions (resulting in an impoverished look that implicitly critiqued the “developed” origin of the technology) were to be embraced as a means of countering the audience’s tendency to be alienated from the medium’s biases; cannibal (or anthropophagic) cinema (Stam and Xavier 1990, 281) was a response to the inevitable commercial prevalence of Hollywood, which tended to contain foreign film trends that it could not suppress—and which thereby justified the appropriation by local practitioners of the same strategies that Hollywood releases deployed.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Cherry Amor DUGTONG-YAP

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011, 325 p.

Much has already been written about the sexual migration of female entertainers in Japan.1) While the phenomenon has a fairly contemporary history, the multifarious layers of both the overall narrative and individual stories count for a plurality of interpretations, not least of which come from the entertainer themselves. On the other hand, getting the perspective of entertainers within their work context poses a dilemma for research methodologies as participant observation creates both strategic and organizational challenges. Thus we find earlier works employing alternative approaches. Ballescas (1992) offered the first pioneering study in the early 1990s. However, this study was flawed as female entertainers were interviewed prior to migrating to Japan, outside their clubs, and after their work contracts. Others such as Suzuki (2000; 2004) undertook to expand the analysis by examining the societal dimension of mainstream general consciousness with the presence of Filipina female entertainers as wives of Japanese males. Likewise, Suzuki examined how Japanese husbands imagined their wives, and in what ways the women negotiated their sense of self and identities.

These previous works have offered glimpses into the lives of migrant female entertainers in Japan as well as Japanese society’s reception and perception to them. However, the precise context in which they physically inhabit the realm of providing commercial and sexual entertainment remains an open yet seemingly forbidden enclave. To overcome these practical dilemmas, Rhacel Parreñas conducted fieldwork studies in the heart of her research environment. Parreñas worked, quite literally, side by side with her subjects, as a hostess. This approach, not unlike that of an investigative journalist allowed her to conduct participant observation inside Tokyo’s red light district.

The author embarked on this research largely to debunk the notion that all entertainers who came to Japan are victims of human trafficking as portrayed repeatedly by the US State Department.2) Focusing on the narratives of the women themselves, the book offers a firsthand glimpse of their lives. Unflinching in its stark descriptions of day-to-day activities that transpire inside an entertainment club, the author detailed all the mundane and gritty matters of working as an entertainer in Japan.

The book is composed of eight chapters with an introduction and a conclusion. Some chapters are reiterations of previous points. For instance, chapter two describes in detail the labor system in hostess clubs, how entertainers are expected to pander to customer whims as well as bring in profit to club owners. The third chapter explores the various skills and capital hostesses have to possess to ensure that the masculine egos of their customers are constantly massaged. Yet, both chapters expound on the same point: hostess work demands sexual labor at varying scales (from flirting to intercourse) and this is driven by commercial supply and demand. However, chapter four and sections of chapter six are more vivid in highlighting the author’s argument on how the women (and transgender Filipino hostesses) negotiate their lives regardless of their situation.

Chapter four “The Risky Business of Love” succinctly describes the uniqueness of labor entailed in working as an entertainer. Using both their minds and bodies as capital to make a living, entertainers negotiate with their customers the amount of money or goods in return for the attention and services they can provide. In so doing, these women must likewise manage their feelings toward customers, ensuring that at the end, they acquire material gains and not emotional pain. In simple terms, the hostesses follow a general rule that money and gifts are welcome but they must avoid any emotional attachments. In this respect, the author highlights that “in the moral world of hostesses, visceral pleasures that one grants men do not necessarily mean anything more”(p. 130). Indeed this awareness of their own limits, vulnerability, and particular situations, they are working women after all, provides the most compelling argument in support of the author’s claim that the majority of the female migrant entertainers in Japan are not trafficked or forced to work against their will. In fact, their judgment is at its most sound in gauging the extent of how much or how little they earn from “falling in love” with their customers (p. 144).

Chapter six “Making Love for a Visa,” expands on the implications introduced in chapter four where female entertainers enter into relationships with their male customers, the possibility of getting pregnant, and, at best, securing a marriage certificate. However, as the author pointed out, not a large percentage of entertainers end up marrying their Japanese customers (p. 179). The discussions put forward in this chapter on how clashes follow after marriage due to culture, differing expectations, societal pressures, and other external variables have already been discussed elsewhere.3) Moreover, not all Japanese-Filipina marriages languish, as illustrated by Faier (2009). Lieba Faier interviewed couples and families from successful unions attributed to “Japanese”virtues extolled in Filipina women as wives in rural Japan. The latter part of this chapter, “The Sexual Citizenship of Transgender Hostesses,” is most noteworthy as the case studies presented challenges to the limits set on intimacy as between opposite genders and that of citizenship as duties, rights and privileges of a natural born or naturalized person.

This section of the sixth chapter is unique particularly as it shows a side of Japan that is welcoming of a traditionally marginalized group, transgendered persons. For a country that is known to embrace many forms of gender, the stories of transgender entertainers and how they managed to carve their niche in a competitive and discriminating world of sexual labor and commerce paint an altogether more nuanced picture of how the Japanese choose to accept the unwanted.

Parreñas stated that this was a project meant to criticize US policies on addressing issues on human trafficking and yet the entire book contains far more informed and substantive criticism of Philippine migration policies. By contrast, there are only vague references to US transgressions on laws regarding human trafficking.

Ironically, in trying to underscore her idea of indentured mobility among the Filipina hostesses in Japan, the author relies on the same pool of evidence used by US policymakers, and risks falling into the trap of typecasting Filipinos in Japan as perennial entertainers. Despite her claims to the contrary, there is still the feeling that she herself sees the Filipinos in the same light.

Because Parreñas’ discussion of the settlement patterns of Filipina hostesses in Japan is narrowly focused on specific forms of vulnerability (p. 23), she fails to account for the dynamic changes that have taken place among the Filipino migrant population in Japan. No longer are Filipinos generally classified as entertainers. In their late-30s and mid-40s, they are clearly too old to be considered as hostesses. Despite their numbers, the Filipinos in Tokyo do not represent the Filipino population in Japan. The majority are now long-term and permanent residents.4) In fact, the Philippines is among the top five5) on the list of countries with registered foreign nationals in Japan. Their status and numbers have a potential impact that will, at the least, prove consequential to Japanese society.

The above observations notwithstanding, this book contributes on the literature on Filipinos in Japan as it enriches our knowledge of what particularly goes in the life of an entertainer.

Cherry Amor Dugtong-Yap
Independent Scholar


Ballescas, Ma. Rosario P. 1992. Filipino Entertainers in Japan: An Introduction. Quezon City: The Foundation for Nationalist Studies, Inc.

Constable, Nicole. 2005. Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Faier, Lieba. 2009. Intimate Encounters: Filipina Women and the Remaking of Rural Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fuwa, Nobuhiko; and Anderson, James N. 2006. Filipina Encounters with Japan: Stories beyond the Stereotype from a Pangasinan Barangay. Philippine Studies 54(1): 111–141.

Hong-Zen, Wang; and Hsin-Huang, Michael Hsiao, eds. 2009. Cross Border Marriages with Asian Characteristics. Taipei: Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies.

Japan, Ministry of Justice. 2011. Immigration Control Report, accessed June 7, 2012, http://www.moj.go.jp/nyuukokukanri/kouhou/nyuukokukanri06_00018.html.

Osteria, Trinidad. 1994. Filipino Female Labor Migration to Japan: Economic Causes and Consequences. Manila: De La Salle University Press.

Satake, Masaaki. 2004. Filipina-Japanese Intermarriages: A Pathway to New Gender and Cross-Cultural Relations. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 13(4): 445–473.

Suzuki, Nobue. 2004. Inside the Home: Power and Negotiation in Filipina-Japanese Marriages. Women’s Studies 33(4): 481–506.

―. 2000. Between Two Shores: Transnational Projects and Filipina Wives in/from Japan. Women’s Studies International Forum 23(4): 431–444.

U.S. Department of State (US-DOS). 2005. Trafficking in Persons Report. Washington, D.C.: US-DOS.

1) For some of the earlier works, see Ballescas (1992), Osteria (1994). See Suzuki (2000; 2004), Satake (2004), Fuwa and Anderson (2006), and Faier (2009) for the more contemporary ones.

2) The 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report particularly influenced how Japan reformed its policy on granting visas to entertainers.

3) See Constable (2005) or Hong-Zen and Hsin-Huang (2009).

4) See 2011 Immigration Control Report, Japan, Ministry of Justice, http://www.moj.go.jp/nyuukokukanri/kouhou/nyuukokukanri06_00018.html.

5) ( ibid. )


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Nobuhiro AIZAWA

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

China and the Shaping of Indonesia, 1949–1965
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press, 2011, 310 p.

This is a long-awaited book on the interaction that took place between Indonesia and China in 1949–65. Based on his dissertation submitted to Ohio University, this book by Liu Hong, the leading academic in this field, maps out the perceptions of the People’s Republic of China among the major Indonesian leaders and intellectuals of the period. This was a tumultuous period when the two newly independent Asian giants struggled to undertake nation-building and search for the best modes of government following a period of independence and civil wars.

Works on the Cold War historiography of diplomatic historians have observed how relations obtained between Beijing and Jakarta. The communist ties between China and Indonesia were a research topic in the field, supported by the opening of English/American archives. Jakarta needed China for their fight in West Papua and against Malaysia (Konfrontasi). Conversely, Beijing also needed Indonesia for their fight against Taiwan and strategy vis-à-vis Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and United States of America. The two newly independent states shared a wide range of common diplomatic goals at this time, but these were destroyed by the changes that followed the 30 September Movement (G30S) in Indonesia in 1965. With the establishment of an anticommunist regime in Indonesia and the Cultural Revolution gaining momentum in China, the two countries severed diplomatic ties in 1967 and it was not until 1990 that they resumed their relationship.

Taking this diplomatic historiography into account, Liu suggests an alternative frame of anal-ysis in understanding the period between 1949 and 1965. He suggests that we should treat “China as something more than a communist state and an ethnic Chinese homeland and placing its changing and multifaceted constructions in postcolonial Southeast Asia,” and “go beyond the conventional approach framed by the primacy of the nation state, diplomacy, ethnicity and the East-West binary” (p. 11).

In so doing, he questions what China meant for those Indonesians at the time. Through his nuanced analysis of writings and speeches of Indonesian leaders and intellectuals, he argues that“China served as an important and viable alternative to western dominant notions of the modernity project in Indonesia” (p. 271). And this modernity, he argues, derived from Indonesian’s self-image and its frustration over the political turmoil in Indonesia. China thus presented an ideal image of what Indonesia wanted to achieve or should have accomplished. The author proposes a “China Metaphor” to articulate this point. “[T]he China metaphor reflected not only Indonesians’ disillusionment about what had gone wrong at home but, more importantly, their aspirations for what could have been achieved” (p. 270).

The main figures among the broad selection of leaders and intellectuals who are highlighted in this book are Soekarno (Chapter 7) and Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Chapter 8). For Soekarno, China was the place where he found his ideal form of governance, a form of “Guided Democracy.”He was convinced by his visit to China in 1957 that social harmony and national integration could be accomplished without a democracy. For the writer Pramoedya, a visit to China in 1957 and correspondence with Chen Xiaru enabled him to assume his role as a political activist. In China, he was shocked to see the high status of professional writers and its active participation in politics. This led him to join Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (LEKRA), an organization of artists and writers initiated by Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) leaders and mandated to create artistic forms of socialist realism, a fact that was instrumental in shaping the themes in his writings such as Hoakiau di Indonesia [The Overseas Chinese in Indonesia].

While the story of the above two figures are inarguably the most enjoyable chapters (7 and 8), I would like to stress another academic contribution of the book, namely, the author’s findings on Mohammad Hatta and Sukiman Wirjosandjojo. While Soekarno and Pramoedya perfectly fit the mold of Indonesians who saw “modernity” in China, vice-President Hatta and the sixth Prime Minister Sukiman, the leader of the political party Masyumi (Council of Indonesian Muslim Associations), represented different perspectives. The two were seen as hard-core anti-communist or anti-China (or both) figures at the time.

The author introduces an episode concerning Hatta on his visit to China in 1957. In the meeting, he questioned Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai not only on the paths of economic development, but also on “how to nurture good discipline among the Chinese people who had been undisciplined in the past (“some people in Indonesia are crazy for independence just for the sake of being independent, thus having poor efficiency” remarked Hatta)” (p. 91). This confirms and enriches Hatta’s view of China as cited in the US archives, in which Hatta observed that “Russians were first Communists and secondly Russians, Chinese were first Chinese and secondly Communists.”1)

Another surprising figure, Sukiman who became the Prime Minister of Indonesia and was responsible for the notorious raid against the Chinese embassy in August 1951, was quoted as saying: “I sincerely hope that trade unions in our country should not stage strikes so frequently at will. You see, are there any strikes in the new China? All the people there are busy building their nation; we should learn from the new China’s example” (p. 86).

The above remarks by the two figures who had hitherto been overlooked in studies that sought to understand the relationship between Indonesia and China perfectly strengthen the arguments of the book. “The core narrative of Indonesian intellectuals” was not just to differentiate China from Communists or from an overseas Chinese’ homeland, but rather a way to seek an ideal mode of politics.

While the book offers a rich account of how Indonesians saw China and how their vision affected their careers, a slight difficulty may arise in comprehending the key terminology of the book, the “China Metaphor.” What is most fascinating about the author’s work is that he has presented a wide range of perspectives on the way each person utilized China for his respective political agenda rather than subsume everything under a single/core idea about China as a metaphor of Modernity. Liu’s work broadens our horizon for understanding China from the viewpoint of Indonesia, yet at the same time, he limits its horizon through the use of the China Metaphor to understand the idea of “Modernity.”

Some readers who are familiar with the history in the book might be surprised at the absence of people like the Partai Komunis Indonesia leader DN Aidit, or the prominent ethnic Chinese journalist Liem Koen Hian. They are mentioned only in passing. Also missing are the military leaders. Moreover, the story abruptly ends on the eve of G30S, and leaves readers with the question of whether the idea of China as a source of Modernity rather than a communist icon was able to survive the anti-communist purge in Indonesia.

If these Communist leaders, ethnic Chinese intellectuals, and military leaders had been incorporated into the analysis, the argument of the China Metaphor could have been a more powerful one. It is not difficult to say that for all parties, China remained a central topic of discussion during the period concerned. If the above voices had been incorporated to the degree in which the analysis equally focuses on Sukarno and Aidit, it may well be possible to argue that China was much more a metaphor for all sides in Indonesia’s political landscape of the period.

In this way, a continuum can be seen to exist in the idea of the China Metaphor from the Suharto period up until the present. China was not only a powerful metaphor to legitimize military action in the early Suharto period, but also a metaphor and a model for efficient economic development led by the industrial sector from the 1990s to the present.

Having said that, I must say the choices that the author has made must have been a tough one: to broaden the scope of a metaphor or to focus on a critical aspect of history which no one has documented. There are good reasons behind Liu’s decision to limit the scope of the metaphor, since we can refer to other books to understand the other dimensions of Indonesia-China relationship.

This is a book by one of the first-generation Southeast Asianists from China in the post-Cultural Revolution era. It has its unique strengths compared to the work of Chinese Southeast Asianists from the pre-Cultural Revolution Period who tended to limit themselves to the study of overseas Chinese. Liu offers a perspective that is different from those who study Southeast Asia but originate from other areas of the world. Without an exceptional historian like him, who commands both Chinese and Indonesian and writes eloquently in English, it would not have been possible to illuminate this important part of history and derive lessons from it. This is a wonderful book that opens a window into a fascinating period.

Nobuhiro Aizawa 相沢伸広
Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization

1) The comments are dated August 1957. Department of State, Central Files, 756D.oo/8-3057. Secret.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Hiroko KAWANAMI

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011, 239 p.

Chie Ikeya’s excellent book offers deep insights into Burma’s social and cultural history under colonialism and modernity mainly through depictions of modern Burmese women. Based on archival research and a meticulous compilation of facts and figures taken from primary sources, the book makes a unique contribution to our understanding of the struggle and progress made by Burmese women in the early part of the twentieth century.

Chapter 1 offers a comprehensive overview of the social landscape of nineteenth-century colonial Burma, ranging from descriptions of the country’s ethnic composition and economic specialization to those of its political situation and legal system (in the form of cases that garnered public attention). Ikeya examines the demographic changes incurred by waves of immigration, mainly Indian and Chinese, which resulted in a high rate of mixed marriages and an ethnically plural society that required an enforcement of a plural legal system by the state. In addition, she describes how the country saw the first expansion of modern education and development of printing and the press, which helped increase the literacy rate and created a discursive forum for public debate.

In Chapter 2, Ikeya draws our attention to the fact that although Burmese women were represented by colonialists and early Western scholars as having high social status, this was a tactic to discredit the British colonial project and demand greater political power for the Burmese people within the modernization process (p. 51). Ikeya examines the various legal positions of Burmese women—marriage, divorce, property ownership, inheritance—and states that, contrary to the prevailing image of women’s relative high status, they in fact had to fight for political equality and improvement of their lives. Education became an essential issue in Burma’s modernization process of catching up with the rest of the world, and “. . . debates concerning the education and progress of women were also about the empowerment and advancement of the nation” (p. 71). As a result, Burma saw the expansion of a coeducational system in the early twentieth century and modern educated women started to play a more active role in public professions. The growth of popular print culture also played an important role in influencing the way young women understood their new affiliations and forged modern identities in the era depicted as khit kala (present era).

With the number of school and student enrolment continuing to grow throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Chapter 3 offers an extensive discussion on modern public education. Modern education provided the necessary institutional structure, socio-economic channels, and enhanced greater opportunities for those who worked in the colonial administration. It also enabled the growth of Burmese women intellectuals and cultural intermediaries during this time (p. 38). Ikeya examines the influence of articles by and about women in newspapers and magazines, which emphasized the roles and duties of women as wives and mothers. However, women were increasingly mobilized for Burma’s anti-colonial struggle and they were depicted as both feminists and patriots to serve the nationalist discourse in the 1920s and 1930s. Burmese women were also mobilized by the international feminist movement, but Ikeya shows that they forged strong connections especially with women in India and developed distinct priorities and interests that were integral to the nationalist developments in Burma (p. 91).

Chapter 4 focuses on the theme of “how to be a modern!” It examines the rise of consumer culture in the 1920s and 1930s in fashion, cinema, and advertisements, and looks at how women functioned as modern consumers reflecting their strong self-transformative aspirations. Here Ikeya juxtaposes two female role models: the youthful and unattached “fashionista” (as Ikeya calls it) on the one hand, and the domesticated housewife-and-mother on the other. Both occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, and Ikeya carefully examines their respective levels and modes of consumption (pp. 96–97). Nonetheless, the ways in which modern Burmese women dressed themselves showed their ambivalence as they adjusted themselves to the infiltration of foreign (European) values in opposition to their traditional norms. This chapter articulates how modernity implied self-improvement, self-fulfilment, and liberation to a certain extent, and consumption was a way to achieve modern refinement and upward social mobility, which everyone could be part of depending on their means.

Chapter 5 reveals that despite British policies of racial segregation, the mixed population grew rapidly as a result of intermarriages and “miscegenation.” There was social stigma attached to Burmese women marrying foreigners: for these women, marrying a European signified upward marriage mobility whereas marrying an Indian meant downward marriage mobility. Intermarriages also reflected the nationalist climate at the time and a woman’s spousal choice “served as an index for measuring her patriotism” (p. 140). It also tested the people’s sense of national affiliation and contributed to the growing sense of what it meant to be a Burmese. “To colonialists and nationalists alike, sex and subversion were inextricably intertwined, and both sides of the colonial struggle deployed racialized senses of belonging and exclusion, which converged on the bodies of Burmese women” (p. 141). Although their bodies were appropriated at many different levels, Ikeya depicts Burmese women as flexible and forthcoming in the ways they negotiated the constraints of the era, while Burmese men are seen as inactive and disempowered in the context of colonial modernity.

Chapter 6 picks up again on the theme of emasculation by examining the social and political meanings represented in bodily practices under colonialism. Ikeya describes how wives and mistresses of foreigners as well as khit hsan thu (fashionable modern women) became targets of public criticism through derogatory depictions in books and cartoons. Fashion-conscious modern women were seen as “a willing culprit of imperialist, capitalist, and Western modernity” (p. 145), and the politics of female dress were discussed in the context of nationalist discourse at that time. Despite being ridiculed at times, however, Burmese women explored every possibility to become“modern” through grooming, fashion, or writing, and actively engaged with the new era. In contrast, Ikeya emphasizes the “emasculated” image of Burmese men, subject not only to colonial subjugation and lack of socio-economic opportunities, but also constrained by their inability to take on modern challenges and assert their manliness. It seems to me, however, that such depiction overly dichotomizes the ways in which Burmese women and men experienced modernity. Moreover, it is doubtful if the nationalist movement could simply be reduced to an attempt to “remasculinize” Burmese men (p. 162), and if it was, it still does not answer the question of how gender relations in Burma were affected, since Burmese women (many of them spinsters) were also“masculinized” in their nationalist struggle.

Another criticism I have is the inconsistent manner in which Burmese terms were transcribed in the book. As different systems were used to transcribe the Burmese language, it was often difficult to decipher which vernacular term was implied in the transcription (especially in the footnotes). It would have helped immensely if the book had included a more detailed explanation of the systems for transcribing vernacular terms.

Overall, the book provides a fascinating social history of late-colonial Burma, providing insights into the strength and resilience of middle-class Burmese women who rose to the challenges of modernity and led the way toward self-fulfilment and advancement. It is also a valuable contribution to Burmese studies and modern colonial history in general, and gender and cultural studies in particular, and helps show modern Burma in a different light—open, dynamic, and resourceful.

Hiroko Kawanami 川並宏子
Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Paul A. RODELL

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia
London: Routledge, 2009, 188 p, with index.

The present volume seeks to understand “political Islam” which the editor, Johan Saravanamuttu, describes as “aspirations to political power and the remolding of state and society in accordance with Islamic teachings” (p. ix) in Southeast Asia. The project originated in 2004 and later adopted the notion of “authoritarian democracy” to serve as the contributors’ common frame of analysis. This is a key concept and has been theorized by one of the book’s contributors, Chaiwat Satha-Anand, as especially relevant to the study of Islam and governance in Southeast Asia. As presented, authoritarian democracy posits a ruling style that adopts a façade of democracy masking an inherently undemocratic regime that disadvantages the country’s minorities. Thus, regime power wielders could be Muslim, Buddhist or Christian while Islam might be either privileged or oppressed. In using this rubric, the contributors aspire to address a number of questions relevant to Islam and the region’s current political life.

The volume’s nine chapters cover Islamic Southeast Asia geographically and its Muslim majority and minority states. In his introductory chapter, Saravanamuttu concisely summarizes each contributor’s topics and major points of interpretation with sufficient detail to be of real value to the reader. The editor’s hand is also apparent throughout much of the book as many of the contributors reference each other in their own chapters, thereby demonstrating a degree of coordination and intellectual cross-fertilization and making for a stronger and more useful text. Still, there are some contributions that are not as tightly integrated into the study as one might anticipate, which is unfortunate, but this does not seriously detract from this worthy contribution to the study of Islam in Southeast Asia.

In her masterful opening chapter, emeritus anthropology professor Judith Nagata considers the complexity of “democracy” and Islam both of which come in a variety of forms and the equally complex relationship of “engaged Muslims” to the state. While her introductory sections consider examples from the region’s Muslim majority and minority countries, her chapter’s emphasis is on political Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia. After a survey of the Malaysian state’s political-religious evolution under Mahathir and United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Nagata shifts her focus to alternative Islamic movements especially the revivalist dakwah movement Al Arqam which the government sharply curtailed in response to what appeared to be growing political aspirations. Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama provides a contrast as a well-established mainstream religious movement that accepts the country’s religious pluralism ground rules and has done well on the post-Suharto Indonesian political landscape. The lesson Nagata draws is that political Islam is only possible if it adheres to the limits created by the democratic authoritarian nature of the state.

Jacques Bertrand’s chapter on Indonesia presents a refreshingly positive assessment of the democratic role that Islam plays in the world’s largest Muslim state. He notes, quite correctly, that politically engaged Muslims have remained democratic and reformist even after controls originally imposed by Sukarno and continued under Suharto were removed after 1998 and they have rejected the terrorism of fringe groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah. Bertrand further underscores his thesis by an insightful discussion of the secular Free Aceh Movement (GAM) where democratic authoritarianism focused on a secessionist rather than a religious threat. The principle problem was that for some time the country’s leaders did not recognize that GAM’s agenda was secular and that its strength only increased in response to horrific military atrocities. Once Jakarta addressed Acehnese secular demands peace returned and since then GAM has ruled Aceh democratically and extreme Islamic activities have been curtailed.

Another strong contribution is Maznah Mohamad’s chapter on the Malaysian authoritarian state. The author states her case quite clearly by modifying the book’s unifying notion of authoritarian democracy simply to that of the authoritarian state promoting an ethnic agenda in which Islam, race and entitlements provide the core. In support of her modified thesis, she reviews post-1969 Malaysian developments that have privileged the Malay “not-so-large” majority versus the country’s non-Muslim “not-so-small” minority beginning with 1972’s New Economic Policy that sought to adjust the country’s economic imbalance, and soon expanded to other areas such as opening spaces for Malays in universities. However, the author’s most important contribution is her discussion of the country’s legal system wherein Islamic courts have used Sharia law to become hegemonic and usurp the authority of civilian tribunals by claiming religious grounds for matters that come before it. As a result, Islamic courts have created an Islamic “ring-fence” that excludes minorities and serves the authoritarian state.

Saravanamuttu follows with his chapter showing how Malaysia’s statist political Islam works at the local level where local functionaries act as religious and moral police against the country’s large non-Muslim minority. The author’s review of highly discriminatory legal cases and his discussion of the aborted Inter-Faith Commission of 2005 provide further evidence to support Maznah Mohamad’s arguments as do the distinctions he draws between the statist policies of UMNO and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and serve a welcome function for the volume.

Chaiwat Satha-Anand’s chapter on authoritarian democracy in Thailand is a highpoint in the volume. As a principle developer of the authoritarian democracy theoretical model, his contribution demonstrates its adaptability in a non-Muslim state where a Buddhist central authority suppresses Muslim minorities and protests. The author uses the story of the mysterious disappearance of Somchai Neelapaichit, a politically engaged Muslim defense lawyer, to demonstrate the pernicious nature of state power more effectively than within the framework of a purely theoretical discussion.

In contrast, the chapters on the Philippines and Singapore are not as strong. In the Philippine case, Carmen Abubakar incorrectly posits the real existence of a “Strong Republic” that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo proclaimed in 2002, a statement that was roundly dismissed at the time and soon forgotten. This incorrect assumption leads Abubakar to overlook more systemic problems in the southern Philippines such as the role of locally prominent political leaders who have consistently undermined peace efforts. The article also loses focus by pursuing tangents such as controversies over Arroyo’s executive orders, government policies and cases of grotesque extrajudicial killings that the author does not relate to the chapter topic. When the author does return to the chapter topic her discussion is limited and rushed and includes occasional errors such as the assertion that Islam came to the Philippines in the ninth century, hundreds of years too early.

Hussin Mutalib’s thesis that the Singapore government is discriminatory against Muslims is not very strong. Of course, the government has been authoritarian since its founding, but its authoritarian nature is general and hardly more so for Muslims than others. In fact, the author acknowledges numerous instances where the government has gone out of its way to insure the effective integration of Muslims into Singaporean society and its political life. He even mentions the government instituted “team MPs” for elections to insure that outnumbered Muslim voters will get at least some of their candidates into office. This chapter which wanted to show the “plight”of Singapore’s Muslims and their “restiveness” (p. 147) simply falls short of its objectives.

And finally, it is not clear why the concluding chapter by Syed Farid Alatas was included in this volume. His comparative chapter on the discourse of civil society in Indonesia and Malaysia would be a welcome addition if he used authoritarian democracy in his analysis. Instead, he presents an exercise in the sociology of knowledge based on very unique definitions of “ideology” and“utopia” put forward by Karl Mannheim in the 1930s and long ago dismissed as “vague and unconvincing” (p. 170). This chapter is similarly vague, such that the author can only conclude that any Islamic orientation can be either ideological or utopian.

Overall, this book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Islam in Southeast Asia. Interpretative notions such as authoritarian democracy and engaged Muslims are intriguing and should promote discussion and analysis, as will other terms such as “ring-fencing.” While some of the chapters might be assigned to undergraduate students in specialized upper division courses, the volume’s principle audience will be graduate students and specialized scholars.

Paul A. Rodell
Department of History, Georgia Southern University


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Keith BARNEY

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Natural Potency and Political Power:
Forests and State Authority in Contemporary Laos
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012, 192 p.

Muang Metaphysics

The question of how the Lao state maintains legitimacy and authority in the countryside is a key topic of interest for both Lao studies scholars and development practitioners. With the development of a resource frontier, based on the development of hydropower, mining and forest-land concessions, the Lao state is increasingly making its full regulatory and extractive presence felt in rural areas. How are local communities in Lao PDR (Laos) understanding and reacting to these sweeping changes of commodification and ecological modernization? While conservationists, Lao state officials, and local villagers each perceive forests and the extractive logging and hydropower development that are transforming these resources, are they truly “seeing” and understanding these processes in the same way?

With a new monograph, Natural Potency and Political Power, anthropologist Sarinda Singh makes a solid contribution to our understanding of tropical forests and wildlife as materialities, discourses, and most importantly, as potent socio-cultural objects and symbols. Singh has two key objectives in this book. She seeks to promote an understanding of forests and wildlife in Laos based upon a cultural studies approach to “symbolic meanings” (p. 4) (as opposed to, for example, political ecology’s primary focus on the actors, institutions, and discourses governing forest access and livelihood). Secondly, Singh focuses our attention to how differing ideas of the wild forest ( p ( a) and wildlife animals ( sat pa ), and ideas about clearing forests and consuming forest animals, are interwoven with issues of identity and the legitimacy of state rule in Laos. This represents an interesting avenue to proceed. Singh’s research is nuanced and well grounded in Laos as a place and a cultural-political context—the author’s dissertation fieldwork site in the Nakai Region of central Khammouane Province—and the themes engaged in the book make it of relevance to readers beyond the Lao studies/political ecology community.

The book proceeds in seven chapters. Chapter 1, “Peripheral Engagements,”presents a useful review of the nature of contemporary state authority and political culture in Lao PDR. Singh forwards three key features of governance in Laos (p. 7): (i) An enduring divide between policy development and practical policy application, and an associated logic of policy as negotiation. This draws in part upon Peter Jackson (2004) on the Thai “regime of images” (a citation missing from the book’s reference list); (ii) A logic of “state sanctioned, family based patronage” (p. 8); and (iii) The maintenance of secrecy, fear and uncertainty by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), and an associated system of authority through illegibility (p. 9). Singh discusses forests and wildlife as key realms of symbolic meaning, based in large part on a classical muang: pa dialectic (civilized human settlement versus wild forests), which Singh argues are historically embedded in Tai-Buddhist culture. In this first chapter Singh also forwards an interpretive framework based around the terms “potency” and “potential” (“a power that is yet to be realized” p. 14) as alternative ways of understanding political power and symbolic authority in Laos. This section on understanding the cultural topologies of political power draws upon Theravada Buddhist studies, particularly Reynolds (2005).

The second chapter, “Comprehending Conservation,” traces through foreign and Lao discourses and ideologies of forests as threatened natures. Singh argues that an internalized metaphysic of the muang and the pa is at work in relation to a generalized “antipathy to conservation”in Laos (p. 49); or, for example, when local Lao informants express desires for development as opposed to forest preservation.

In two of the strongest chapters in the book, Singh turns towards “Appetites and Aspirations”(Chapter 3) to locate the symbolic potency of wildlife, and wildlife as social objects of consumption and meaning. Singh continues this line of argument with a discussion of “Ecopolitical Elephants”(Chapter 4), where elephants are interpreted as symbols of royalty, targets for poachers, and perhaps, occasional objects for local culinary consumption in Nakai Region. Singh argues convincingly that pachyderms are intimately bound up with power, potential, and legitimate state authority in rural Laos: “Elephants are emblematic of the potential of the pa that elites attempt to monopolize to support their authority over the muang” (p. 98).

Chapter 5 “Debating the Forest,” examines the state of forest management in Laos. Here, Singh argues that it is not deforestation per se which destabilizes the notion of rightful state authority, but rather rampant deforestation without an appropriate sharing of benefits and prosperity. The case study is drawn from the powerful “Phonesack Group/Nancy” logging company, which has been engaged in extensive extractive logging in the Nam Theun 2 hydropower zone in Nakai Region, central Laos.

Chapter 6 “Concealing Forest Decline,” focuses upon the inclination of the Lao government to obscure institutional authority over forests (invoking a situation Le Billon [2002] has called the“instrumentalization of disorder”) and to blame swidden cultivators for forest decline. Singh argues that this strategy has the overall effect of destabilizing the legitimacy of state rule, for different people within Laos and international actors.

In the concluding chapter, Singh reflects upon a pervasive ambivalence amongst villagers, district residents and even local officials in Nakai Region regarding the overall “legitimacy” of state authority over forests. Singh writes: “Today, forest resources are declining in Laos, but prosperity for most is still to come” (p. 160). While legitimacy is difficult concept to pin down—not least in post-socialist authoritarian states—what seems more clear is that the cultural-politics of forests and development in Laos will continue to be unstable and contested well into the future.

This is an interesting book that advances our understanding of forest governance and political power in Laos. One might take issue with a small number of statements (on p. 37 Singh writes:“. . . the French colonial presence in Indochina did not lead to major conservations interventions or the imposition of scientific forestry.”) However, Mark Cleary (e.g. 2005) shows that the French developed a significant range of legislation and policies to manage the forest according to colonial scientific models, although admittedly the interventions were much more limited in Laos than in Cambodia or Vietnam. Overall the book is based on a solid empirical understanding of the multiscaled politics of forest governance in Laos.

Such a study on a complex research topic inevitably raises further questions. Singh is careful to note that culturally embedded ideas about the forest are not fixed (and here Hjorleifur Jonsson’s [2005, 10] argument that “The idea of the forested wilderness is no longer diacritical for the classification of mountain peoples relative to Thai society” brings into question just how deeply embedded are cultural ideas of the forest). For me, this raises questions such as how historically mediated, Theravada-Buddhist understandings of muang: pa spatial-cultural diacritics are being reworked or indeed replaced by a new territoriality and technology of the environment in Laos—the sampathan thi din, or the “land concession”? Indeed, how are ideas of muang and pa understood by non-Tai ethnic minority groups in Laos, who are experiencing the blunt extractive side to resource development projects? There is also room for further conceptual work in Singh’s tripartite logic of state governance in Laos, for instance on understanding the intersections between natural resources, patron-clientelism and family-based networks, and how this is changing with economic development. How does a paradoxical interpretation of state legitimacy through inscrutability and illegibility connect with the growing national and international media profile of certain members of the Lao leadership, or for instance, the emergence of a more engaged National Assembly?

As with any primary field site of ethnographic research there are advantages and limitations. One wonders if resource-dependent communities whose forest-lands and community forests are being enclosed and cleared for plantation agriculture without compensation would tend to agree with certain statements such as “exploitation of resources can be taken as a positive sign of develop ment and the state’s exertions of its due responsibilities to the nation” (p. 57), or, whether they would understand “forest clearance as a positive and civilizing action of righteous authority”(p. 157). Here one notes that Ian Baird (2008) has forwarded more critical interpretations of the extension of centralized state power into upland spaces and minority communities in Laos as a project of internal colonialism. Singh’s reflections on potency and potential as alternative, Buddhistinflected conceptions to state power could also have been discussed in relation to concepts such as Gramscian hegemony, or for example to geographer John Allen’s relational, networked approach to power.

Nevertheless, in this book Sarinda Singh develops a well-crafted set of arguments and ideas around the place of forests and forest wildlife in Laos. It ably accomplishes what any scholarly study should aim for—stimulating the reader to reconsider both historical and contemporary understandings. For those studying the anthropology of nature and development, as well as forest policy and governance in Southeast Asia, Natural Potency and Political Power comes with this reviewer’s positive recommendation.

Keith Barney
Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University



Allen, John. 2003. Lost Geographies of Power. Oxford: Blackwell.

Baird, Ian G. 2008. Various Forms of Colonialism: The Social and Spatial Reorganisation of the Brao in Southern Laos and Northeastern Cambodia. PhD Dissertation, Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Cleary, Mark. 2005. Managing the Forest in Colonial Indochina, c. 1900–1940. Modern Asian Studies 39(2): 257–283.

Jackson, Peter. 2004. The Thai Regime of Images. Sojourn 19(2): 181–218.

Jonsson, Hjorleifur. 2005. Mien Relations: Mountain People and State Control in Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Le Billon, P. 2002. Logging in Muddy Waters: The Politics of Forest Exploitation in Cambodia. Critical Asian Studies 34(4): 563–586.

Reynolds, Craig. 2005. Power. In Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, edited by D. Lopez Jr., pp. 211–228. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Patricio N. ABINALES

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3



Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand:
The Making of Banharn-buri

Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2011, xvii+254p.

When Adhemar de Barros ran as candidate for the governor of São Paulo in the 1947, he anchored his campaign on the slogan “Rouba mas faz!” (roughly translated meant “He steals, but he gets things done!”) De Barros went on to win the elections. He was a single termer and lost in the next round, but a decade later he reclaimed the post and became one of the most fascinating characters in Brazilian politics. Adhemar was a populist who won because of a solid electoral machine behind him (the Social Progressive Party dominated São Paulo politics in his time) and advocacy of social legislation and infrastructure development aimed at helping the poor. He was also perennially accused of corruption, although even his critics would qualify that in his days in office he did“get things done.” The Thai politician Banharn Silpa-archa would have found a lot of things to talk about with Adhemar for the long-time boss of Suphanburi Province (slightly off the northwest side of Bangkok) would see in the Brazilian a kindred soul.

Why Suphanburians see Banharn differently from the way Bangkok and its “modern” elites and bevy of self-proclaimed democrats portray him is the subject of this excellent book by Yoshinori Nishizaki. Deploying a research methodology that combines social history, institutionalism and ethnography, Nishizaki proceeds to prove that, yes, Banharn is corrupt and the origins of his wealth are murky, but to his constituents he has singlehandedly brought modernity to their backwater communities. Yes, he colludes with dubious characters and keeps a firm control over state largesse for his benefit, yet his connections with powerful forces like the monarchy and with state bureaucrats also enabled him to bring development to his home province. And yes, he tends to amass power and sees no value in spreading “democracy” among his wards, but no matter, he has made“bad democracy” (“defective patrimonial democracy at the local level,” as Nishizaki calls it) work in Suphanburi’s favor.

This “false consciousness” can be traced back to a long history of neglect by “imperial” Bangkok. Nishizaki shows how Suphanburians have viewed the Thai state through time: an “unfeeling,”“crooked” and “ineffectual” state which had “belittled” the province for so long (“Suphanburi had been dumped [ thort thing] by the state in a deep jungle, while other provinces from the north to the south prospered [at Suphanburi’s expense],” complained on respondent). Banharn appeared on the scene just in time, the local hero awash in wealth from his construction company and then taking on the challenge of improving local welfare.

His personal donations (hospital wards, school buildings, welfare charities) started the development process, bringing not only prestige to Banharn but also laying the foundations for a political career that eventually propelled him to national prominence. Once in parliament, Banharn used state funds and maintained cozy relationships with critical agencies like the Department of Public Works to bring more bacon back to Suphanburi, to the delight of its citizens. Two of Nishizaki’s best chapters discuss the relationship between infrastructure and the way it built political capital for Banharn (Chapter 4), and how roads and schools then became the institutional foundations for a provincial “imagined community” revolving around the old man’s charisma (Chapter 6).

Suphanburians became Banharn’s avid defenders when he was attacked in the capital for corruption. And as Suphanburi’s landscape improved because of the spread of a modern road system and the expansion of schools and hospitals, Suphanburians also began to shed off their insecurities, taking pride in how their province had moved ahead of the others (and thumbing their noses at places like Chiangmai and Chiangrai). They then showed their gratitude to Banharn by littering Suphanburi with signboards paid for by communities, businessmen (and women?) and“ordinary” people, thanking the boss and asking him to attend one celebratory ceremony after another (Chapter 6).

How did Banharn ensure that state money was well spent? Nishizaki takes issue with the now popular view of local strongmen ( nakleng ) as violence-driven spoilsmen who act as Janus-faced mediators between state and community. Banharn, he argues, is less a Mafiosi and more like the ubiquitous provincial Chinese shop-owner, a longju (in Teochew) who is simultaneously meticulous and fuzzy about how things are done. This explains why Banharn was always visiting the province, checking on projects, demanding updates, nitpicking on reports, and berating local bureaucrats when their updates appear unreliable or incomplete.

And with Suphanburi’s “relatively simple” social structure, Banharn “can enforce and maintain his [Foucauldian] panopticon control over civil servants directly and effectively, even at the lowest village level” (pp. 124–125). And pace critics who see these as mere showcases, Nishizaki argues that the sheer number of visits Banharn made to Suphanburi and the rigorous schedule he followed suggest the work ethic of a longju. The boss indeed took his responsibilities very, very seriously.

But this is also where one encounters a loose end. Nishizaki talks about secretly joining a journalist friend to watch Banharn preside over a meeting of the top directors of the 11 provincial public hospitals. He “observed in person” how the boss “had each director report to him how all the budget items they had requested were justified and to what extent the funds allocated in the previous year were used in accordance with the original plan” (p. 122).

Yet, we do not get a sense of the tempo and temper of such a meeting and how these might explain Banharn’s longju ethics. This should have been the part in the book where Nishizaki describes, in greater ethnographic detail, the tone of the meeting, the rise and fall in voices (and tempers?), and the ways in which the directors showed deference to the boss. Instead, we have his friend’s vapid description of how things turned out: “This is like an oral examination at a university, and it’s a grueling exam. It’s not easy. But if you are a civil servant here, you must pass the exam” (p. 123).

This brings us to one of the book’s puzzles. Nishizaki’s portrait of the boss suggests someone who can be quite approachable, your typical small-town friendly politico as it were. The question then is why Nishizaki—who valued interviews (he listed down and described the sex, occupation, place of residence, dates of interviews and additional information about the 105 people he interviewed for his dissertation)—did not go straight to Banharn at that directors’ meeting when he appeared to be just a couple of handshakes away from the boss? Why did he hesitate to ask for a one-on-one interview with the object of his curiosity? Perhaps Nishizaki feared that once “revealed”to the boss, his contacts would shy away from him after getting a warning from a Banharn wary of outsiders probing into his locale? But then if Banharn’s panopticon was that good, then would he not know what people were telling Nishizaki and hence encourage them to tell him more good stories? This is one pathway where an elaborate Geertzian-like speculation was possible, but Nishizaki chose to keep his distance and just work the enamored crowd.

This gap inevitably raises another related point. Nishizaki argues that when it comes to Banharn’s patrimonialism, “political scientists might try to examine the extent to which their narratives are objectively true. Such an exercise would be pointless, however, [as] Suphanburians’narratives have overlapping elements of reality, imagination, misrepresentation, exaggeration and (unintentional) distortion mixed into them” (p. 178). Indeed, his respondents produced varied explanations when it came to Banharn’s corruption (from “we do not know” to accusing his critics of envy, to treating corruption as simply a “Thai custom”). But they remained unswerving in their support for him. Popular defense of the local despot is not unique here, as Nishizaki points out in his overview of comparative cases in East and Southeast Asia. Janus-faced politicians in Asia—and in still distant frontiers like the southern United States (oddly excluded by Nishizaki)—are known to shower their local constituents with development projects and promise provincial modernization, while reverting to their sleazy backroom and patronage deals to enrich themselves, their families and cronies once they are back in the capital.

Banharn’s constituents know this and as long as “development” is constantly pouring into Suphanburi, they do not care if he is corrupt. They are perfectly happy with their boss. This is a point that Nishizaki repeatedly states in varying degrees of emphasis throughout the book, and it stands on solid empirical and comparative grounds. But he fails to ask this crucial question to his respondents: have your lives improved considerably since the roads, schools and hospitals were built or improved? The book oddly says nothing about incomes and inequalities, content to rely on the vagueness of terms like development or improvement. We have no idea of how poor Suphanburi was before Banharn started pouring in infrastructure funds; neither are there any data on whether incomes had gone up after the modern highways were in use. Had this question been asked, it is possible that Nishizaki would have received more qualified responses. The admiration for Banharn may come mixed with apprehensions about the family’s fortunes while the applause for what the Boss brought from Bangkok could be tempered by worries of a growing class disparity as the rice economy continues to evolve with the spread of high-yielding varieties and their attendant costs.

There is, in fact, very little political economy in this book and this lacuna is where Nishizaki is vulnerable to those who still see Banharn as the quintessential corrupt local boss. There are hints all over, especially when it comes to ascertaining why a certain construction firm got the contract for a particular road (cousins and cronies), but the overall picture of Banharn’s corrupt enterprise remains sketchy (how much is Banharn worth? We do not know and his biographer does not tell us). Nishizaki may dither and say this is not what he was interested in, but at the end of the day, when you factor in the issue of whether Suphanburians’ lives had improved after the roads were built, he must confront this major issue head on.

These are quibbles that perhaps this smart young scholar may wish to explore in his next book. As for now, let us enjoy this wonderful work, and especially delight in its idiosyncratic take on the “voices from below,” where instead of opposition or quiet resistance against those in power, we hear approbations of what the strongman has done for them.

Somewhere in the netherworld Adhemar de Barros is smiling.

Patricio N. Abinales
School of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa