These essays come out of the Eighth Asia Fellows Annual Conference rather ominously entitled “Sheltered States, Troubled Peoples, Threatened Cultures: Contemporary Prospects and Challenges for Asia’s Change Makers.” While the conference title serves as a somber reminder of the very real difficulties faced by various sectors of Asian societies, the scholarship produced for this conference strikes a much more hopeful chord. Unfazed by yet cognizant of these difficulties, the essays map out a contemporary Asian terrain where the peripheries clearly can or do participate in reshaping their centers. This collection of essays speaks of marginal forces that in their own ways are working to reconstruct and re-imagine the centers of power that they are distanced from. They highlight the undeniable force of the margins and the pressures that the heretofore ignored now command and demand from the centers of authority. Pointing towards the inevitable redefinition of tradition or the traditional to more inclusive paradigms, the work in this volume showcases the imperative of knowledge producers to be change makers and exhibit the various ways in the which refining and defining the marginal have profound effects on centers of power and knowledge.
The essays fall roughly into five groups, namely: cultures from the margins, marginal cultures, marginal forces (minorities and migrants), margins of governance and the governance of margins, and re-writing the center. The essays from the first group specifically focus on the independent and digital film cultures of Southeast Asia. Zakir Hossain Raju’s essay on Chinese-Malaysian digital films of recent vintage positions them as “a discrete cinema culture” with multifaceted relationships to both the national and the transnational. In Raju’s insightful analysis, this unique doubled positionality of Mahua cinema is a potentially powerful site that simultaneously constructs and deconstructs Chineseness and the Malaysian nation. Chris Chong’s, “In Between Light,” is a concise and informative survey of the current state of experimental filmmaking in Indonesia taking the events of 1998 as a turning point in the history of Indonesian film – aligning the sense of freedom of post-Suharto Indonesia with the creative experimentation of its independent filmmakers.
The essays on marginal cultures focus on cultural practices that have long existed on the margins or are exercised by agents long consigned to the margins. Sabaree Mitra’s essay on contemporary women writers in China speaks of a surprising emergent force in reshaping China in the quickly-changing present. This paper is an effort to contextualize the activism of Chinese women writers in the foreground of the larger socio-economic and cultural canvas emerging in China as a result of economic reform and globalization. Zahid Akter provides an in depth case study of a specific situation of language endangerment in Sarawak. Even as the essay takes on the impinging forces that may eventually cause a language to disappear, it seeks to ask and answer broader questions like can we really afford to lose a language no matter how marginal and forces us to reflect of the worlds that are lost when a language disappears. Muhammad Ikhsan Tanggok describes and discusses the practice of ancestor worship in Sarawak and displays how these practices forge connections not only between families living and dead but between communities and their members as well and how these seemingly spiritual practices are not exclusive to the non-material realm but perform the vital role of serving as agents of community cohesion, of the inclusion of the margins.
The next set of essays deal with the situations of migrants and cultural minorities in Southeast Asia and China. He Jinsong writes on the situation of Myanmar cross-border migrant workers in Thailand and Thai government policy on cross-border migrant workers, putting forward the feasibility of the establishment an equal, secure, democratic, and orderly Free-Labor-Flow Mechanism under the existing framework of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS). Kannika Angsuthanasombat examines the situation and trends of international labor migration in Vietnam and offers important suggestions for the improvement of the plight of workers based on a comprehensive study of migrant workers and their families in both pre-and post-migration stages. Teng Chengda compares contemporary policies towards ethnic minorities in China and Vietnam that aim to develop the economy as well as preserve the traditional culture of ethnic minorities.
Issues of governance are the main concern of the next set of essays. Munim Barai explores the reasons behind the dramatic success of Vietnam in reducing poverty where reforms-led economic growth has largely remained pro-poor or pro-people. Dong Shikui asserts that a poor understanding of the social dimensions of rangeland use in Nepal has limited their proper management and sustainable development and represents major challenges for Nepal’s resource managers. Srivanasa Rao examines higher education in Malaysia in a global context and examines the impacts of globalization on strategies adopted to include the historically excluded social, ethnic and racial groups, on the one hand, and to achieve the requirements of the emerging labor market, industry and the global system of higher education on the other. The study of Malaysia provides an opportunity to learn and understand from the experiences of countries that have adopted neo-liberal economic reforms to address and balance the challenges posed by globalization on a multi-ethnic social fabric. Darini Rajasingham Senanayake’s essay begins by raising the provocative question, “If the December 2004 Asia tsunami disaster and the international attention it generated catalysed one of the most successful peace processes in the world in Aceh, Indonesia, how and why was it not possible to save the peace process in Sri Lanka where post tsunami aid appeared to become another cause for conflict?” This paper assesses similarities and differences in the two highly internationalized peace and conflict processes in South and South East Asia exploring the limits and limitations of aid in situations of internal conflict, while tracing how trans-national networks, discourses and practices, may become endogenous in “internal” conflict and peace dynamics over time.
The last two essays return to an examination of the arts, specifically the modes of national representation they embody and employ. Art’s uncanny regenerative ability is the focus of Shiva Rijal’s paper “Politics and Canon of Audience: Tourists and Local Cultural Performances.” In it, Rijal takes a rather unorthodox view of the influence of tourists on the development of traditional Balinese cultural performances. Where “common sense” would be quick to see tourists as the bane and blight of traditional culture, subjecting sacred rituals to the crassness of consumerist economies, Rijal argues that the intercession of the touristic gaze in Ubud has actually helped regenerate traditional performance forms. State fictions, or the idealized narratives of a nation, are also the focal point of Danilo Reyes’s keen unraveling of the semiotics of museums in Thailand. “Museums,” Reyes asserts “serve as artful shorthand for the nation.” Looking at several museums in Bangkok, this essay demonstrates how in these collections of everyday things the Thai people are really constructing narratives of themselves – sometimes romanticized and idealized but always, in Reyes insightful reading, unwittingly revealing.
Together these papers map out a space for the articulation of Asian identities outside of its norms and insist upon marginal spaces as powerful sites of representation that necessarily allow and admit new vocabularies and new grammars or quite simply, quite new ways of looking at ourselves. These papers represent a new wave in Asian cultural studies outside of the traditional mode that tends to study articles of “exotica” in a vacuum. There are hardly any vacuums here. Each paper in its own way argues for and displays a complex contextualizing of its objects of study. The positionality, multiplicity and contingency of the interpretive acts in these papers produce insightful textured readings of Asian culture that sometimes raise more questions that invite new ways to see ourselves outside of state-imposed paradigms, outside the tyranny of authenticity and orthodox models of traditional culture, and outside Orientalist fetishizings or a colonially-evolved discourse on Asianness.
Mahatma Gandhi once declared “no culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” These essays keep cultures safe -- challenging exclusivity by paying careful attention to culture’s outsiders.
Judy Celine Ick