The Government Intermediary: The Role of Middlemen and Socio-Cultural Brokers in Past and Present Southeast Asia, ca. 1800–2000
Time & LocationSession 4
Wed 15:30–17:00 Fritz-Reuter-Saal
- Fridus Steijlen Leiden University
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- From Coolie Brokers to Bureaucrats and Consuls: Chinese and European Intermediaries in the Recruitment and Regulation of Chinese Labor Migration in the Netherlands East Indies and the British Straits Settlements, 1870–1930 Bastiaan Nugteren European University Institute
The Dutch and British colonies of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Southeast-Asia saw the arrival of millions of Chinese labor migrants. In order to feed their insatiable hunger for natural resources, colonial governments, planters and mine owners went at great length to secure a steady stream of Chinese labor to work in the colonies. Although they utilized all the personal and diplomatic relations they could in order to gain a firm foothold in the ‘coolie market’ on the southeast coast of China, the Dutch and British plantation and mine owners remained highly dependent on Chinese community leaders, opium farmers, and wealthy merchants for arranging and accommodating these large groups of migrants. But besides Chinese labor being in high demand, the growing amount of – often impoverished – migrants in the colonial cities also sparked much anger amongst the European settler population against the crimes of so-called ‘coolie brokers’, forcing the two colonial governments to further regulate migration and tighten their imperial borders. In doing so, both governments attempted to diminish Chinese-organized labor migration, and replace it with Chinese Protectorates, immigration offices, and immigration laws. However, the attempted bureaucratization and ‘rationalization’ of immigration policies also led to an increased involvement of the Qing Empire and the Republic of China respectively.
The recruitment of Chinese laborers and the regulation of Chinese migration was therefore a complex interplay of actors, interests, and intermediaries. Amongst others, it involved Chinese community leaders and ‘coolie brokers’, European merchants, industrialists, government advisors and immigration officers, as well as representatives of the Chinese government working in the Consulates and Chinese Chambers of Commerce. This paper will shed more light on this wide variety of actors connected to the ‘Chinese migration question’ in the Netherlands East Indies and the British Straits Settlements during the high peak of Chinese migration between 1870 and 1930. From ‘coolie brokers’ to consuls and bureaucrats, the wide variety of actors and intermediaries made the recruitment of labor and regulation of migration a highly complicated and contentious affair.
- Straits Chinese, British Subjects, Imperial Citizens: Reconceptualising Peranakan Chinese Politics and Identity in Turn of the Century Malaya, 1890–1918 Bernard Keo Monash University
A hybridised overseas Chinese community, the Peranakan Chinese served as a bridge connecting Chinese, Malay and colonial communities across Southeast Asia. Occupying the space between these communities, the Peranakan were able to carve out an influential position owing to their ability to navigate within and between different cultural worlds. Within the Straits Settlements, the Peranakan have largely been categorised in previous works as loyal compradors to the colonial government, serving as economic and political middlemen as well as cultural brokers between the Chinese, Malays and British of Malaya (Winstedt 1923; Gullick 1964; Clammer 1980; Tan 1988). Building on recent scholarship that challenges long-held assumptions that the Peranakan were primarily dedicated servants to the colonial enterprise (Goh 2010), this paper proposes a critical re-examination of the Peranakan as complex political actors during the height of the colonial period in British Malaya.
Focussing on the activities of leading Peranakan figures such as Tan Cheng Lock, Lim Boon Keng, Sir Song Ong Siang and Lim Cheng Ean, I make the case that the Peranakan had a multi-layered sense of identity. More specifically, they thought of themselves as a hybrid community combining the best aspects of East and West, as proud residents of the Straits Settlements, and as cosmopolitan imperial citizens of the British Empire. This complex melange of identities coloured their relationship with the colonial government. Rather than being straightforward Anglophiles, as older narratives suggest, or presciently postcolonial activists as more recent works have elucidated, the Peranakan were firm believers in the ideals of the British Empire and as such, were willing to take the colonial government to task when they failed to live up to what the Peranakan thought of as British standards.
By engaging with a reassessment of the Peranakan Chinese in turn of the century British Malaya, my work seeks to dispel long-standing conceptions of the community as uncritical middlemen facilitating the British imperial project in Malaya. In so doing, it contributes to a growing literature that addresses the complex ways Southeast Asian communities interacted with imperial powers in the region beyond simply serving in support roles to the colonial project.
- The “Misbehaviors” of Colonial Modernity: The Everyday Labor and Politics of Chartists, Women, and Vietnamese Librarians in the French Colonial Indochina Library, 1908–1945 Cindy Nguyen Brown University
The Vietnamese library was never quiet. Readers flooded the Central Library to escape the heat in the summers, and lovers huddled in corners during the unforgiving Hanoi winters. Frequent library patrons complained loudly to library staff and the press about the lack of chairs for readers and unfair borrowing privileges for Vietnamese compared to Europeans. Everyday conflicts between workers and readers, French and Vietnamese, are scattered throughout the internal library documentation along with occasional violent and contentious library dramas: a French patron slaps a Vietnamese librarian, a lifetime revocation of library privileges, and a mysterious death reported as a suicide.
The Vietnamese library was never ‘orderly.’ Library administrators struggled to make sense of the uncategorized and poorly maintained library collections and figure out why certain works kept disappearing. Was it clerk Lê Th? V?nh who regularly showed up late to work, was caught reading during working hours, often forgot to log book loans, who was to blame for the missing materials in the Saigon Library? Was the uneven application of ‘modern, Western, scientific, and standardized’ library classification systems the reason for the confused state of Indochinese library collections? Was there a lack of library regulations or culture of public use which dissuaded the return of library books?
This historical paper examines the everyday labor and politics of the library staff of the colonial libraries in Hanoi and Saigon from 1908 to 1945. I follow the life, work, and training of the cadre of French and Vietnamese librarians, archivists, and secretaries who were tasked with preservation and daily operations of the libraries. As cultural intermediaries between the colonial state and library readers, the diverse group of indigenous librarians navigated both internal hierarchies of racism with their French higher level Chartist-trained supervisors as well as with French library readers. Librarians were tasked as preservationist-curators of knowledge to disseminate to the reading public, but also to protect from damage by the ‘dangerous’ tropical climate and indigenous readers ‘lacking a culture of care for cultural objects.’ With a limited budget and overwhelming number of readers, library staff struggled to maintain ‘hygiene’ and ‘order’ in the library based on colonial notions of French technological prestige, library sciences, and colonial modernity.
On a social and political level, the library was a symbolic manifestation of colonial modernity, a compendium of global knowledges, and a resource of popular and social education for urban Hanoi and Saigon residents. This paper uncovers and centers the human laborers—from high level administrators and secretaries to nightguards and clerks—who carried out the important everyday operations of the colonial library machine. Through this close historical analysis of the everyday ‘misbehaviors’ of library staff, I disentangle the colonial discourse of technological modernity and reveal the everyday contestations of social and racial hierarchies among librarian staff and readers.
- War Captives as Interlocutors of Empire: Siam’s Intelligence-Collection Practices and Its Attempts to Control Precolonial Cambodia Matthew Reeder National University of Singapore
The European colonial regimes established in mainland Southeast Asia over the nineteenth century engaged, and partially replaced, an equally-acquisitive set of local empires: Burma, Vietnam, and Siam (Thongchai 1994). By the middle of the nineteenth century, these local empires had asserted control, with more or less success, over most of the smaller kingdoms on their peripheries, including Arakan, Cambodia, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, and Patani (Lieberman 2003). Their expansion, according to most existing scholarship, relied on larger military forces, better access to imported weaponry, and wily interventions into the factional rivalries of the weaker states (Baker and Pasuk 2009, Mayoury and Pheuiphanh 1998, Puangthong 1995). As with the colonial regimes that followed, however, hegemony was not achieved in an information vacuum. The royal courts of Burma, Vietnam, and Siam assiduously collected intelligence about the smaller kingdoms on their peripheries, and about their larger rivals beyond. One way they did this was to interrogate a range of war captives—from peasants to princes—who could offer inside information. The intelligence gathered from such individuals included the history, social organization, leadership, court intrigues, spiritual prowess, manpower, defenses, and resources of those places. This information was translated and reordered in pre-determined formats for the use of military officials on the front and court officials in the capital. In this paper, I focus on testimonies collected by Bangkok’s military officials in Cambodia in the 1830s and 1840s. After outlining the historical context, I will discuss three representative testimonies—from (tentatively) a Cham fisherman, a Vietnamese soldier, and a Khmer court retainer—to illustrate the ways in which pre-colonial Southeast Asian states used knowledgeable locals to facilitate the expansion of empire.
To many of the ethnic groups throughout Southeast Asia, both historical colonial regimes and contemporary national governments were foreign (Tarling 1998). The drawing of borders (Cribb and Li 2004), establishment of institutions, levying of taxes and other impositions of governance have therefore occurred largely without popular consent or interaction between government and people. To claim territory, elaborate government programs over popular masses, colonial and national governments relied on the paradoxical processes of simplifying complex local circumstances (Scott 1998) while depending upon increasingly complex bureaucracies (Elson 1993, Cribb 1994). Effective communication between colonial officials and their postcolonial successors with regional peasant masses was problematic. Therefore, these bureaucracies, governed by expanding bureaucracies (Elson 1993), of highly-trained, technocratic and self-proclaimed ‘rational’ civil servants carrying out unifying policy schemes, were also characterized by ambivalence, limitations and the incapacity to effectuate these schemes on the ‘colonial ground’, as has been highlighted in more recent literature (see for instance Stoler 2009, Bloembergen 2009, Kloos 2014). Critical were the people, networks and groups in between, who communicated with both. Attention has been called to fluctuations and crossroads in the reality of colonial governance, policy-making and practice, as framed in pluralism in the governance and legal structures of colonies (Benton & Ross, 2013; Yahaya 2009, 2013 & 2015), and shaped by the intermediary role of for instance Chinese, Arabic, and Japanese merchant networks, European industrialists (Bosma 2010 & 2013; Taselaar 1998) and urban middle-classes (Hoogervorst & Schulte Nordholt 2017). Yet, cultural brokers (Geertz 1960) have been addressed individually, but never have they been categorized as a group and studied as the governmental intermediaries they were on the spot. How did local elites, merchants, soldiers, diplomats and others co-determine the colonial agenda? What role did they play in either reinforcing or subverting colonial rule? And what was their fate in the wake of imperial disengagement and decolonization after the Second World War?
This panel aims to reflect on these questions, emphasizing the role of various intermediaries in colonial and national governance and social engineering. We would like to contribute to the growing literature that argues (colonial) Southeast Asian states were not run exclusively by metropolitan officials, but all the more by merchants, industrialists and other migrants, by local political, religious and mercantile elites (see for instance: Benda 1965; Sutherland 1979; Young 1994), and by the general population of both indigenous peoples and migrant populations like the Chinese and Arabs through their kapitan or chiefs (see: Lohanda 1996; Kapitein, 2014). We would like to investigate how colonial governing traditions continued throughout the era of decolonization, and how intermediaries fared following the rise of post- colonial nation-states. Doing so will help us move beyond stereotypical ideas of Southeast Asian governance and enhance the general understanding of how states communicated with its subjects.