These essays appeared originally as a special issue of Modern Asian Studies in March 2012. We are delighted that Cambridge University Press, India, have decided to republish them in book form. As the introduction mentions, the collection originated at a workshop in Dubai in February 2008, funded by the Social Science Research Council. It was one of twelve structured around the theme of ‘Inter-Asian Connections’. For most of us at our workshop, it was a first meeting and a first encounter with Dubai. The time, place and circumstances — travellers chance-met in a caravanserai, as it were — spoke eloquently to our theme of ‘Sites of Asian Interaction’, and generated what was, for us, a particular exciting and fresh discussion. We are grateful to everybody who took part in the meeting: both to our authors and to C. J. Wee Wanling and Engseng Ho. For the journal issue we solicited new contributions by Chua Ai Lin and Carolien Stulte, whose research illuminates the diversity of the ‘sites’ of interactions in exciting ways. For this edition, we have added an essay by Tim Harper, which also first appeared in Modern Asian Studies in November 2013, and which was very indebted to the workshop. All the essays are reprinted here with the kind permission of Modern Asian Studies, for which our warm thanks go to its editor, Joya Chatterji.
On Monday 15 February 1915, the Chinese New Year holiday, the Indian 5th Light Infantry mutinied at Alexandra Barracks in Singapore. The regiment, made up entirely of Muslim troops, was the mainstay of the garrison on the island. At around 3pm, shots were fired; soldiers broke open the magazine and cut the military phone lines. The regiment's British officers were off-duty, resting at home or on the beach, and news of the uprising was slow to spread. No one, it seems, thought to tell the police. One party of rebels headed towards Singapore's Chinatown, killing Britons they met on the way. Others headed to a nearby battery, manned by locally recruited Sikhs of the Malay States Guides: they killed the British officer and foisted guns on the Guides, but most of them fled into the nearby jungle. The largest and most resolute band of rebels headed west to Tanglin Camp, where 307 German internees and prisoners of war were held, and offered them guns and liberty. But colonial hierarchies held: in the reported words of a naval lieutenant, ‘a German officer does not fight without his uniform or in the ranks of mutineers’. Some of the military men and a few businessmen, however, took the opportunity to escape. In the confused fighting across the island, 47 soldiers and civilians were attacked and killed: five Chinese and Malays died, but most were British men, targeted on the golf courses, and in cars and carriages.
Recent work in history, anthropology, and related disciplines has opened up new ways of thinking about inter-Asian connections. The contributors to this book aim to ground these themes in a concerted focus on particular spaces or sites. We suggest that sites can, in themselves, be constitutive of particular modes of Asian interactions. Much recent literature on Asian transnationalism has focused on Asian elites and on textual modes of interaction, notably focusing on the writings of pre-eminent Asian intellectuals and literary figures. In thinking about spaces of interaction, we aim to broaden the focus of discussion to include non-elite Asians and their interactions with each other. By focusing on spaces—real and virtual—these articles begin to conceive new ways of capturing changing geographical imaginations and the fluidity of borders and boundaries across Asia.
Border towns; university dormitories; madrasas; places of transit; refugee camps; places of work, from rubber plantations to oil fields; the meetings of Asian non-governmental and activist organisations; the sites of major inter-Asian conferences of statesmen, which sometimes assume symbolic significance; virtual sites of Asian interaction, found in the hyperlinked websites of Asian insurgent groups—these are among the sites we hope that the articles here, and the theoretical perspectives they provide, might open up for discussion and further research. Taken together, these articles might be seen as a contribution to the study of what Engseng Ho has called ‘local cosmopolitanism’, and also to its limitations and tensions.
On 15 August 1945, as rumours of the Japanese surrender filtered through to the people of Asia, the coerced collaborator and Malay nationalist, Mustapha Hussain, wept bitterly: the collapse of Japan had forestalled the declaration of independence for Malaya by just forty-eight hours. At a stroke, the political promise that the war had seemed to bring was swept away. Yet, a little later, he was to reflect that “although the Japanese Occupation was described as one of severe hardship and brutality, it left something positive, a sweet fruit to be plucked and enjoyed only after the surrender.” The rest of Mustapha's life would be consumed by his need to reconcile himself to these events; by a regret for the lost opportunity and the vindication of his own role. This kind of debate would be played out, privately and publicly, across the region for a generation or more. It largely dictated the terms of historical writing, which has evolved as a pursuit of some kind of balance sheet, or moral reckoning. For example, the dilemma between resistance and collaboration has been presented most often in stark terms, and the question still troubles national historical memory two generations on. Above all, writing has focused on the immediate issue of war: the extent to which the war acted as a defining watershed of modern 8 Tim Harper Asian history. Historians are too easily seduced by idea of watersheds, and ought to be suspicious of them. It is only more recently that historians have begun to view these epochal events through a longer lens, and this has allowed new themes to emerge: of slower, more ambiguous shifts in society, state and region, in the making of identity and memory. It is the aim of this collection to explore these continuing, substantive legacies, and this essay attempts to suggest some areas in which they might lie. It begins with a brief synopsis of the war within the longer duration of Asian history, and then moves to survey its more ephemeral and enduring legacies.
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