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Vol. 5, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Elizabeth EMRICH

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Javaphilia: American Love Affairs with Javanese Music and Dance
Henry Spiller
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015, xii+266p.

In this monograph, Henry Spiller has critically examined the self-fashioning of four North American figures who positioned themselves as masters of Javanese dance and/or music to Western audiences throughout the twentieth century. In the process of this self-fashioning, these individuals appropriated specific facets of Javanese cultural production and then redeployed them in a new context, largely at home in the United States, to construct an unconventional or alternative identity and/or career for themselves, reifying problematic and essentializing tropes, and participating in an Orientalist discourse along the way. However, I believe it is to the author’s credit that he has described these individuals’ personal and professional lives with kindness and humor, finding, and acknowledging, parallels with his own experience and involvement with the study and teaching of gamelan, as well as pointing out the cultural and academic contributions that these four figures have made to North American understandings of Javanese culture.

In his first chapter, Spiller lays out the thematic and theoretical structure of the book, providing brief overviews of the characters whose lives he will describe in what he calls “microhistories”: Eva Gauthier (1885–1958), Hubert Stowitts (1892–1953), Mantle Hood (1918–2005), and Lou Harrison (1917–2003) (p. 24). He also spends some time situating his work within the context of recent research on Javanese culture and music (for example, that of Matthew Cohen) as well as tracing the lineage of orientalisms, American orientalisms in particular, in which these figures participate. In this, he is specifically working from Gina Marchetti’s, L. S. Kim’s, Erika Lee’s, and Malini Johar Schueller’s conceptualizations of orientalism within the United States. Taking North America’s particular historical circumstances into account, including the United States’ economic and military incursions and involvement in the Philippines, China, and Japan during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as a history of immigration by Asian communities to the West Coast, Schueller identifies two particular forms of American orientalism: first, the concept of Asia as a timeless, ancient place somehow simultaneously existing in contemporary world, and second, the concept of the “East” as a fundamentally spiritual Other. Furthermore, this history of immigration also created a space in which “American orientalisms reflected American approaches to situating one’s self within larger communities and forging coherent self-understandings by articulating relationships to one’s community and drawing boundaries with one’s Others” (pp. 19–21). Therefore, Spiller argues that the four individuals he addresses in this volume were uniquely positioned, in terms of likelihood and methods, to appropriate Javanese cultural practices, as they understood them, to re-fashion their own identities (p. 22). Finally, the chapter itself, and indeed the book in its entirety, is framed by the juxtaposition of two expositions: the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, and Expo ’86, held in Vancouver in 1986. The comparison serves first to provide a historical context for American imaginings of Javanese culture during the twentieth century, and second, to highlight the proliferation of perspectives, both Indonesian and non-Indonesian, on Javanese gamelan performance that were evident 100 years later.

The second chapter focuses in more detail on the 1893 Columbian exposition and its effect on American conceptions of Java from the nineteenth century on. Here, Spiller addresses the physical layout of the exposition, and the history of world’s fairs, specifically noting how they were designed to justify the supposed superiority of the host country or culture, and further to that, the processes of industrialization and empire. In the case of the 1893 exposition, the ideological message was clearly stated in the division between the White City, a model for an American city of the future, and the Midway Plaisance, the segregated area in which various cultural groups, including a Bedouin community, groups from Turkey and Algeria, and of course, the Javanese community were situated, living in specially-constructed villages. Drawing upon newspaper articles, personal recollections, as well as recordings of Javanese music performed at the Exposition and descriptions of the music and experience of the Javanese village by visitors, Spiller demonstrates how the Javanese pavilion helped to shape North American perceptions of the “exotic” Javanese other as “gentle, childlike creatures who spent their time crafting objects of exquisite beauty” and staging performances of music and dance (p. 27). Ultimately, using these imperialist misconceptions, Javanese exoticism could be co-opted by later North American individuals eager to reconstruct their own identity for their own ends, or to use Javanese cultural idioms, as they understood them, to reconcile unconventional or socially unacceptable parts of their own persons.

The first of the four microhistories Spiller describes is that of Eva Gauthier, whose early life, travels to Java, and reinterpretation of Javanese music and dance to further her career in Europe and United States is the subject of the third chapter. From Spiller’s research, it appears that Gauthier’s engagement with Javanese music and dance was not originally a planned encounter, but rather the result of her pursuing a Dutch audience for her vocal performances in colonial Java. While there, she came into contact with Paul Seelig, who helped her by arranging music for performances that gradually began to include “Indies-inspired” compositions (p. 64). Further, in early 1914 Gauthier had the opportunity to hear gamelan music accompanying the annual eight-day Sekaten festival in honor of the prophet Muhammed while in Solo. Upon returning to North America in late 1914, Gauthier embarked on both research concerning Java as well as lectures and performances involving costumes and her repertoire of Java-inspired music and dance. Relying on “dicent authority,” or Thomas Turino’s concept of the authority of “having-been-there” (p. 6), Gauthier positioned herself as an authority on Javanese music, dance, and culture, simultaneously carving out a socially-acceptable and financially viable position for herself as an independent female performer during the early twentieth century, and equating her interpretation of Javanese music with North American and European avant-garde music.

The fourth chapter focuses on Hubert J. Stowitts, a dancer as well as set and costume designer professionally active from 1915 on. As a man who deeply valued the aesthetics of dance practice, and as a gay man, Stowitts found himself in search of a subjectivity, which he found in the appropriation of Javanese dance practice, and later as a lecturer and self-styled anthropologist, again based on his dicent authority. Specifically drawn to Java through his own orientalist understanding of Java’s exotic culture and its emphasis on dance, Stowitts spent the years 1927–31 studying performances in Yogyakarta and Solo and executing very detailed portraits of various dancers, accurately depicting details of their costuming and poses. Upon his return to the United States (and later travels to Europe), he began to give lectures and perform examples of Javanese dance, as well as arranging exhibitions of his paintings. Furthermore, Stowitts’s elevation of Javanese dance was rooted in his orientalist view of Javanese dance: as solely an engagement with the spiritual, reflecting the “pure” aesthetic nature of the not-yet-modernized Java. As Spiller describes it, “[Stowitts’s] emphasis on a Javanese regard for dance as a normal activity for ordinary men . . . was part of an attempt to persuade Americans to change their mappings of masculinity, femininity, body worship, and sexuality and to redeem his own countercultural predilections” (p. 123).

The fifth chapter is devoted to investigating Mantle Hood’s career spent researching gamelan, and well as his interest in the occult and spiritualism, an interest that he kept private for much of his life. Here, Spiller points to Hood’s interest in Javanese music as not only stemming from an American Cold War pivot toward area studies research, particularly pertaining to those countries seen as key strategic allies for the United States, but also from Hood’s perception that the study of Javanese performing arts could provide a gateway for further understanding of the spiritual potential of music. Of foundational importance to North American teaching and performance of Javanese and Sundanese gamelan music, Hood’s “gamelan study group” (p. 132), founded at UCLA in the early 1950s, was not only the first such group in United States, and provided the model for future performance and study groups across the country, but also embodied Hood’s teaching ethos of “bimusicality,” in which students participated in musical performance as a research methodology for learning about foreign musical traditions. Hood’s reasoning for his appropriation and interpretation of Javanese culture in order to further his career was similar in some ways to that of Gauthier and Stowitts: in Javanese musical compositions he found what he saw as a potential spiritual corrective to the lack of understanding of the occult in West, and accordingly interpreted (and composed) gamelan music to suit his (sometimes inaccurate) view.

Finally, the last of the four individuals that Spiller addresses is Lou Harrison, whose career in composition, and specifically gamelan-inspired compositions, is the subject of the sixth chapter. Here, Spiller discusses Harrison’s appropriation of gamelan music as part of the composer’s attempts (similarly to the other individuals we have now met) to construct an alternative identity, in this case, a “maverick” identity. As the author carefully notes, while Harrison’s compositions evolved from “aural imitations of the generalized sounds of the gamelan” (p. 154) to a later, sustained engagement with not only the performance of, but also construction of gamelan instruments, several themes, somewhat antithetical to Javanese music and musical performance, remained enshrined within his work. For example, Harrison was deeply attached to the Western conception of the individual (genius) composer, in whom all authority rested, while gamelan ensembles generally rely on one or two members of the group to relay information about number of repetitions of section, or a change in style or tempo, to the rest of the group as the performance is in progress. This tendency (among other characteristics of gamelan) leads to a more communally-shared “ownership” and investment in the work (p. 179). Furthermore, in his fabrication of gamelan instruments, Harrison specifically altered their generally-accepted forms in order to grant himself greater flexibility in tuning and in the performance of multiple octaves, rather than confining their performance to the usual one octave (ibid.). Ultimately, Harrison’s self-fashioning as a composer of Javanese-inspired gamelan music rested, as it did for the others, in the selective appropriation, re-interpretation, and deployment of facets of Javanese culture and practice that conformed to either his conception of himself, or as a corrective for the mid-twentieth century North American society in which he found himself.

Rather than choosing to recount the lives of those individuals who identified with “affinity groups” as part of their study and absorption of Javanese culture, Spiller has instead chosen Gauthier, Stowitts, Hood, and Harrison as “solitary figures,” whose interest in and devotion to the study of Javanese music and performance resulted in personal appropriations in order to construct an identity that, in some cases, had ultimately very little to do with Javanese or Sundanese culture itself. In the last and seventh chapter, returning again to the 1986 Expo ’86 held in Vancouver, the author describes the rich outpouring of creative collaboration and interpretation of gamelan music, on the part of both Western and Javanese and Sundanese researchers and performers. At the same time, however, he productively maps Timothy Taylor’s three “clusters” of Western domination of foreign or “exotic” cultures (colonialism, imperialism, and globalization) on top of the interests and activities of the four individuals whose lives he has explored in the previous chapters, clearly noting the deeply orientalist and culturally imperialist elements of their work. With Javaphilia, I believe Spiller has carefully walked the line of critical evaluation of these performers’ and composers’ contributions to North American understanding and practice of gamelan music and Javanese performance, while simultaneously acknowledging the unequal power structures at play in each individuals’ appropriations and redeployments of Javanese performance traditions within their own lives. Certainly in terms of the history of cultural reception of Javanese influence within North America, as well as the context for the historiography of Javanese gamelan music in both academic and popular contexts, this book is not only accessibly-written, but also a solid contribution to a growing body of work devoted to critical assessments of the power structures at play in the intercultural exchanges of musical and performance traditions.

Elizabeth Emrich
Department of History of Art and Visual Studies, Cornell University


Vol. 5, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Julius BAUTISTA

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Muslim and Catholic Pilgrimage Practices: Explorations through Java
Albertus Bagus Laksana
Farnham: Ashgate, 2014, xiii+252p.

Albertus Bagus Laksana’s Muslim and Catholic Pilgrimage Practices: Explorations through Java is a rich, intricately textured comparative ethnography of Muslim and Catholic pilgrimage traditions in south central Java. The empirical data—derived from participant observation, direct-interview, discourse analysis, and archival research—is organized into two balanced sections, while a concluding analysis discusses the culturally-specific aspects that condition religious pluralism in Java. What is most interesting is that Laksana confronts the reality of this pluralism through a methodology of “double visiting,” moving “back and forth between my own tradition of Catholic Christianity and the tradition I visit, Islam” (p. 191). In tackling multiple sites of investigation, Laksana’s work demonstrates a remarkable kind of empirical cavalier not commonly seen in a single piece of in-depth ethnographic work.

There would still be many in the social sciences who would harbor some misgivings about this multi-sited methodology, which carries with it the inherent risk of compromising ethnographic depth, attenuating the empirical potency of fieldwork, and undervaluing the voices of the subaltern. Laksana’s rationale for comparison, however, is not analytic breadth per se, but his own theological formation in which multi-sited research is “a real religious pilgrimage to God and His saints where on various levels I learn more about God, my own self, and my religious tradition, from the richness of the Muslim tradition . . .” (p. 191). This work is a deliberate and explicit deployment of the new comparative theology, promulgated by Francis X. Clooney (2010), in which the close exposure to and study of the religious other is coterminous with the pursuit of personal theological edification. In this way, the multi-sidedness of Laksana’s empirical purview cannot be evaluated solely by the standards set in the social science academy.

The main argument of this book resonates strongly with its author’s personal theological journey: that “complex religious identity” in Java is characterized by an intimate embrace of religious alterity, one that occurs through the medium of indigenous, sub-religious concepts. The persuasiveness of this argument is contingent upon the acceptance of two assumptions: firstly, that there is a largely unproblematic fluidity between culture and religion, and secondly, that there exists an autochthonous, inclusive Javanese religio-cultural sensibility that remains as the basis of intersubjective Javanese humanness, regardless of centuries of religious formation. Each of the two main sections that frame the analysis explore the theological and empirical elasticity of this central theme.

Part I, which comprises of three chapters, draws momentum from an examination of how Javano-Muslim “sacred history” is animated by the Arabic concept of ziarah, which denotes the pious visits to the tombs of the nine Holy men (wali songo) who facilitated the Islamization of Java. In this vein, Laksana provides details of the pilgrimage to the shrines of Tembayat, Gunungpring, and Mawlana Maghribi. In Chapter 2, Laksana focuses on one such saint, Sunan Kalijaga, the quintessential Javanese Muslim saint in the late fifteenth century. Like the other Javanese “religio-cultural brokers,” Kalijaga stuck a thoughtful and workable balance between Islam and Javaneseness, the latter with its own history of incorporating a legacy of Indic inheritances. For Laksana, what is crucial is not Kalijaga’s hybridity, but rather his personification of a complex religio-cultural identity in which inclusivity was achieved without forsaking one’s theological commitments as an “authentic” Muslim.

These kinds of complex religio-cultural identities are buttressed by a conducive political infrastructure in the form of the support and patronage of the sultanates of Yogyakarta and Solo. The Mataram court itself is considered the highest paragon of Javanese cultural capital, encapsulating the legacy and grandeur of the pre-Islamic Indianized culture through ritual, art, and Kraton regalia. To this can be added the supportive political influence of the traditionalist Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, which encouraged and celebrated the Muslim saints, including their mystical practices, and corresponding devotion to paradigmatic ancestors.

Part II is a corollary of the first both in terms of structure and content. Three chapters in this section paint a portrait of Javano-Catholics as minorities who do not live in fear of persecution in a Muslim dominated state but are, like their Javano-Muslim counterparts, channeling the same core Javaneseness, absorbing and finding fulfillment in the encounter with the religious other. Laksana demonstrates how Javano-Catholics were likewise able to “negotiate their hybrid identities with Hindu-Buddhist past and Islamic present” in a process manifested in the phenomenological experience of pilgrimage to three Roman Catholic shrines: the Sendangsono grotto, the Sacred Heart shrine at Ganjuran, the Mausoleum of Muntilan. That Javaneseness and Christianity meet in self-edifying modes of intersubjectivity is not only seen in the shrine’s objects and statuary, but also in the commemoration of paradigmatic Catholic pioneers in Java like Father van Lith and Father Sanjaya. Even more profoundly, this encounter is possible through a particular kind of communal hermeneutic, a communio sanctorum (communion of saints and the Holy), that underlies how the Catholic community “looks forward to having the presence and participation of their Muslim neighbors” (p. 134). Pilgrimage is an occasion where Muslims and Catholics come to “know the fuller scope of the inclusiveness of Divine grace, the grace of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that flows through Mary, the saints, and their own local pious ancestors . . .” (p. 134).

Taking the empirical data from parts I and II, Laksana’s Java is not simply a Muslim-dominated realm, but a “supernaturally charged cosmos”—a mandala space in which pilgrimage sites (whether tombs of wali songo or graves of Catholic pioneers) are nodes of geo-spiritual energy. To corroborate this, Laksana turns to the analysis of certain autochthonous religio-cultural concepts common to both Javanese Muslims and Catholics. The Sanskrit concept of rasa, for example, is taken as the dynamics of human interiority which becomes a way of experiencing the depth of religious experience, particularly in relation to shrines and tombs. By the same token, the pilgrims’ encounter can be characterized by meneng (emotional stability and spiritual purity), wening (clear mindfulness), and dunung (acceptance of one’s worldly place and mission)—crucial concepts in Javanese human philosophy, in which Muslims and Catholics “encounter each other” on a spiritual level and through which, in turn, they come to appreciate the goodness of the other’s core principles and traditions.

Laksana’s ideas about Javanese religious identity amounts to a post-secular commentary about syncretism and religious pluralism. Secularism, as conceived by popular Western philosophers such as Alain de Botton (2012), extols the individual prerogative of religious eclecticism in which “the best values of all religions” is channeled towards a modern secular humanism. The religious subjectivities described by Laksana, however, disputes the prevalence of this dynamic in Java. Instead, he describes religious pluralism as an intimate embrace that nevertheless preserves and edifies discreetly bounded, and in that sense, “authentic” religious identities. The outcome of religious pluralism in Java, then, is not syncretism or eclecticism, but a deepening spiritual formation that preserves religious distinctions and the theological boundaries that separate them.

While anthropologists like Joel Robbins (2006) had once described the “awkward” relationship between theology and ethnography, scholars from both sides have been increasingly open to dialogue and collaboration. Although Laksana places himself firmly within the former camp, his work resonates with that of anthropologists such as Philip Fountain and Sin Wen Lau (2013), who have more recently called for the pursuit of “anthropological theologies.” In this book, Laksana offers a substantive response to this call by adding rich, empirical depth to an ongoing transdisciplinary conversation, the development of which offers good prospects for a more comparative and more nuanced account of religious dynamism in Southeast Asia.

Julius Bautista


Clooney, Francis X. 2010. Comparative Theology: Deep Learning across Religious Borders. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

De Botton, Alain. 2012. Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Robbins, Joel. 2006. Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship? Anthropological Quarterly 79(2): 285–294.

Fountain, Philip; and Lau, Sin Wen. 2013. Anthropological Theologies: Engagements and Encounters. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 24(3): 227–234.


Vol. 5, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, YU Xiao

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Potent Landscapes: Place and Mobility in Eastern Indonesia

Catherine Allerton
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013, xi+221p.

Potent Landscapes, by Catherine Allerton, is an engagingly written anthropological study of place and culture in Southeast Asia. Its ethnographic focus is a two-placed, partly resettled village (p. 5) in the Manggarai region of eastern Indonesia, with ancestral settlement Wae-Rebo in the highlands, and its lowland offshoot Kombo developed in the 1960s as part of a wider governmental resettlement drive. To differentiate itself from the structuralist Leiden School that identifies eastern Indonesia as a field of study and pursues a cosmological coherence within the field, this book takes a “phenomenological” (p. 4) approach that puts bodily experience at the center of analysis, including those messy and contradictory aspects of people’s life. Allerton presents a “multisensory” (p. 15) picture of how landscapes gain potency through place- and path-making out of the entanglement between people and place. Meanwhile, by examining the influence of Catholic conversion, state development, resettlement, and migration on this eastern Indonesian village, Allerton also ties the work to contemporary issues.

Three recurring themes are key to master the core of the book. First, equal prominence is given both to the taken-for-granted, often unspoken aspects of everyday life and “the extraordinary, the ritual or the ancestral” (p. 9) aspects of life. Allerton argues that place- and path-making happens both through the explicit creation of presence in ritual performances and through everyday practices that do not consciously aim to create values. Readers can easily see the close entwinement of mundane and ritual life is repeatedly brought out throughout the chapters.

Second, landscapes, a rather encompassing concept in the book, include not only mountains or fields, but also—rooms, houses, and paths—and combine both material and immaterial aspects. Human activities take place in the concrete materiality of landscapes whose characteristics also shape people’s social life. Beyond this, Allerton places more emphases on the immateriality of landscapes, which refers that landscapes have agency, evoke human memories and emotions, and have their own concerns and desires.

Last but not least, the Manggarai landscape is defined by mobility along several dimensions. As the chapters expand outwards in ever-widening “concentric circles” (p. 15), different kinds of places, from the smallest and most intimate household rooms to larger scales of landscapes, are connected through daily movements between houses, to fields, up and down mountains, and the more poignant journeys along marriage paths or to outside realms. Closely related to Allerton’s strategy of personifying landscapes, is her attempt to illustrate the temporal dimension of mobile landscapes. Rooms, houses, and villages have their own course of social lives and need to undergo rites of passage as humans do so through the life cycle to realize identity transformation and reproduction.

The main contents of the book are organized in six chapters. Chapter one examines household rooms, which have not featured prominently in many writings on Southeast Asian houses. Allerton asserts rooms can be agents to connect with ancestors, gather up souls, and transmit mysterious blood spirits. By showing the entanglement of rooms with their occupants’ bodies and souls during key phrases in the human life cycle, Allerton argues that rooms emerge as different kinds of entities in the context of different practices and how particular rituals create the presence of the room as agents. In this way, the important social relationship among Manggarai people can be learnt from the narrative of the social life of a Manggarai room. However, when doing so, Allerton emphasizes that we should not objectify rooms but understand it as “an ongoing dynamics in a room-household’s developmental cycle” (p. 41).

Chapter two looks at houses. Instead of seeing houses as an architectural or symbolic object, Allerton treats houses as a particular kind of place characterized by permeability and liveliness, which helps establish the significance of Manggarai houses in both daily and ritual practices. On one hand, an ordinary house is a place for numerous lively events, partly relying on its permeability to “sounds, smells, livestock, and the movements of the personnel” (p. 15). On the other hand, ritual liveliness ensures that a house is permeable to the right kinds of souls and spirits. In the meantime, distinct from the practices of fixing or fetishizing houses in the literature on house-based societies, Allerton suggests that easy and frequent movements of people among dwellings make houses alive and able to connect to broader landscapes of pathways and fields.

Chapter three attempts to challenge the hegemony of the Leiden-derived traditions of analysis. This tradition sees eastern Indonesian marriage alliances as constituted only by rules and classifications and argues that traveling paths are produced by kinship and marriage. Drawing on women’s experiences and memories of their marriage paths, Allerton argues that marriage, “as a sequence of place-based, practical actions” (p. 74), connects and transforms both people and places. On one hand, traveling along physical trails through the landscape reinforces and renews the historical connections between families. On the other hand, people enact kinship in this form of travel, especially women who grow from an outsider bride to a mother central to the figuration of alliance groups.

Chapter four shifts attention to “what the land wants” (p. 15). While believing that an animate landscape is a concrete form of particular agricultural animism, rituals are, according to Allerton, ways that Manggarai people communicate with “the environment as an animate realm of multiple agents” (p. 122). The strong presence of agricultural animism and the desirability of offering sacrifice explains villagers’ reassertion of ritual procedures in the face of Catholic syncretic attempts and state-sponsored resettlement when church and state simply view rituals “as a matter of traditional culture” (p. 125). Another aspect that Allerton stresses of agricultural animism is Manggarai engagements with ancestral spirits, in which the idea of “ancestors of the land” (p. 100) is quite pertinent to the problem of the drum house in the next chapter.

Chapter five illustrates the ways which place is made by examining the relationship between resettlement and drum houses. Villagers view drum houses as “most closely associated with ancestors” (p. 131) and thus still take Kombo without such ancestral links as “a monkey-hut” (p. 128). However, state-sponsored rebuilding projects highlight the authenticity of highlands in cultural terms and instead honor the isolation of Wae-Rebo in this sense. Both notions have sustained the division of the two places. However, Allerton also argues that the difference between Wae Rebo and Kombo, despite the ritual inequality, has been normalized by incorporating travels between two sites and movements of goods and personnel into daily life. Moreover, the inhabitants of this two-placed village indeed benefit greatly from diversified economic opportunities due to partial resettlement.

Chapter six details everyday, extraordinary, and mythical movements within the landscape and describes “the moments of stillness” (p. 152) or “apparently stable places” (p. 176) that constitute what Allerton calls “rooting.” She asserts that the notion of rooting does not contrast with the core idea of the book “mobility.” Instead, mobility relies on a form of rooting. Only by rooting one’s travel in a place of origin through ritual events, can one possibly travel safely. In this context, Allerton provides us with a different lens to look at migrants’ travel to towns or faraway cities and children undertaking many journeys to attend schools. The expanding mobility of people has led to neither the loss of roots nor the erosion of culture. On the contrary, travel and movement are essential in the making of place and culture in this remote Indonesian village.

In conclusion, the rich ethnographic description along with great clarity in theoretical discussion makes the book a pleasure to read. However, I find some of the author’s claims on methodological innovation a little strained. Either emphasis on taken-for-granted everyday life or critique of the structuralist Leiden scholarship is not novel in anthropological works on eastern Indonesia. In addition, the cultural and social uniqueness of Manggarai people does not quite stand out of the writing. Readers may find a lot of similarities with village life in other regions of Indonesia. But it may also suggest a possibility for other comparative studies. The book offers a wealth of ideas and is a toolkit for comparison. Scholars who are working on place and culture of landscapes in other parts of Southeast Asian may find it especially useful. Aside from these minor weaknesses, it is an important contribution to the conceptualization of landscapes and would be interest to scholars and students of Indonesian studies, Southeast Asian studies, and Anthropology in general.

Yu Xiao 于霄
Department of Sociology, Kyoto University



Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power
Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, eds.
Singapore: NUS Press, 2015, 216p.

Does Thailand have an Oligarchy? If so, how do we define it for the national case of Thailand? And most importantly for this collection of essays, what is the empirical proof of this oligarchy in contemporary Thailand? These are some of the main questions which pervade Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. Translated and reworked from a Thai-language edition, Su sangkom Thai samoe na (Toward a more equitable Thailand) published in 2014 by Matichon, this volume is a timely and useful review of some of the political economy issues facing Thailand today.

With nine chapters by Thai scholars and technocrats, the aim of the book is to provide contemporary data and analysis on those material foundations which have fostered a growth in inequality and a strengthening in oligarchy in recent years. Some chapters do this better than others, but all provide insight into these issues. In terms of raw empirical analysis all of the research essays are a success, particularly the second chapter on land distribution as an indicator of both inequality and oligarchy. For those interested in the possible material foundations of recent turmoil in Thai political society, this volume is an absolute gem and is more than worth adding to one’s library.

Theoretically speaking, the introductory chapter by the editors utilizes very recent publications on inequality and oligarchy to frame the research-based chapters which follow. Noteworthy out of this list are Thomas Piketty’s bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and Jeffrey A. Winters’ comparative political economy treatise Oligarchy (2011). Those familiar with either of Piketty’s or Winters’ ideation on these topics will find evidence for both within the volume. In terms of the latter’s theory on oligarchy, however, the editors seemed to have disvalued the analytic nuance of Winters’ repositioning of oligarchy toward its original Aristotelian meaning—one which highlights the unique power position of agential material wealth without falling into the structural (or teleological) constraints of Marxist historical materialism. In its place, the editors create the moniker “flexible oligarchy” to mean any kind of group of elites (whether they be military, political, bureaucratic, royal, business, or so on) which network in order to “rule” the nation. This is somewhat frustrating, because the insights on how wealth is defended, why oligarchs fight, and what this means for a political society are lost. At best oligarchy then means any “network” of individuals that are somehow more powerful or more influential than the average Thai person. Networks there are in Thailand, but to elide the difference between an oligarch and an elite is to misunderstand the challenge which inequality and oligarchy in Thailand pose.

Yet to be fair, Winters’ conceptualization of oligarchy has been challenged—most directly in a collection of essays edited by Michele Ford and Thomas Pepinsky (2013, 8) on oligarchy’s power within the Indonesian context. This critique has four areas of contestation against oligarchy as a political force: “explanatory capacity,” political “ontology,” “methodological orientation,” and “level of attention paid to non-material sources.” And, indeed, within the discussion of oligarchy theory itself, not everyone agrees on what oligarchy means. For example, scholars like Richard Robison and Vedi Hadiz (2004) are more than willing to allow oligarchy to stay within the boundaries of a Marxist understanding of materialism. Yet, the most direct application of Winters’ approach to political society in Thailand, at least on the national-level, is by T. F. Rhoden (2015) in the journal article “Oligarchy in Thailand?” Here, Rhoden argues that Thailand does have an oligarchy, not in the sense of a “regime” or even as a “class” that rules everything within the country, but rather in the sense of an empirical fact of Thailand’s political economy, which cannot be ignored. In short, the two most recent coups in Thailand were not downstream from any exigency between classes—that of a rich few versus that of the poor masses—but instead between the wealthy themselves. In this sense, utilizing oligarchic analysis as a starting point to understand recent events in Thailand on the national level fits unnervingly well.

More can be said about oligarchic theory, but this would take us beyond the scope of this specific book review. In short, despite Pasuk and Baker’s distancing themselves from the above example of oligarchy, this edited volume cannot but help lend additional empirics to both Winters’ conceptualization and Rhoden’s application of oligarchy to Thailand.

Misgivings on theory aside, all of the follow-up chapters can easily be read for the new and very important research they present. The most startling for the volume is the initial analysis by Duangmanee Laovakul in the second chapter on land title documents (chanot) provided by the Land Department. This has never been done before in a private publication. Traditionally, the Land Department does not publish this information for those outside of the government. The results are as fascinating as they are somewhat depressing. Whichever Gini Index number one reads for Thailand in terms of yearly income, these numbers hovering around 0.50 for the last decade pale in comparison to the Gini Index number at 0.89 for inequality in nationwide titled land distribution. The landholding analysis is also broken down by region via Thai rai (14.4 million hectare) and by MPs via declared value.

In the past, the best resource a researcher had for measuring a Thai oligarch’s net worth were the annual Forbes “Thailand 50 Richest” articles. With the addition of landholding data, one has a more complete picture of the distribution of assets beyond that of just publically traded companies. The greatest strength in this analysis—and the reason it was likely trusted to the scholar in the first place—is also its greatest weakness: the landholding data are completely anonymous. Granted, one can make educated guesses about who some of these owners are, but for a political economy analysis in a nation where over a third of the population work in agriculture, knowing who owns what parcel of land is of utmost consequence. The reviewer is still waiting for a day when one can see a map of Thailand, or at least of Bangkok, colored in delimiting who owns what exactly. Factor into this the complication of how much land the Crown Property Bureau of the Thai monarch does or does not own and these seemingly economic issues of inequality take on a decidedly more political tone of oligarchy. Hence the importance of a theoretically robust theory of oligarchy beyond that of just “network” becomes ever more significant.

The third chapter by Dilaka Lathapipat extends the meaning of inequality beyond that of material goods to investigate its effect on education. New data is presented for the current growing inequality in tertiary education in connection with national wages, as well as some possible reforms. This is followed by Sarinee Achavanuntakul, Nathasit Rakkiattiwong, and Wanicha Direkudomsak’s fourth chapter where they take a direct look at the Thai capital market. They argue that the inequality found within Thailand’s monopoly securities exchange arises mainly from a mixture of both legal operations and illegal practices. Their case study of “political stocks” and their increased value and volume of trading in election years is insightful. With this focus on the stock market, the authors are able to deepen the theoretical discussion of oligarchy begun by the editors.

Another compelling research article from this important volume is the fifth chapter by Nualnoi Treerat and Parkpume Vanichaka on elite networking via special executive courses. The interviews that the scholars were able to get with attendees of these elite executive courses are of great value for understanding how it is that specific policies which could benefit the oligarchy come to fruition. The inclusion of members from “billion families” into the courses bring to light some of the behind-the-scene mechanics of how an oligarch is able to connect with those in parliament, military, bureaucracy, university, or the media. Public-sector courses have been offered by the National Security Academy for Government and Private Sector (Po Ro Or), the Office of the Judiciary, the King Prajadhipok Institute, and the Election Commission. Two private-sector courses include the Capital Market Academy by the Stock Exchange of Thailand and one by the Chamber of Commerce. In a political society where scholars have argued there is limited social capital, these executive courses take on a greater meaning.

The sixth chapter by Nopanun Wannathepsakul does well by exploring how inequality is maintained in Thailand’s energy sector. This intriguing analysis posits a “network bureaucracy” to help explain how particular policies are implemented. Attention is rightfully paid to the odd situation where it is not illegal in Thailand for a cabinet minister to create energy policies whilst at the same time continue to sit on the board of a semi-private energy company, collecting a salary.

The seventh chapter by Chaiyon Praditsil and Chainarong Khrueanuan is also insightful since it brings the discussion of inequality and oligarchy down from the national to the provincial level. They present evidence that the overall structure of provincial oligarchy has evolved since the 1997 Financial Crisis. These local data exhibited next to the eighth chapter by Ukrist Pathmanand on “Network Thaksin” allows the reader to cogitate on oligarchy, not just in a horizontal way, but also as a vertical machination pervading Thailand’s political economy. The argument here is that the composition of Thaksin’s network of supporters and allies, both nationally and locally, has changed since he left the premiership. We would do well to remember that, along with a cleavage between wealthy Thai oligarchs, a semi-independent mobilization of political conscious participants has emerged. They, too, have a voice—one that does not always align with an oligarch like Thaksin. Some solutions to the challenge of inequality and oligarchy are proffered in the final chapter by Pan Ananapibut. This last chapter is much valued, because it allows some space for thinking through some of the options the citizens of Thailand do have, at least in terms of tax policy, for combating the economic side of inequality. Proposals are made in terms of inequality in both income and wealth.

Overall, this is an engaging and well-crafted volume that delivers much-needed new empirical research on the challenges of inequality and oligarchy in Thailand. This book represents some of the best minds from Thailand on the state of country’s current political economy. This volume will be of interest to scholars and students of Southeast Asian political economy as well as researchers into how inequality and oligarchy can vary across the globe.

T. F. Rhoden
Department of Political Science, Northern Illinois University


Ford, Michele; and Pepinsky, Thomas, eds. 2013. Beyond Oligarchy? Critical Exchanges on Political Power and Material Inequality in Indonesia. Indonesia, Special Issue: Wealth, Power, and Contemporary Indonesian Politics 96(October): 1–9.

Pasuk Phongpaichit ผาสุก พงษ์ไพจิตร. 2014. Su sangkom Thai samoe na สู่สังคมไทยเสมอหน้า [Toward a more equitable Thailand]. Bangkok: Matichon.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rhoden, T. F. 2015. Oligarchy in Thailand? Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 34(1): 3–25.

Robison, Richard; and Hadiz, Vedi R. 2004. Reorganising Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in an Age of Markets. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Winters, Jeffrey. 2011. Oligarchy. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Vol. 5, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Krisna UK

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

The Barefoot Anthropologist: The Highlands of Champa and Vietnam in the Words of Jacques Dournes
Andrew Hardy
Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2015, 160p.

The Barefoot Anthropologist follows the footprints left by the unconventional priest-turned-anthropologist Jacques Dournes. This is an excellent book about this unusual scholar haut en couleurs who spent a large part—indeed, the best part—of his life in the highlands of central Vietnam.

The first section of the book is an exploration of Pötao, une théorie du pouvoir chez les Indochinois jörai written by Dournes in 1977. This is a seminal text in our understanding of the ways the Jarai organized themselves politically, but it also gives a greater insight into how the political is enmeshed with the cultural, the social, and the religious, without which the Pötao would have no raison d’être. The text is complex in its form because Dournes’s writing style in some ways is a mimicry of how the Jarai world is configured. As Hardy notes, Dournes’s writing is “circular” and for good reason, since the Jarai world is made up of multiple spheres. The economic, the political, the judiciary, the religious, the profane, and the social create a sophisticated system that overlaps and intersects in the middle where the anthropologist stands barefoot in the mud. This point of intersection is also where he can best make sense of all these interconnections that define the Jarai’s way of thinking. As Dournes explains in Florilège jörai (1987), the Jarai world and its myths work like a piece of interwoven fabric, made of “repetitions, redundancies, rhythms and symbolisms” that explain one another in a vastly rich system of associations (ibid., 168). However, Dournes also warns us, sometimes it is better not to try to interpret (as with dreams): “you just take them the way they are” (p. 131).

Hardy’s rereading of Dournes brings in interesting new analyses of the meanings, roles, and responsibilities of the Pötao. As explained on page 41, Pötao, evoking the “Cham word for lord and master,” has been translated by various scholars such as Charles Meyer as “king” and “prince.” The word is also interpreted by Grégory Mikaelian as “nephews” of the Khmer king, who at the end of the nineteenth century used them to consolidate his political power. With their complex yet complementary powers, the Pötao of fire, the Pötao of wind, and the Pötao of water harmonized the relationships linking man with man, and man with nature (p. 40). Yet this harmonizing power extended well beyond the frontiers of the Jarai territory in Vietnam and Cambodia and served to maintain peace, stability, and the viability of commerce along specific trade routes that wound their way through the highlands.

Hardy’s exploration of the Jarai-Cham connection raises important lines of inquiry about the historicity, physical borders, and cultural exchanges between the two groups. The argument is not forcefully made so as to leave enough room for the reader to ponder the limits of such powerful interactions and undertake his/her own investigation on the subject.

The second section is an attempt to portray Dournes through his own words by means of English translation. No professional translator would say that this is an easy task, especially for such a person who was not only answering questions but was also “performing.” This is where the limits of the English translation are in the lack of rendition of “Dournes the comedian,” who is more forcefully visible and audible in the appendix. For those who can read French, the original text is worth trying. It enlightens the reader by giving unique insights into Dournes’s exceptional personality and way of thinking.

The afterword by the anthropologist Oscar Salemink takes a few steps back so as to effectively recontextualize Jacques Dournes. The descriptions of key moments in his life, his attachment to the highlands of Vietnam, the richness of the work produced while “exiled in France,” the criticisms he received from his peers, as well as his vitriolic responses to them help create yet another dimension in our attempt to comprehend the barefoot anthropologist.

This section also emphasizes how Dournes never felt that he belonged to France, hence his urge to leave the country after being ordained at a relatively young age and the enduring feeling of déracinement (being uprooted) toward the end of his life as a scholar in Paris. This hybrid identity blossomed in the fertile ground of the highlands under the green fingers of his friends: “They are the ones who cultivated me” (p. 121); “I’ve learnt everything over there” (p. 124).

His belonging to different worlds, or none at the same time, as in Giorgio Agamben’s Homo sacer, is better illustrated in the ways Jarai women would come to him in the morning to “get rid of their dreams” and for him to “set them free” (p. 131). This is, as Dournes pointed out, a privileged situation for an anthropologist whose informants (especially female ones) allowed him into the deepest recesses of their consciousness, whether motivated by trust or anxiety. For Dournes, “theoretically I was stronger” (p. 131), but for the women he was also endowed with the power to take over their burden. This is even more significant given the most beautiful and poetic book he dedicated to the Jarai woman in 1993: Forêt, femme, folie: Une traversée de l’imaginaire joraï. In this, she is the one with the magical power to transcend both the world of the living and the abode of the spirits.

The appendix is a series of original conversations between the author and Dournes. It is probably the best section of the book, and it fully brings Dournes to life. Again, French speakers will agree that it is difficult to properly render the verve of Dournes’s discourse. It is full of humor, sarcasm, and poetry at the same time. This unique snippet of conversation enables us to witness Dournes not only as an anthropologist but also as a magnificent comedian and Jarai storyteller. Dournes himself repeats it many times during his conversation with Hardy: “I am a comedian” (pp. 103, 120, 123–124); “It comes back to me and I could say it again but differently, in another way, in other circumstances” (p. 125); “I’ve learnt how to tell stories” (pp. 135–136).

It is most interesting to see how Dournes brushes off topics he is not interested in talking about. As he mentions, his main interest lies in “the culture, the techniques, the oral literature” (p. 118) and “the poetic” (p. 119). This is where meanings come from. The various short conversations about the war between 1946 and 1954, which pitted the Vietnamese against the French, are barely touched upon and considered mere “comedy” (p. 101). The word “comedy” here may not only be understood literally, that is, as a performance that intends to be humorous, but also in the sense that there is something profoundly absurd in it since there are more important things to care about such as the Jarai culture, techniques, oral literature, and poetic legends.

In the same way, Dournes teases out what is important and what is less important when pondering the Jarai economy. This is less about money than about storytellers, artists, and musicians for whom money has no place (p. 123). Some of the logic and beauty of the reasoning may strike one as overtly ideological and full of romanticism. But Dournes would probably argue that this is an ontological part of the Jarai world and Drit, its Jarai hero, is the epitome of eternal hope and romance. As a result, the economy of the local practice of slash and burn is remarkable in the simplicity of its logic and rationale (p. 125).

In unique ways some of Dournes’s arguments demonstrate his anarchic views on politics and economics, even while they simultaneously show how his way of reasoning is also deeply anarchic. As the anthropologist puts it when referring to the Quête du Saint Graale, the Chanson de Roland, and Tristan and Iseult, “It is pure creation and creation is free by definition” (p. 119) and “I am anti-economist the same way as I am an anarchist” (p. 120). (It should be noted that the sentence at the bottom of page 121 has a verb missing; the sentence should read: “on est libre.”)

This book brings together different vistas that help us comprehend the complex personality of Jacques Dournes, from his seminal text Pötao, une théorie du pouvoir chez les Indochinois jörai to his scholarly place within the more mainstream ethnographic milieu in France, and to a live performance showcasing his comedic skills and the extent of his creative, improvising, and lyrical mind. Dournes was a man deeply charmed by Jarai culture. His vast and prolific corpus, ranging from the linguistic to the botanical, remains unique in the anthropology of the highlands. His books reveal a mind that is rigorous yet imaginative, rational yet poetic, possessing a writing style that makes him one of the best storytellers, poets, and linguistic musicians of the Jarai. There is no other way to better understand Dournes and the people he worked with than to roll up one’s trousers and follow him on the muddy trail of this ethnographic journey.

Krisna Uk
Center for Khmer Studies


Dournes, Jacques. 1987. Florilège jörai. Paris: Sudestasie.


Vol. 5, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Sean FEAR

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968

Nha Ca. Translated with an Introduction by Olga Dror
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014, 378p.

Literary fiction has long provided some of the most evocative images of warfare, and the struggle for Vietnam is no exception. Indeed, many of the more lasting popular impressions of the Vietnam conflict have been shaped by successive iconic novels. The emergence of a Vietnam War literary canon has echoed trends in English-language scholarship on the war, with early classics like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) or Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1978) sharing contemporaneous scholars’ focus on American policies and experiences. A more recent historical interest in exploring the communist so-called “other side” of the conflict has seen such works increasingly accompanied on Vietnam War syllabi by translated Vietnamese novels like Bảo Ninh’s The Sorrow of War (1993) or Dương Thu Hương’s Novel without a Name (1995). Notably under-represented in both English-language fiction and scholarship, however, are voices from the non-communist South. Indeed, for all the dozens of volumes published each year on the Vietnam War, there is still no basic political history of South Vietnam after American escalation in 1965.

All of which makes Olga Dror’s translation of Nhã Ca’s 1968 Mourning Headband for Hue such an important and welcome contribution. Combining memoir, journalism, vivid anecdotes, and incisive analysis, Nhã Ca’s novel illuminates non-partisan civilian experiences of the conflict, recounting the enormous suffering imposed by all warring parties on the city of Huế during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The author’s riveting and relentless account is propelled by her considerable literary skill. Adroit employment of modernist techniques, from multiple interwoven perspectives to a non-linear timeline, creates a deliberately jarring and disjointed narrative, animating the sense of uncertainty and utter panic among the city’s desperate inhabitants. Adding to the intensity is the translator’s use of the original 1969 edition, written when emotions and memories were more immediate and raw. Beyond merely an informative first-hand account of a critical if still relatively obscure episode in the Vietnam War, Mourning Headband for Hue is an impressive literary achievement, holding its own in the pantheon of classic wartime literature.

Trần Thị Thu Vân, better known to readers by the pen name Nhã Ca, is one of South Vietnam’s more accomplished authors, acclaimed for her novels, poetry, and journalism. She contributed to a burgeoning Saigon print media scene, which flourished despite recurring if inept censorship, and whose insights are still largely neglected in English-language studies of the war. Mourning Headband for Hue, her most celebrated work, begins shortly before Tết, the Vietnamese lunar New Year, when Nhã Ca returns to the Central Vietnamese city of Huế to attend her father’s funeral. Her homecoming is interrupted in the middle of the night by the first sounds of gunfire from approaching communist troops, and after a grenade detonates on the roof of her ancestral home, the family is forced to flee. What follows is a desperate, harrowing scramble for cover from both the advancing communists and the indiscriminate American firepower that accompanies their progress. Arriving at a nearby church, the family takes shelter with hundreds of starving, panicked refugees, including, unforgettably, a woman unable to acknowledge that child she cares for has died until after the stench grows overwhelming.

When the church is engulfed in the crossfire, Nhã Ca and her family make another narrow escape. Exhausted, hungry, and under constant fire, they traverse the city for sanctuary before approaching a nearby American airbase, where they finally find respite from the relentless bombardment at its source. Later, returning home to a city strewn with corpses, where the traditional white headbands worn by grieving Vietnamese have become ubiquitous, the author reflects on the futility of the violence: “I am surprised when I think why all the artillery from America, from Russia, from Czechoslovakia suddenly lands in the hands of North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese to pour down on a small city that is as good-natured as is the city of Hue . . . tearing into pieces its innocent flesh . . . oh life . . . why must life still go on?” (p. 233).

All the while, news from communist-occupied quarters trickles through in the form of speculation and rumor, reinforcing a sense of confusion and upheaval for the novel’s protagonists and readers alike. Having escaped to the relative safety of an American-controlled zone, Nhã Ca here adopts the perspective of eyewitnesses to what devolved into one of the more deplorable events in a vicious war—the 1968 communist massacre at Huế. Encountering communist forces for the first time, the reader may be struck by their organization and discipline, a marked contrast to the novel’s trigger-happy Americans and brutish South Vietnamese militia, who desert at the first hint of combat and return only to loot traumatized civilians of their belongings. Equally notable is the prominence of female cadres, who go door-to-door assuring frightened homeowners that “we certainly are people’s friends” (p. 113). Taking care to extend the scant courtesy of euphemism, the communists solicit “contributions,” “temporarily borrowing” scarce provisions in exchange for notes of credit, and recruiting youth “volunteers.” Residents, meanwhile, are introduced to communist ideology and interpretations of the war at neighborhood study sessions.

Initially, the communists’ orderly comportment comes as welcome relief from the turbulence. “The first several days,” one observer recalls, “are very joyful” (p. 194). But before long, rumors of hastily-arranged show trials followed by on-the-spot executions begin to surface. Local children are marched into the mountains for training, never to return, while long-vanished townspeople suddenly reappear, transformed into vengeful zealots. One-time street-vendors, taxi-drivers, and even town drunks are revealed as sleeper agents eager to settle old scores. Ultimately, it is precisely their ruthless efficacy which Nhã Ca’s contemporaries come to fear most about the communist forces. And as their enemies slowly but surely advance, the communists’ discipline breaks down, with arrests and executions becoming more frequent, arbitrary, and wanton. Only gradually does the enormity of the horror become apparent to Nhã Ca and her readers. By late 1969, some 2,800 thousand bodies had been exhumed from mass graves (p. xxxi).

Although central to energetic if not particularly effective South Vietnamese propaganda campaigns, events in Huế made little impact in the United States, overshadowed by the broader impact of the Tet Offensive, President Johnson’s shock withdrawal from re-election, a series of high-profile assassinations, and, not least of all, the American Mỹ Lại massacre. Nonetheless, the carnage in Huế saw debates erupt between pro- and anti-war camps over the scope and purpose of massacre. Here the introduction provided by translator Olga Dror, a history professor at Texas A&M University, proves especially insightful. Dror provides a lucid and concise overview of the ensuing controversy, both in the United States, and, notably, among pro- and anti-communist Vietnamese-language commenters. A valuable scholarly contribution in its own right, the piece also details the political fallout of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, adding context which heightens the novel’s historical significance. While virtually all South Vietnamese cities and towns were subject to communist attack, the destruction of Huế, a former capital, was especially poignant given its unique historical and cultural importance as a locus of scholarship, arts, and cuisine. The shock of the Tet Offensive also had an unprecedented if fleeting rallying effect on anti-communist South Vietnamese, who suspended political, regional, and religious animosities for the sake of unity, only to resume their quarreling after the spectre of impending violence waned. A substantial military failure, the Tet Offensive also exposed tensions between its Hanoi-based architects and the southern cadres who bore the brunt of the casualties. Forced to regroup, the Vietnamese communists opted to prioritise political organization ahead of military confrontation, helping the Saigon government stage a qualified recovery in the countryside. Less appreciated but equally decisive, the Huế massacre forever disabused the insurgent Central Vietnamese Ắn Quang Buddhist movement of the notion that it could prosper under communist rule.

But for all the political import of the events she describes, Nhã Ca takes a decidedly non-partisan stance on the proceedings. Instead, Mourning Headband for Hue elegizes the city and its people, set upon by successive indifferent aggressors, Vietnamese and foreign. Võ Thành Minh, a renowned anti-colonialist poet, is one of the novel’s more symbolic characters, targeted by communist cadres for refusing to attend their neighbourhood gatherings. “I am against both Americans and Communists,” he declares, defiantly if quixotically encamped in his cellar writing letters to Hồ Chí Minh and President Johnson demanding that they stop the war (p. 126). Nhã Ca’s sister Oanh explains that Võ Thành Minh also “decided to appeal to young people and students to go down to sit under the bridge on a hunger strike to oppose.” “Oppose who?” someone inquires. “Oppose the war, which is inhuman and atrocious,” Oanh replies; “There is no justice in war whatsoever” (p. 128). An avatar of decency and the transcendence of dialogue above partisan violence, Võ Thành Minh, we learn from Dror’s footnotes, was later killed while assisting civilian victims. Elsewhere, the book describes a stray dog wounded by American gunfire and knocked into a river by the blow. The soldiers torment it by firing into the water, preventing it from swimming to the shore. Amid much laughter, the exhausted animal eventually succumbs to the current. Contemplating the metaphorical significance of their cruelty, Nhã Ca considers hurling at stone at the soldiers. “But no,” she finally decides; “what will the stone achieve?” (p. 268).

A paean to the common humanity that the war seemed destined to destroy, Nhã Ca’s plea for peace and mutual compassion challenged the crude binary platforms that both rival combatants sought to instill. Accordingly, like many fellow South Vietnamese intellectuals, she suffered the unfortunate fate of political imprisonment at the hands of both the South Vietnamese military government and its communist successors. A 1973 film adaptation of Mourning Headband for Hue was likewise banned on both sides of the North-South demarcation line. With the war’s belligerent parties all worthy of censure for outrages in Huế and beyond, the book shows little interest in reductive moralizing or apportioning specific blame. Instead, Nhã Ca writes, “our generation, the generation that likes to use the most beautiful and showy words: not only must we tie a mourning headband for Huế and for our homeland, which are being destroyed, but we must also take responsibility for Huế and our homeland” (p. 10). This, Dror explains, proved a controversial proposition among Nhã Ca’s contemporaries, to say the least, with many South Vietnamese readers disappointed by her reluctance to single out the communists. But it is precisely this audacious restraint which makes the novel so remarkable, both during the heat of the war and for readers of any background today. A work of great historical and literary value ideal for use in the classroom, Mourning Headband for Hue highlights overlooked voices and facets of the Vietnam War, meriting inclusion among the classics of wartime fiction.

Sean Fear
Department of History, Cornell University


Bao Ninh. 1993. The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. Translated by Phan Thanh Hao and edited by Frank Palmos. London: Secker & Warburg.

Duong Thu Huong. 1995. Novel without a Name. Translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. New York: William Morrow.

Herr, Michael. 1978. Dispatches. New York: Knopf.

O’Brien, Tim. 1990. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence.


Vol. 5, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Anne RAFFIN

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Embodied Nation: Sport, Masculinity, and the Making of Modern Laos
Simon Creak
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015, xvi+337p.

This book is a welcome addition to the literature on an under-studied country, Laos, on an also under-studied topic, sport in relation to nationalism and masculinity.

Before looking at the evolution of sport and masculinity from a chronological perspective, Simon Creak reviews in the Introduction numerous theories and concepts related to physicality and masculinity—from Ana Maria Alonso’s idea that physical practice strengthens national consciousness to Clifford Geertz’s view of power in a theatre state exercised through spectacle, for instance—as a means to present his overall argument that sport is the most significant “means of substantializing notions of the body, masculinity, and the nation in modern societies” (p. 12), since at the center of the book is empire building, nation making, and socialist construction.

The first chapter discusses the case study of the indigenous game tikki, which resembles field hockey, and how French travelers’ accounts transformed the game into a crucial element of what it meant to be “truly” Lao. Such accounts served the French colonial state’s aim to differentiate the Lao territories and people from Siam and the Siamese. Indeed, the traveler-writers, young Lao researchers, and École française d’Extrême-Orient scholars Paul Lévy and Charles Archiambault, by writing about tikki as a tradition and ritual, helped in creating “an idea of Laos, justifying its constitution as a French colony and later as a distinct and independent nation” (p. 50).

Advancing through the French colonial period, chapter 2 presents the Vichy-era Lao Nhay cultural renovation movement (1941–45). While reading this chapter I discovered that it was built as a critique of my own work on the Lao Nhay movement and sports in Laos during the Vichy era (Raffin, 2005). The author contests my argument that sport development was secondary to the promotion of the Lao Nhay movement, whose function was to nurture a cultural and linguistic nationalism in response to the threat of Thai irredentism in Laos. Creak contends that both were important and “complemented one another” (p. 53). Although rightfully underlining that I did not look at Lao-language sources, his own argument is based mostly on French sources. Adding a few examples from Lao-language sources on sport, a Lao-language novel by P. S. Nginn (who was a Lao Nhay member), a short excerpt of the memoir of Governor Jean Decoux stating that “I decided to rely on Sports-Youth activities in this country to launch ‘le movement lao’” (p. 66), and mentioning the creation of sport clubs without talking about their activities, membership, etc. does not provide enough evidence to convince me that the colonial state’s politics at the time promoted both sport and the Lao Nhay movement on an equal footing and that subsequently the Lao Nhay movement was “as much a physical awakening as it was a mental or cultural one in Laos, too” (p. 64).

Overall, through this chapter the author stresses how the male body was the primary agent of Philippe Pétain’s National Revolution in the metropole and in Indochina, and how racial and right-wing ideologies as well as militarism shaped sport policies in Indochina. Such a militarization of society was carried out in the 1950s, with the National Youth and Physical Education Cadre School, or ENCJEP, being molded after the Vichy-era schools in Phan Thiet and Vientiane (p. 95).

This leads to chapter 3, which discusses the militarization of masculinity in independent Laos during the 1950s. Projects are usually not carried out in a vacuum; hence, the sport policies of the 1950s show quite a few continuities with the World War II period, from the military-style choreography of human bodies to adapted Vichy-era uniforms for ENCJEP instructors and trainees and the use of the “natural method” for trainee parachutists. At the same time, the rapid militarization of Lao society not only offered many new career opportunities for males but also produced new ideas of what it meant to be a Lao man. The masculine ideal of the body was defined around “its size, strength, and solidarity with others” and in opposition to the female body as the “preserver of customs and culture” (p. 87). Moreover, the militarized male body was depicted as a positive symbol of modernity.

Chapter 4 provides a snapshot of the 1960s National Games, which ended in 1964 with Major General Phoumi Nosavan’s loss of power. The National Games in Laos are analyzed using the concept of theatrics of power as a means to show how the Games were a tool for Phoumi Nosavan to display his power. Despite political divisions, national unity was the principal theme of the Games, which were intended “to assemble the nation in the National Stadium, a metaphor of national desire, the nation-in-miniature, and to project an image of Phoumi as national statesman par excellence” (p. 126).

Within the context of the Cold War, not only internal but also regional divisions impacted the sporting scene in Laos. Chapter 5 argues that the sporting relations established by the Communist and non-Communist cliques underlined how regional dynamics influenced the globalized sporting culture in Laos. Laos’s participation in the South East Asia Peninsular (SEAP) Games from 1959 to 1975 was shaped by regional politics, as both geographical and ideological criteria were conditions of membership. What constituted the authentic Lao nation was at stake as the Royal Lao Government viewed Communism and Northern Vietnam as a threat to Laos and its culture and subsequently supported the SEAP Games’ principles of non-Communist solidarity. In contrast, the Communist Neo Lao Hak Sat, also claiming to represent the authentic Laos, participated in a competing regional sporting club, the GANEFO (Game of the New Emerging Forces), which professed a position of non-alignment and was welcomed by many Communist-bloc countries.

Another important historical turning point was the creation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in December 1975. Chapters 6 and 7 present the heavy involvement of Communist countries when it came to physical education in Laos under the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. With Laos being a typical socialist country, the state’s rhetoric was focused on building a “new socialist person” through, among other measures, building a mass sport and physical culture. Looking also at the performative dimension of mass mobilization, Creak stresses how enjoyment was the key component of spectator sports for propping socialism. The press and various reports from the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Religious Affairs were full of language emphasizing a “lively,” “enjoyable,” “fun” atmosphere as a means to build a positive attitude toward the revolution and the Party in the context of poverty and hardship. Sport was not only a means to increase domestic legitimacy and international prestige but also a way to boost socialist friendships, such as by Laos participating for the first time in the Olympic Games held in Moscow in 1980.

The book ends with the Vientiane Games in 2009—the 25th Southeast Asian Games—and the glory and outburst of national pride they fostered. Still, success on the field did not change reality, since in the end one of the big winners was the authoritarian regime of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which tolerated no dissent. In parallel, the author brings up the issue of Laos’s financial dependence on China for help with hosting the event, what he calls “Lao-style development” (p. 235)—depending on foreign donors and investment—and how sports provided an avenue for Laos to express its love-hate relationship with Thailand and its complex relationship with Vietnam.

While Creak’s work is commendable for offering more than a historical account of the development of sport in Laos by using various theoretical frameworks in order to grasp this evolution, some of the theoretical analyses could be more fully developed through the use of examples. For instance, underlining Jan Gross’ point regarding propaganda under socialist regimes where the distinction between “naming and judging” is erased (p.171), a precise example within the Laotian context to support this point would have benefited his analysis.

Notwithstanding the above, Creak has collected many sources, which allows him to present a rich account of various issues in relation to sport in Laos. Thus, this is an important book for people interested in ideologies and state building in Laos over time from the vantage point of sport and physical education.

Anne Raffin
Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore


Raffin, Anne. 2005. Youth Mobilization in Vichy Indochina and Its Legacies, 1940 to 1970. Oxford: Lexington Books.


Vol. 5, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Ashley WRIGHT

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

The Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi
Nilanjana Sengupta
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 407p.

The female voice of the title of Nilanjana Sengupta’s book belongs to four twentieth century women writers and activists: Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar, Ma Thida, and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi traces the course of each of these women’s lives and works, identifying the democracy movement of 1988 as the point at which their four stories converge. Sengupta’s juxtaposition of these four narratives illuminates the changing political landscape of twentieth century Myanmar from a specifically female perspective.

Sengupta opens her analysis with the story of Supaya-Lat, the last queen of independent Burma. Supaya-Lat was villainized by the generations who came after her as an ambitious and ruthless woman, blamed for the British conquest. She became a frequently invoked example of the catastrophic consequences of undue female influence. By placing this story at the start of her analysis, Sengupta emphasizes the gendered challenges that have existed for any woman in Myanmar who chooses to work actively for political change. The recurring question of how women can negotiate the fraught realm of politics is one of the threads that Sengupta uses to bind together her narrative.

Dividing her work into four main chapters, each devoted to one woman, Sengupta draws extensively on each of these women’s published writings in English and Burmese. Writing about women whose life stories at times overlapped in time and space, she also identifies parallels and connections in the way that these women wrote about and experienced gender politics and national politics. This work is a hybrid: literary biography and political analysis. While the title may suggest that this work is a broad survey of twentieth century Burmese women’s writing, this is not the case. Sengupta’s exploration is finely focused and richly detailed.

The first chapter focuses on Khin Myo Chit, born in 1915 when Burma was still under British rule. In her description of Khin Myo Chit’s childhood, Sengupta introduces one of the themes that will recur throughout the book: the challenges facing women who deviated from prescribed feminine expectations. Khin Myo Chit is described as a girl who “picked up boyish habits to survive in a male-dominated world” (p. 17). She was driven to seek a secondary education, leaving her family’s home near Mandalay for Rangoon University in 1933. There she joined the emerging student nationalist movement, and carved out a niche for herself writing for various magazines and papers, though she found her choice of subject matter somewhat constrained by her gender. Khin Myo Chit’s involvement with nationalist politics continued during the Second World War and the Japanese occupation of Burma. Her literary career straddled the colonial and postcolonial eras, and after the military coup of 1962, she wrote for the government paper Working People’s Daily, walking what Sengupta describes as a “tightrope” in the face of enhanced government press scrutiny. Khin Myo Chit deployed wit and irony to indirectly express her criticism of an increasingly repressive government regime. When her association with Working People’s Daily ended in 1968, she continued to write, exploring Burmese history and culture in fiction and non-fiction. She was particularly interested in the role of women in society: she translated a selection of English-language essays on the subject that would be published posthumously in 2006. Khin Myo Chit advocated for democracy in the revolution of 1988, and in the last decade of her life her path intersected with Aung San Suu Kyi, whom she hosted after her first release from house arrest.

Born in the same year as Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar also attended Rangoon University, and joined the nationalist movement. Her husband, U Hlaw, founded the Ludu Paper in 1946 to represent the viewpoint of the unified voice of the Burmese nationalist movement—the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. The paper survived the fracturing of the AFPFL, and would remain an independent, critical voice in the political tumult that succeeded independence. When her husband was imprisoned for sedition in 1953, Ludu Daw Amar kept the paper going, writing the editorials. She succeeded in keeping the paper alive until 1967, upon which time she was forced to write increasingly apolitical pieces in the face of government surveillance. Like Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar addressed issues of gender in her later writings, grappling with the changes that modernity was bringing to norms of feminine behavior in Myanmar. In 1988 she once again turned to political writing, founding the short-lived 8888 Paper, to serve as the voice of the revitalized Burmese nationalist movement.

There is a generational gap between Khin Myo Chit and Ludu Daw Amar and the next subject of Sengupta’s book, Ma Thida, who was born in 1966 after the military coup. From a family of mixed Chinese, Burman or Bamar, Mon, and Shan descent, Sengupta describes Ma Thida’s life as being “a series of conscious and subliminal attempts at finding her true self” (p. 162). The sense of alienation that Ma Thida felt growing up “trapped in surroundings which induced ethical compromise” found at first oblique expression in her short fiction (p. 177), and direct expression in her political activism. Ma Thida participated in demonstrations for the democracy movement in 1988, and campaigned with Aung San Suu Kyi in the fall of that year. She was imprisoned for her political activism in 1993, and not released until 1999. She continues to work actively for democracy in Myanmar.

The last chapter of Sengupta’s book is devoted to Aung San Suu Kyi. Sengupta frames the chapter by discussing Aung San Suu Kyi’s controversial 2013 decision to support the Letpadaung copper mine, and uses it as the starting point for a portraying her as a pragmatic leader in many different ways. In this section, Sengupta interweaves the development of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political thought, analyzing the importance of her connection to her father Aung San, with a biographical narrative. Sengupta is particularly interested in the parallels and connections between the political philosophies of Aung San Suu Kyi and Gandhi. As with each of the other women she writes about, Sengupta analyzes the significance of gender in delineating the territory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership. The opposition portrayed her as “a sort of new-age Supaya-Lat” (p. 323), while, Sengupta writes Aung San Suu Kyi’s image is also “tethered to one of the most powerful female stereotypes of Burmese cultural tradition—amay or mother” (p. 324).

Sengupta’s blend of literary, biographical, and political analysis is often fascinating, and the research that supports her analysis is thorough. If this book has a weakness, it is in the organization, which is not always clear. In the first chapter for example, Sengupta narrates Khin Myo Chit’s youth in the 1920s and entrance into nationalist politics in the 1930s, setting her involvement in historical context. She brings the narrative up to the Second World War, and the abruptly returns to the 1920s in the next section, to discuss Gandhi’s influence on Burmese politics. Overall, however, this is a minor flaw, and this book is a significant scholarly achievement that will be of interest to scholars of Myanmar and of gender in twentieth century Southeast Asia.

Ashley Wright
History Department, Washington State University


Vol. 5, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, YOW Cheun Hoe

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Remembering the Samsui Women: Migration and Social Memory in Singapore and China
Kelvin E. Y. Low
Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014, xiv+252p.

The term “Samsui” refers to a specific location in the Pearl River Delta region in Guangdong province, the southern part of China, where many members of the Chinese diaspora trace their ancestral homelands. While the geographic benchmark is certain, the history of Samsui women is open to interpretation and representation from many angles. On the one hand, it is a matter of fact that a significant number of women migrated from that particular place to work in Singapore, largely in the construction industry and to a lesser extent in households and factories. On the other hand, this migration is a subject of imagination and deliberation as to who should be included under the category “Samsui Women” and the kinds of roles they have assumed in relations to Singapore and China. There were women, who hailed from elsewhere in China, taking advantage of the label of “Samsui” in order to gain access to job markers where “Samsui” was a niche. Also, there have been various state projects focusing on Samsui women and their contribution to shaping identities of Singapore as nation.

This book is laudable research on how issues and discourses have been revolving around Samsui women. The author, Kelvin E. Y. Low, is a sociologist at the National University of Singapore. He has succeeded in meeting the objective he sets in the book, revealing the experiences of Samsui women and arguing that “the many reconstructions of their past are utilized by the state, other institutions, and stakeholders towards achieving vested interests in the promotion and maintenance of a national identity” (p. 7).

The primary sources Low has collected are rich, including interviews with Samsui women, documentaries, art works, and events. To uncover what forces determined the telling of stories and the representation of images concerning Samsui women, he has appropriated concepts of “history” and “memory” as social reconstruction, national identity, and personal narrative. The presentation of findings and discussions are soundly laid out in six chapters: “Chinese Migration and Entangled Histories,” “Politics of Memory Making,” “Local and Transnational Entanglements,” “From China to Singapore,” “Beyond Working Lives,” and “ Samsui Women, Ma Cheh, and Other Foreign Workers.”

Chapter 1 is an introduction to the subject matter and argument, with a succinct account of the historical backdrop against which various waves and types of migrants made their way to Singapore. Low rightfully reveals the interconnectedness of different sets of networks as well as different spaces of locations spanning China and Southeast Asia, in what he argued as a stunning case of “entangled history.” The pictures are variegated and complicated, but Low makes it clear that at the intersections between British expansion and Chinese migration, the decline of silk industry and anti-marriage practices in Guangdong led to the migration of Samsui women to Singapore, thus adding a distinctive female layer to the political and social settings.

Chapters 2 to 6 are in-depth examinations of Samsui women from multiple angles. In Chapter 2, Low shows how Singapore as a new nation-state has crafted its reproduction of history and memory whereby Samsui women have been portrayed as “Chinese migrant women,” “pioneers,” “feminists,” and “elderly women” to meet both the national engineering and social imagination for what kind of heritage has been established in Singapore.

Chapter 3 draws on media reports to trace how identities and images have been formed of Samsui women in terms of both state and ground-level memories. The finding is that they are remembered the same way in both Singapore and China, through three motifs—pioneerhood, issues of longevity, and women retiring to elderly homes in China. Low sharply points out that “in instances (Singapore and China), the experiences and biographical trajectories of the women provide an apt source of history and memory from which the vocabulary of a moral meta-narrative has been generated and disseminated” (p. 106).

Chapters 4 and 5 are an account and examination of the lived experiences of Samsui women, drawing on interviews with them and their kin as well as oral histories and other media sources. In particular, Chapter 4 features personal narratives of Samsui women and focuses on their migration trajectories from China to Singapore. It is clear from these accounts that, in one way or another, Samsui women are different among themselves and also different from the official discourses in terms of migration trajectories, attachments to their fellows, and identification with hometowns and nations. Chapter 5 goes beyond the individual subjectivities of Samsui women to examine their kin networks and their own social circles. The purpose of these two chapters, in Low’s own words, is to argue that “whereas instances of hardship are useful memory materials that both carry and reproduce romanticized parts, the narratives here recount hardships are personal struggles involving constant negotiation, contestation, perseverance . . . that often go unnoticed or become glorified as important historical issues” (p. 146).

Chapter 6 compares and contrasts Samsui women with other groups of immigrants in Singapore, such as Ma Cheh, who were female domestic workers who, like Samsui women disappeared over time, and present-day workers, who are largely male and originate from South Asia and China. There are good reasons for this comparative study as it provides a better understanding of how the boundaries have been redrawn constantly to include or exclude certain groups and members in order to achieve national goals and social norms.

In fact, everything and everyone in history are subject to rewriting for a gamut of reasons. Thus, it is just appropriate when Low in his “conclusion” asserts that “the social memory and historiography of the Samsui women are social constructions of the past in which memory and history undergo alteration, reappropriation, and instrumentalization by different social actors through a variety of means and through different goals. Such constructions are forms of knowledge that serve as an anchor for both individual and group identities in shaping belonging” (p. 207).

In short, this book is empirically rich and theoretically intriguing. It is worth recommending to those who are interested in gendered migration and social memory in national history.

Yow Cheun Hoe 游俊豪
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University


Vol. 5, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, Mahmood KOORIA

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 



Women and Sharia Law in Northern Indonesia: Local Women’s NGOs and the Reform of Islamic Law in Aceh
Dina Afrianty
London and New York: Routledge, 2015, viii+194p.

One of the earliest Islamic legal texts available to us from the Malay world was written in Aceh at the request of its female ruler: Mirʾāt al-ṭullāb fī tashīl maʿrifat al-akām al-sharʿiyyat lī malik al-wahhāb of ʿAbd al-Raʾūf al-Sinkilī (d. 1693) commissioned by the contemporary sultana Ṣafiyat al-Dīn Tāj al-ʿālam (r. 1641–75). The book and its author, as well as the sultana, have been enjoying a memorable position in the historical memory of Aceh, appealing equally to its learned and unlearned classes. In present-day Aceh, Sharia law has generated much debate for almost last two decades especially with regards to the “oppressive” attitude of Islamic law towards the women, and one might wonder why a female ruler should ask a member of her religious elite to write a book about “oppressive” Sharia law. Although the answer might be a concern of historical enquires, the book under review gives an answer through ethnographical research. A rather provocative answer comes from a reputed pious activist at Banda Aceh who says: “There is something about the Acehnese that connects us with sharia and the people from outside Aceh will never be able to understand that connection.” Putting to one side any judgment, the book does try to understand the connection in a fascinating way.

Dina Afrianty’s Women and Sharia Law in Northern Indonesia: Local Women’s NGOs and the Reform of Islamic Law in Aceh conveys the nuances of women’s lives under Sharia law. One of the major contributions of the book is implicit in its title itself: Aceh’s differentiation between Sharia law and Islamic law, which might sound synonymous at a first glance. But Afrianty substantiates how both should be understood differently. Taking cue from the earlier arguments of Hooker (1983), Mir-Hosseini (2006), and others on the division between Islam and its law, she tells us how the Acehnese distinguish between the sharia as divine law based on such foundational scriptures as Quran and Hadith, and the Islamic law implemented as Qanuns. The latter is only a “Fiqh of Aceh,” which is “a product of Acehnese ʿulamāʾ’s interpretation of Islamic scriptures that is then used by politicians” (p. 78). It would have been even more insightful if the author had elaborated on this division and its conceptualization by local women activists in the following chapters.

Based on her six-months of fieldwork in Banda Aceh (the capital city of Aceh Province, north-western Indonesia), Afrianty investigates the responses of Acehnese women towards the implementation of Islamic law, the roles of their indigenous identity and local culture, and most importantly, the ways in which “religious Acehnese women activists reconcile their understanding of gender, equality, women’s rights with those of Western/international values” (p. 3). Afrianty conducted interviews, attended seminars and workshops, and utilized archival materials and the book is composed of five chapters (including one case-study), together with an introduction, conclusion, and a postscript.

In the first chapter titled “Women’s Movements in Muslim Societies,” Afrianty contextualizes her work within three broader concerns: the existing literature on the Muslim women’s movements across the Islamic world, their encounters with Sharia and Islamic law, and their collective attempts to engage with Islamic law that often resulted in “Islamic feminism.” She argues that since Muslim female intellectuals and activists understood gender inequality and repression towards Muslim women as deriving from the misuse and misinterpretation of scriptures by male rulers and religious elites, they turned towards the original scriptures to reinterpret those while being more sensitive to gender equality and women’s rights. This global movement has influenced Southeast Asia too, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia. Towards the end of the chapter, Afrianty focuses on Indonesian Muslim women’s initiatives, which resulted to the birth of individual and collective attempts strongly expressing the “need for a contextualized interpretation of Islamic texts” (p. 42). In this broader picture, Aceh gets only a passing reference, but she takes up that in the next chapter.

Chapter two, “Women and the Implementation of Islamic Law in Aceh,” explains how Sharia was formalized and institutionalized in Aceh, and how Acehnese people perceive it. The author demonstrates the varied responses among people towards implementation of Islamic law, and almost all of them criticize the failures in execution processes. The majority believes that this is not a problem of sharia as such and it is not a rejection of Islamic law; rather, it is a critical engagement with the ways and modes in which the law has been articulated and implemented. The former chairman of the Office of Islamic Sharia, Professor Alyasa Abubakr, admits that there are “weaknesses and mistakes” in the drafting, enactment, and implementation of Qanun (p. 80) and he hopes to rectify these in the future for a better implementation of Islamic law. His viewpoint reflects the stance of many Muslim women activists, who do not completely reject Islamic law totally, but only resent the discriminatory characteristics of existing legal code(s). This argument stands in line with what Michael Feener (2013) has demonstrated, as Sharia law in Aceh aims at the larger social wellbeing of its people, despite having many problems in its implementation.1)

Although the chapter claims to focus on women with regard to Islamic law, the impacts on women as such do not stand out in its argument or articulations. On the contrary, it only shows in effect how new laws have affected both men and women (as Afrianty aims to demonstrate “discriminatory Qanun” through the example of caning). Those who violate the regulations governing Muslim clothing, Friday prayer for men (both Qanun No. 11/2002), and khalwat or “close proximity of opposite sex who are not clearly related” (p. 71) (Qanun No. 14/2003) are to be punished by caning. In all the violations except Friday prayer, both men and women are to be caned and we do not see a clear discrimination between the genders here. Dressing would have been a possible realm for women’s issue to stand out, but then the author says: “. . . no women have been reportedly caned” on this issue (p. 74). Thus, discrimination appears to be more of a class issue in which the poor are targeted, and an attack on gender is less obvious with regard to the caning or the aforesaid Qanun. At least, its negative impacts on women’s social, religious, and economic lives have not been pushed to the front. However, the author’s own bad experience at the Grand Baiturrahman Mosque (a young man holding rattan cane prevented her from entering the mosque for wearing pants) indeed sheds light on the problem of patriarchal Islamic societies in general and Acehnese community. In particular, this episode shows “how some men consider that they have absolute authority to judge women’s religiosity” (p. 78).

The following three chapters focus more on women in Aceh and their individual and collective attempts to engage with women’s issues over the last two decades. Chapter three, “Gender and Women’s Movements in Aceh,” draws close attention to historical aspects, especially the political, economic, and religious backgrounds that have compelled a few Muslim women to extend helping hands to their neglected sisters in the community. Afrianty enlightens us on how Acehnese Muslim women enjoyed “high status” and “respected positions” in society, thanks to the matrifocal ‘ādāt (customs) that facilitated social, economic, and even religious empowerment. But these were drastically interrupted through constant military conflicts and the Tsunami of 2004. During such critical situations, only a few women were able to initiate projects to address women’s issue. After the Tsunami and conflict, however, there have been more local, national, and international initiatives. The chapter hardly discusses legal issues (save a fewer passing references), let alone Islamic legal aspects. Also, it does not explain the abrupt transition, if any at all, from the matrifocal ‘ādāt to the author’s taken-for-granted idea of contemporary Aceh where patriarchal Islamic law and socio-cultural norms arguably dominate.2)

The fourth and fifth chapters are dedicated to three women’s movement
s: Women’s Network for Policy (Jaringan Perempuan untuk Kebijakan, JPUK) and Gender Working Group (GWG) in the fourth, and True Partner of Indonesian Women (Mitra Sejati Perampuan Indonesia, MISPI) exclusively in the fifth. The JPUK focuses on policies and legislations, and it has been successful in bringing in a few radical amendments to the drafts of Qanun. It has also worked towards ensuring that the women’s gender interests are not ignored and they are not discriminated in the Qanuns. GWG has seemingly functioned as an “‘extension of bureaucracy,” and a bureaucrat herself has casted doubts on “the level of commitment of women activists to the cause of women’s movements when it was under the government apparatus” (p. 129). Nevertheless, GWG has been organizing quite a number of events while being “extra cautious” about the resistance they have had to face while disseminating ideas such as gender equality. The main resistance has been from the traditional scholars (ʿulamāʾ) and religious educational centers (dayah) which had more appeal among villagers in Aceh. Yet, its activists aim to show that terms like “gender” or “feminism” need not be controversial because of their Western-ness or foreign-ness; instead these are “no different to ‘burgers,’ ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’ or ‘Pizza Hut,’ all Western products that have increasingly become popular in Aceh” (p. 134). On the other hand, MISPI’s initiatives towards the promotion of gender equality and women’s status have found almost no resistance from the traditional religious community. It has attained wider acceptability among both government officials and religious leaders due to the traditional notions of piety it maintains in its leaders’ and members’ activities and appearances.

The book, as the author herself admits, is very much centered on urban women activists hailing from the middle and upper classes of Banda Aceh. It hardly goes beyond the city, save for a few fleeting references. Many women working within the Islamic-legal frameworks, like the female ʿulamāʾ and women sharia-police do not get due reference in the book. After reading this book, one might wonder if the academic focus on the lives of Muslim women is now moving from mosques (Mahmood 2005) to women’s NGO offices. The everyday lives of Muslim women from lower classes and unprivileged backgrounds still await attention. Nevertheless, it is quite intriguing to see how the women activists work with, under, against, and for the implementation of an Islamic legal system in Aceh through a number of platforms. Their collective or individual initiatives to ensure gender equality and women’s rights stand as an exemplary model for Muslim women elsewhere who are forced to live under patriarchal interpretations and implementations of Islamic law. In many such places, women are even prohibited from active participation in the public sphere and are not allowed to freely express themselves. Women’s NGOs in Aceh thus offer many models for dealing with resistance from traditional religious realms. As such, this book stands out as a good read for all those who are interested in the anthropologies of NGOs, women’s activism, Southeast Asia and Aceh, and everyday lives under Islamic law.

Mahmood Kooria
Leiden University Institute for History


Feener, R. Michael. 2013. Shariʿa and Social Engineering: The Implementation of Islamic Law in Contemporary Aceh, Indonesia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Feener, R. Michael; Kloos, David; and Samuels, Annemarie. 2015. Islam and the Limits of the State: Reconfigurations of Practice, Community and Authority in Contemporary Aceh. Leiden: Brill.

Hooker, M. B. 1983. Muhammadan Law and Islamic Law. In Islam in Southeast Asia, edited by M. B. Hooker, pp. 160–182. Leiden: Brill.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. 2006. Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality: Between Islamic Law and Feminism. Critical Inquiry 32: 629–645.

Srimulyani, Eka. 2010. Islam, Adat and the State: Matrifocality in Aceh Revisited. Al-Jamiʿah: Journal of Islamic Studies 48: 321–342.

1) It is surprising to see that the author does not refer to Feener’s book, despite it being one of the latest studies on Islamic law in Aceh. She does refer to one article he wrote on the issue, yet offers only a confusing reference (see p. 86).

2) In this regard, Srimulyani’s (2010) revisit of Acehnese matrifocal tradition and its transition into “new matrifocality” in a contemporary context is worth looking at—especially as the author does not address the arguments of this article.


Vol.5, No. 2, Ying-kit Chan

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

No Room to Swing a Cat? Animal Treatment and Urban Space in Singapore

Ying-kit Chan*

* Department of East Asian Studies, Princeton University, 211 Jones Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA

e-mail: ykchan[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.2_305

Since Singapore’s independence in 1965, the People’s Action Party government has launched an extensive urban planning program to transform the island into a modern metropolis. This paper discusses human-animal relations and the management of stray cats in postcolonial Singapore. In exploring the perceptions and handling of stray cats in Singapore, I argue that stray cats became an urban “problem” as a result of the government’s public-health regime, urban renewal projects, and attempts to fashion itself and Singapore for international tastes, and that cat activists are the main agents of rebuilding connections between animals and everyday urban life. In particular, I analyze how cat-welfare associations and individual citizens assume functions that the government has been loath to perform unless absolutely necessary.

Keywords: animal geographies, human-animal relations, cats, Singapore, urban space


Singapore, the “Garden City,” has undergone a massive program of urban reform, renewal, and resettlement since independence in 1965. The government of the People’s Action Party, which has enjoyed uninterrupted rule, dispersed the population of the overcrowded central-town district to peripheral “new towns,” which were built on land appropriated from old village communities. Through education, land reclamation, military conscription, and public housing, the government created a disciplined industrial workforce (now housed in flats built by the Housing Development Board, or HDB, and linked to factories and offices via highways) along Fordist lines, thus engineering tremendous changes in the human landscape of Singapore (Barr and Skrbis 2008; Chua 1997; Dobbs 2003; Loh 2007; Wee 2007). This massive control over space defined the postcolonial history of Singapore, whose modernity depended as much on facilitating motion as on preventing it (Netz 2004, xii).

Although historians have delineated the relationship between authoritarian rule, economic development, and social engineering in Singapore, they have been slow in integrating the work of geographers, who have addressed how landscapes, both material and immaterial, serve as cultural representations and social channels that foster and maintain the state ideologies of human progress and nation building. The government redeveloped the city center—now marked by skyscrapers and the reconstructed “racial enclaves” of Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India—to showcase Singapore’s global connectedness and historical legacies. It developed Marina Promenade and the banks of the Singapore River into a tourist attraction and up-market residential zone that appealed to expatriate executives and foreign visitors. It also created new art spaces such as the Esplanade (home to Theatres on the Bay) and renovated colonial landmarks and dilapidated shophouses to present Singapore as a vibrant arts and cultural hub worthy of admiration at home and abroad (Kong and Yeoh 2003; Chang et al. 2013; Ho et al. 2014).

In recent years, historians began to recognize the impact of the natural environment, and attempts to reconfigure it, on the economic, political, and social history of Singapore. They have established that the British colonial authorities and the postcolonial People’s Action Party government were interested not only in demolishing outdated structures and flattening the landscape but also in conserving heritage and preserving monuments and parks (including the Botanical Gardens, a new addition to UNESCO’s heritage sites as a “cultural landscape”) to promote scientific research, urban redevelopment, and the construction of a modern national identity (Barnard 2014; Blackburn and Tan 2015). Educated in English-language universities, Singapore’s leaders understood that modernization and national success emerged from urban industrial growth, as in the American and European historical experiences. To maintain economic and political legitimacy, they would need to succeed by these terms (Kwak 2008, 87–88).

Nevertheless, historians studying Singapore’s past have not picked up on animal geographies, which not only inquire into relationships between nature and society and how nature shapes human cultural practices, but also define animals as “central agents in the constitution of space and place, and all that entails” (Wolch and Emel 1998, xiii). The “power of geography” is unleashed when space constitutes, constrains, and mediates social relations. As Lily Kong and Brenda S. A. Yeoh elaborate, the power relations that define and contest the specificities of the Singaporean nation are negotiated through “elements of the cultural landscape, including the landscapes and practices of everyday life” (2003, 15). Specialists on Southeast Asia have conducted a fair amount of research on animal-welfare activism and the discursive and practical uses of animals in both colonial and postcolonial contexts. In particular, they have analyzed how wild animals such as tigers instilled fear that reshaped local practices and thrived in the popular imagination, and how domesticated animals such as horses and pigs were bred, constructed, and used (Boomgaard 2001; Bankoff and Swart 2007; Neo 2011). The humanlike orangutan, found only in Borneo and Sumatra, straddled the boundary between culture and nature, threatening the anthropocentric view of people who refused to define humans as animals (Cribb et al. 2014). In twentieth-century and modern-day Malaysia and Singapore, animal slaughter, which occurred as a result of the encroachment of residential development into animal habitats and the intervention of colonial and national laws in local cultures and trades, was revealed to be a contentious issue on moral, racial, and religious grounds (Yeo and Neo 2010; Yahaya 2015). That said, the existing scholarship on Singapore or Southeast Asia in general throws little light on human-animal relationships in specific urban settings, where human domination is absolute (animals are killed or subdued) and animals eke out a living in what is for them a “post-apocalyptic” world (Atkins 2012). As humans gain control over animals’ biological cycle (procreation, growth, and death) through culling and neutering, they also determine where (and whether) animals should live (Netz 2004, 15–16). This is especially true in cities, where humans and animals live in close proximity and have to compete for scarce living space, space that becomes “property” to which access can be limited.

By exploring the controversies surrounding human-cat relations in postcolonial Singapore, this paper examines how the People’s Action Party government, ordinary citizens, and social groups (mainly cat-welfare organizations) perceived the urban landscape, “with their own versions of reality and practice,” and perceived “conflicts over the production, definition, and use of space” (Kong and Yeoh 2003, 15). I argue that the government, which was far more interested in developing human resources than in harnessing animal ones, did not concern itself with the management of stray cats unless it received complaints or pressure from segments of the public, or unless a perceptible disease or health hazard arose from the presence of stray cats.1) In lieu of the government, which played the role of arbiter, cat lovers and haters (and self-professed neutral intermediaries voicing their opinions) collaborated with one another or counteracted one another’s actions, according to what they saw as significant at the time. The public—conventionally categorized into groups constituting civil society but actually defying any facile characterization—served as the main agents reconnecting cats with everyday life after an intensive phase of national development that alienated citizens from their ideals of and economic dependence on nature. As stray cats reemerged in the urban landscape, ordinary citizens and social groups endowed them with different meanings and came into conflict with one another over how to perceive and manage them. By acting as a neutral mediator, the government settled the differences with purportedly altruistic intent, but dominated the opposing camps as a result. Social forces gelled into fluid coalitions, but what linked them together was their concern for cats, which spawned a variety of configurations and interpretations of human-cat relations. Material and metaphorical boundaries created mental maps by demarcating urban spaces as domains of human dominance and cat subservience, but the boundaries were highly permeable and susceptible to animal transgressions (Yeo and Neo 2010, 682). Since stray cats are ubiquitous in Singapore but are seen as “out of place,” they are particularly interesting, having perhaps the greatest potential to disrupt cultural sorting systems (Holmberg 2015, 58).

This paper consists of a concise background of cats in Singapore, followed by three episodes concerning cats as pests, national symbols, and victims of cruelty. The three disparate episodes are productive because they disclose how stray cats became a problem as human-animal relations and state-society relations became spatialized owing to the government’s nation building, urban-redevelopment projects, and public-health regime.

A word is in order on the main cat-welfare activists under discussion—members of the Cat Welfare Society (CWS). The CWS was founded in 1999 by a group of volunteers concerned about the welfare of “cats living on the streets of Singapore.” It was registered as a charity in 2004. Run by volunteers, it does not receive regular funding, and most of its funds dedicated to outreach programs and cat sterilization is raised through public fundraisers and members’ donations and subscriptions. It prefers to call stray cats “community cats,” since it believes that their home is the human environment and pledges to “care for the nation’s cats.” Its main objective is “saving [cat] lives through sterilization.” It promotes the right of cats to be “represented accurately and humanely [and] be free of pain, fear, and suffering” (CWS, While some CWS members are wealthy and well-educated elite Singaporeans, membership has expanded over the years to include working-class people. It has no official patron in the government and suffers from a perennial shortage of funds (Straits Times, hereafter ST 2015). Nevertheless, by working closely with state agencies to resolve cat issues in local communities, it has considerable influence over state policies toward cats.

Roaming Singapore, 1960–80

Singapore achieved self-rule in 1959, and the People’s Action Party government perceived itself as inheriting an “environmental crisis” from the British colonial administration. Despite colonial efforts at urban planning, which were restricted to the central town, Singapore in the 1960s had one of Southeast Asia’s largest urban-slum and squatter populations, characterized by dilapidation, overcrowding, and inadequate infrastructure (Yuen 1996, 959).

As People’s Action Party rhetoric would have it, the kampongs (Malay for village) that dotted the rural landscape provided such deplorable living conditions that only a “planned programme of clearance and rebuilding” could render these settlements hospitable (Loh 2007, 8). Former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee (1973) associated colonial Singapore with “nasty things like mosquitoes, insects, snakes, and centipedes, quite apart from the likely absence of creature comforts such as running water, modern sanitation, electric power, and air conditioning,” which his government would offer to the people. A problem that Goh identified in the colonial economy was the lack of a “serious attempt to get the countryside into the grip of a dynamic modernization process,” which the government remedied by a “hollowing out of the central area” and colonizing the rural hinterland (Hee and Ooi 2003). As a result, as kampong dwellers abandoned their gardens and pets to move into new HDB flats, gone were the old kampong days when children caught fish in drains, kept crickets and grasshoppers in matchboxes, and had cats and dogs in their homes without restriction (Lim 1996). The Chinese in the kampongs used to consume dogs and rabbits, but they did not eat cats because “it is not of the right type for food” (Chan 1995). The HDB decided that the “keeping of domestic animals and poultry is unsuitable in housing estates where families live in close proximity to each other, particularly, in compact multi-storeyed flats” (HDB 1960, 47).

However, soon after the housing estates were built, the government realized that it “could not entertain the stark vision of a landscape of concrete structures devoid of greenery.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ruling elite launched an “urban beautification programme” to convert Singapore into a garden city of parks, trees, and open spaces, with the aims of providing recreational space for a growing urban population and attracting foreign capital (Yuen 1996, 957–965; Koh 2000, 40). The desire to “impose a rational order upon the relations created by the new productive system” took precedence over creating an affiliation with nature (Handlin 1963, 7–9). As a result of this embellishment of its model of development, the government preserved large tracts of forests for greenery and water catchment and left stray cats and dogs alone—at least for a while.2) In the open spaces of public parks, empty decks, and walkways of HDB flats, cats existed for human convenience and pleasure, a byproduct of an exercise of power that eliminated natural predators and threats to their survival and that created an unaesthetic landscape that called out for cats and greenery to adorn the HDB estates. Real affection for or coexistence with cats was impossible without dominance. Aggressive strays were reported, captured, and put down; only docile cats serving human aesthetics remained (Tuan 1984, 162–167).

The perception of stray cats and dogs had been negative in the central-town district. Street hawkers threatened public health with their improper disposal of food wastes, which fed strays thought to carry germs and spread disease (Yeo 1989; Kong 2007, 25–26). Throughout the 1960s, the HDB viewed hawkers as a “problem” and sought to relocate them to “modern and hygienic” hawker centers, where their activities could be monitored by officers of the Ministry of Health (HDB 1964, 49; 1965, 67; 1966, 60).

In Chinatown, residents blamed the ruckus that stray cats and dogs caused on a “thoughtless few” who turned their unwanted pets loose (Singapore Free Press 1960b). In the rural kampongs, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals collected stray cats and dogs in vans and founded a home for these “neglected animals” (Singapore Free Press 1960a). The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) after 1965, also set up kennels in churches for people to place unwanted animals in for collection (ST 1966). Some Singaporeans accused British servicemen of causing the problem of stray cats and dogs. The servicemen, after their brief sojourn in Singapore, allegedly released their pets to roam and spread danger and disease (ST 1968c)—a reminder of how medical discourse was adopted to legitimize animal exclusions and executions (Yeo and Neo 2010, 690)—although British residents vehemently denied such charges (ST 1968a; 1968b). The issue of stray cats and dogs remained outstanding throughout the 1960s as a result of bureaucratic inefficiency and a lack of resources to remove strays from the streets: police constables refused to handle the animals, and the SPCA and the Animal Infirmary (also known as the Veterinary Centre) did not operate on weekends (ST 1969).

Some Singaporeans had asked the Ministry of National Development to implement a policy of requiring cats to be licensed (ST 1971b). The ministry refused to do so, claiming that the number of stray animals collected by the SPCA had dropped by more than half—from about 3,000 a month in the 1960s to about 1,250 a month as of mid-1971. The SPCA attributed the drop to the “increasing awareness of Singaporeans to the problems of health and hygiene caused by stray animals.” Nevertheless, stray cats and dogs continued to roam free in parts of Singapore as a result of the move of large groups of people into flats, since former dwellers of the kampongs abandoned their pets when they moved to HDB estates. The SPCA petitioned the government to provide an emergency 24-hour service to pick up any injured animal in HDB estates, but the government replied that “there was no need to provide such a service since there were private veterinarians . . . who were available on call at any time” (New Nation 1971b). The Ministry of National Development contended that the problem of stray cats originated in irresponsible ownership, and refused to devote its allegedly scarce resources to provide anything more than the Veterinary Centre (ST 1971a). Animal lovers found it “more productive” to send strays to SPCA kennels because the staff of the Animal Infirmary just “would not bother” (New Nation 1971a).

The SPCA suggested that eating places and markets were leading “dumping grounds” for unwanted cats and dogs because people believed that the animals could survive on leftover food in such places (New Nation 1973), so the SPCA instituted a spaying program—which the government encouraged by reducing licensing fees for spayed dogs from 15 to 5 Singaporean dollars per year—for stray animals captured in these areas (ST 1973). The requests from the public for help in spaying their cats overwhelmed the SPCA, which stated that it could not “meet the spaying fees for an unlimited number of cats” because it had insufficient funds (ST 1974). A “division of labor” emerged with regard to the treatment of stray cats in the open dining areas of food stalls and markets: the Ministry of Environment launched campaigns for more hygienic food to be served in those places, while the SPCA controlled the stray-cat population to prevent “cats at these stalls [from] nibbling at dirty dishes.” Stray dogs, for some reason, did not roam the eating places and wet markets (ST 1975). Many Singaporeans recognized that the SPCA, despite a perennial shortage of funds and volunteer helpers, had done a “commendable job caring for thousands of stray animals in Singapore” (New Nation 1975). Other Singaporeans believed that aside from support from the government, the SPCA required more cooperation from the public itself (New Nation 1976b). They perceived HDB officials as having tried their best at directing hawkers in the outdoor dining places not to feed the stray cats there, albeit to no avail (New Nation 1976a).

Yielding to the complaints of cat haters, the HDB issued a controversial ban on cats in flats in September 1978, on the grounds that “by nature [cats] tend to be stray and can be a nuisance to other flat dwellers” (ST 1978c). This soon proved to be counterproductive: cats were turned out of their homes and became stray as a result of the ban, and the SPCA was overcrowded with cats (ST 1978a; 1978b; New Nation 1978). The SPCA continued its efforts to alleviate the longstanding problems of stray cats and the consequences of the HDB ban into the 1980s. The government never rescinded the ban and had left the public and the SPCA to assume the bulk of the responsibility of caring for stray cats and reducing their number. As if to exacerbate the problem, the government evicted the SPCA from the latter’s premises for redevelopment, and the SPCA had to raise funds to build an expensive new building elsewhere (ST 1981). Over the next decade, until the late 1980s, Singaporeans, as one cat lover put it, hate cats so much that they break and cut the tails of cats and “force them to survive in drainpipes” (New Paper 1988).

The Singapura Cat as a National Symbol

News came to Singapore on the last day of 1989 that Singapore’s alley or drain cats, introduced to the West as “Singapura” in 1975, had been winning awards and gaining championship status in global cat shows since 1981. The Singapura Cat attracted the attention of foreign cat breeders, who were keen on starting breeding programs for it, since it could fetch a price of US$1,500 in the market (ST 1989).

The Singapura Cat was first introduced to the United States by an expatriate couple, Hal Meadow and her husband, when they brought four stray cats home from Singapore. After several years, their program of selective inbreeding produced the Singapura. When Meadow returned to Singapore in 1987 to scour the streets for cats to replenish the gene pool in her program, she sought the help of the Singapore Cat Club (established in 1973), which had been sending her cats that fit the bill. According to the Singapore Cat Club, its aim was “to get the breed recognized worldwide and to help Singapura cat lovers breed the cat worldwide” (ibid.).

Within months, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board took its cue from the news and adopted the Singapura—touted as the smallest breed of cats in the Guinness Book of World Records—as an icon. In its project to “liven up” the Singapore River and promote the country’s image as a “City of Surprises,” the board erected a series of 25 sculptures modeled after the Singapura on the banks of the Singapore River. According to the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, the Singapura was chosen because of its “beauty and lively spirit” (ST 1990e). However, as soon as the news broke out, skepticism set in. Journalists asked the board how it would know whether the Singapura Cats flown in as models for the sculptures were genuine, and why it would not “pick up a couple of stray Singapura Cats off the street” instead. They also commented sarcastically that the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board was about to get writers “to pen glorious stories about the Singapura Cat,” and questioned why the lion or singa (which gives Singapore its name) was not featured in its place for greater “authenticity” (ST 1990d). In light of how Singapore’s media system had been structured from its inception to “provide maximum freedom of maneuver for the [People’s Action Party] government,” these comments were bold, candid, and direct for the milieu in which they appeared (George 2012).

Journalists were not the only ones who expressed reservations. Ordinary citizens felt that “Singapore should not lay claim to the [Singapura] unless it was bred out of [Singapore’s] drain cats.” To complicate matters, the Cat Fanciers’ Association, the top cat-breeding authority in the United States, was considering revoking the status of the Singapura as a pedigree owing to lingering doubts over its origins. Meadow had not been able to explain the irregularities in her accounts of how she bred the cats, which might have originated in the United States. As one concerned respondent remarked, “What’s the point [of adopting the cat as our own]? The cat is only of significance to us if it [is] from our drain cats. Now that they are not sure of its origins, it might have nothing to do with us, except for its name” (ST 1990b). Nevertheless, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board proceeded with its project centered on the Singapura, although amid the controversies it did put on hold the decision to adopt the cat as its mascot (ST 1991b).

Upon confirmation by the Cat Fanciers’ Association that the pedigree status of the Singapura would remain unchanged and the association’s suggestion that the board accept the breed as Singapore’s own, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board adopted the Singapura as its mascot and called it the Kucinta (a blend of two Malay words: kucing for cat and cinta for love) in a bid to capture the “warm, affectionate nature of the cat” and “indigenize” it (ST 1990a). The Kucinta was then made into sculptured porcelain cats to be presented as gifts to foreign delegates and ministers (ST 1991a). The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board hailed the Singapura as a “National Treasure” (Helgren 2013, 257). Despite years of promotion, however, Singaporeans did not regard the Singapura as their national symbol. The main reason was that the Singapura remained a breed hardly seen in people’s everyday lives, in the drains or on the streets. For most Singaporeans, the Singapura existed only as a stiff sculpture. It became embarrassing to the Singapore Cat Club when it received requests from Europe and Japan for the cat, for Singapore did not have any Singapura, which remained an extremely rare breed based in the United States. Although the Singapore Cat Club managed to purchase a pair from an American cattery and the Singapore Tourism Board (successor to Singapore Tourist Promotion Board) continued to promote the Singapura, Singaporeans were hardly enamored by its rare status and kept a distance from it.

According to the CWS, Singapore’s drain cats are “smaller, have funny knots in their tails, and do not have the prominent ‘M’ on their foreheads, unlike the Singapura.” Another group, the Animal Lovers League, did not see the point in bringing in the Singapura: “The Singapore cat should represent the local cats. They should be the sons of our soil, not imports, not man-made [or] cloned” (ST 2003j). A reader of The Straits Times backed the Animal Lovers League, requesting both the Singapore Tourism Board and the Singapore Cat Club to “get real” and remove the misleading sculptures: “In whose memory will these non-existent cats, claimed to be produced by an American breeder using three strays she had found in Singapore, live on, and why should they be represented as Singapore icons” (ST 2003i)?

The Singapore Tourism Board apparently overlooked these concerns when it decided to host four Singapura Cats (which by then survived only in the homes of pet owners in Singapore and abroad) in the Singapore Zoological Gardens to celebrate National Day in 2004. The rationale was to give all citizens a chance to see the rare, pure-bred “national symbol” (ST 2004). The Felidae family of cats was no stranger to Singapore’s national imaginings. Its members are featured in the National Coat of Arms, Singa the Courtesy Lion, and the Lionhead symbol on official documents. Although citizens had accepted these symbols, they rejected the Singapura, signaling a refusal to see matters as the state sees them and a passive resistance prompted only when asked. At best, Singaporeans identified the Singapura as another governmental initiative, albeit a futile one, to embellish the nation with a Guinness World Record. At worst, they associated the cat with bourgeois culture, as only affluent households could afford to import and keep one. Some cat breeders even called the Singapura “a money-making scheme” (Helgren 2013, 257). As with the Merlion, the Singapura’s status as a tourist attraction works against its role as an organically evolved national symbol (Kong and Yeoh 2003, 158).

Ordinary citizens and cat associations (except for the Singapore Cat Club) distinguished drain cats and Singapuras. They insisted that the cats most representative of Singapore were found in the drains and streets (“drain cats” and “stray cats” are synonymous for them), not in the tourist attractions along the Singapore River or in the Singapore Zoological Gardens. This takes on even greater symbolic significance if we consider that drain cats had hidden and taken shelter in the sewers to escape from human persecution at a time when national development was most intense in the 1970s and 1980s (Morris 1999, 185). Although it would be stretching the narrative too far to argue that Singaporeans had anthropomorphized themselves into drain cats that survived the fast pace of economic development, the allegory is too striking to dismiss. Unlike the Singapura, the origins of drain cats are not mired in controversy: most breeders and pet owners accept the drain cat as more Singaporean, against what state agencies had wanted them to believe (ST 2003j).

The Singapore Tourism (Promotion) Board (and to a lesser extent the press) sought to construct an indigenous mascot contrary to reality. The episode of the Singapura Cat as a national symbol offers insight into how state institutions attempt to blend notions of authenticity and familiarity with universal appeal for consumption by the international community. The Kucinta saga was an “invented tradition,” whose authenticity is less in evidence than is popularly supposed, and where change is disguised or “mistakenly perceived as adaptation” (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Cannadine 2008, 315). The Singapore Tourism (Promotion) Board, promoting the cat as a somewhat refined breed of local drain cats that was “uniquely Singapore” (the tagline of the Singapore Tourism Board’s destination brand from 2004 to 2009), chose to overlook the controversy of the origins of the Singapura Cat. Seeking to find features that could apply to Singapore or that only Singapore possessed, the Singapore Tourism (Promotion) Board ignored common drain cats and refused—against what the populace had chosen to believe—to acknowledge these cats as a national symbol. The official perception of stray cats as common, dirty, and hence unworthy of national recognition was challenged, and the division of urban spaces in the popular imagination reflected divergent views held by state and society.

SARS Kills the Cat

In 2003 a massive culling of stray cats, known as the “SARS cat-culling incident,” took place in Singapore (Davis 2011, 183). To be sure, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) conducted annual cullings of cats to keep the stray population under control. Every year, about 10,000 to 13,000 stray cats were put down (AVA 2003b). However, after the SARS outbreak, which killed 31 people out of 206 reported cases within three months, the AVA looked set to intensify its efforts at culling stray cats. The National Environmental Agency began to disinfect and fumigate food stalls and food (or hawker) centers—the perceived hotbeds of viral infection (Associated Press 2003e). Although former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan mentioned that cats and dogs ran no risk of getting infected and that the SARS coronavirus was not known to cross species (ST 2003h), The Straits Times ignited debate when it placed a cartoon illustration on the front page captioned “Don’t leave food in the open for stray animals” next to the “Reports on SARS” header. The CWS was disappointed to see the cartoon, which depicted a cat eating a meal and excreting what looked like a virus, arguing that such cartoons would “unduly alarm the public” at a time when many animals were being abandoned by owners fearful of SARS. The CWS ended its statement by saying that the cartoon might “undermine the Government’s efforts to get people to live their lives as per [usual]” (ST 2003g). True to its fear, many Singaporeans came to believe that cats and dogs spread the SARS virus.

After three cases of SARS were linked to the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, the AVA put down 100 stray cats and dogs there. The AVA maintained that putting down the 100 strays was part of its annual routine practices, which had nothing to do with SARS. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that it had everything to do with SARS. Dr. Ngiam Tong Tau, Chief Executive Officer of the AVA during the SARS period, recalled that the AVA knew little about SARS and was “really afraid because [there were] a lot of stray cats in Singapore.” AVA executives, assuming that the SARS virus resides in cats, decided to cull cats at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre and perform postmortem examinations of them to isolate and find out more about the virus. The AVA set up a temporary postmortem site in Sembawang, a remote area in northern Singapore, and collected stray cats from all over Singapore to confirm whether the SARS virus had infected the cat population. The finding was negative, but the AVA did not reveal that to the public for fear that the finding was still not conclusive (Ngiam 2007). The AVA’s actions came in tandem with an increase in the number of abandoned cats and dogs, as reported by the SPCA (ST 2003f).

Animal-protection groups monitoring the number of cats and dogs in HDB estates reported that town councils had moved in to intensify the campaign to kill stray animals, “mainly cats.” The CWS entered the fray again and condemned the actions of the AVA and town councils, but the authorities continued to claim that they had intensified the culling of stray cats in housing estates, food centers, and wet markets as part of the “Singapore’s OK” program to clean up the environment and improve public hygiene. When the CWS criticized that such actions added to the public hysteria over stray cats, governmental agencies retorted that cat lovers were being paranoid about their routine (Channel News Asia 2003). At their wits’ end, cat lovers took the rescue of stray cats into their own hands. The Animal Lovers League gathered more than 2,000 stray cats and planned to send them to a cat shelter in Johor, Malaysia, but Malaysian officials refused to accept the cats into the Johor shelter, saying that Johor is not the place to cast off stray cats. For its part, Singaporean customs refused to issue export permits to the Animal Lovers League for stray cats (Associated Press 2003c; 2003d). As the episode unfolded, the Ministry of National Development intervened, declaring it a problem that all involved parties would solve “internally” “with the help of the animal welfare groups in Singapore” through consultation and reconciliation (ST 2003e).

The Animal Lovers League proposed the alternative plan of building a cat shelter next to an existing private kennel in a remote part of Singapore (Dow Jones International News 2003). Journalists and readers backed the plan, arguing that the government had neither consulted nor worked closely with the public, but rather had unilaterally halted the Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme, in which volunteers collected stray cats for spaying before returning them to their environments, in favor of removing stray cats amid the SARS scare (AVA 2003a). Although the AVA reasoned that the scheme had not worked in several town councils, cat lovers countered that the AVA’s website stated that culling by pest control companies “removes cats that are easily caught, leaving the wilder and often more prolific cats to continue to multiply . . . , [producing] immediate, short-term results but the results are temporary.” Using the AVA’s own logic, animal-protection groups urged that governmental agencies return to the scheme to rehabilitate rather than eradicate stray cats (ST 2003d).

As the government was deliberating on the groups’ proposals, some 80 people gathered in a meeting room at a five-star hotel to mourn an estimated 700 cats exterminated by the authorities. Reports had it that “many of the lawyers, engineers, and executives present wept openly.” Because all gatherings require a permit and speakers must seek police approval in Singapore, the mourners decided to hold a “private” memorial at the hotel. Animal activists said that they feared laws used for years to limit demonstrations by political opposition groups could be used against them if they make their opposition to the cat culling “too public.” Meanwhile, a coalition of animal-protection groups began selling 1,000 T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Kill Ignorance, Not Animals,” to raise funds for building a cat shelter managed by the Animal Lovers League and having capacity to accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 stray cats. Most animal lovers, however, preferred more passive forms of protest, such as signing Internet petitions and encouraging their friends to wear blue ribbons in support of stray cats. They also rescued strays by rounding them up at night and caring for them until a home could be found. Thus, by resorting to “routine channels of voicing disagreement,” animal lovers circumvented strict protest laws to express their anger (Associated Press 2003b). These upper-middle-class, white-collar professionals, while politically acquiescing to the government, could navigate laws on public assembly by knowing the “permissible boundaries” or “gray areas” of these laws and by acting within established political perimeters so as not to offer a direct challenge to state authority (Chong 2005). They mobilized their resources to create an alternative discursive space to express their opinion.

In the face of mounting public pressure, the government relented by auctioning off land for animal shelters, hoping to appease animal lovers. The AVA announced that it would open up five one- and two-acre lots “for long-term boarding purposes” for the animals, stating that any group with “proven experience in taking care of and/or providing boarding for pet animals may bid for the land” (Associated Press 2003a). By mid-June, the AVA had picked up and tested the last of 140 stray cats, declaring them SARS-free and clearing the “cloud of suspicion over cats.” This occurred after Singapore was removed from the World Health Organization’s list of areas infected with SARS on May 31 (ST 2003a).

To the cat lovers in Singapore, the government seemed to have confused civet cats—the alleged host of the SARS coronavirus—with “real” cats. They were frustrated that the government, in its “cleanliness” campaign, had targeted only cats caught near markets and other “neighborhood” places that served food (Associated Press 2003d). In essence, in the nation’s battle against SARS, the government was extending its power into the urban spaces of the commons—the food stalls, hawker centers, and wet markets—claiming that they were unhygienic. As state agencies moved in to reclaim these spaces on the pretext of health exigencies, animal-protection groups harnessed their finances and manpower to found new spaces for persecuted cats—a hotel ballroom for pseudopublic mourning, a transnational shelter for rescued cats, and private homes to house cats temporarily. When all their endeavors failed, these groups launched their own campaigns to raise public awareness of the plight of stray cats and the excesses of culling, hoping to galvanize public support to “exonerate” the cats. They succeeded. The removal of Singapore from the World Health Organization’s list was a major contributing factor to the government’s compromise. But more important to their success was that the government did not want to risk facing further challenges to its structural parameters if it appeared too unyielding, especially in light of citizens’ attempts not to flout the law or confront the state apparatus. The government associated its legitimacy with the ability of approved groups and individuals to seek redress or solutions through the “proper channels” of formal institutions. The cat-welfare groups had done everything within their means to fulfill this unspoken criterion, leaving the government little maneuver space in which to act.

Over the years the government has invoked Singapore’s victory against SARS as, in Lee Kuan Yew’s words, a display of “inner ruggedness” and national unity in adversity (Channel News Asia 2005). The conventional view was that the SARS crisis and the common experience of facing the crisis had strengthened political and social solidarity among Singaporeans. Yet in the eyes of cat lovers, the SARS episode was a human war against scapegoated cats, a unity abused and a ruggedness misplaced. The episode exposed the vulnerability of animal-protection groups, cat activists, and stray cats in a context of limited legal and social safeguards for them. As Frank Furedi observes, “People do not simply suffer a disaster. They interact with terror and emergencies, often adapt to it, draw lessons and meaning from it, sometimes are disoriented and confused by it but often learn to creatively reorganize their life around it” (2007, 171). As cat lovers came to terms with their vulnerability and forged their own solidarities against a national unity that the government had appropriated to cull stray cats, they showed that trust in the government had been lost with regard to the management and regulation of stray cats, and that collective action had to be taken to provide cats with more protection and welfare.

Speaking for Cats

The CWS, the most vocal cat lovers’ group in Singapore, was established years before the SARS outbreak, in 1999, but it was from the 2003 crisis that the CWS first gained prominence. The CWS was set up by “upwardly mobile professionals” who “invest their time and energy in saving what appears to be an unimportant sector of the Singapore populace”—stray cats. Alluding to the growing incidence of animal cruelty in Singapore—burning kittens alive, throwing cats from high-rise buildings, and governmental agencies’ culling 13,000 stray cats every year from 1980 to 2000—the CWS resolved to promote tolerance for and understanding of stray cats among Singaporeans in line with the government’s persistent call for a more gracious society, adding that “kindness to animals could be a part of the school curriculum in Singapore.” The CWS aimed to forge a strong network devoted to the rescue of distressed cats and sterilization of stray cats (ST 2000a).

The SPCA, inspired by similar schemes in Britain, Canada, and the United States, had been promoting sterilization as a “humane way of controlling the stray [cat] population compared with destroying them” since the 1990s. This began as a response to increasing complaints among residents of HDB estates that cats had been rummaging through rubbish bins and had left uneaten food all over the place (ST 1994b). Critics argued, however, that “plentiful food sources and kind cat lovers” had indulged the cats and impaired their “natural instincts” to “make themselves useful by preying on rats, pigeons, and numerous scavenging birds that equally scourge city environment.” The critics also believed that stray cats “co-exist with the lot [of animal pests] to compound the vermin problem,” so they urged the authorities to round up strays, put them to sleep, and ensure quick and proper disposal of their carcasses (ST 1994a). Although veterinarians reassured the public that most strays do not carry germs, animal-welfare groups felt enough pressure to induce them to step up controlling stray numbers with the aforementioned Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme. The scheme, which started in 1998, had both supporters and detractors. Food-stall owners, rather than discarding leftovers, preferred feeding them to the cats. In contrast, residents saw such practices as emboldening cats to wander into the “human spaces” of coffee shops (kopitiams), food centers, and wet markets (ST 2000b). After abandoning the scheme during the SARS period, the AVA turned to culling strays, educating pet owners not to abandon cats, and advising animal-protection groups to house cats at their own expense (ST 2014f). For its part, the CWS started approaching individual town councils and, as of August 2014, had been working closely with 16 of them to reduce the culling (New Paper 2014).

From 2003 to 2014, the main object of the CWS and several cat-focused organizations was to reestablish the Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme. Cat sterilization was never outlawed; the government might have withdrawn from the scheme, but cat-welfare groups were free to conduct it at their own expense. Owing to their limited resources, however, these groups hoped that the AVA and town councils would return to the scheme and mobilize sterilization to greater effect. Stating that sterilization remained the most effective method in controlling the stray-cat population, the CWS, in its capacity as the only registered association in Singapore for cat welfare, linked nonofficial groups together, holding true to the Singapura’s name of Kucinta (“Cat-love”) against the backdrop of increasing cat violence in the nation. The CWS distinguished itself from the Singapore Cat Club, which it said “organizes [only] shows and gatherings” (ST 2000a). The CWS relied on donations and worked with 28 veterinary clinics to help sterilize about 400 to 600 stray cats annually (ST 2012). The CWS also encouraged the public to adopt its sterilized cats with “value-added guidance” from affiliated cat-welfare groups. On one occasion, it stepped in to remind the public not to be enticed by a specific puppy sale coupon “with 0 percent installment plan” in the National Day Parade pack (distributed to each parade spectator), arguing that such coupons would only promote irresponsible pet ownership (ST 2014e).

Beach Road Cat Killings

Here I will briefly introduce a particular episode—the serial cat abuses at Beach Road—to explore the workings of the CWS and concerned groups and individuals in the 2010s, after such groups had expanded in scale, scope, and strength since the 2000s. Beginning in late 2011, a spate of cat abuses occurred in a cluster of flats along Beach Road, with cats being lacerated, flung down to their deaths, and decapitated (Save Beach Road Cats, September 27, 2011; October 27, 2011; September 2, 2012). Some cats suffered from sling shot wounds. Others were blinded (Save Beach Road Cats, December 10, 2012). Abuses were also reported in the immediate vicinity of Kampong Glam and North Bridge Road, causing considerable distress among cat lovers (Save Beach Road Cats, January 16, 2013; February 19, 2013; February 24, 2013).

That the abuses continued for years without one person being arrested, interrogated, or investigated added to the cat lovers’ frustration, particularly in a nation that prided itself on having a highly efficient police force and a low crime rate. As a result of police inactivity, cat lover Anthony Hong set up the Save Beach Road Cats website in late 2011 to raise awareness and appeal for information. Hong, who owned a sundry shop in the area, first noticed the deaths after meeting with elderly people who were feeding Beach Road’s stray cats. These elders, according to Dr. Ngiam (2007), were individuals who wanted to earn good karma by feeding stray animals but did not clean up the mess after feeding, which attracted cockroaches and rats to the neighborhood and hence caused conflict between themselves and other residents. Although the elders lodged police reports about one elderly man seen “shooting stones at cats with a catapult,” the police did not act on the reports. Hong hired a private detective to check on the elderly man in question, but this did not unearth any evidence; the police stated that they could arrest the man only if presented “concrete photo or video evidence” (ST 2014d). An elementary school student, motivated by Hong’s efforts, offered all his savings of 2,000 Singaporean dollars as a reward for information on the cats’ deaths (ST 2014c). Meanwhile, some residents on North Bridge Road sent a carcass to the AVA, requesting a postmortem on it to determine the cause of death; the results were not forthcoming (Xinming Ribao 2014).

The CWS reached out to the Beach Road cat caretakers (Save Beach Road Cats, “Background”). CWS executive officer Joanne Ng shared their frustration: “Why are the authorities not doing anything about it. . . . If the person who is doing all this harm ends up murdering a small kid . . . , it would be too late” (Yahoo News 2014). Hong (Save Beach Road Cats, September 18, 2014) also lashed out at the platitudes of the authorities, maintaining that actions speak louder than words: “How . . . can the government’s stance on animal abuse be taken seriously if . . . swift resolutions are only reserved for major crimes like murder and robbery, and even lesser offences like killer litter and illegal parking?” That said, in 2014 the CWS, along with other animal-welfare groups, managed to pull Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Member of Parliament Yeo Guat Kwang to their side in recommending harsher penalties on perpetrators of animal cruelty, and Parliament went on to amend the Animals and Birds Act to impose stiffer penalties on animal abusers (Today 2014; ST 2014a; 2014b). To give some background, Shanmugam had been a longtime supporter of the CWS, having initiated Pilot Cat Ownership to ensure that cat owners in his ward get their cat sterilized, microchipped, and registered with the society (CWS 2012).

However, no one had yet been held accountable for the 50 cruel cat deaths along Beach Road, although the aforementioned elderly man remained the primary suspect. In his own defense, the man confided in the Chinese press that he was now a target for harassment for a crime he had never committed (Lianhe Wanbao 2015a; 2015b). While the CWS could pull politicians into its fold, individual, unorganized cat lovers failed to elicit sufficient police or institutional support to nab the stray-cat killer(s) along Beach Road.

The additional legal provisions coincided with the quiet extension of the Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme earlier in mid-2014. In 2011 the AVA attempted to partially relaunch the scheme, but the town councils did not welcome the directive because they “did not want to clean up after the cats.” To be precise, the town councils did not want to pay to control, feed, and sterilize stray cats in their jurisdictions. After a three-year trial in four precincts, the AVA decided to reinstate the scheme in full, and this move drew praise from animal-welfare groups, which had all along maintained that culling was inhumane and ineffective. The groups cited the drop in stray-cat numbers from 80,000 to 50,000, along with the fall in culling figures, as evidence that sterilization worked. Another sign of success, they stated, was that the AVA euthanized about 1,000 strays in 2013, down from 3,300 in 2008 and 13,000 in 2001. In addition, the CWS reported that its volunteers had helped sterilize 4,479 cats in 2013 alone, showing that it was fully capable of working with the AVA and the town councils at cutting costs while dealing effectively with the issue of controlling the stray-cat population. Under the scheme, the AVA funded half of the cost of 30 to 60 Singaporean dollars to neuter a cat (trapping, neutering, and releasing cats to control the population of stray cats without killing them) and another 20 Singaporean dollars to microchip it. Now with added funding and endorsement from the AVA, the CWS felt confident of reducing the number of stray cats across Singapore and hence of silencing calls for cats to be killed (ST 2014f). The Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme was made possible by some AVA executives led by Dr. Lou Ek Hee, who, against the opinion of their “hawkish” colleagues, believed that the scheme could work in keeping a “manageable group of cats in a precinct which is also good for catching rats,” on the condition that they “do not interfere with people, do not cause nuisance, defecation, jumping on people’s cars, [and] scratching the paint work” (Ngiam 2007). The lack of consensus within the AVA may help explain the inconsistency in its policies toward the treatment of stray cats.

As the former Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan suggested, the People’s Action Party looked “more humane and less fixated on bread-and-butter concerns” with its members of Parliament pushing for “non-traditional” causes in recent years. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also observed that People’s Action Party activists were reaching out to more diverse groups, including animal-welfare groups, which had been neglected in the past. After the 2011 General Elections, in which the People’s Action Party lost a substantial share of votes to opposition parties, People’s Action Party members of Parliament seemed to have become responsive to “emerging areas” of concern such as animal welfare, and sympathetic to “less combative” and “less defiant” causes. This does not mean that the heightened support for social causes was all for show. Nevertheless, as Tan observes, some issues, unlike controversial or polarizing ones such as gay rights or migrant workers’ rights, were easier to support so as to appear in touch with the people. To People’s Action Party members of Parliament, lending support to certain causes could increase their popularity among voters (ST 2014a).

Failing to co-opt social groups can result in the expression of political dissent on social media. Vivian Balakrishnan, formerly the Minister of State for National Development overseeing the AVA during the SARS epidemic, was accused in a Facebook post during the 2015 Singapore General Elections of having conducted a “cat holocaust.” The post quickly garnered more than 2,000 “likes,” with comments condemning Balakrishnan’s “act of cruelty” (Facebook 2015). Because it is “accumulative, publicly accessible, and practically permanent,” the Internet poses challenges to the authoritarian structure of the government, allowing disgruntled citizens to access information, express opinions, and share insights outside the scope of conventional media and the state’s censorship regime (Tan 2015, 277). When the SARS epidemic broke out in the country in 2003, most Singaporeans remained unexposed to Internet-based social media, and expressions such as “cat holocaust” were never used against any minister in Singaporean reportage.

The physical landscape of Singapore, which is increasingly built up, also contributed to growing attention to human-cat issues. Fundamental to these issues was the question of whether stray cats should share the urban space of humans. The controversy over such issues was essentially an ideological struggle over the intrinsic value of cats, a debate over the place or role of cats in both natural and manmade landscapes (Neo 2014, 73–74). Disagreement among HDB residents required the intervention or mediation of the government and cat-welfare groups for a conciliatory resolution. Disputes over spatial arrangements—whether cats should perish for transgressing into human territory, and whether cats and humans could cohabit in HDB estates—revealed that power structures and reciprocal interactions were inherently spatialized (Pearson and Weismantel 2010, 26).


Cats are a synecdoche for the complex relationships between the government, cat-welfare groups, and HDB residents in the state project of reintegrating nature into the urban landscape. Postcolonial Singapore is a space of state intervention into private domains that parades under the universal guise of national development, with the state suppressing spaces for politically marginalized groups or individuals (King 2003, 178). Nevertheless, as cat lovers and cat-welfare groups have shown by their actions, there is always room to contest such metanarratives and offer alternatives on the basis of one’s “local knowledge” (ibid., 179). Human responses to stray cats varied according to perceptions of the built or cultivated environment, which render cat spaces either discrepant or acceptable features of the urban landscape and represent cats as either wild or potentially domestic (Griffiths et al. 2000, 68).

The government’s disciplinary regime and exacting standards of urban cleanliness, health, and hygiene have led to a prevalent perception of cats as pests and carriers of germs and viruses. Stray cats have outlived their traditional purposes of curbing cockroach and rat populations, which are no longer a key concern for Singapore’s urban health, and of scavenging and clearing the food waste of roadside vendors, who no longer exist save for their re-creations in tourist attractions or in such modern spaces as coffee shops, hawker centers, and wet markets. Nevertheless, for cat lovers, because humans have generated conditions that do not give space to stray cats to survive, humans have a “collective causal responsibility” to create and maintain spaces to allow displaced cats to continue to live (Palmer 2003, 68, 71). That cat lovers and cat-welfare groups of different classes could create a discourse and use their activism to address the alienation of Singaporeans from stray cats in particular and nature in general highlights government passivity. Such passivity was also on display in the lack of efforts to control the population of macaques through sterilization in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. On the whole, state agencies give low priority to such issues (Yeo and Neo 2010, 695).

Because the government has been passive about cats (as well as such issues as LBGT behavior and public morality) and unwilling to devote much attention, effort, and resources to managing the stray-cat population unless absolutely necessary, individual cat lovers and cat-welfare associations assumed the functions of responding to appeals and requests from the public, collecting and keeping stray or unwanted cats, neutering and spaying these cats, and at times opposing what they view as a flagrant violation of animal rights—killing stray cats—on the part of the government. In the absence of active state involvement, cat activists try to fill the gap in the government’s treatment of stray cats however they deem fit, with or without civil alliances or state support.

Accepted: February 17, 2016


I thank Michael Montesano, Isaac C. K. Tan, and the editors and anonymous reviewers for their kind support and helpful suggestions. Without Michael, I would never have published this article.


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1) A case that illuminates the government’s nonchalance toward animal resources is its eradication of pig farming in the 1980s, when it decided that Singapore, given the country’s booming economy and expanding population, would fail to achieve self-sufficiency in pork in the long run and that the land occupied by pig farms could be redeveloped for more economically productive purposes (Neo 2016).

2) Race and multiculturalism eventually took their toll on stray dogs. Dogs are considered unclean by most Malays, so the government put down almost all stray dogs by the 1980s. At present, dogs roam only in Singapore’s remotest, most “pristine” regions (wastelands, as opposed to state land), and cats dominate on the island as the numerically and physically largest and most visible mammal besides humans (Stimpfl 2006, 75).


Vol. 5, No. 2, Rachel Leng

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Kuo Pao Kun’s Zheng He Legend and Multicultural Encounters in Singapore

Rachel Leng*

* 凌惠颖, Harvard University, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

e-mail: rleng[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.2_287

This paper will examine Kuo Pao Kun’s modern reiteration of the Zheng He theme in his 1995 Singaporean play titled Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral 郑和的后代. The memory of Zheng He and his legacy rooted in an anomalous series of sea expeditions makes him unique in Chinese history and speaks to contemporary issues of multiculturalism, ethnic hybridity, and the geopolitics of migration and diaspora. Kuo reappropriates the Zheng He theme to re-present the eunuch admiral as an ancient paradigm of the modern multicultural man in an increasingly transnational world. Scholars have noted the way Kuo uses storytelling to prompt people in Singapore to show a greater willingness to live together as a multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual nation. However, I argue that the play’s text reveals more somber and personal undercurrents, where Kuo draws upon an intimate understanding of the classical Chinese Zheng He story to record shrewd observations and articulate concealed shafts of criticism about Singapore’s bureaucracy, intermingled with philosophical reflections addressing contemporary Sinophone lived reality.

Keywords: Singaporean theater, Kuo Pao Kun, Zheng He, Sinophone, multiculturalism, multiethnic, migration, diaspora

Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral 郑和的后代 (1995) (hereafter Descendants) is a Singaporean play that provides intriguing perspectives on the impact of Zheng He’s voyages to Southeast Asia and their relevance to the sociopolitical, cultural, and economic issues of an entrepot through a literary lens. By reappropriating the Zheng He theme, Kuo re-presents the eunuch admiral as the ancient paradigm of a modern multicultural man in an increasingly globalized and transnational world. Through storytelling, Kuo prompts people in Singapore to show a greater willingness to live together as a multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious nation. Although recurring themes of plurality are sustained throughout the play, this paper argues that Kuo draws upon the Zheng He story to articulate disaffected critiques against the Singaporean bureaucracy and negotiate an ethnic Chinese Singaporean identity vis-à-vis Communist China in the 1990s.

Kuo Pao Kun (郭宝崑, 1939–2002) is one of Singapore’s foremost cultural icons, renowned for his monumental contribution to Singaporean literature and theater. He wrote 24 bilingual and multilingual plays, translated 6, and directed 28.1) In the foreword to Images at the Margins, an anthology of his plays in English, Kuo describes unique multinational and cross-cultural life experiences as someone “permanently on the move” (Kuo 2000, 3).2) Throughout his life works, one can ascertain Kuo’s sustained engagement with “invent[ing] vocabularies” to portray “images at the margin” and construct enlightening spaces located beyond the limits of racial, language, religious, and cultural segregation amidst environments marked by modernism, globalism, and capitalism (ibid.; Kwok 2003).

Kuo has won a unique position in the modern theater of Singapore not only for what he produced on stage, but also for what he practiced and advocated off stage for Singaporean society (Koh 2002; Quah 2005).3) Krishen Jit comments that Kuo’s theater “is nothing if not purposefully persuasive about his social philosophy,” as Kuo himself saw “no sense in a theatre that is aesthetically exquisite but morally empty” (Jit 1990, 18). Indeed, Kuo consistently promoted the arts as a practice of “open culture” to celebrate the intermingling of cultures—both past and present, local and global—beyond the constraints of racial and linguistic origins (Kuo 1998; Devan 2000).

Descendants is unique in Kuo’s oeuvre as its focal theme draws upon a classical Chinese character to create a text riddled with cryptic historical references. To date, scholars and reviewers who have commented on the multilayered play point out its overt allusion to Zheng He’s maritime legacy in presenting the tensions between Chinese tradition and Sinophone4) modernity; they emphasize the contemporary reappropriation of Zheng He to evoke themes of harmonious multiculturalism and Kuo’s notion of an “open culture” in Southeast Asia, especially Singapore. However, more somber and personal undercurrents saturate the play; Kuo draws upon an intimate understanding of the classical Zheng He story to record shrewd observations and criticisms about the Singaporean bureaucracy, intermingled with philosophical reflections addressing geopolitical dimensions of contemporary Sinophone lived reality.

The Grand Eunuch as Modern Expatriate in Southeast Asia’s Entrepot

A common starting point for discussion of Zheng He’s influence in contemporary Chinese studies begins with the revival of the maritime theme with Liang Qichao (梁启超) and Sun Yat-Sen (孙中山) in the early twentieth century. Both men commented on the early Ming voyages in the context of tumultuous periods in modern Chinese history, marked by decay and imperialistic foreign aggression against China (Low 2005; Ptak 2007). In the perspectives of these two men, Zheng He was held in high esteem as a national hero, representing China’s more prosperous times when the country stood out as a leading world power, enjoying peace and material wealth. Liang Qichao, in particular, became very interested in early Ming politics and saw in Zheng He’s tale an exemplar of reviving the image of China as a wealthy nation in its golden age of exploration and international diplomacy. Subsequently, many “Zheng He Studies” research institutes have been set up in Nanjing and other places in China, publishing Chinese journals that commemorate the Grand Eunuch.

Zheng He’s career at sea was a curious episode in Chinese history: his expeditions signify Ming China’s attempt to project its power by sea over a great distance, where China as an imperial power had previously focused only on land-based and continental exploits. Indeed, scholars have pointed out that even in world history, there is no prior example of power projection by sea comparable in distance, scope, and duration to Zheng He and his fleet, as even the later European colonial empires were sustained by fleets composed of smaller and fewer ships (Chang 1976; Hsu 1988; Church 2004; Dreyer 2007). The most detailed outline of Zheng He’s life is provided in a bibliographic note in Volume 304 of the Mingshi 明史 (Zhong et al. 1990; Dreyer 2007). However, firsthand accounts of his voyages were written by some of his followers, including Ma Huan’s (马欢) Fascinating Scenes of Foreign Lands 瀛涯胜览 (1451), Fei Xin’s (费信) Enchanting Sights of Astro-Navigation 星槎胜览 (1436), and Gong Zhen’s (巩珍) Record of Barbarian States in the Western Ocean 西洋番国志 (1434). Modern scholars have conducted studies on Zheng He and his deeds based on these primary materials, but the man’s background remains inconclusive (Hsu 1988; Chee 2003; Cheng 2008).

Drawing upon the historical Zheng He figure, Descendants resonates with parallels to Kuo’s own changing personal and psychological stance toward an ancestral Chinese cultural and literary tradition. Two key and interrelated subjects addressed in Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants are hybridity and expatriatism, along with a moral jousting with an excessively rationalistic bureaucracy and its pragmatic pursuit of capitalism. The play is divided into 16 scenes narrating the official history and speculating upon unofficial anecdotes about Zheng He’s autobiography and personal experiences. From the beginning, themes of solitude, mobility, haunting dreams, and uncertain origins are emphasized. The contemporary Sinophone narrator begins with the statement that “dreaming has become the centre of [his] life,” but although these dreams make him feel “alone, painfully alone, and floating away,” the loneliness is “promising” as it allows him to “[dive] deeper and deeper into the stark loneliness of [him]self” to come to the discovery that he was “so closely related that [he] had to be a descendant of the eunuch admiral” (Kuo 1995c, 38).5) The link between a diasporic Chinese figure from the past and the contemporary Sinophone subject is emphasized as both concept and practice. Throughout the play, waves of images focusing on the “vast, seemingly endless” potential of the ocean and the liminal position of Zheng He “in the limbo between departing and arriving, between being a man and a non-man” presents displacement and wandering as productive for the “dreaming, hoping, searching, struggling” of an uprooted person (ibid., 49, 68).

In commenting on Descendants, scholars have highlighted Kuo’s cultural orphan mentality, which the playwright has conceptualized as a “condition of marginality” where one is unable to “return to [. . .] cultural parentages” or “be at home in the past” (ibid., 16). Consequently, cultural orphans “can only grope for a way forward, to make his or her spiritual home in the midst of loss and alienation” and are compelled to accept multiple lines of parentage so as to “counter the cultural impurities already infused in [their] blood” (ibid.). As an alternative foundation for a common local identity and culture, Kuo suggests that cultural development “should be de-linked from the racial and linguistic origin of the individual” to build upon a generative practice based on structures of multiculturalism and racial diversity beyond the constraints of state governance (Kuo 1998, 60).

The narrator of Descendants ponders Zheng He’s seven voyages across the Western Ocean during the early fifteenth century in comparison to the present-day experience of global mobility: “Maybe he was feeling what we would be thinking when we travel out of the country. In a state of limbo, but free from constraints and controls” (Kuo 1995c, 52). In this way, Zheng He is appropriated as an ancient example of the modern cultural orphan—a “nameless, sexless, rootless, homeless” figure who has to live a “rootless wanderer’s” life (ibid., 56, 68). The eunuch admiral is believed to have been a prominent Muslim in Confucian high society, a Hui minority loyal steward in the Han-dominated imperial palace, and the primeval example of an overseas expatriate. Yet, Kuo’s play reveals how the “600-year old legend of a molested and incarcerated man” remains “a humble alien, a wandering slave, a worthless servant to all and sundry” (ibid., 1, 9).

As a “faithful servant of the Ming Emperor and an imperial emissary to blaze a trail of glory for the Middle Kingdom,” the Grand Director was an expatriate, forced to create his own indefinable domiciliary zone, a home “across the ocean, on the seas” (ibid., 60, 66). The play dramatizes the way Zheng He comprehended his own liminality:

To keep my head
I must accept losing my tail
To keep my faith
I must learn to worship others’ gods
To please my lord
I must eliminate his enemy
To serve his pleasure
I must purge my own
Allah knows my bitterness
Buddha has mercy upon my soul
Sea Goddess protects my fleet
Voyages to the West fulfil my life
Alone, I can stand up to any man
Freed, I can scale any height
“Cleansed,” I cling to but one thought
My master’s will is my survival. (ibid., 54)

Zheng He’s soliloquy highlights the currency of his marginality in the multiple spheres of ethnicity, gender, and religion as one making him “a loyal creature,” “highly marketable” and capable of assimilating distinct cultural environments (ibid., 58). By invoking the blessings of Allah, Buddha, and the Sea Goddess, Zheng He exhibits a tripartite state of being in which he is able to turn the physical violence of being “cleansed”—i.e., castrated—to reinvent his identity and “survival,” one where he would “seep into the lives of so many people in so many places, through so many ways over so long a time . . .” (ibid., 54, 60).

Framed in the context of a dream, Descendants exposes that, unlike Zheng He, the contemporary man seems not to have woken up to the productivity of his own liminal state as a space of encounters, transcendence, and reflection. Instead, modern individuals are castrated by the pursuit of pragmatic economic gain and postcolonial capitalism that has led to the fragmentation of multicultural exchange. After Singapore’s independence in 1965, the decolonization process posed significant challenges for the nation in harmonizing its conglomeration of ethnic cultures (including Malay, Chinese, and Indian Singaporeans) intermingled with the remnants of British colonial culture. The People’s Action Party (PAP) led by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew subsequently sought to construct a common identity uniting Singapore’s multiethnic population (Bedlington 1978; Peterson 2001). In 1979 the government promulgated public policy that imposed English as the lingua franca and “first language” of Singapore, believing that a common language would allow people to communicate with relatively little conflict (Shepherd 2005). By transforming Singapore into a global village, the government aimed to promote international trade and develop science and technology (Bedlington 1978; Ganguly 2003).

Kuo, while recognizing the real gain in national wealth and the importance of overcoming language barriers for cross-cultural communication, lamented that privileging English formally marginalized all other languages. As he remarked: English as “the national first language relegat[es] all ethnic ones to second language status [. . .]. Has any other majority population ever committed such an extraordinary act of voluntary uprooting, preferring to its own language (a major world language) one which its former colonizer forced upon it?” (Kuo 1996, 168). In Kuo’s view, it was incomprehensible that Singapore, as a multiracial and multicultural city-state inhabited by a majority population of Chinese (75 percent), with substantial Malay (14 percent) and Indian (10 percent) communities, would reproduce the colonial mentality after independence and display “a lack of self-reflexive, post-colonial consciousness” (Ganguly 2003; Quah 2006, 91; DSS 2013).

For the Chinese Singaporean community, the official appointment of Mandarin as a mother tongue was doubly limiting: the policy demoted Mandarin to the status of a second language and also discouraged other Sinitic dialects (Xu et al. 1998). This denied Chinese Singaporeans an important link to their ancestral heritage accessed through provincial dialects (Pan 1990; Xu et al. 1998; Rappa and Wee 2006). As such, the Singapore government’s ethnic management policy to maintain racial harmony fundamentally divided cultural groups, leading to gulfs of interracial ignorance and indifference (Kwok 1998; Teng 2000; Tan 2013). Although the language policy successfully fostered racial peace, it restricted the development of cross-cultural exchange, impeding the emergence of a unified local identity (Rappa and Wee 2006; Gopinathan 2013). In Descendants, the amputating effect of a homogenous language policy is likened to the eunuch admiral’s fate of being “cut and dried, plugged and exiled,” wandering with a shriveled sense of self (Kuo 1995c, 66). Yet, being an “orphan, wanderer, eunuch, admiral,” Zheng He not only reminds contemporary Singaporeans of the importance of being aware of one’s culture while assimilating others, but also prompts people to take advantage of their modern mobility and cultural liminality to fully appreciate the way “every land and sky and water is home” (ibid.).

Kuo’s critique of the Singaporean government’s approach to nation-building speaks to Ernest Renan’s canonical text on civic nationalism. Renan’s central argument proposes that the nation is a conglomerate of people who share a common past and have derived a strong bond anchored in an agreement to live together and be governed by mutual consent. He elaborates that it is neither race, language, religion, nor geography that creates a nation, but rather the “powerful link between men” that creates a “community of interest”: if people are willing to consolidate their past and perpetuate their unity to be governed together by consent, then they are a nation (Renan 1882, 204–205). The richness of creating such a nation through the transcendence of multiple physical and psychological frontiers is suggested in Descendants through the market exchange scene and the final pithy message “Departing is my arriving/Wandering is my residence” (Kuo 1995c, 66).

Descendants draws explicit parallels between the history of Zheng He and the modern Sinophone Singaporean to dramatize the tensions between service to the state, individuality, and capitalism. As Kuo notes in the 1995 performance program:

I am beginning to feel that affluence has produced enough frustration to make wondering an increasingly inevitable impulse. Zheng He is especially inspiring to Singaporeans on many levels and [. . .] dimensions. As a minority Chinese ethnically, religiously, culturally, and as a eunuch rising to the pinnacle of power and achievement, Zheng He mirrors [Singapore’s] existence in many ways. (ibid., 1)

Being a major entrepot port of Southeast Asia, Singapore has been undeniably “rising to the pinnacle of power and achievement” as a global city-state representing bountiful trade and a burgeoning economy amidst a melting pot of multiple cultural, religious, and ethnic groups. Along these lines, the markets in Descendants are presented as spaces of prelapsarian capitalism and cosmopolitan contact zones for exchange of the carnivalesque (Wee 2004; Tan 2013). The marketplace becomes a site of active interaction for “a flotilla of people and goods” in an expansive Asian globalism (Pratt 1992; Kuo 1995c, 59). These contact zones are sites of transnationalism beyond “a simple homogenous idea of national culture within national boundaries policed by the nation-state” (Dirlik 2004, 15).

On the basis of a “great trading festival” facilitating the exchange of commodities such as metal, seeds, fabrics, and feathers, the marketplace then transforms into a carnivalesque space that embraces and celebrates cultural interactions of diverse forms and origins. The whole process involves competition, negotiation, and integration between global forces and local markets (Pratt 1992; Wee 2004). More than a mere display of distinct cultural features, all sorts of people gather at these markets, and there is “a show of mutual respect between the Muslims, the Hindus, and the Buddhists” that reveals the active and generative commingling of cultures in contact (Kuo 1995c, 59; Tan 2013). Such a festive space certainly invokes Mikhail Bahktin’s notion of the carnivalesque as a “celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order,” marking “the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” with an “atmosphere of freedom, frankness, and familiarity” (Bahktin 1984, 153, 195).

It is intriguing that with these scenes of the marketplace, Kuo compares the Ming Dynasty and modern-day Singapore as going through similar modernizing processes in different eras: both experience periods of wealth and prosperity, where social life is marked by markets and a burgeoning consumerist culture. The portrayal of trading markets focuses on economic aspects that defined the Ming Dynasty and corresponds to Singapore’s own trajectory of recent economic development. Although foreign objects circulated widely during the Ming, Chinese people regarded them as fascinating but ultimately useless. This sentiment comes through in Descendants, where foreign objects—including “bulls that charge not at red but anything that is blue in color,” “acrobatic goats with green fleece,” and “dancing chickens as tiny and exquisite as pearls”—do not serve any functional purpose (Kuo 1995c, 59–60). Additionally, in Scene 11, the narrator provides a vivid description of polar bears “playfully amusing themselves in the imperial garden lake now richly covered with ice” (ibid., 55). These polar bears reveal the way foreign animals are perceived as mere foreign spectacles. Kuo throws skepticism upon the lasting impact of markets to sustain cultural interaction and diversity, suggesting the need to turn to noncommercial engagements to achieve multicultural understanding.

Geopolitics of Cultural Identity and Self-Castration

When commenting on his inspiration for Descendants, Kuo explains that as he wrote the play, “a much darker and spiritually disturbing aspect of Grand Eunuch Zheng He began to grip and sting the deeper recesses of [his] being: His castration” (quoted in Tan 2013, 230). The narrator’s preoccupation with the experience of castration as such and his inexplicable fear of being castrated—“a removal of his manhood,” his baobei—is unnerving for a play that concerns itself with the descendants of a castrated man. But what does it mean for the Grand Director of the Three Treasures to be permanently deprived of his “treasure,” to have his penis “cut, fried, and dried” and placed in a box to legitimize his status in the Imperial Palace’s eunuch service (Kuo 1995c, 40)? Kuo describes in detail how eunuchs had to show their baobeis as “their single most important document or article of qualification,” turning a commentary on the Ming Dynasty eunuch organizational structure into a critique of the modern world’s capitalist networks and commercial companies, stating that both organizations are “a network of pricks” (ibid., 41).

The theme of castration is sustained throughout the play and is evocative of the symbolically castrated contemporary Sinophone subject. In Scene 5, the narrator initially imagines himself as a young boy, nicknamed “Doggie,” who made the life decision to become a eunuch and describes the discomfiting experience of being castrated by his father (ibid., 44–45). This scene reveals that Kuo was aware that many men voluntarily submitted themselves to the literal and symbolic castration necessary for service in the imperial palace. In contrast to the voluntary eunuch, the narrator asserts that Zheng He did not have a choice: “He was summarily cut and cleansed by his masters when he was barely a teenager—because there was a need, a huge need for eunuchs. You see, eunuchs seem to have started fulfilling a very important aristocratic need since many thousands of years ago,” ranging from mundane bedside tasks to leading empire-building projects (ibid., 45). Despite Zheng He’s castration, his voyages to foreign realms provided him with defining moments of transcendence.

The allegory of the castrated man is both a critique and a reminder for Singaporeans to appropriate their mobility and in-betweenness as contemporary subjects (Quah 2004). Kuo cautions that we should not be complacent that the days of eunuchs “are long gone with the demise of the imperial age. Indeed, castration has been recreated by modern man, and that castration is not always inflicted by others; there is now a modern version called self-castration which can be, and has been, effected simply by people permissively heaping affluence and comfort upon themselves” (Kuo 1996, quoted in Quah and Wee 2008, 229). The severed penis, a fundamental part of the male body for fertility and reproduction, is likened to the cultural sensitivity of the contemporary Sinophone individual. It is described as “a piece of something” that has been “deep-fried in oil to keep it dry and antiseptic” that a person has to sacrifice to “attain wealth and status” (ibid., 45). The narrative here reflects criticisms of Singapore’s arts scene as a “cultural desert” during the 1990s, reproaching the modern Sinophone person for sacrificing their cultural identity and self-castrating artistic development in the myopic pursuit of material success (Wee 2003). Although the contemporary individual may have been unwillingly or unwittingly subjected to such forms of self-castration, the circumscribed reality of castration, deracination, and entrapment by service to the state will remain as long as the pursuit of pragmatic economic gains continues to fragment local spheres (Koh 1989; Woon and Teo 2002).

As much as the play might have celebrated the appearance of harmonious multiracial relations, there is a much darker aspect of the Grand Eunuch Zheng He that reflects Kuo’s personal narrative on the Singaporean experience. It is worth highlighting that the division of roles between author, narrator, and actor is blurred in the play, hinting that Kuo might have conceived of Zheng He as a sort of alter ego. At several points in the play, the narrator conveys suspicion about the glorious and unmarred story of Zheng He, his voyages, and the multicultural productivity of markets vis-à-vis foreign encounters. In Scene 9, the narrator explicitly addresses the intentions and actual history of Zheng He, whom he states everyone knows as “the cleanest and the most respectable” of all famous eunuchs (Kuo 1995b, 51). Yet, he questions: “Had he really done nothing evil or untoward as a trusted lieutenant of a powerful Emperor well-known for his cruel and scheming nature? [. . .] Was he more than the eunuch that we have generally imagined him to be, or less than the hero which the historians and legends have portrayed him to be?” (ibid., 51–52).

What, then, is the purpose of Kuo making elusive references to tensions between eunuchs and civil officials, and how would such details be relevant to a contemporary Singaporean audience? The release of the play in 1995 is significant: in 1976, Kuo and his wife were interned without trial for allegedly being members of the Malayan People’s Liberation League and “propagat[ing] leftist dance and drama” (Straits Times 1976, 30; Wee 2004, 775). Prior to Kuo’s detainment, his radical theater practices overtly critiqued the displacement and exploitation that resulted from the Singaporean bureaucracy’s blinkered focus on rapid modernization, with titles such as Hey, Wake Up, 醒醒!(1968), The Struggle 挣扎 (1969), and Growing Up 成长 (1973).6) The PAP government released Kuo in October 1980 but did not reinstate his revoked citizenship until 1992—and then only after application (Wee and Lee 2003).

After four years and seven months in detention, Kuo moved away from a single-minded belief in drama as a means to reform society to a more complex understanding of art’s relation to society as he continued experimenting with multilingual theater (Devan 2000). He described the detention as “a moment of humbleness” and “a very sobering experience—you get cut down, you know that you don’t know enough” (Lo 1993, 138–139). Descendants was the only monodrama that Kuo himself wrote in both Chinese and English after being reinstated as a Singaporean citizen. The play’s expressionism was a turn away from his previous works, which were more straightforward and culturally accessible staged dramas; as Lin Ke Huan comments, Kuo’s earlier plays were “a little too eager in his social engagement. They were all like a tactless petition against social injustice and lacked the composure and cool detachment of a mature artist with the ability to rise above and transcend his material for the purpose of artistic creation” (Lin 2003, 140). Thus, Kuo’s change in theatrical direction and narrative technique during the mid-1980s reflects a renewed questioning of reality, history, and social concerns (ibid.). On a practical level, the turn to expressionism also served to engage a wider multiracial Singaporean audience (Krishnan 1997; Koh 1998; Lo 2004).

The 1990s in Singapore corresponds with significant shifts in literary and cultural production, when racial and ethnic themes became an important aspect of the popularization of Singaporean literary production (Krishnan 1997; Peterson 2001). Beginning in the 1980s, against the backdrop of the dominance of the English language, the government also intensified its “Speak Mandarin” campaign (Ong 1991; Kwok et al. 2002). This campaign coincided with a “Confucianist” discourse of development that valorized a certain definition of “Chinese-ness” and Sinitic values as the foundation of Singaporean culture (Tu 1991; 1996; Wee and Lee 2003; Kim 2014).7)

At the same time, the Singapore government also began plans to turn the nation into an international center of the arts by promoting an industry of aesthetic production (Nathan 1999). Although significant funds were provided by the Ministry of Information and the Arts for literary and dramatic productions, such activities pressured artists to commercialize their work to appeal to mass audiences for state sponsorship (Wong 2001). This move inevitably linked cultural production to state ideology, where literature and drama were incorporated in the government project of hegemonizing state ideology (Koh 1980; 1989; Wong 2001).8) The Singapore National Pledge of building a culturally open society “regardless of race, language or religion” seemed to be a rapidly fading vision (Ong 1991; Wee and Lee 2003).9)

The discourse of the castrated man and intellectual exile sustained throughout Kuo’s Descendants likely has personal significance. Although the author-narrator-actor attempts to speak out on behalf of contemporary society about issues of multiculturalism and the dangers of pragmatic capitalism, as a creative work the play reads more like an author’s spiritual journey of self-doubt, self-debate, and self-actualization. The journey of the narrator from anxiety to acceptance and respect toward his roots—or lack thereof—is punctuated with satirical humor and absurd scenarios. As a Sinophone Singaporean artist always speaking from the margins and from a unique expatriate experience, Kuo may have found a foil in Zheng He as the fundamental paradigm of a hybrid and diasporic existence. The antithesis of purity, Zheng He is a man of (post)modern transnational times, yet also its opposite as a premodern legendary character. In Kuo’s perspective, Singaporean society is one made up of “a body and history of uprooted peoples from different cultures, countries and races, living together, searching and struggling for something” (Kuo 1996, 172). Hence, Zheng He’s emasculated, fragmented, and exilic Hui Muslim Chinese life—as fractured as the contemporary Sinophone Singaporean’s cultural experience—fittingly comes through in Descendants as disjointed images.

The Modern Zheng He Figure

By positioning himself in the artistic role of a modern Sinophone eunuch, Kuo seeks to confront and overcome obstacles in his work put up by red tape and a mechanistic bureaucracy. Through this trying process, he gains a renewed respect for tradition, a newly gained perspective that leads him to a poignant recognition of his humanity, echoed in the concluding statement that “the eunuch admiral seemed never to have given up hope of finding an alternate life” (Kuo 1995a, 66). Kuo Pao Kun’s appropriation of Xiyang ji and the Eunuch Admiral Zhen He’s legacy in writing his Singaporean play therefore dramatizes an individual who holds on to a Chinese identity even while engaging with immersive multiraciality. The play engages the audience in what the narrator himself indicates as “dreaming all by [him]self” so as to be “able to look at [him]self, look inside [him]self, and look through [himself]” and into an encounter with the unfathomable depths of life together (ibid., 38). Kuo sets up a dialogical relationship with the premodern tale in Descendants, responding to and negotiating with the classical tradition. Put another way, cultural and ethnic castration can serve as an impetus for producing new cultural identities that are drawn from a multitude of parental sources to develop an “open culture” that can extend beyond the shores of the city-state. However, in the end, Descendants seems to tell us that cultural identity and history are hard to extricate from the economic and political realms—even Zheng He ultimately heeds the call of the markets (ibid., 67). Any person who is implicated in serving the state and the global markets must face the challenge of transcending the literal and symbolic violence done to the cultural sphere and aspire to flexible identities (Sim 2002; Wee and Lee 2003).

The theme of (self-)castration, read as a symptom, takes up the parameters of moral imperatives and reveals the inability and/or unwillingness of Singaporean Chinese writers to locate their ethnic identity in the flux of contemporary life. The severed and boxed-up penis that was once an essential part of a young man’s body allegorizes the troping of a fundamental Chinese cultural identity as the “past” of Singapore—a reminder of the past within the present, as something that has been cut and dried, rendered antiseptic and dead. Descendants represents Kuo Pao Kun’s yearning for a creative open culture and productive multiculturalism, but also directs an embittered critique at Singapore’s bureaucracy and cultural policies in hegemonizing a multiethnic society and marginalizing artistic creation. Although castrated, the Grand Eunuch’s corporeal non-productivity has been translated into textual and cultural Sinophone re-productivity as his legacy continues to sail on in the imaginations of many people. Artistic and cultural development is put forward not merely as an attempt to recapture a premodern past, but instead as a productive means to imagine a present moment of the past, and for proposing new directions toward a modernized and multiethnic Singaporean society.

Accepted: December 4, 2015

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1) Kuo’s achievements as an artist have been recognized in Singapore and internationally: he received the Cultural Medallion in 1989, the ASEAN Cultural Award in 1993, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the government of France in 1996, and the Excellence for Singapore Award in 2002. A number of his plays, including The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole (1985), The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree (1987), Mama Looking for Her Cat (1988), and Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (1995) have been pioneering works on Singapore’s art scene.

2) He was born in a poor village in Hebei and spent his youth in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore before moving to Australia for university and then back to Singapore.

3) For example, Mama Looking for Her Cat (1988) pioneered the concept of multilingual theater as a means to represent the complex multiracial and multicultural Singaporean experience, investigating Singapore’s compartmentalization of diverse racial communities brought about by the government’s language policies (Chan 2003; Quah 2004).

4) The concept of Sinophone studies was coined by Shu-mei Shih in 2004 to describe “Sinitic-language cultures and communities on the margins of China and Chineseness” (2004, 25). The Sinophone as a field of inquiry provides an alternative to the paradigm of China-centered national literary studies, allowing for the plurality of cultural identities, ethnicities, and linguistic practices of Sinitic-language communities globally, particularly those arising from colonial and postcolonial influences.

5) Page numbers cited from Two Plays by Kuo Pao Kun (2003) edited by C. J. W.-L. Wee and Lee Chee Keng.

6) Notably, The Struggle (1969) was banned by the authorities as it overtly dramatized Singapore’s social turmoil resulting from rapid urban reconstruction and inflow of multinational investment (Yu 2007).

7) As a result of this discourse, literary texts were studied in school alongside colonial texts, producing a generation of young Singaporean consumers of local fiction. This radically altered the Singaporean arts audience, which now consisted of younger but less well-educated people perusing literary works for entertainment rather than enlightenment (Koh 1980; Holden 2000; Kwok et al. 2002).

8) Koh Tai Ann’s work on cultural development in Singapore argues that the state’s promotion of cultural activity is linked to the political agenda of developing national solidarity and shaping national culture so that both ethnic communalism and “over-Westernization” are contained (1980; 1989, 717–718). The government’s ideological commitment to multiculturalism and a “democratic spirit that eclectically combines a socialist spirit with capitalism practices” means that cultural values and development are consistently, even insistently, linked to economic development and productivity (Koh 1989, 720; Wong 2001).

9) The public reception of literary texts was profoundly shaped and directed by the deep penetration of state ideological apparatuses. In 1994 Catherine Lim, a popular Singaporean author, wrote a social commentary on “The PAP and the People: A Great Affective Divide” published by The Straits Times. The article criticized the ruling party’s political agenda as one based on “logic, precision, meticulous analysis and hard-nosed calculation and quantification. Their style is impersonal, brisk, business-like, no-nonsense, pre-emptive” (Lim 1994, 16). This provoked an aggressive response from then Prime Minister Goh, who asserted that the authority of the prime minister should not be undermined by “writers on the fringe,” singling out writers in general as a peripheral class, whose activity of cultural production was to be nonpolitical. He articulates that the arena of the cultural should be “sanctuaries” from the political fray, and that only politicians had the right to represent the nation. Hence, the Singaporean artist is forced to shrink from sociopolitical work (Lim 1995; Tay 2011).