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.
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.