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THE NEW ASIAN CITY: Three-Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form. By Jini Kim Watson. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. xi, 311 pp. (B&W photos.) US$25.00, paper. ISBN 978-0-8166- 7573-9.
If there were one word to describe this book, it would be speed. The book focuses on the production of what Watson calls the “New Asian City” aesthetic of Singapore, Seoul and Taipei from the 1960s to the 1980s. The exhilaration of speed is not just that the urban explosion in the three cities was dizzying, such that any exposition of its fictional expressions would necessarily leave the reader with motion sickness. It is also that Watson, innovatively merging a Marxist materialist approach and a postcolonialist sensitivity to culture, takes the historical production of space seriously enough to begin her analysis from deep within the old colonial town, before bursting into the transformative nationalism of postwar urbanism and finally arriving at each of the three globalizing industrial cities to discover the cultural logics of the Asian city. Structured into three parts to cover each phase and compacted into a thin book, this is nothing short of a fast-paced ride through the compressed longue durée of East Asia’s incorporation into the capitalist world-system.
Despite the speed, the book does achieve a depth that many recent books on Asian urbanisms lacked due to their attempts to explicate what is new about the Asian city. Watson works through key fictional texts with a sharp eye to spatial aesthetics, digging into the political unconscious of imaginaries that prop up the architecture of modern Asian subjectivities. Ironically, Watson’s most crucial argument, which is only fully unveiled at the end of the book, is that the New Asian City is neither new nor specifically Asian. The modernity of the three cities, Watson argues, drawing from Michael Denning’s transnational history of globalization, is “the profound product of the age of three worlds, even as it is often thought of as exception to it” (253). In the interlinked global history of the East, the West and the South, the three cities are urban forms emergent from the contradictions of expansive capital that drive the dialectical moments of colonialism and nationalism, neocolonialism and globalization.
There are three major blind spots in the ride towards the gleaming concrete, steel and glass hearts of the Asian Tigers. The two theoretical figures that hold up the arc of the book’s argument are Henri Lefebvre and Franz Fanon. Fanon is the weaker column of the two. Watson begins the first part of the book on colonial cities with a long quote of Fanon’s famous Manichean splitting of the colonial city in The Wretched of the Earth, in which the native town is described as the crouching village to the settlers’ town of stone and steel. Watson imposes this framing unto Seoul and Taipei too easily, without pausing to consider the contrast between precolonial “Sino-influenced planning” to the “Japanese-controlled space” reflecting “Western-style colonialism” (39) as possibly too stereotypical.
When it comes to Singapore, Watson acknowledges the crucial distinction of the colonial port city. However, the initial and creative Heideggerian impulse to see worlding urbanisms quickly lapses into the stereotype of Singapore as segregated into the sanitized European town and the Chinatown of crouching natives. In part, this is due to Watson’s dependence on two works on Singapore’s colonial urbanism in the 1990s and neglect of the colonial port city scholarship that has emerged since then and Anoma Pieris’s Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore’s Plural Society (University of Hawai’i Press, 2009), which offers a complicated and fractured picture of Singapore’s urbanism.
The second blind spot is that despite the postcolonial sensibility, Watson tends to privilege interpretations of the Asian city and subjectivity by European modernists and postmodernists over worlding voices grounded in indigenous experience and local histories. This is especially so in the second part of the book that deals with postwar urbanism, as the cities found themselves caught in the Global South between East and West. I find it disconcerting that my own native Singapore is hung by Watson on Rem Koolhaas’ hook, supposedly suspended by Asian authoritarianism and inscrutability (101), the old tropes of Oriental despotism. On the other hand, Watson reduces prominent local architect and cultural theorist William Lim to a supposedly factual statement on the squalid slums that filled the immediate postwar landscape of Singapore (102). We are back to Fanon’s crouching native villages, but now with a Koolhaas Orientalist gloss. This blind spot is not limited to the critique of urbanism. In the second chapter of part 2, on interiority and the woman as trace Watson cites Partha Chatterjee’s formulation of the nationalist inner spirituality against the materiality of the public sphere (136). This is however quickly forgotten as Watson turns to the Frankfurt School to discuss how woman disappearing into the home functioned as a disavowal of the urban relations of production taking root outside (141). There is no sanctuary in the New Asian City, except perhaps in the fictional text itself.
Part 3, which Watson breaks into three chapters on the urban logics of capital as captured in poetry for Singapore, cinema for Taipei, and the novel for Seoul, is arguably the best part of the book. But even here, in the sanctuary of texts, the urban asserts its hegemonic sway only to end in capitalist nihilism. Each city’s dictator is counterpoised to ambivalent fictions and reduced to a psychoanalytic theme. Singapore is the orphaned technocratic utopia of progress and repression; Taipei is the dislocated space of mobility fantasies failing to escape from China; Seoul is the traumatized, ravaged landscape seeking democratic redemption and unification. In the final analysis, the city disappears into the literary forms, the specificity of which Watson fails to explain. The New Asian City turns out to be neither new, nor Asian, nor a city.
Daniel P.S. Goh, National University of Singapore, Singapore
Near the mid-point of this slim but thought-provoking book, Heonik Kwon recounts how for one Vietnamese family the Cold War ended not with the Eastern European upheavals of 1989, but rather in 1996, when an elderly mother finally made the choice to publicly commemorate both of her sons, who had died on opposite sides of her country’s prolonged and deeply internationalized civil war. Her belated decision to place the photograph of the son who died in the service of the South Vietnamese army alongside that of his “red hero” brother poignantly encapsulates Kwon’s trenchant critique of the prevailing interpretation of the Cold War as a historical era. As a social ethnographer who has written extensively on commemoration in Korea and Vietnam, Kwon has good reason to object to the popular portrayal of the Cold War as a “long peace,” arguing that such a narrative displays an excessive focus on the relatively tranquil Western and Soviet experiences of a period that witnessed very real and costly conflicts in other parts of the world. The Other Cold War makes a passionate and compelling case for shifting our perspective from the Northern Hemisphere’s experience of a largely metaphorical or “imaginary” bilateral conflict to, in contrast, a more socially and culturally oriented “bottom-up” analysis of the so-called “peripheral” regions of the developing world, where the fighting was frequently very “hot” and state terror nearly ubiquitous.
In his quest for a comprehensive new narrative for the Cold War era, Kwon has produced a heady historiographical and intellectual meta-analysis rather than a survey. While the book’s central section does draw more heavily on the author’s own first-hand research in South Korea and Vietnam, for the most part The Other Cold War is a dense and impressively wide-ranging exploration of the scholarly literature from several disciplines including history, anthropology, and social and cultural theory. For nearly 160 restless pages, the author interrogates the contributions of such broad subjects as postcoloniality, race and culture to our understanding of the Cold War, 385 Book Reviews promiscuously juxtaposing diverse theorists like Hannah Arendt, Slavoj Zizek and Dipesh Chakrabarty with prominent historians of international relations such as Marilyn Young, Bruce Cumings and Odd Arne Westad, whose work generally epitomizes archival empiricism. These inquiries frequently reward the reader’s concentration by recontextualizing seemingly familiar ideas or making novel connections between them. For example, Kwon suggests that Clifford Geertz’s “understanding that political power can be about ‘display, regard, and drama’ originates … in part from his observation of cold war politics as spectacle and drama in 1950s and 1960s America (and this is why his theory of symbolic power appeals to students of America’s cold war culture)” (151). Alternatively, in his discussion of postcolonial historiography, he questions the viability of Chakrabarty and Partha Chatterjee’s efforts to provincialize the Western experience of modernity on the basis that they neglect the extent to which the Cold War’s bilateral political imperatives immediately preoccupied postcolonial elites and replaced the power dynamics of the colonial era (127-129).
That said, a shortcoming of Kwon’s historiographical summary is that he probably exaggerates the dominance of the Western-centric, geopolitical “long peace” narrative in the first place. Mostly closely associated with John Lewis Gaddis (to Kwon’s mind at least), this narrative may still predominate in the public sphere, but for at least a decade now the “new international history” has already been very oriented around the production of bottomup, non-Western and global narratives. It is clear that Kwon does recognize this recent historical trend because he draws heavily on the work of those who exemplify it, such as the aforementioned Young and Westad, among others. Indeed, Columbia University Press has published The Other Cold War as part of a series overseen by two pioneers of the new international/global history, Matthew Connelly and Adam McKeown. Still, the initial impression that Kwon might be constructing a “long peace” unnecessarily distracts from this book’s real accomplishments.
Of those accomplishments, perhaps the most important is to remind would-be “new international historians” of the importance of searching for an ambitious, comprehensive new narrative of the Cold War. This book offers a refreshing reminder to those of us engaged in that endeavour that for all of the methodological innovations and novel contributions of the new wave of international history, a collective paradigm shift has not yet occurred. Certainly, Kwon does not yet have all the answers or a clear vision of the end goal, but he poses many of the right questions and provides an extremely valuable assessment of the road thus traveled. For this reason, The Other Cold War should quickly become necessary reading for all those interested in the global historiography of the late twentieth century.
Jeffrey James Byrne, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
China and Inner Asia
As China has continued to emerge as an economically formidable player on the world stage, the sustainability of its current one-party political system has come under increasing scrutiny. Kerry Brown’s book, written in 2010, provides an informed outsider’s commentary on the puzzles and paradoxes associated with the Chinese Communist Party attempt to develop democracy within the Party. A senior fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and author of several works on Chinese politics and policy, Brown is well placed to examine the question of whether China is working towards a new, Chinese, form of democracy—a question already well recognized as crucial by Chinese academics and political commentators themselves.
At the seventeenth national congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007, Hu Jintao was not only confirmed for a further five years as party general secretary (hence re-elected as president at the National People’s Congress the following year), but also gave a speech emphasizing the central role in leadership and modernization that the CPC was determined to play. This was to involve radical reform of all areas of administration aiming at changes that would support social stability while still deepening and extending the rule of law, promoting justice and making government more accountable to the people. While Hu’s speech was strong in its rhetoric but weak in details, three academics from the Central Party School in Beijing followed up the speech by publishing Storming the Fortress, a work that gave more detail on Hu’s reform agenda, and aimed to give substance to his comment that “without democracy there is no socialism.” Storming sets out a program for increasing democracy within the CPC through reforms to the people’s congresses, the systems of government and consultation, and the legal system. It also recommends greater separation between the CPC and the state along with the close regulation of civil society organizations and religious groups, to ensure that such groups work to improve, not subvert, government policies.
Storming the Fortress is very much the focus of Brown’s book, and is subject to detailed description and analysis in the long final fifth chapter. As a way into this, the author chooses the topic of elections, looking at the 393 Book Reviews CPC experiment in village democracy started in 1988, an experiment that some had hoped might provide a model for wider democratic reforms within the Party. As the historical first chapter of the book shows, elections and calls for democracy are not alien things in the twentieth-century history of China. The 1913 election, which brought Sun Yat Sen’s KMT to power, was followed by voter registration and elections in several provinces, and village elections were widely introduced in the 1920s. Mao’s reintroduction of village elections in 1988 was not therefore some new and unprecedented step into the realms of democracy.
In the second chapter, Brown shows that the idea that democracy is a good thing has not been alien to the ideology of the CPC itself, so long as any attempts at it are confined to “democracy within,” a kind of reform that does not challenge the Party’s role as leader, guide and stability-ensuring structure for the country as a whole. The problem for the CPC is how to shift a monolithic party apparatus into responding more flexibly to the impact of trade reforms, the country’s global economic importance, increases in personal wealth and general standards of living while at the same time the law courts are just as answerable to the CPC as is the military. With no separation of powers, how to ensure that legal agreements are properly binding and cannot be overturned at the whim of the cadres (Party officials). Likewise, how can a monolithic system encourage openness, proper scrutiny and accountability of budgets, not to mention citizen participation?
Democracy within might seem to be the answer to these questions, and the attempt to introduce a level of democracy to the lowest administrative division of the country—the 800,000 or so villages—seemed to provide a risk-free experiment. Villages, after all, play only an informal role in administration, have no significant budgets or statutory powers, and so the stakes in the experiment are not high. The third chapter shows that elections have often favoured Party stalwarts, so that the elected village heads are sometimes the Party heads as well. Where non-Party candidates, or candidates not favoured by local officials, have stood, they can be ruled out by Party bosses or even imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Where independent candidates have succeeded, they have not always had happy relations with Party officials, either at village or higher levels. In the fascinating fourth chapter, Brown lets the voices of Chinese people themselves reflect on what is to be learned from the whole experiment with village democracy and what it means for the project of expanding democracy within the CPC. These are brief, anonymous interviews he conducted with a cross-section of people: a political scientist, a retired Party official, two professors (disciplines unstated), a popular writer and a security official. Their well-reasoned yet divergent views give, so the author tells us, a picture of the uncertainty and diversity that currently characterize much of the debate on democracy within.
Naturally, there is much more to be said about democracy and related concepts such as power, freedom, participation and accountability than is given in this short book, which provides useful background for any more detailed discussion. As corruption, lawlessness and violence emerge as significant themes in the social fabric of contemporary China, the CPC faces problems that are also a challenge to liberal democracies. Brown’s discussion of the mixed results of the democracy experiment gives insight into how problematic China’s present development pathway is and into the perplexities its leaders face in confronting the challenges that lie ahead.
Andrew Brennan, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
ADMINISTERING THE COLONIZER: Manchuria’s Russians under Chinese Rule, 1918-29. Contemporary Chinese Studies. By Blaine R. Chiasson. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011, c2010. x. 285 pp. (Tables, maps, B&W photos, illus.) C$34.95, paper. ISBN 978-0-7748-1657-1.
During almost a decade, from 1921-1929, the Chinese government administered Russians, Chinese, Manchus and other foreigners living in the former Tsarist Russian concession in northern Manchuria under the name “Special District of the Three Eastern Provinces.” However, the 1929 Sino-Soviet conflict over the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER) undermined this “administrative experiment,” and Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria, followed by the 1932 creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo, quickly destroyed any remaining vestiges of this innovative system. After the end of World War II and following the Communist victory in 1949, almost all remaining Russians living in Manchuria were forced to leave China. The history of the “Special District,” and its remarkable impact on northern Manchuria, was soon forgotten.
Blaine R. Chiasson has revived this important history by using a wide range of Russian and Chinese secondary sources, augmented by extensive primary research at the Jilin Provincial Archives, Changchun, Jilin Province, the diplomatic archives held by the Ministère des Affairs Etrangère, Paris, France, and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, MD, plus access to a varied group of rare books, private papers and manuscript collections at Columbia University, Stanford University and Yale University. The majority of the endnotes are to primary sources or to contemporary press accounts, making this book the most authoritative source available on this topic.
Russian influence in China was often portrayed as being less rapacious than the other foreign powers, but this overlooked enormous Tsarist land acquisitions at Qing expense during the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, the single largest Russian enterprise in northern Manchuria, and so later the biggest bone of contention, was the CER. Built after 1896, when Count Sergei Witte and Viceroy Li Hongzhang agreed to cooperate in discouraging Japanese aggression, Li was later accused of creating even greater problems by “letting the Russian wolf into Chinese territory” (20). While building this railway shortcut from Chita to Vladivostok cut off almost a thousand kilometres of track from the longer and more difficult route in Russia proper, its construction also gave the Tsarist government a dominant political and economic position throughout northern Manchuria.
After the Russian revolutions of 1917, China tried to retake control over this strategic area, only to meet with Russian resistance. In October 1920, however, the Chinese government based in Beijing successfully abolished the Russians’ extraterritorial rights, making them subject for the first time to Chinese laws. It was at this time that the Special District was created to administer the Tsarist institutions. The Special District’s courts, for example, adopted Chinese—not Russian—as their principal language of business. The formerly Russian-run prisons were taken over by Chinese administrators, and conditions were improved to show that China could rule foreigners in a “fair and humane fashion” (88). Education was also a priority, and new schools were built and additional teachers—both Russian and Chinese—were hired.
During most of the 1920s the Chinese administrators of the Special District worked hard to exert greater control over the CER and its adjoining territory by pressuring the Soviet government to abide by its 1924 promise to discuss terms that would return the railway line to Chinese control. It was this rights-recovery policy, which intensified after the Nationalists took power and moved the capital to Nanjing in 1928, that resulted in China’s unsuccessful attempt during July 1929 to retake the CER by force. Mounting tensions with the USSR resulted in war, during which tens of thousands of Red Army troops invaded northern Manchuria. One unfortunate shortfall of this book is that Chiasson spends too little time discussing this war’s impact on the Special District. After the Soviet victory in December 1929, it appeared that Russian power throughout Manchuria would increase, perhaps even turning it into a Soviet puppet state similar to Mongolia. Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria completed the job of undermining the Special District.
Behind the high politics surrounding control over the CER, Chiasson discusses the significant changes brought about by the Chinese administrators: “The case of the Special District reveals that, given the opportunity, the Chinese could not only take over a European administration but also improve it” (222). Renowned for its “spirit of practical and pragmatic compromise” (224), the Special District represented a path not taken in Chinese history. Rather, after 1949 most foreigners were forcibly ejected from the PRC, not just in Manchuria but throughout China proper. If things had gone differently, and compromise had trumped conflict, other foreign concessions might have one by one fallen under Chinese control, only to be governed by administrative entities similar to the Special District.
Bruce A. Elleman, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, USA
BORDERLINE JAPAN: Foreigners and Frontier Controls in the Postwar Era. By Tessa Morris-Suzuki. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xi, 272 pp. (Figures, maps, illus.) US$96.95, cloth. ISBN 978-0- 521-86460-2.
Unlike much academic writing, Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s work is almost always clearly written and jargon-free, impeccably researched and, above all, original. From the idea that area studies is an obstacle to international understanding (“Anti-Area Studies,” Communal/Plural, 2000) to untying the post-structuralist Gordian knot that sees all representations of the past as untrue (The Past Within Us, London and New York: Verso, 2005); from coining the term “cosmetic multiculturalism” to describe Japanese-style multiculturalism (“Immigration and Citizenship in Contemporary Japan,” in Japan—Continuity and Change, edited by Javed Maswood et al., London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002) to rethinking the contours of Japan itself (Re-Inventing Japan, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), Morris-Suzuki’s writing is consistently innovative and thought-provoking. Her new work, Borderline Japan, is no exception.
One topic which has captured Morris-Suzuki’s attention in recent years is the history of Japanese border controls, particularly in relation to undocumented Korean migrants in early postwar Japan. The present volume is perhaps best seen as the culmination of many years of research in this area. As she takes pains to repeatedly point out, this is a largely neglected and under-researched field: for most scholars postwar migration in Japan began in the late 1970s with the arrival of the Indochinese refugees and other visibly different “newcomers.”
The introductory chapter opens with the story of an individual, “Mr Koh,” a Japanese resident of Korean descent who in 1949 briefly returned to his birthplace to visit his sick mother. This giving of voice to individual actors—through the diaries of Korean migrants, the letters of Japanese officials, and the correspondence of American occupiers—is a key feature of the book as a whole. Another is the framing of such “micro” vignettes in a broad international “macro” context.
Chapter 2 paints a broad historical picture of migration to and from Japan from colonial times through to the Cold War. Chapter 3 focuses more narrowly on repatriation operations during the early years of the Allied Occupation of Japan, outward voyages carrying mostly Koreans and incoming boats bringing Japanese troops back home. One unexpected phenomenon, however, was the increasing number of boats smuggling Koreans back into Japan, partly a result of the strict regulations regarding how much those departing were allowed to take out of Japan. These unauthorized re-arrivals were the catalyst for the new border control system, including the introduction of alien registration certificates, detailed in chapter 4.
Chapter 5 focuses on another group of undocumented and “forgotten” foreign migrants, Allied military forces, especially US troops. Here, Morris- Suzuki contrasts the mobility of the military, able to enter and leave Japan at will, with ordinary people whose movements are tightly regulated. Those who violated these regulations—regulations which changed as Japan’s relations with neighbouring countries evolved—often found themselves in the newly established Ōmura detention centre, which is the subject of chapter 6. The one key that could save such people from captivity and deportation was “special permission to stay.” Morris-Suzuki highlights the discretionary special permission system as playing “a surprisingly central role in Japan’s postwar policy towards foreigners” (167) and writes about this in detail in chapter 7.
Chapter 8, the penultimate chapter, is also one of the strongest. While briefly discussing Cold War repatriations to China, the main focus is the mass repatriation of Koreans from Japan to North Korea: between 1959 and 1984 93,340 people left to start new lives. What stands out most sharply here is the eagerness of the Japanese government to be rid of as many Korean residents as possible, regardless of the destination or consequences for these individuals. This is evidenced by the creation of various disincentives to stay, beginning with the exclusion of Koreans and other foreigners from the new Japanese welfare system put into place in 1959.
The main failing of the book is that it is not long enough. Although Morris- Suzuki frequently stresses the importance of history in the understanding of contemporary migration issues, the emphasis is firmly on the former. Put simply, the author falls short in her promise to show how the history of the “borderline” sheds light on the nature of policies and controls in the present day. Only on the last page or two of the final chapter does she present her proposals for the future of Japan’s migration policy. As the author points out (245), the current migration control and nationality system is essentially unchanged since the Cold War—and arguably even earlier—and “resistance to change remains profound” (9). Why is this the case? For a system that has been shown to be so clearly shaped by global forces, why is Japan, as Erin Chung (Immigration and Citizenship in Japan, Cambridge: CUP, 2010) has noted, the only advanced industrial democracy with a fourth generation immigrant problem? These are the kinds of questions that remain unanswered and leave the reader wishing for an extra chapter or two.
With the issue of voting rights for foreign residents having dropped off the political radar and the rise of right-wing groups such as Zaitokukai (an abbreviation of “Zainichi Tokken o Yurusanai Shimin no Kai,” literally “Group of Citizens Who Do Not Forgive Special Rights of Foreign Residents”), there is a real worry that the history of foreign residents in Japan—and Korean residents in particular—is being forgotten. “Without understanding this history,” the author (3) warns, “it is impossible to understand the issues of migration in modern Japan.” In this regard, Morris-Suzuki’s book should not only be considered required reading for Japanese Studies scholars and students, but for all Japanese who are unaware of the circumstances and sufferings of non-Japanese, the vast majority of whom wanted and continue to want nothing more than to peacefully work and live in—and travel in and out of—a country they have come to call home.
Chris Burgess, Tsuda College, Tokyo, Japan
THE QUEST FOR STATEHOOD: Korean Immigrant Nationalism and U.S. Sovereignty, 1905-1945. By Richard S. Kim. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xii, 223 pp. (Figures.) US$21.95, paper. ISBN 978-0- 19-537000-3.
Nationalism is the most powerful political force in modern Korean history. It has been the catalyst for wars and mass movements, and nationalist narratives have pervaded the social and cultural discourse in North and South Korea. Much ink has been spilled on the subject in historical scholarship, but one area that has not received much attention, especially in English-language publications, is the nationalism of the Korean diaspora. Richard S. Kim’s The Quest for Statehood is one of the first monographs to help fill this lacuna.
Kim’s study examines the history of nationalist activities by Korean immigrants in the US during the first half of the twentieth century, when their homeland suffered under the yoke of Japanese colonial rule. Part of a transnational movement, they joined their compatriots in Korea and in other parts of the diaspora, such as Manchuria, Siberia and Mexico, in the struggle to liberate their homeland. The Koreans in the US carried out a wide range of activities, from fund-raising and lobbying to publicizing their cause to the American public. A number of nationalist organizations appeared in Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, to spearhead their efforts and to work with the Korean Provisional Government (KPG) in Shanghai.
Yet, in spite of the common goal of Korean independence, the different groups did not always get along, and internal divisions afflicted the organizations themselves. Factions coalesced around feuding leaders, and personality conflicts and generational differences produced deep fissures in Korean immigrant nationalism. Ideology also played a role, with some Koreans leaning to the left on the political spectrum and others to the right. This reflected more broadly the bifurcation of Korean nationalism that began in the 1920s with the popularity of socialism and other forms of radical thought. Drawing on a rich trove of US archival sources, Korean and US newspapers, and the personal writings of nationalist leaders, Kim’s work deftly delves into the complicated and contentious politics of Korean immigrant nationalism.
The book’s central argument is that the nationalist activities of the Korean immigrants involved participation in the US political system and that, in the process, the Koreans ironically became integrated as an American ethnic group. In other words, assimilation in their adopted land became a by-product of the movement for homeland independence. The Korean struggle took inspiration in the US model of an independent and democratic nation-state. And although Koreans were denied citizenship in the US, they embraced its values and ideals, asserted their rights and liberties guaranteed under the law, and set about establishing organizations to represent their interests. By doing so, they claimed an American identity—the voice of an ethnic group seeking official and public acceptance and recognition.
The early decades of the twentieth century marked the emergence of the US as a global power. Aware of its increasing prominence on the international stage, the Korean immigrants sought assistance from US state power in achieving homeland independence. They realized that in the world of big-power politics, the Koreans could not succeed on their own but would require powerful backing. The Koreans in the US thus came to occupy a privileged position in the independence movement.
The main strength of Kim’s monograph lies in the detailed, in-depth discussion of the politics of Korean immigrant nationalism. It clearly shows that there was more to the independence movement in the US than just the activities of Philip Jaisohn and Syngman Rhee, which tend to dominate conventional Korean historiography. But in attempting to correct the oversight, the book goes to the other extreme at certain points. Kil Soo Haan, relatively unknown outside the US context, is accorded an entire chapter (with a mostly hagiographic portrait that makes no mention of the controversy his leftist orientation generated), while Syngman Rhee receives no comparable sustained treatment. The book seems to assume that the readers should already be informed of Rhee’s background and career, and it also perpetuates the rather simplistic view of him as little more than a self-aggrandizing bully.
In general, the work is much stronger on the US side of the history than the Korean. For example, to raise a couple of minor quibbles, it places the Manchu invasions in the sixteenth rather than seventeenth century (16) and uses the outdated and politically incorrect term “Yi” instead of “Chosŏn” to refer to the last Korean dynasty (1392-1910)—the former being the name of the ruling family, and the latter, the name the Koreans themselves used at the time to refer to the dynasty (168). There are interpretive problems as well. The book uncritically accepts the Korean nationalist view of the Japanese systematically confiscating land from the Koreans during the colonial period (168), when, in fact, Korean ownership of land also increased. Elsewhere, it sets up a false polarity between a “self-reliant” North Korea and a “neocolonial” South Korea (159-161); such reductionist labels hardly match the historical experience of the two nations. The book ends with an enigmatic statement that for Korea, “the quest for sovereign statehood will remain unfulfilled for another generation” (163). Are the North and South Koreans aware that their current governments are not sovereign states?
The Quest for Statehood attempts to serve as a bridge between Korean studies and Korean American studies. In spite of the formidable challenges of integrating the two fields, it is largely successful. Kim’s work on the crucial US scene contributes to a fuller portrait of the Korean nationalist movement. Combining exhaustive research with incisive analysis, it sets a model for further studies on nationalism in other areas of the Korean diaspora.
Sean C. Kim, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, USA
AN INDIAN POLITICAL LIFE: Charan Singh and Congress Politics, 1937-1961. The Politics of Northern India, 1937 to 1987; v.1. By Paul R. Brass. New Delhi and Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2011. xxx, 575 pp. (Tables, figures, maps.) US$49.95, cloth. ISBN 978-81-321-0686-9.
Charan Singh (1902-1987), who was very briefly prime minister of India and twice chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (India’s largest and most populous state), is somewhat forgotten and seldom discussed, at least in academic circles today. Paul Brass redresses this gap in what is proposed to be a multivolume study on Singh. One of the reasons why Brass embarked on this ambitious project was full access to Singh’s files, which were given to Brass by Singh himself. However, Brass does not intend his project to be a straight biography but one that “attempts to straddle the conventional division between an individual biography and the history of an epoch” (xiii) and in the process present “a broader history of northern Indian politics over the past 70 years” (xxi).
Brass mentions four aspects of Singh’s political career that are especially important for the purposes of his overall study: in his long career Singh was involved in all levels of the Indian political system; he was seen as the main spokesman for middle peasantry; he was identified with the backward castes; and he had a political vision for India’s development which was very different from Jawaharlal Nehru’s. A cursory look at Singh’s bio validates these points. Singh was first elected to the United Provinces Legislative Assembly from Meerut in 1937 and again in 1946, establishing himself as a leader of the middle cultivators and particularly the Jats, a peasant caste. From the 1930s Singh was agitating and writing on agricultural and land reform, playing a key role in the passage of the Zamindari Abolition Bill in UP. Following Indian independence he held important portfolios, including home, finance and agriculture, in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government. In 1967 he defected from the Congress to form his own party, the Bharatiya Kranti Dal, and became the first non-Congress chief minister of UP. In 1977 he was elected to Parliament and became home minister, deputy prime minister and finance minister and eventually prime minister for six months in 1979-1980.
In the volume under review, which covers the period from 1937 to 1961, Brass looks at, among other things, three critical issues which dominated Charan Singh’s life and work: the town versus village; law and order, corruption and criminality; and caste and factionalism within the UP Congress and selection of election candidates. This the author does by examining in detail Singh’s papers as well as using interviews conducted over years of fieldwork in UP beginning in the early 1960s. For Singh’s thoughts on the agricultural economy, Brass uses mostly Singh’s published writings and his correspondence as well as government documents, such as the Report of the United Provinces Zamindari Abolition Committee. Brass devotes a separate chapter to Singh’s opposition to the acquisition of land from villagers to build residential apartments, focusing on Ghaziabad (in western UP) where Brass in the 1960s had noted the possibility of the “tahsil” becoming an industrial complex one day. When he returns to Ghaziabad, now a district, in 2009 his prediction has come true. On corruption and the “permit-license-quotaraj,” which was the prevalent feature of the Indian economy during Singh’s lifetime, Brass uses Singh’s voluminous correspondence and government memos to make the important point that “corruption, and even criminality, were endemic to the system even before Independence” (158). On Singh himself, Brass says he “was feared because he was not playing the game, because he was serious about preserving his own reputation and about pursuing relentlessly… those he considered corrupt” (208). As Brass puts it later, “anti-corruption was Charan Singh’s principal calling card” (512). On the place of caste equations in the UP Congress, one of the more interesting episodes is the recurrent tension in relations between Singh and Nehru, with the latter disapproving of the “Jatpan” (Jatism) that Singh employed in his handling of Congress affairs in Meerut district. However, what was possibly Singh’s biggest contribution in this sphere was his challenge to the domination of high castes in north Indian politics and creation of the Backward Classes movement.
The picture that Brass draws of Singh is of a “man of principle and pride, a dedicated nationalist, who at once loved his country while condemning the path chosen for by its leaders and the majority of practicing politicians” (509). In any biographical project it is important to locate the relation between the biographer and the subject. Brass makes no secret of his admiration for Singh’s principled politics, even admitting that he “felt a certain kinship of character” (xxi) with Singh. However, this doesn’t stop Brass from criticizing Singh when his “political attitudes and policies were misguided” (xxii). This is especially so with Singh’s repeated threats to resign from the UP government through the 1950s but refusal to carry it out until April 1959. Brass notes that Singh’s “reputation was tarnished by his apparent profession of willingness to give up power for principle, when in fact he always held on to power and was ever ready to snatch at it when the opportunity arose” (498).
Brass’s book is a detailed, sometimes excessively so, reading of the life and times of Charan Singh over roughly three decades. It is an important work for anyone trying to understand the dynamics and complexities of politics in north India during that period.
Ronojoy Sen, National University of Singapore, Singapore
This is an illuminating book on a difficult subject, which highlights the glowing points of intersection of religion and law through the judgments of the Supreme Court of India, and in doing so throws light on several issues associated with nationalism, secularism, multiculturalism and Hinduism.
It explores in particular the Supreme Court’s attempts to (1) define Hinduism; (2) sift what is “essential to Hinduism” from what is not; (3) regulate use of religion, specially Hindutva, in electioneering; (4) adjudicate the relationship of religion and educational institutions; (5) address issues of conversion; and (6) clarify minority rights. Don’t let this skeleton sketch of the template mislead you; each theme is examined in granular detail with an abundance of facts and concepts. Nor is it a book merely for specialists, for at stake is the role of religion in modern India from one point of view, or the nature of Indian secularism from another. The selection of the judgments of the Supreme Court to shed light on these issues is justified by the fact that, unlike the debates in intellectual and political circles on these issues which might be termed descriptive, the rulings of the Supreme Court are prescriptive in nature and therefore shape the very nature of what concepts like secularism, religious reform and religious freedom actually come to mean. The author is therefore to be complimented for producing such a good book on such contested issues from which the student, the scholar, and the interested citizen may equally benefit.
The topics it discusses are however so contested that almost any reader will have some suggestions about what could have been additionally included in the discussion or carried to a more convincing conclusion. The author discusses how far-reaching the intervention of the court has been in the management of Hindu religious institutions (48, 194, 200). But the author doesn’t highlight its danger. If the government will manage Hindu temples on such a scale, then could not the Hindu community turn around and claim that the state should become a Hindu state, if it is going to do so, especially when the Court is apparently not intervening to the same extent in running the institutions of other religions. Now we can see why Donald Eugene Smith identified this feature of Indian secularism as potentially the most dangerous for it (see India as a Secular State, 1963, 497).
It seems to this reviewer that some of the problems regarding issues pertaining to defining Hinduism and to conversion stem from the Western background of these words and could be clarified if this was pointed out. The word religion has the connotation of exclusive identity in European languages, but the word has been applied blindly to the religions of Indian origin, which are more open to multiple religious identities. The Court is groping to find a way out of this bind by defining Hinduism as a way of life. If we realize that when a Hindu converts to Christianity he converts not just to another religion but to another concept of religion as well, then we may have a better appreciation of the Court’s predicament. What is true of religion is also true of conversion. The right to convert can mean two things: (1) my right to change my religion and (2) someone else’s right to ask me to change my religion. The courts are trying to uphold it in the first sense rather than in the second, but these two senses have not been distinguished in Western discourse because, as a missionary religion, Christianity has no need to. Hence the sense of confusion. Once conceptual clarity is reached on such points the Court’s efforts, while still clumsy, may appear less misguided.
Arvind Sharma , McGill University, Montreal, Canada
GLIMPSES OF FREEDOM: Independent Cinema in Southeast Asia. Studies on Southeast Asia, no. 55. May Adadol Ingawanij and Benjamin McKay, editors. Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2012. viii, 239 pp. (Illus.) US$23.95, paper. ISBN 978-0-8772-7755-2.
Glimpses of Freedom is a 16-chapter edited volume which examines the varied practices of the independent cinema in Southeast Asia, arguably one of the freshest and most exciting areas of scholarship in Southeast Asian Studies today. Independent or indie cinema is not a new phenomenon in the region, as May Adadol Ingawanij carefully qualifies in the introduction to the volume. However, it has made a forceful resurgence since the late 1990s as a result of a combination of cultural, technological, economic and political transformations unfolding locally as well as globally. It is on this resurgence that the volume sets its critical eye.
Precisely what these transformations are and how they serve as the conditions of possibility for the twenty-first-century resurgence of independent cinema in the region constitute the first of three key questions which the editors of the volume asked the contributors to tackle in their respective chapters. The second question pertains to the problematic nature of the term “independent” itself. Is the common definition of “independent” cinema as operating outside of the usual strictures, including the major studio system, sufficient to grasp the current phenomenon; or rather, as Ingawanij poses, should the term not be reconceived in light of the practical multiple dependencies of indie cinema in the region? In what ways, in other words, is independent cinema in Southeast Asia simultaneously free and unfree from not only the studio system of funding, production and exhibition but also from such factors as state power and transnational market forces? The third and final question which the contributors to this volume were tasked to investigate concerns viewing practices, cinema’s potential for creating alternative public spheres, and the role of film piracy. How do these issues relate or apply to independent filmmaking and film culture in the region?
These overarching questions are deftly tackled by the contributors in a style and format of their choice, as befits their approach. A key strength of the volume is that not all contributors chose to adopt the conventional academic language or format to get their point across. Chris Chong’s chapter, “Aku, Perempuan, dan Perempuan Itu: Me, Woman, and That Woman,” for instance, is a sprightly interview with John Badalu, director of Indonesia’s Q! Film Festival, set in the question-and-answer format. “Piracy Boom Boom” by Filipino filmmaker, John Torres, is an offbeat first-person narrative about his adventure as an undercover agent of sorts on the streets of Katipunan. There he tries to make a sales pitch to a pirated DVD peddler with the hope of selling the DVDs of his films through the pirate network and street “outlets.” Yet another example of a chapter that eschews the usual straightlaced academic approach is Benedict Anderson’s “The Strange Story of a Strange Beast,” which examines the different receptions to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes-celebrated Sat pralaat (Tropical Malady). Breezily, yet astutely, Anderson throws light on the ironic gulf of interpretation between urban Bangkokians (who found the film difficult and mysterious) and upcountry Thais (for whom the film was clear and gripping). These varied ways of talking about indie cinema in Southeast Asia all add up to make Glimpses of Freedom a generally accessible book, one that is both timely and necessary in defining the contours of an emerging field still riddled with large gaps of knowledge.
Most of the other chapters are written in an academic style; a couple of these use somewhat dense or jargon-heavy language. While this is unlikely to be an issue for experts and informed enthusiasts of Southeast Asian independent cinema, general readers might find some chapters more challenging than others, especially if they are unfamiliar with the films discussed. But then such is the hazard of writing about film, at least until a workable way is found to package a book on film together with the films discussed on an accompanying DVD at reasonable cost.
Other minor issues in Glimpses of Freedom do not detract from it being a solid book and essential reading for anyone, expert and general readers alike, wanting to know more about indie cinema in Southeast Asia. The first lies in the way the volume is sectioned. The chapters are divided into three parts, namely Action, Reflection, and Advocacy. While explanation for the sectioning provided in the introduction makes sense, the chapters could in fact be sectioned differently and the explanations would still hold. Second, the significance of the title given to the volume, Glimpses of Freedom, is not explicitly discussed. No doubt, readers will be able to make their own meaning of the title but some would prefer it if some pointers were given. Third, the final chapter, titled “The Beginnings of Digital Cinema in Southeast Asia,” while interesting in itself, seems somewhat out of place in the volume, for it mostly repeats much of what has been covered in the rest of the chapters. Finally, the chapter by Tilman Baumgärtel, which otherwise does a fine job in thinking through the role of film piracy in the expansion of film culture in Southeast Asia, mistranslates Ciplak, the title of the Malaysian indie discussed, as “pariah” instead “copy” (or, in context, illegal inferior copy or copying of an original DVD).
Notwithstanding these, Glimpses of Freedom remains an important book which readers might find profitable to read alongside two other related volumes published around the same time. The first, also on indie cinema, is Southeast Asian Independent Cinema (Hong Kong University Press and NUS Press, 2012), edited by Tilman Baumgärtel; while the second, on films across genres, is Film in Contemporary Southeast Asia: Cultural Interpretation and Social Intervention (Routledge, 2012), edited by myself and Hiroyuki Yamamoto.
David C. L. Lim, Open University Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
BURMA OR MYANMAR?: The Struggle for National Identity. Editor, Lowell Dittmer. Singapore; Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific, 2010, xiv, 380 pp. (Tables, figures.) US$98.00, cloth. ISBN 978-981-4313-64-3.
The collective astonishment over recent political reforms in Myanmar reflects the legacy of particular discourses that have been in play since the end of the Cold War. For nearly twenty-five years, Myanmar’s domestic situation has been internationalized and interpreted through the terms and experiences that accompanied the rise of liberal-democracies in other parts of the world. The anticipation for Myanmar and the failure to meet these prescribed political expectations inspired a whole genre of scholarship that emphasized the country’s exceptional differences. As a result, analyses of Myanmar’s contemporary situation were often cast in binary terms that overlooked the more complex dynamics and long-term patterns that have characterized Myanmar history and society. At first glance, the publishing of Lowell Dittmer’s edited volume, Burma or Myanmar?: The Struggle for National Identity, might be appreciated as a product of that epistemological context, having been conceived and published before the elections of 2010 and the ensuing reforms of 2011-2012.
Dittmer introduces the collection of twelve essays as a departure from this framing by proposing that the contemporary struggles and fragmentation that we have witnessed in the last two-and-a-half decades reflect a longer developmental crisis: Myanmar’s people were never allowed to fully develop a national identity due to systematic suppression (presumably by the military). As a result, Myanmar’s anticipated political development was stunted, resulting in deep rifts within Burmese society and with the international community. Public demonstrations and protests in 1988, 1990, 2003 and 2007 could thus be read as attempts by the masses to realize the pre-ordained outcome of democracy. While readers might question the volume’s brief treatment of national identity as strictly a coherent, organic, non-state process, the initial framing of the collection is an important step because it offers the potential for thinking about contemporary Myanmar from a potentially more inclusive, inter-disciplinary perspective.
The book is organized into four sub-sections (Mass Politics, Elite Politics, Political Economy and Foreign Policy) that loosely link the individual chapters together. Six of the chapters stem from earlier versions that appeared in a special issue of Asian Survey (vol. 48, no. 6, 2008) and reflect familiar discourses of Myanmar that followed the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007. While many of these chapters were updated to 2009, issues surrounding the student demonstrations of 1988, the 1990s elections, democratic change, minority issues, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the various failures of the state continue to structure the analyses.
In the first section, Mass Politics, Ian Holliday considers the prospects for a democratic transition, Tom Kramer surveys the domestic situation from the perspective of ethnic groups, and Christian Fink traces the humanitarian crises to the state’s perception of itself in relation to Burmese society. All three contributions exemplify key tropes that have dominated mainstream representations about Myanmar and settle comfortably upon Dittmer’s thesis of a developmental crisis.
The second section, Elite Politics, features two of the strongest articles in the collection. The chapter by Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: A Burmese Dissident Democrat” is both courageous and insightful in the way that it historicizes and unpacks the image of the democracy icon and her party. Kyaw Yin Hlaing’s analysis urges us to reconsider the many discourses—especially those connected to “the” opposition—that have been deprived of serious academic scrutiny. Win Min’s chapter will be appreciated by readers who have been unsatisfied by the portrayal of a monolithic military in domestic politics. Win Min makes a convincing case that the struggles within the military has less to do with current political contests and more to do with the structures of Myanmar society. Where Kyaw Yin Hlaing and Win Min depart from conventional views, Daniel Goma’s chapter returns readers to a more recognizable critique of the military government by examining the founding of Naypyidaw.
The third section, Political Economy, provides an important example of how our sources, criteria, and analytical assumptions produce different images of Myanmar. Sean Turnell’s article focuses on the oft-mentioned dichotomy between Myanmar’s abundant natural resources (in particular natural gas) and the deplorable socio-economic conditions afflicting society, and provides a criticism of state policy that intersects closely with the earlier chapter by Christina Fink. Jalal Alamgir’s chapter offers a timely reassessment of the “isolationist” image of Myanmar by showing that the country actually increased its international trade with a wide range of partners despite being characterized as reclusive and insular. Of all the chapters in the volume, it was the only analysis that attempted to make a connection with the issue of national identity.
The final section, Foreign Policy, addresses relationships that Myanmar has developed with China, India, and ASEAN, respectively. Min Zin evaluates the multi-layered relationship between China and Myanmar, noting that both sides have a range of objectives, despite the perception that their respective policies are coherently articulated. Renaud Egreteau’s comments on India’s relationship with Myanmar suggest that India has not been as successful as China in developing its strategic position and explores the different partnerships. Stephen McCarthy’s survey of ASEAN’s relationship with Myanmar recaps the signature diplomatic events and issues that have become part and parcel of the international discussion on Myanmar’s domestic affairs. At the risk of understating the moments of fine analysis within each of these contributions, the final section tended to reify and rehash the same narratives and critiques that have structured the mainstream image of Myanmar since 1988.
Taken together, the volume lacked a sense of cohesiveness, both in focus and execution. While most edited volumes suffer from this shortcoming, it was curious that most of the contributors did not attempt to engage the theme of identity. In addition, there was little attempt by the contributors to engage each other’s arguments. For example, it would have been interesting to read how Goma and Min Zin (whose chapters rely on the conventional notion of Myanmar isolationism) would have responded to the critique of that image by Jalal Almagir and, to some extent, Stephen McCarthy.
Finally, the majority of the chapters in this volume neglected to comment on the nature of their sources, situate their perspectives, or recognize the contested nature of many of the events or positions employed in their analyses. One of the challenges facing Myanmar is that many of the key stakeholders within the country have had different ideas about what constitutes a national community, due to different historical, geographical, political, religious and linguistic experiences that began well before 1988. Directing our scholarly attention to those long-term factors might broaden and deepen our understanding of community formation in Myanmar.
Maitrii Aung-Thwin, National University of Singapore, Singapore
Australasia and the Pacific
ON THE EDGE OF THE GLOBAL: Modern Anxieties in a Pacific Island Nation. Contemporary Issues in Asia and the Pacific. By Niko Besnier. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. xxiv, 297 pp. (Tables, maps, graphs, B&W photos.) US$70.00, cloth, ISBN 978-0-8047-7405-5; US$22.95, paper, ISBN 978-0-8047-7406-2, E-Book, ISBN 978-0-8047-7764-3.
On the Edge of the Global: Modern Anxieties in a Pacific Island Nation takes us to different places and agents of Tongan modernities situated at the con- and disjunctures of the local and the global in the urban capital Nuku’alofa. The book focuses on objects, bodies, consumption and performance as important sites where the local and the global are negotiated and connects them to transformations of gendered selves, social distinction and practice. Exploring sites of daily life such as flea markets, pawn shops, beauty parlours, beauty contests, evangelical church services and the gym, Besnier achieves a fascinating actor-centered ethnography of how urban modernity in Tonga is defined, enacted and performed by people of different segments of society. The book depicts vividly what is at stake for the actors involved and the emotions that surround these processes. Besnier’s work deeply benefits from his more than thirty-year-long engagement with people in Tonga. His book will resonate with questions that have emerged for many who have been working in diasporic societies in the Pacific over the last decades. It is a pleasure to read.
Tonga, like other Pacific Island societies, is located on the margins of the global in economic and geopolitical terms. Yet at the same time, society’s diasporic character keeps the global close to home. Almost every family has relatives who live in the richer states of the Pacific rim (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and migrants and their descendants hold close contact with the homeland. In consequence, being modern in Tonga always engages with two realms which are not always distinct but may blend and overlap: on one hand the “local forces of grounded reality” (12), e.g. Tonga’s hierarchical social stratification, ritual and ceremonial obligations and local notions of gendered selves, persons and beauty; on the other hand, the modern world of the diaspora and the West that is always part of local imaginaries and desires. These processes vary in different sites “with different relationships to a larger global context” (27).
One of the strengths of this book that distinguishes it from other studies of globalization is the exploration of the emotive dimensions that are involved in these engagements with modernity. Like in other Pacific Island nations (e.g. fa’a Samoa in Samoa, vakavanua in Fiji) Tongan discourse ideologically frequently distinguishes between “the Tongan way” (anga faka-Tonga) and outside modernity. However, in practice, people constantly negotiate their selves and worlds between the local and the global. Anga faka-Tonga is a polysemic term that embraces everything that is locally defined as being Tongan. The notion is associated with ofa (empathy, compassion, generosity) and ‘ulungaanga faka’apa’apa (respect). To not respect and not behave according to tradition on the contrary brings mā (shame, embarrassment, humiliation). Thus modernity raises multifaceted anxieties: how one can participate in modernity first of all; but also how to be modern without being considered disrespectful of tradition and thus to experience humiliation and shame.
This predicament becomes most obvious at sites that are part of Tongan neo-liberal capitalism: flea markets and pawnshops. Both are situated at the margins of Tongan society and highlight the articulation of Tongan capitalism with consumption, dilemmas of entrepreneurialism and multiple meanings of objects as gifts and commodities. Flea market traders and pawnshop owners have to balance the necessities of capitalist enterprise with obligations to family and kinship. Clothing, the main article sold at the markets, embodies transnationalism. Clothes are often obtained from relatives overseas instead of monetary remittances and in exchange for koloa, Tongan highly valued textile valuables (mats and barkcloth) presented in rituals and ceremonies. Koloa thus hold a double meaning as gift and commodity and are part of people’s participation not only in tradition but also in modernity. This is aptly explored at the site of the pawnshop where people pawn koloa for cash loans, but then retrieve these objects again to present them as gifts in ceremonies in order to demonstrate one’s respect for tradition.
It is noteworthy that Besnier never loses sight of the gendered dimensions of modernity and a major part of the book discusses the interconnected themes of gendered selves, beauty ideals, the body and performance. Comparing two types of beauty contests, one for women and one for transgender leiti, the author highlights how the boundaries between locality and cosmopolitanism shift in different contexts. While the national Miss Heilala beauty emphasizes Tongan notions of femininity, the transgender Miss Galaxy contest highlights the articulation of transgender leiti with the modern world. If beauty contests and beauty salons are the sites where femininity and transgender ideals are negotiated, sport is the site where Tongan masculinity is defined. By playing rugby and working out at the gym, men cultivate the modern body and self. The book shows well how the medicalization of the body has brought new ideas of fitness, body shapes and nutrition that entangle with Tongan notions of size as a sign of rank and prestige.
The last ethnographic part of the book turns to evangelical churches as modernizing projects. Evangelicalism openly preaches individuality and upward social mobility through education and enterprise, thereby turning its back on the traditionalism of kinship, ritual and rank. The new churches provide modern opportunities for people from all social backgrounds, and their constant growth over the last decades reveals their importance for the local production of modernity. The exploration of religion will be of special interest to those interested in Pentecostalism in the Pacific and elsewhere.
Throughout his book Besnier thus locates the production of modernity in “both local-global and local-local engagements” (242). His nuanced analysis of the multifaceted processes at work makes the book valuable not only for scholars of Pacific societies and their diasporas, but for everyone concerned with contemporary dynamics of globalization. His focus on urban sites of daily life renders the book different from other studies of modernity and globalization in the Pacific, and paves the way for hopefully more studies to come.
Sina Emde, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany
Documentary Film Review
INTO THE CURRENT = YAYZAN LAN: Burma’s Political Prisoners. [Film] By Jeanne Hallacy and the Democratic Voice of Burma; directed by Jeanne Marie Hallacy; editors, Ken Schneider and Ellen Bruno. Burma: Democratic Voice of Burma; Harriman, NY: distributed by Media Library, 2012. 1 videodisc (76 mins.) Universities, US$295.00; Public Libraries/Schools K-12, US$85.00; Home use, US$30.00. URL: www.intothecurrent.org.
In collaboration with the Democratic Voice of Burma, the news group made famous by the Oscar-nominated documentary, Burma VJ, Jeanne Hallacy and Ellen Bruno present Into the Current: Burma’s Political Prisoners. The documentary consists of in-depth interviews with a number of former political prisoners, and presents background history of some of the major events in the history of social movements in Burma so the viewer new to politics in Burma would understand the context of the documentary’s protagonists. The documentary incorporates some incredibly poignant footage from the 1988 uprisings inside Burma, as well as scenes of strife in border ethnic nationality areas. The message is altogether clear: Burma’s political prisoners have made a great sacrifice for their vision for a democratic Burma, and they continue to work for that today, even in exile.
Viewers are presented with the heart-rending stories of a number of former political prisoners in Burma, both male and female, and also with a sketch of the situation for current political prisoners in the country. We learn of how Aung San Suu Kyi came to prominence during the 8 August 1988 uprisings, or 8-8-88 as it is often referred to. There are inspiring scenes of a massive, non-violent peoples’ movement, and one that is later cracked down upon and dispersed. From the former prisoners themselves, viewers learn how they coped emotionally while in the prison, even solitary confinement, from writing and memorizing poems and songs, to feeding the ants that crawled on the cell floors and walls. One former prisoner, Khun Saing, narrates how he had written a song about Nelson Mandela, “Echo for Mandela,” and would sing it when the authorities were just barely out of earshot. From there, other prisoners learned the song, and it was able to spread throughout the prison.
Many of the former prisoners interviewed recount times when the Burmese authorities treated them brutally, beating and kicking them into submission. From testimonials of former prisoners who have been released, we learn how some, for fear of rearrest, migrated to Mae Sot, Thailand, and were able to gain refugee status and resettlement in a third country. Khun Saing, for example, was resettled to England, but had to leave his wife and small daughter behind. Another former prisoner, and the main personality in this documentary, Bo Kyi, claims that he would like to leave Mae Sot, but his dedication to helping to work for those still imprisoned in Burma keeps him in the region.
The film also incorporates interviews with the comedian Zaganar, who has been repeatedly imprisoned for his satire comedies, and later for his relief efforts to assist victims of cyclone Nargis in 2008. Regarding the former, Yayzan Lan amazingly was able to acquire some footage from “Beggars’ Convention,” the comedy stage show for which Zaganar was arrested and imprisoned by authorities for four years.
While the work is important and their cause is indeed noble, some scenes paint a picture of stark contrast where some nuance is due. For example, in the opening scenes the narrator states, “my grandparents knew a time when Burma was free,” but does not specify how and why colonial independence meant freedom, nor are any of the political developments leading up to the 1962 coup brought to the attention of viewers. In this sense, the film provides general impressions of social problems in Burma, inequities between expenditures on the military and those on health and education, and thus gives viewers a background to the political activists’ motivation.
Importantly as well, viewers are informed of the offenses which provoked the imprisonment of the political activists. “Crimes” such as document delivery to Aung San Suu Kyi are shown on the screen, along with the individuals’ lengthy sentences as a result. One point which could be shown is that political prisoners are arrested under existing laws, and it would be even more illuminating to show viewers the actual law instead of just the initial offense. But again, this critique might be taking from the expediency of the documentary’s ability to portray the story of political prisoners to viewers unfamiliar with the context. Continuing on this tack, viewers are shown Burmese political activists in exile in Mae Sot, Thailand, as well as scenes from refugee camps near Mae Sot. Nothing is mentioned of the tenuous relationship between migrants and refugees from Burma and the Thai government which often does not allow them legally to stay on Thai soil.
Those relatively minor quibbles aside, Yayzan Lan can profitably be used in the classroom, especially in courses dealing with issues such as human rights in Southeast Asia, or courses on Burmese politics and democratization. It would make a good in-class viewing companion to an assigned reading such as Christina Fink’s book, Living Silence, so that students would get more background context to the issue of political prisoners and the broader political movement of which they are a part.
A great deal of this has changed in the past year, but Yayzan Lan is valuable in depicting the history and struggles of the democracy movement in Burma, particularly as the “88” generation of students takes a more prominent role in the country’s politics. One of the most famous political prisoners, Min Ko Naing, as portrayed in the film, has been released and has come to greater prominence in his activism over continued issues of political repression in the past year. Overall, the documentary is an important and valuable contribution to teaching outsiders the social history of Burma during a difficult time.
Jane M. Ferguson, The University of Sydney, Camperdown, Australia