Milk, Cognac and a Man’s Good Friend in 1930s Singapore

Advertisements in Chinese language newspapers in Singapore in the 1930s are very interesting. Earlier in the century, the advertisements were very male-focused, and dealt with things that appealed to working men – like machinery and alcohol.

In the 1930s, however, advertisements that were directed at women and domestic life started to appear, and for a while you had a mixture of advertisements that were directed at both men and women, although the ones directed at women were undoubtedly all created by men, so they are still “male-centric” in that they project images of what men at the time thought women should look and act like.


So, for instance, there were a lot of milk advertisements in the 1930s, such as this one for Lactogen, which depicted women as good mothers who take care of their children.


Then at the same time you had advertisements like this one for Hennessy cognac which starts out by saying (roughly translated), “Look at the beauty in this picture! Doesn’t she suit your taste? So down some Hennessy cognac and you will be liberated from your worries and cares.”

Hmmm. . . I guess the message here is that it is ok to go out, get drunk on Hennessy cognac, and. . .

But what about the wife who is at home feeding Lactogen to your new baby?

good friend

No worries! Because there is “Good Friend,” a kind of “booster” for both men and women. In fact, it boosts so well that (again, roughly translated) “Even if you have three wives and four mistresses you can still always have one on each side and have more fun than you could ever imagine.”

The Rectification of Signifiers for the Historical Inhabitants of the Red River Delta

In the Analects (Lunyu 論語), there is a line that goes as follows:

“The master said, ‘If names are not rectified, then what is said will not obey/follow [true meaning], and if what is said does not obey/follow [true meaning], then affairs cannot be accomplished.’” 子曰:「名不正,則言不順;言不順則事不成」


The idea here is that people can attach agreed upon, and accurate, meanings to words, and that from time to time people need to “re-do” this because reality changes, and/or people’s understanding of reality changes, and when this happens, the terms that they had been using no longer match reality, so they have to “rectify names” (正名) so that words can more accurately depict reality.

This is a point that the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand be Saussure, both agreed with and challenged in the early twentieth century when he argued (and I’m simplifying his ideas here) that the relationship between words, or what he called “signifiers,” and the ideas they referred to, or what he called “the signified,” was arbitrary and did not remain stable over time.


So Confucius and Saussure agreed that the relationship between words and their meanings was not stable, but Confucius felt that from time to time people could stabilize that relationship by “rectifying names.” Saussure, on the other hand, (I think) would have argued that one could never succeed in doing that because the relationship between words and their meanings is arbitrary, and that therefore people will always understand words in different ways.


I agree with Saussure that we can’t completely control how people understand words, but I also agree with Confucius that we nonetheless need to at least try to make an effort to use words that reflect what we understand of reality as clearly as possible, and that as our understanding of reality changes, we need to “rectify” the words we use to talk about reality.

So maybe we could combine the ideas of Confucius and Saussure and talk about the “rectification of signifiers.” The idea here is that we need to “rectify” words so that we can more accurately express what we understand, but that we also acknowledge that words as “signifiers” (in Saussure’s sense), are never stable, and that there will always be people who will understand them differently from the way that we use them.


With that in mind, let’s look at the signifier, “Việt.” The area of the world where the modern nation-state of Vietnam is located has undergone many changes over the past 3000 years. Many people understand this, but none of us, I would argue, have accurate words to describe this.

If, for instance, we use a single term to refer to people in the area of the Red River Delta over the course of those 3,000 years (such as “Việt”) then we get a sense of continuity. However, it is obvious that tremendous changes occurred over that period as well. Isn’t that also important to recognize?

Contemporary Vietnamese scholars sometimes add the term “ancient” (cổ) to a term like “Việt” to talk about the “ancient Việt” (Việt cổ). This indicates change, because the “ancient Việt” had to change to become the “modern Việt,” but it also emphasizes continuity as well – everyone is “Việt.”


As far as we can tell, however, “Việt/Yue” is a term which people from outside the region gave to numerous peoples who lived in an area that today covers much of southern China and extending into northern Vietnam. We don’t have evidence to support the idea that people in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC actually called themselves “Việt.”

So why should we call them that? When we include the term “Việt” in a name that we give to the people in the first millennium BC (such as Lạc Việt or người Việt cổ) we indicate continuity and a direct connection with the present. But what is it that continued? What is the connection?

Certainly not language or culture. Those both changed dramatically, so much so that I can’t think of a “signified” that the “signifier,” “Việt,” can refer to across that long period of time other than blood. But is blood really that important? If so, why and how?


In the end, I have no idea what to call people in the Red River Delta at various points in history. I do think that we should use multiple names to indicate how people changed culturally, linguistically and socially over time, but in creating such names we will also give the sense that these changes were much clearer and more comprehensive than they probably were (for instance, if we create names based on what we know about how the elite changed, we will run the risk of implying that everyone changed at that same time in that same way).

As problematic as that is, I still think it’s worth trying. Because although we now understand that the relationship between “signifiers” and the “signified” is much more complex than Confucius did, I still think he was right in thinking that if we don’t make an effort to try to agree upon what words indicate, then we simply can’t communicate with each other. And it is clear that there were too many changes in the past for a single signifier to capture.

The Water in (Southeast Asian) History

Someone forwarded me a YouTube video that someone made of a commencement speech that the late novelist, David Foster Wallace, gave in 2005 at Kenyon College.

The speech is (now) called “This is Water,” and this is how it begins:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”


Wallace went on to say that “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

He then goes on to provide a detailed example of this from everyday life. He talks about going grocery shopping after work and feeling frustrated at everything: getting stuck in traffic, having to wait in line. And he talks about how we blame everyone and everything else for causing our frustration, for being “in the way” because they are “slow” and “stupid,” etc.

Well in reality those people are not necessarily “slow” or “stupid.” There can be countless reasons for, for instance, why it takes someone a long time to pay at a cash register. That person might have arthritis in her/his hands, or s/he might not be able to see well, or s/he might be feeling sick that day.


However, we chose not to see that reality because we function from a position of “self-centeredness.” Wallace calls this our “default setting.”

His main point then is to say that learning to think is “learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

It means noticing “the water” that surrounds us, rather than just viewing the world from our self-centered vantage point.


After watching this video, it dawned on me that the nationalist version of history is very much like this “default setting” that Wallace talked about in people’s personal lives.

In nationalist histories, it is always other peoples who are “in the way.” Life would be fine if those other people just got out of the way, that is, if the Thais never had to deal with the Burmese, the Khmer with the Vietnamese, the Vietnamese with the Chinese, the Chinese with the Manchus, the Manchus with the Mongols. . .

And once this view of the past becomes the “default setting,” then “the most obvious, important realities” become “the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

Can we really talk about the “Burmese” destruction of the “Thai” kingdom of Ayutthaya when many of the “Burmese” soldiers were men who had been conscripted in Lanna, Lan Xang, and other Tai polities? Can we really say that the “Chinese” have always invaded “Vietnam” when the ruling families like the Trần and the Lê sent envoys north to seek military assistance against their domestic rivals?


To get back to those two fish, nationalist histories work fine as long as they don’t ask themselves “What is water?” Not knowing what water is, they can be content blaming others for their problems, for getting “in their way.”

If, however, they choose to look at the water, then they will find that it is too complex to simply blame others, and will have to figure out what water actually is.

SVN Army Behavior Posters from the 1950s

I came across a series of seven “Army Behavior Posters” in the US National Archives that were created in the 1950s by the United States Information Service (but it was probably not Americans who drew them) for the South Vietnamese Army.

Here they are:


“Always uphold the honor of the army. Sacrifice for the people of the nation, be loyal to the fatherland.”


“Absolutely honor the discipline of the army. Abide by the laws of the government.”


“Do not engage in vices, drinking, gambling, inappropriate conduct with women, and drugs.”


“Do not covet or waste pubic property. Take the utmost care of military equipment.”


“You must be resolute, serious, and completely keep the secrets of the army.”


“You must respect the people’s life, property and freedom of religion.”


“You must be close to the people, protect the people and help the people.”

(National Archives Identifiers: 6948902 – 6948908)

Filipino Lemon Juice at the Singaporean Lost Horizon in 1973

The previous post brought out some good comments by readers/friends on Facebook. We have been having a little discussion about why it is that Filipino musicians were (and to some extent in some places maybe still are) so dominant in Asia for so long.

Early exposure to Western music partly explains it (although people on Java were too). Another suggestion was that perhaps some kind of “brand name” because associated with Filipino bands.

I found that comment interesting, as I just came across this advertisement for Lemon Juice, an “all-Filipino rock group” that was playing at a nightclub in Singapore in 1973. The fact that they were “all-Filipino” was obviously important.

Lemon Juice

Someone else pointed out that studying about the “agency” of Filipino musicians in Asia in the 20 century would be an interesting to the usual discussion of Filipino worker exploitation (not that that topic is not important, of course).

I agree with all of this, but the actual advertisement for the band got me thinking of something else.

“It’s that fabulous Lemon Juice! . . . An all-Filipino rock group that brings a big, all-new beat sound to the swinging Lost Horizon! Lemon Juice flavours up the scene by featuring four different vocalists – with four singing styles. Sensational singing styles that’ll set you tingling to the tempo of their great new sound. The big, deep sound of guitars, organ and sax. Get a taste of the Lemon Juice tonight! At the swinging Lost Horizon.”


Hmmm, the “deep” “organ” and “sax” of “Lemon Juice” will get you “tingling”. . . Perhaps the “agency” of Filipino musicians had something to do with some special kind of “talent” or “power” that we are overlooking. . .

Going Gay in the Free Chinese World in the 1960s

In 1964, Filipino musician and songwriter Vic O. Cristobal (葛士培) and (I’m assuming Hong Kong) lyricist Ye Lü (葉綠) wrote a song called “Enjoy Yourself Tonight” (歡樂今宵) that was recorded by Billie Tam (蓓蕾).

Two years later, in 1966, the song was featured in the Shaw Brothers film, The Joy of Spring (歡樂青春).

A year later, in 1967, the song was recorded by Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) in Taiwan.

And it was also recorded in 1967 by Yvonne (梅子) and the Sparklers in Singapore.

This was just the beginning of this song’s “journey,” as it was recorded many more times. What I find interesting, however, is how quickly it spread across what I call the “Free Chinese World.”

The center of the Free Chinese World was Hong Kong and Taiwan, and to a lesser but still significant extent, Singapore. However, it also extended to places like Saigon, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh, Kuching and other places where there were large populations of Chinese (outside of Communist China).

The culture of the Free Chinese World spread first among Chinese, but other than Hong Kong and Taiwan, all of these other areas of the Free Chinese World were either multi-ethnic, or the Chinese were a minority in the place where they lived.

Given that culture can never be contained, my sense is that the culture of the Free Chinese World must have had a strong influence on music, film, architecture, fashion – the list goes on and on – of other peoples in this region.

Think about it, all it took was for someone like Yvonne and the Sparklers to perform “Let’s Go Gay” (as the song was translated on their album) at a place like the New World Amusement Park in Singapore, and it was easy for people of other ethnicities and nationalities to hear the music, see the dancing, observe the clothes and. . . get inspired.

As far as I know, this type of “inter-Asian cross-fertilization” is something that people have not studied all that much. Much attention has been focused on the cultural exchange between “the West” and “Asia,” but less has been devoted to looking at how cultural ideas spread through spaces like the Free Chinese World, and beyond.

Try listening to the song. Your body will immediately start to move. A song like this couldn’t have remained contained among Chinese. Other people in Southeast Asia in the 1960s must have decided to “go gay” too.


Here are the lyrics:

喂喂 你說甚麼我不知道

Wei wei, what you’re saying – I don’t get it

嗨嗨 不要提起明朝

Hei hei, don’t mention tomorrow morning

你給甚麼 喂喂 你給甚麼我都不要

What you’re giving – wei wei – what you’re giving, I don’t want it

嗨嗨 只要歡樂今宵

Hei Hei, just enjoy yourself tonight


We want to thoroughly forget our troubles


We want to completely laugh with joy


Come on, come on, come relax and have fun with me


Don’t jabber on and on


Don’t keep changing your mood


If you have something to say, leave it until tomorrow morning

喂喂 你說甚麼我不知道

Wei wei, what you’re saying – I don’t get it

嗨嗨 不要提起明朝

Hei hei, don’t mention tomorrow morning


Just enjoy yourself tonight

The Coffins in the Batu Puteh Caves

I had never heard of the Batu Puteh Caves until I read about them in the July 16, 1903 issue of The British North Borneo Herald. These caves high up in a limestone mountain known as Batu Puteh/Putih in the area of what is now Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo, but which in 1903 was part of British North Borneo. And these caves have coffins in them.


The first Europeans to “discover” these caves and the coffins in them were tobacco planters who had established a tobacco plantation, or “estate” as they were called in British North Borneo, in the area of Batu Puteh. This report in The British North Borneo Herald describes what the caves and coffins look like. I’m assuming that this was the first time that anything had been written and published about these caves and coffins.

I will quote what the report says about the coffins. To see the description of the caves, see the attached images of the article.


“The discovery of the. . . caves is attributed to Mr. P. Breitag, the Manager of Batu Puteh Estate. . . The first exploration was made in company with another well-known planter in 1894, when in the top cave were found numerous bilian (ironwood) coffins, artistically carved with figures of buffaloes, crocodiles, lizards and snakes, containing skeletons of men, women and children, also valuable gongs, sumpitans (blowpipes), spears and articles of Chinese and other pottery, with brass ornaments of native and foreign workmanship”


“The carvings and scroll-work on some of the coffins. . . are even superior to those now executed by native craftsmen. The edges of the tracery, too, are almost as sharp and clear as upon the day they left the carver’s hands. All the subjects are cut from solid heart of bilian and the heads and splendid examples of archaic handiwork.”


“It is believed that the coffins ornamented with the protruding heads of buffaloes or cows, contained male skeletons, while figures of snakes, lizards and crocodiles appear to have been used for the decoration of those of the women and children.”


“No tradition is extant among the natives with regard to this extinct race or their remains; and, moreover, no tribes of this country are known to make habitual use of caves as dwellings or as places of sepulture.”

Getting Sexist and Sony-O-Matic in 1970s Singapore

I got a dose of 70s nostalgia today, so I decided to take a look at what was happening in Singapore in the 1970s. And one of the first things that I noticed was something that was definitely part of the 1970s – sexism (not that it no longer exists today, but it had a unique form in the 1970s).

sewing machine

Isn’t she beautiful?. . . I mean the sewing machine.


Buy a Xerox machine and get the services and expertise of three men and a girl. . . Cool!


And then there’s Quantas Airlines.

“Go see for yourself! There are over 700 gorgeously plumed birds unique to Australia – that’s apart from all the long-legged, bronzed varieties. . . Sample some of that famous, warm-hearted Australian hospitality en route. Whets the appetite for things to come.”

That’s subtle.


These advertisements are all from The Straits Times, and it’s always dangerous to assume that advertisements for Western products, and probably made by Western advertising agents, can tell us something about what people in other societies thought and did. Nonetheless, something likely got “communicated.”

And in looking at some advertisements for a Sony radio/cassette player, it made me think that perhaps “middlemen” like the Japanese (or the Chinese, who I mentioned in the previous post) were more effective at “transmitting” Western cultural ideas and norms.

Take a look, for instance at this series of advertisements, all from April 1973.


“Studious Sam says: For study or fun, here’s the one!”


“This Sony looks smart and acts as smart as it looks with Cue-and-Review controls that are great for language study or writing down notes recorded in class.”


“Singing Suzi says: Neat and sweet, it’s a compact treat.”


“Here’s a Sony portable that looks so neat, sounds so fine you’ll want to carry it with you everywhere and all the time”


“Swinging Slim says: For super-style, super-features, it’s the super-duper Sony CF 450!”


“What makes the CF-450 so super? Well, how about a radio sleep timer that you can set in advance to a 15, 36, 45, 60-minute shut-off time? Can you think of any better way to end a swinging day than to fall asleep to the sound of music. . . As for style. . . with this super Sony by your side you’ll go first class, the center of attention, everywhere you go.”

tune in

I don’t know about Studious Sam, but Singing Suzi and certainly Swinging Slim were definitely participating in the global youth culture that was to some degree centered in the UK and the US. However, at the same time, there’s something different about them. To use one of the expressions from the 1960s, they’re clearly “tuning in” (to what is cool), but it doesn’t look like they’re “turning on” (to drugs) and “dropping out” (of mainstream society).

Sony was definitely promoting the “groovy” lifestyle, but in a different way than Westerners were. So in the same newspaper, you have full-on Western sexism, and mediated Western grooviness.

I wonder what it is that Singaporeans at that time “processed.”

Detergent, Sanitary Napkins, Air Hostesses and the Chinese Contribution to Modernity in Southeast Asia

I was looking at an issue from 1959 of a Chinese-language newspaper that was published in Bangkok, the Sing Sian Yit Pao (Xin Xian ribao 新暹日報), and I started to think about the images of women that we see in this paper, and the kinds of messages that they were relaying to people.


I saw a woman happily washing clothes with Fab detergent.


I saw another woman who was happy to be using Modess sanitary napkins.

kongzhong xiaojie

And I saw an advertisement for the 1959 Hong Kong film, “Air Hostess” (Kongzhong xiaojie 空中小姐), starring Grace Chang (Ge Lan 葛蘭).

In this movie, Grace Chang trains to become an air hostess and then she flies to Taipei, as well as Bangkok and Singapore.


Grace sings a nice song as she walks with a pilot around temples and palaces in Bangkok.

And then after she arrives in Singapore we see some of the sights of the city.





We also see the pilot and Grace taking pictures.



And we see Grace sing, and dance to, a calypso song (unfortunately this YouTube clip stops right when she really starts to dance).

Throughout the movie, Grace is always clean. So she certainly could have been using Fab detergent. And while I won’t try to guess about sanitary napkins, my point is that even in this one issue of this newspaper we can see a lot of “signs” that point to or suggest a certain way to live, and all of this is in Chinese, but it’s also all in Southeast Asia.


Several months ago I read an interesting book by Karen Strassler called Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java. In this book, Strassler looks at the ways in which ethnic Chinese on Java took the Western technology of photography and created a sense of “photographic modernity” that over time became part of what came to be seen as “Javanese modernity.”


Looking at the Sing Sian Yit Pao, I can see that there are undoubtedly many other ways in which ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, with their connections to people in the “Free Chinese” world of Hong Kong and Taiwan, contributed significantly to the creation of “national modernities” in places where they were, and still are, minorities.

The Museum Siam and the Bronze Drum Museum

There is a museum that opened in Bangkok around a decade ago called the Museum Siam (some people call it the Discovery Museum). It was designed by Thai academics (and some very famous ones).

It was meant to be “cutting edge” in its use of multimedia and in the ways that it allowed for an “interactive” experience. However, technology has changed so fast that it now does not necessarily feel that way.

Nonetheless, there is one way in which this museum was meant to be cutting-edge that does still feel that way, and that is in the message that the museum presents to visitors.

What this museum wants its Thai visitors to do, is to question who they are. And in particular, it wants them to question the nationalist representation/interpretation of Thailand and “Thainess” that they have learned in schools and through the media.


When you enter the museum, the first thing you do is to watch a video that is projected onto a curved screen. I wish the museum would post that video on YouTube because it is a fascinating video.

In any case, the screen shot above comes from a video that some private person made about the museum, but the questions that this person has put in the film are exactly the kind of questions that the museums asks its visitors.

Looking for real Thainess.

Everyone talks about true Thainess.

Everyone thinks they know what it means.

How real is true Thainess?

What on earth does it mean?

As one then walks through the museum, one is confronted with information that challenges the idea that there is an “essence” or something “whole” that we can call “Thai-ness.”


As nationalism took hold in Thailand in the 20th century, an early kingdom called Sukhothai was “imagined” as the origin of the “Thai nation.” This was truly something that (Westernized) Thai in the 20th century imagined, and in the Museum Siam, Sukhothai is not even mentioned.

This brings me to the “Bronze Drum Museum” that I referred to in the title of this post. As far as I know, there is no such museum, but if one were to be created right now, could it be made like the Museum Siam?

Could one have a history museum in Vietnam and not mention Văn Lang (like the Museum Siam does not mention Sukhothai)? Could a museum in Vietnam ask the same questions of its visitors that the Museum Siam does?

Looking for real Việt-ness.

Everyone talks about true Việt-ness.

Everyone thinks they know what it means.

How real is true Việt-ness?

What on earth does it mean?


I think that this would be impossible, so I ask such questions on this blog. And like the academics who created the Museum Siam in Bangkok, I’m not a spy for a foreign country, I don’t have a political motive, and I’m not trying to destroy a society (and, by the way, Thai nationalism is still alive and well in Thailand ten years after that museum opened its doors. . .).

The only thing that is happening in the Museum Siam and on this blog is that intelligent people (well I might not fit in that category, but. . .) are asking other intelligent people to think. And in both cases, it’s clear that intelligent people like being asked to think.

So let’s all keep thinking together.