British Pathé, a company that used to produce newsreels of events around the world, has placed over 80,000 videos on YouTube. There are many from Southeast Asia. Some have sound, whereas others just contain images.

Here is a sample of some newsreels about the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in Southeast Asia.

The Japanese surrender at Manila and Rangoon:

The Japanese surrender at Singapore:

The reoccupation of Penang:

The Japanese surrender at Sungei Petani:

British troops were sent to the southern half of Vietnam to disarm the Japanese there. This clip contains some footage from Saigon:

This is an amazing historical resource. Thank you very very much British Pathé!!!


The digitization of historical materials is making research ever more easy, however I still find that I make my greatest “discoveries” by looking around in actual libraries.

Today, for instance, I was in a library and came across a few reels of microfilm of “Khmer Rouge top secret Santebal (S-21) archives.”

1

I had never heard of these materials, but upon looking at them, I was fascinated to see the kind of documents that they contain.

2

The first thing that I noticed was the prevalence of tables (information that today we would put in Excel charts).

Some scholars have characterized the Khmer Rouge effort to transform Cambodian society as a “high-modernist” project, and the intense effort to document information in tabular form (and thereby making it more easily visible by the state authorities) struck me as a good example of this phenomenon.

3

My knowledge of Khmer is pretty bad at the moment, but it looks to me like some of these tables are recording inventories of things like bullets and guns. That may not sound very interesting, but examining documents like this could provide interesting insights into the strength of the Khmer Rouge, as well as the way that they sought to control their own forces.

4

From a Google search about this archive, I see that hundreds of reels of microfilm of Khmer Rouge documents were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the Southeast Asia Collection of Yale University Library and the Documentation Center of Cambodia (good job!!!).

In addition to Khmer Rouge documents, some of these reels of microfilm also contain documents from the Lon Nol regime about the Khmer Rouge before they came to power in 1975.

santebal

The Khmer Rouge period is a topic that has been written about extensively, but these thousands upon thousands of pages of documents offer the opportunity to say something new about that period of history.

It would be great if someone with strong Khmer language skills would make the effort to do so.


I recently read an article in The Sarawak Gazette from September 2, 1929 entitled “The Tamil Cooly” which contained the following passage:

“Though the Tamil is an orthodox Hindu by religion, he is bound down by a whole network of ancient superstitions and is more ghost-ridden than any Dyak. Ghosts and demons play an important part in his life, walking or sleeping; the air is filled with fiends who may appear at any moment and vent their malice upon him.

“For instance, it is by no means uncommon for a Tamil rubber-tapper to refuse to continue in a certain field because there is a ghost there who beats him—the truth being that a small dead branch has fallen on him as he worked. tamil woman “Again, a Tamil lady once came to the writer and solemnly stated that a demon twenty feet high had leapt from the jungle and with horrid screams chased her round and round her lot, finally ending up by kicking her into a ditch where she lay trembling for two hours, not daring to move.

“No amount of reasoning or ridicule could shake the woman’s faith in her unpleasant experience, and it was obvious that her belief was shared by the rest of the labour force. So much so, in fact, that Chinese had to be imported to work that particular section, since no Tamil could be induced to go near the spot.”

Bute Then today I came across an article in The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette from March 31, 1917 (pg. 703) about Bute Plantations (1913) Limited, a rubber plantation in Malaya.

This article was more or less a financial report about the plantation’s performance over the previous year or so, and it mentioned that one problem that the plantation faced during that period is that “man-eating tigers” had “carried off 40 Tamil coolies.” To quote,

“As regards the working of the estate, bad health and the scare caused by the tigers have been the most serious troubles with which we have had to contend. The district seems to be subject to periodical waves of bad health conditions, but everything that can possibly be done to prevent epidemics is carried out.

“The depredations of tigers is a much more serious matter. The tappers taken at Bute last year were Tamils and resulted in the disorganization and loss of half of this class of labour.

“Early this January a Chinese tapper was killed and this force, taken on to replace the Indian labour, left practically en bloc and the more outlying fields had to be left untapped for some weeks.

“The management has done everything possible to prevent any further losses, traps have been set and the estate is regularly patrolled by armed watchmen. I am glad to say that up to the present no further trouble has been experienced. The labour force is gradually being reorganized, special efforts are being made to recruit more Tamils and we hope to be able soon to dispense with the Chinese labour which will gain reduce costs to a normal level.” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA In both of these cases, when Tamil coolies refused to work, Chinese workers agreed to do so. Yes, you had to pay them more, but they would do it. And while it is true that the Chinese rubber tappers ran away when one was killed by a tiger, those workers initially agreed to work there after 40 Tamils had suffered the same fate.

Or perhaps they weren’t told that detail when they were hired?

[The image above of the Tamil women and child is from the British Library.]


Bengawan Solo,” a song about the Solo River in eastern Java, was first composed by Gesang Martohartono in 1940. Recorded as a Kroncong song, it became popular on Java during World War II.

Japanese soldiers then apparently brought the song back with them to Japan where a version was recorded by Toshi Matsuda in 1948.

Poon Sow Keng/Pan Xiuqiong 潘秀瓊, a Chinese singer from Malaya, then recorded the song in Hong Kong in 1957. This was followed by a version that Hong Kong singer, Koo Mei/Gu Mei 顧媚recorded:

Around this time Shanghai-born singer Rebecca Pan (Pan Dihua 潘迪華) also recorded a version:

In 1961, Chhun Vanna recorded a version in Cambodia:

Then there was a more upbeat version recorded by Indonesian-born Dutch singer Anneke Grönloh:

The Crescendos in Singapore gave it a pop twist:

And Poon Sow Keng/Pan Xiuqiong recorded another version in 1968:

Since that time, this song has been recorded many different times in many different ways, such as this bossa nova version by Japanese-Brazilian singer Lisa Ono:

And it continues to be performed:

Singers may come and go, but it looks like Bengawan Solo will probably last forever.


Pen Ran (also written Pan Ron) was a famous singer in Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, during the golden age of Khmer popular music.

One of her most famous songs was recorded in the early 1970s and was called “The Rusted Bachelor” (Gamlah Jraeh Jaab).

Pan Ron

How does a bachelor become “rusted”? One would think that it would be from being a bachelor too long, but it is obvious from the song that this is not what the term means.

Instead, it seems to refer to a married man who pretends to still be a bachelor.

Here is the song and a rough translation of it:

I don’t feel pleased,

I don’t feel pleased,

I don’t feel pleased,

When you seek my love,

And say your single,

Then your wife comes along,

And you make an innocent face,

But you can’t think your way out,

And you get confused,

Like a monkey trapped in a cage.

 

Hey, good looking,

Hey, you rusted bachelor,

You’d better solve this problem right now,

Don’t be in a rush to make your escape,

It seems that a pale face,

Is not your usual look,

Hey! Where do you think you can run to?

Come on Mr. Charming,

Let’s have a chat first.


If you visit an English-language bookstore like Asiabooks in Bangkok you will probably find a shelf or two of novels that are all devoted to the same general topic – white men (Farang) in Thailand and their relationships with Thai women.

These novels approach this topic from different angles – some are meant to be voyeuristic, some try to be critical, etc. – but they end up repeating similar perceptions and ideas.

tg

I’ve always thought that this genre of writing must be relatively recent, probably first appearing in the 1970s or so after the economic development of the 1960s started to bring many foreign businessmen and travelers to Thailand. So I was surprised to come across a novel from this genre that was published in 1920.

Entitled Spears of Deliverance: A Tale of White Men and Brown Women in Siam, and written by a certain Eric Reid (I haven’t found any information on him), it talks about some British and French men in Siam in the early twentieth century.

cover

Here is a sample passage:

Philip threw the cigarettes across the room. Santall, like so many men one meets in the East, was a cigarette fiend, intoxicating himself mildly all day on a long and steady succession of weeds.

“Siamese women?” Philip pursued his theme. “I’ve nothing particular against them except that they have nothing distinctly feminine about them.”

This is true. With their short-cropped hair, and their hideously betel-stained teeth, and garbed in their national and peculiar dress, the phanung a species of knicker-bocker all in one piece, worn by both sexes Siamese women are to most newcomers almost indistinguishable from the men.

“Oh, you’ve been casting invidious eyes, after seeing Lao girls,” said Santall. “These Northern women are far prettier than the Siamese of the South, in a womanly kind of way, of course. But habits are changing amongst the Siamese. The present custom of wearing the hair long has grown out of a fashion set in the Palace. And every Siamese lady cleans her teeth after chewing betel now. . . .”

He broke off and smiled at himself.

His mind returned to the girl in England of whom he was so full that evening.

“But here! This won’t do. If my fiancée heard me going on like this about ideals of feminine beauty my, wouldn’t she just tear my hair!”

sample

I’ve only skimmed through this book to get a sense of what it is about, but as far as I can tell the main character (Philip) who states above that he is not attracted to Siamese women ends up living with a Siamese girl, Raroey (who falls in love with him because a spirit [phii] bewitches her), gets her pregnant, leaves her, the baby dies, he comes back for her, but she doesn’t care about him anymore.

This series of events enables Philip to have a relationship without having to take any responsibility for it. It’s not his fault that Raroey falls in love with him. It’s because a phii bewitches her. He doesn’t have to take responsibility for getting her pregnant because the baby dies. And finally, he doesn’t have to deal with Raroey after this as she rejects him in the end and goes back to “her people.”

Cooper

If the setting for this novel had been in a European colony then it would be easy to read this text critically as a work of Orientalist literature that justified the European conquest of an Asian land. Siam, however, was never colonized. . . or so many people think. In actuality, it was in an unequal relationship with Western nations that some scholars refer to as a state of semi-coloniality (I wrote about that before here).

So that being the case, Spears of Deliverance is similar to other novels from that time that are set in colonies. What is different is that this same genre now flourishes in Thailand, where such works are harder to come by in the countries in Southeast Asia that were formerly colonies.

The unequal economic and cultural relations that were established during colonial times tended to continue in the post-colonial period (i.e., Neo-Imperialism/Neo-Colonialism), but the decolonization process in many places did include some form of rejection of colonial era views.

In Thailand there were various leftist intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s who tried to reject aspects of their country’s semi-colonial past, but by the late 1970s they had been silenced by more conservative people, and with the economic growth that such people promoted came increased reliance on relationships with Western businesses, and that led to the arrival in Thailand of more Farang who wrote more books about “white men and brown women.”


I woke up at 3am this morning and couldn’t fall back asleep. So I decided to read some of the Statistical Abstract Relating to British India from 1897-98 to 1906-07, thinking that it would put me to sleep. However, it ended up having the opposite effect.

cover

In the years that this text covers, Burma was a province of British India, and I was interested to see what kinds of statistics it had about Burma. I found some fascinating ones.

For instance, I discovered that in this 10-year period at the turn of the twentieth century 59 people in Burma were killed by tigers, 7 by leopards, 1,149 by snakes, and 22 by “other wild animals.”

wild animals and snakes

I’m not sure how many people died in Burma each given year, but there were statistics for the annual number of deaths by wild animals and snakes in all of British India over the course of the period from 1897 to 1906. Those numbers show that with the exception of deaths from snake bites, there was a general decline in the number of people who died from the attacks of other animals.

I’m assuming that the situation in Burma matched this overall trend.

total

Train deaths, on the other hand, were a different story, as there was a steady increase in the number of people in Burma who were killed by trains during this same period: 27 in 1898, 34 in 1899, 51 in 1900, 47 in 1901, 42 in 1902, 60 in 1903, 69 in 1904, 58 in 1905, 61 in 1906, and 70 in 1907.

trains

Another set of statistics that revealed an increase was in the number of lunatics in Burma. The Digital South Asia Library at the University of Chicago has digitized several of these volumes of statistics (and there are Excel charts of the statistics too!), and in examining the section on “Lunatic Asylums” in those works, I found the following trend:

1903 = 475 male & 69 female lunatics

1912 = 672 male & 123 female lunatics

1919 = 871 male & 171 female lunatics

lunatics

So if we add all of these statistics together, what do we see? Well, we see that under British rule in Burma, people were increasingly less likely to be devoured by a tiger (that’s good), but at the same time they were increasingly more likely to get run over by a train or to go crazy (not good), which I guess makes sense given that these are two of the more common side effects of modernization.

Seriously though, these volumes are very interesting, and the fact that there are ready-made Excel files of the statistics in some of these books means that there is great potential to use this information (with digital tools) in ways that provide insights into the past.


A while ago I wrote a blog piece on “Hawaii in Southeast Asia” in which I mentioned that there was some influence of Hawaiian music on a kind of music from Indonesian called Kroncong (or Keroncong). In particular, Kroncong ensembles started to use the ukulele in the late nineteenth century, and I know that I’ve heard Hawaiian steel guitar melodies in some Kroncong songs from say the 1950s or 1960s.

Kroncong

What I did not realize until today, however, was the fact that bands that more or less exclusively played Hawaiian music were very popular in the Dutch East Indies during the interwar period.

There is a great dissertation available online that covers this topic (Philip Yampolsky, “Music and Media in the Dutch East Indies”), and in it the author points out that one of the reasons why a “foreign” music like Hawaiian music became so popular in the Indonesian islands is because it wasn’t rooted there. Given how ethnically and linguistically fractured the Dutch East Indies was, it was only by promoting forms of music that transcended those divisions that record companies could maximize the sale of their records.

Hawaiian music was able to do that, and it sounded good too. And what is more, people in Indonesia were good at playing it, as this lovely rendition of “Aloha ‘Oe” (“Farewell to Thee”) from the 1970s demonstrates:

The main singer in this video is General Hugeng (also spelled Hoegeng) Imam Santoso. General Hugeng served in the 1960s as the chief of police in Jakarta. And from I think about 1968-1980 he had a TV show in which he performed Hawaiian songs.

According to one scholar (David Jenks, Suharto and His Generals: Indonesian Military Politics, 1975-1983, pg. ), the show was criticized for political reasons in 1980 by the minister of information “on the grounds that Hawaiian music ‘does not reflect the national culture,’” and was cancelled.

Hugeng

It is interesting that the minister of information stated in 1980 that Hawaiian music did not reflect the national culture, because from the information that Yampolsky provides in his dissertation, one could argue that Hawaiian music helped form the nation of Indonesia, as it was a force that in some ways united diverse peoples from across the archipelago (subconsciously through the creation of shared musical tastes).

And along those same lines, one could probably argue that in the 1970s General Hugeng was continuing to bring the nation together with his Hawaiian music show.

So I say good job General! And Aloha ‘Oe.


There is an article in The British North Borneo Herald from 1925 which describes a visit by some British officials to Kamabong [i.e., Kemabong] for a day of sports and a night of dancing.

Kamabong was in the southwestern part of British North Borneo, and was inhabited by a people known as the Murut.

tajau

When the Murut traditionally held celebrations, there were a couple of things that they would do. First of all, they would drink a kind of rice wine called “tapai” or “tajau.” This is a kind of drink that you find in other parts of Southeast Asia as well. Essentially what people do is to put rice and yeast in a ceramic jar and let it ferment. Once it has done so, they add water, and it is ready to drink, and it is drunk through long thin bamboo straws.

mari mari longhouse

In addition to consuming tapai, the other thing that the Murut would traditionally do at a celebration would be to dance on a “lansaran” or “papan.” A lansaran or papan was a kind of dance floor that could move up and down several inches and which could hold 30 or 40 people at the same time.

sapplings

There appear to have been at least a couple of different ways to build a lansaran/papan. One way was to place the floor on top of some bent saplings, as in the above image.

floor

Another way was to build a floor that could bend down until it hit a supporting structure below it, as in the picture above.

These days about the only place where you can find a lansaran is at a place like the Mari Mari Cultural Village near Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. There it is used to play a kind of game where people try to jump higher than others.

Apparently this game was also played in the past, but the lansaran was also used as a place to dance.

lansaran

This is how such a dance was described in a 1952 article [M. C. Clarke, “The Murut Home, Part I,” Man 52 (1952): 17-18.]

“All members of the village—men, women and children—join in, and the floor may hold as many as 20 or 30 dancers at a time. Several pot-bellied children usually collect in the center of the floor. Around them is a circle of men linked by hands, with a second circle of women on the outside (strict separation of the sexes in this way is not always followed).

“By concerted downward pressure with their feet the dancers soon have the papan bouncing up and down on the sapling springs, and the dancing consists of everyone slowly making their way, step by step, round and round the papan in an anti-clockwise direction, each step being a pace sideways to the right and inwards, and then outwards a little, in rhythm with the movements of the floor.”

Kemabong

With all of the above information in mind, let’s take a look at how some British officials experienced a celebration with tapai and dancing on the lansaran in Kamabong in 1925:

“The sun has sunk below the frowning hills and all that sort of things. Dum-dom go the gongs and whack whack goes the springy dancing floor as it hits the bending poles. There are about thirty men in the middle of the 12’x12’ floor surrounded by a ring of Kaiams [I’m not sure what this means] holding hands; these in turn are surrounded by a ring of red white and black apparelled damsels all holding hands and facing inwards.

Marut warriors

“The men are in the full Murut costume, chawat, feathers, beads and rudder sporran (I forget the official term.) The damsels are in smart black sarongs with a broad band of white beads round the hips and a strip of red cloth would round the breast. They have light colored tillets round their glossy black hair which is gracefully looped low on the left shoulder and tucked into the tillet.

Murut girls

“‘Do-ai-kan-di-lo-oo’ booms the song in sonorous base voices not unpleasingly mingled with the shriller voices of the damsels’ reply. With short side steps and slightly bending knees, the whole crowd sways slowly round and round. As the dance proceeds the floor is caused to spring up and down like a bobbing boat in a short choppy sea.

lansaran dance

“We join in. . . I, but lately from the Tapai tajau, miss-kick and am shot clean through the roof—well nearly anyway. I embrace a loudly bawling Kaiam; the Kaiam bawls louder and embraces me.

“Bagat is tickling the damsels’ backs as they gracefully bob past with their dumpling like faces and shapely arms and shoulders. Salleh yelps with delight as he makes the dancers blink with an electric torchlight.

“A distinguished visitor is sucking tapai (and cheating) ear to ear with a merry little wench who doesn’t mind quaffing three tandas to his one; he wears a “dastar” and hornbill’s plume and reminds me of a musical comedy Balkan Prince.

“The Resident with beads of perspiration on his brow soberly sits discoursing with the Elders.

Murut man

“Something pushes past my leg; I look down, it is a brave whose powers of locomotion have been temporarily retarded by the gentle tapai. He pushes his way with unerring directness to the bubbling bamboo in the tapai jar firmly lashed to a post.

“Through a slight crack in the din I hear Sir Harry Lauder exhorting the lads to cuddle the lassies,–from the gramophone, the inevitable ubiquitous gramophone.

“We stagger out into the open air, a cutting bitter blast when compared with the solid frowst of the house.

“The revelers are left,–in heaps three deep all around; yet as we tuck in our klambu, booming through the darkness comes the song. . .

“‘DO-AI-KAN-DI-LO-OO…’”

Sir Harry Lauder was a Scottish entertainer who often sang about “lassies.” I’m not sure which song was on the gramophone at that time, but I would like to think that it was “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” (“gloaming” means “twilight”):

 

I’ve seen lots of bonnie lassies travellin’ far and wide,

But my heart is centred noo on bonnie Kate McBride;

And altho’ I’m no a chap that throws a word away,

I’m surprised mysel’ at times at a’ I’ve got to say–

 

Roamin’ in the gloamin’ on the bonnie banks o’ Clyde,

Roamin’ in the gloamin’ wi’ ma lassie by ma side,

When the sun has gone to rest, that’s the time that I like best,

O, it’s lovely roamin’ in the gloamin’!

Muruts

What a scene this must have been—drunk revelers in a longhouse dancing on a lansaran while Sir Harry Lauder sang on the gramophone about cuddling lassies. . .

This makes me want to know more about what relations were really like between the British and the various indigenous peoples of Borneo. An account like this one makes this even seem innocent, but I’d be curious to know if there were other sides to the story.

Whatever the case may be, this was a fascinating world.

The full article can be found here:

Sport and Dance in Kamabong


I’ve been reading colonial-era newspapers from Southeast Asia for quite a while now, and I’ve always skipped over the sections on “turf club news,” that is, news about horse races, as I’ve always assumed that this was a strictly European (and particularly British) activity.

Then today I saw a list of the names of horse owners and their horses at the Jesselton Turf Club in British North Borneo in 1925, and I realized that the world of horse racing in the colonial world was much more cosmopolitan than I had assumed.

Jesselton

Here, for instance are some of the names of the owners and their horses:

Mr. Lo Tian Yin – Rosop

Mr. Voo Tiau Ken – Copra

Mr. Miko – Limbai Padang

O. T. Genang – Bintang Pindah

Mr. Abdullah – Lucky Boy

Mr. Binut – Alang Laut II

Haji Taba – Langkon

O. K. Matjakir – Kijang Kalabu

O. K. Saman – Rapnap

Mr. E. G. Grant – Lady Eva

. . . and the British North Borneo Government’s Maisie

Hyderabad

Realizing how many “natives” were involved in this “British gentlemen’s” sport, I looked around for some pictures of horse races in the colonies and found the above one (from the British Library) of the grand race stand at Hyderabad. It’s a bit difficult to make out who exactly was there, but it was clearly more than a British sport.

Singapore

This then made me look to see what academic works have been written about the role of horse racing in empire. I didn’t find much. A little bit appears to have been written about the history of sport in Singapore, and it notes how wealthy Chinese became involved in the horse races. But it’s obvious that there must be a lot more that can be said.

It looks like there were turf clubs in virtually all of the British colonies. It would be interesting to see what role they played in the local societies and how this might have different from one locale to the other.




Globe Drifting

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Ideas for employing digital humanities approaches to the study of Southeast Asian history

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