Remixing the Past: The Peopling of Asia (According to Kim Định)

In is 1970 work, Việt Lý Tố Nguyên, Lương Kim Định presented an outline of his understanding of the early history of East Asia.

The main point that Kim Định wished to make about early history was that the “Viêm race” (Viêm tộc/Yanzu 炎族) had already inhabited the area of China before the Han race arrived on the scene.

This was important for Kim Định, because he believed that the Vietnamese were part of the Viêm race, and that therefore, they had just as legitimate of a claim to be the “owners” of various aspects of “Chinese” culture as the Han Chinese did (or in Kim Định’s eyes, even more legitimate of a claim).

While there are plenty of problems with Kim Định’s view of history, it is good material for “remixing the past.”

Remixing the Past: Milk & Passion in a Time of War

This morning I was browsing through the digitized video and audio files that the Virtual Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University has placed online and decided to make a “mashup” of some of the materials there.

I call it “Milk & Passion in a Time of War.” It contains a discussion about milk, expressions of passion, and the conversations and videos that it is based on were all created during the Vietnam War.

The background “score” or “soundtrack” comes from a recording of “ghost sounds” that were used in psychological warfare. They contain the sounds such as funeral music, wailing and gunfire, all of which have been distorted (or played in reverse) to create eerie sounds.

The bits of conversation between the man and woman, meanwhile, are from “audio letters.” During the Vietnam War, this husband and wife recorded messages to each other on cassette tapes and then sent them to each other so that they could hear each other’s voice.

Finally, the people in the videos are not the same as the people whose voices we hear. This short film is meant to be creative, not documentary. However, I do think that “remixing the past” like this can serve as a way to explore and think about the past in ways that make sense in, or fit with, our digital age.

Playing with the Past: Chầu Văn meets Hip Hop

Chầu văn is a type of Vietnamese music that one can hear during spirit séances, when mediums contact spirits.

The ethnomusicologist, Barley Norton, has written a wonderful book about this type of music.

It’s a very “traditional” type of music, but after sampling a section of a chầu văn song and playing with the samples in a Korg Padkontrol, it quickly became apparent to me that “modern” ways of composing music can easily fit well with the world of chầu văn music.

The video below is by no means a “masterpiece,” but it hopefully at least gives a sense of the ways in which the “traditional” and the “contemporary” can potentially intersect.

This is the song that the above piece plays with.

Traveling Back in Time to Jam with Ros Sereysothea

As an historian, not only do I enjoy learning about the past, but I also have a strong desire to travel back in time to visit certain places at certain times.

1960s Cambodia is one such place I would like to go back in time to visit, because I would love to be able to listen to the great musicians at that time perform, such as Sinn Sisamouth and, of course, Ros Sereysothea.

Sinn Sisamouth & Ros-Sereysothea

I was thinking about this the other day, and then it dawned on me that I can go back in time. With the use of digital audio and video tools, I realized that not only can I go back to 1960s Cambodia, but I can actually play guitar with Ros Sereysothea’s band there.

So I tuned a guitar to an old recording of Ros Sereysothea’s “Bong Srolanh Oun Ponmaan Dae” (How Much Do You Love Me), and recorded a rhythm track as well as a little bit of lead guitar.

I then made a video of me playing that music, and. . . before I knew it, I was transported back in time to 1960s Cambodia. . . (or at least to the world of the hip elite in 1960s Cambodia).

I played with the band, people danced, and we all grooved to the lovely singing of “the Golden Voice of the Royal Capital.” It was an honor!! And I also learned that in the digital age historians can finally time travel.

Sampling the Past: A Duy Khánh Remix

I have been learning a lot about making music in the digital age recently, and one aspect of making music today that I find fascinating is the fact that people are “sampling” everything imaginable – from grand pianos to washing machines – and using these sounds to make songs.

Another interesting development is that many people are trying to recreate the “imperfect” sound of musical instruments played through a cassette recorder. With digital recording, sounds can sound “perfect,” and that is not always pleasing, as there is a texture to “imperfect” sounds that can sound very nice.

Therefore, there are many people who are sampling the sound of instruments played through a cassette so that they can then include that type of sound when they produce music using digital tools (a digital audio workstation or DAW).


I was recently reminded of the wonderful texture that music from the past can have when a friend posted on Facebook an original recording of a song from 1966 by the popular and well-respected South Vietnamese composer and singer, Duy Khánh (Xin anh giữ trọn tình quê). So I decided to use some of the sounds from that recording to make something new.

By cutting out parts of the song, playing some parts backwards, and adding reverb to others, I used the sounds (and texture) of this wonderful song to try to create something more contemporary but which is nonetheless indebted to the beauty of the original, a beauty which comes in part from “imperfection”: the guitar and piano are a bit out of sync at the beginning, for instance, and by today’s standards, the sound quality is somewhat unclear, but again, that’s one of the things that makes it sound special.

Xin anh giu tron tinh que 1

The only new sound that I’ve added to this “remix” are some drums. What I have created is definitely “imperfect,” so it would be nice if people who are much more capable at remixing music would “remix the past.” As I see it, it’s a way to honor people in the past and to create something new for the present.

Remixing the Past: The Vietnam Hula

I remember having a conversation on Facebook with some friends/readers in which we talked about the connections in the 1960s between Hawaii and Saigon. In particular, we were talking about how there were many engineers, architects, etc., who had been working in Hawaii in the 1950s and early 1960s, who then went to Saigon. Through their work they then created a connection between the “built environments” of Saigon and places in the Hawaiian islands like Honolulu.


So I started to think about what things would have looked like if that relationship had developed further. What, for instance, would Vietnam be like today if Hawaiian music had taken hold as well, and if there were Hawaiian bands and Hawaiian songs about Vietnam?

Well, to help imagine what that might have looked like, I created a song called “The Vietnam Hula,” and I also created an imaginary “soundscape” of an imaginary band, “Kavika Trần and the Thanh Hóa Tiki Torchers” playing in an imaginary place, the Saigon Hawaiian Palace, accompanied by the dancing of an imaginary woman, Melia Nguyễn.

Here is the song.

And here are the lyrics:

If you go to Vietnam,

No matter where you stay,

You’ll see that Vietnam hula,

Done in the Vietnam way.


Out on a boat in Ha Long Bay,

Under the sweet moonlight,

You’ll see those Ha Long beauties,

It’s an unforgettable sight.


Along the Perfume River,

In the old capital of Hue,

The girls sing and dance all night,

And eat bún bò all day.


Down on the streets of Saigon,

The ladies with their áo dàis,

Flowing in the tropical breeze,

It’s like a lullaby.


Up in the city of Hanoi,

The phở gà is a real treat,

And the ladies selling it,

Well they’re all so sweet.


That’s the Vietnam hula,

Done in the Vietnam way,

So if you go to Vietnam,

I’m sure you’re gonna stay.

Remixing the Past: Murdered Chinese in 1900 Sarawak

In reading issues of the Sarawak Gazette from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, I repeatedly come across references to Chinese either killing themselves or getting murdered. Life for Chinese laborers and merchants on Borneo at that time was clearly not easy, and many people’s lives were cut short for one reason or another.


Just looking at the year of 1900, for instance, we see that in January a Chinese shop owner in Sundar by the name of Ah Hai was murdered and his shop was burned to the ground.


In April an official reported the murder of another Chinese in Sibu. His report noted that “the dead body of a male Chinese was found in the river not half a mile below the station. It has since been identified as that of a Hokien of Sibu named Chan Ah Tong who was by profession a peripatetic trader. The body was covered with wounds inflicted without doubt by weapons.”


And then there was a notice offering a reward for the capture of eight Teochew men suspected of murdering pepper planter Liong Ten Chiow.

Sarawak and the rest of Borneo were like the “Wild West” in America had been not long before this point.

To capture that sense, I’ve created a soundscape called “Murder in 1900 Sarawak.”

Remixing the Past: Of Pigs and Men in 1920s Sarawak

Partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time in a forest that is inhabited by wild boars, and partly because sometimes when I’m out there I think about some essays that Jonathan Saha posted on his blog this summer about animals, I’ve been thinking about animals and how viewing the past from an “animal perspective” might be an interesting way to think about history.

And while there are of course a variety of different animals that one could use to examine history, I’m curious these days about pigs.

boar tracks

So I made the (somewhat random) decision to look through the issues of the Sarawak Gazette for the years of 1920 and 1922 to see what it said about pigs.

Indeed, it had a lot to say about pigs. So much, in fact, that I was able to categorize the information into various times of human-pig relations.

borneo pig

First of all, there was the relationship that the indigenous Dayaks had with pigs.

It is clear from my superficial examination of two years of the Sarawak Gazette that pigs were essential for the Dayak way of life. Of course their meat was an important form of protein, but in terms of religion and culture, pigs played an equally important role in various events and rituals.

There was an article in 1922, for instance, on “native medicine” which noted that “Dayaks and other natives use all manner of charms and talismans for procuring invulnerability, such as the material of wild pigs’ nest which is slung around the waist.”

Then there was an article on “Religious Rites and Customs of the Iban or Dayaks of Sarawak” which detailed the process by which a couple could get married. It involved various stages, and there was the potential for bad omens to bring an end to the ceremony at different stages. If, however, after that had happened the two sides still wanted the marriage to proceed, “a pig is killed the liver of which is examined: if the omen is good the marriage may be proceeded with, if bad it must be relinquished.”

And then finally there were ways in which pigs played a role in Dayak deaths: “Should a death occur from accident, the body cannot be brought into the house until a pig has been killed and each inmate of the house has been smeared with the blood, otherwise a curse would fall upon the house and it would be unsafe to live in.”


So pigs were clearly important to the Dayaks, and they way that they traditionally captured them, apparently was by trapping them. I haven’t figured out yet what those traps looked like, but they contained some kind of “magic charm,” which the above figure is an example of, and which now sell in the international art market for significant sums of money.

In the early 1920s, however, the Sarawak Gazette carried numerous stories about the injuries that Dayak pig traps caused.

A February 1920 report from Simanggang stated that “Penghulu Nuga reported the death of one Ujoi by a pig trap set by Jebin of the same house.”

In April 1920 there was a follow-up to this report that “Jebin [was] sentenced to six months imprisonment for culpable homicide in causing the death of another Dayak by his pig trap, and to pay $100 pati nyawa to relatives of deceased.”

In 1922 “a Dayak living at Slanjan was pierced in the side by a pig trap supposed to have been set by himself” while a man in Sibu by the name of Nglambai “was fined 2 piculs for causing hurt to a small boy by setting a pig trap in his fruit grove. The boy had a narrow escape from death.”

And finally, “A Sarikei Dayak was fined a pikul for setting a pig trap and slightly wounding a Chinese woman.”


I have no idea what happened before the Brooke family gained control of Sarawak when someone was injured by pig trap. I would assume that it must have been resolved by people in the longhouse.

However, with the arrival of the Brookes, European forms of justice started to be employed, and Dayaks had to compensate for the harm that their traps (unintentionally) caused in terms that they did not define.


We can also see a similar process with regards to the Chinese in Sarawak and their relationship to pigs.

In the January 16, 1920 issue of the Sarawak Gazette there is a report from Sadong (for December 1919) that stated that some Chinese coolies demonstrated outside a shop in the market on “the eve of some Chinese feast day.” They demanded that the owner of the shop kill three pigs for the feast the next day. The shop owner agreed.

So pigs were important for the Chinese, and to some extent this was religious, although I think these coolies were more interested in getting the pigs into their bellies. . .

In any case, a month later, in a report from Upper Sarawak, an official noted that “pigs were being killed at Siniawan in a number of places in the bazaar,” so he arranged to have a slaughter house built “on an approved site” and to lease the right to slaughter and sell pork there “to a Chinese at a monthly rental as is done at Bau.”

So seeing that the Chinese were slaughtering pigs, an official for the Brooke administration decided to establish a monopoly for the slaughter and sale of pork (a “pork farm”) in Siniawan, and to lease that monopoly to the highest bidder, which in Sarawak, like the rest of Southeast Asia, ended up being a rich Chinese.


Once that happened, Dayaks figured out that beyond religious/ritual benefits, there were other benefits that one could get from pigs. . . namely, one could become rich by selling them to Chinese who wanted to eat them.

In March 1920, the official stationed in Upper Sarawak reported that “The pork farmer [and I assume that he is referring to the person in Bau] ceased to kill pigs on the 18th as he said that he could not sell at the controlled price owing to the high price of pigs.”

The Brooke government apparently wanted pork to stay at a set price, but Chinese farmers started to demand higher prices for their pigs.

The man who had the monopoly on the slaughter and sale of pigs then “tried to buy pigs from the Dayaks” but the Dayaks had heared that the Chinese were asking a high price for their live swine, so they refused to sell at anything but the same price that the Chinese were asking even though “their animals are far inferior beasts to those of the Chinese breeders.”


Some from animals that had ritual significance to the Dayaks, pigs in the 1920s were being transformed into commodities that the Dayaks could demand a high price for.

Perhaps this explains why violence started to emerge in relation to pigs.

It was reported from Upper Sarawak in February 1920 that there was a “Dayak shooting case” that occurred in the following manner: “a pig drive was in progress when Sejit shot a relative of his named Sanyas in the back killing him instantly. Sejit saw the long grass waving and simply fired without waiting to see what he was shooting at with this unfortunate result. The Court sentenced him to a year imprisonment.”

A month later it was reported from Upper Sarawak that: “On the night of the 16th, a gardener’s house at Seringgok was held up by two Chinese armed with thorny sticks, while two more proceeded to the piggery, and cut up and made off with a pig weighing some 90 catties. The gardener got out through the back of the house and raised the alarm, but the thieves managed to make good their escape in the darkness.”

Pigs had clearly become valuable. . .


What this very brief and superficial examination demonstrates to me is that there is great potential in looking at the past from an “animal perspective,” or more specifically, from looking at the past from the perspective of human-animal relations.

In the case of Sarawak, for instance, one can clearly see larger societal and economic transformations in the situations that pigs found themselves.

If historians were to examine the past from the perspective of those situations that pigs found themselves in, we might not learn a great deal that is new, but I think we’d see a lot that we already know from a novel and enlightening perspective.

So in any case, to honor the role of pigs in the history of Sarawak, I’ve created a soundscape that I’ve called “Peaceful Pigs.” It’s not about Dayak pig traps or Chinese slaughterhouses. But instead, is a soundscape which imagines a (more or less) peaceful co-existence between pigs and humans. This might not be what actually occurred in the past, but that is why this is the past “remixed.”

Reframing and Remixing the Southeast Asian Past

I have started making “soundscapes” to accompany blog posts that I write about historical events or phenomena in Southeast Asian history. I am not sure why I started to do this, and I’m still not sure what exactly it is that I am doing, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to make some kind of sense.

napalm image

The above picture is an iconic image from the Vietnam war of children running from a village that had been napalmed.

The image below is a “reframing” of the same image by Polish artist, Zbigniew Libera.


Which image is more disturbing? Why? What is the point of the second image?

Clearly, this “reframing” of this iconic photograph can lead people to think about various things: the past, suffering, affluence, the present, etc.

So I think I’m trying to find a way to do this with sound. This is more difficult as there are not many “iconic sounds” from the past. That is therefore somewhat of a limitation, but it can also leave more room to be creative.

In “remixing the past” in the previous post, I was attempting to represent in sound the lack of interest on the part of the Marine Court at Singapore that some of the survivors of the Angola wreck had resorted to cannibalism. By placing sounds of murder and cannibalism alongside a smooth trance groove, my idea was to create a sense of complacency in the face of horror.

While that remix is not as artistic as Zbigniew Libera’s reframed photograph, perhaps the idea is more or less the same?


I also find it interesting that less than a century earlier before the survivors of the Angola wreck engaged in cannibalism, the survivors of the wreck of a ship called the Medusa had also engaged in cannibalism.

This act was captured in a painting that now resides in the Louvre. That painting caused a scandal/sensation when it was created, in part because people were appalled at the time to learn of what the surviving sailors had done.

So why was the Marine Court at Singapore unfazed about what the survivors of the Angola wreck did? And why are we so unfazed by so much today?

Perhaps reframing and remixing the past is a way that we can think about these things.

Remixing the Past: Eating a Frenchman in 1900 Southeast Asia

I just came across an amazing story from the early twentieth century in a newspaper from Hawaii, The Pacific Commercial Advertiser.

The article is entitled “The Awful Fate of a Ship’s Crew on a Raft for Forty-Two Days” and is about a ship that in 1900 tried to sail from Manila to Singapore, but things went terribly wrong.


The ship was a British barque called the Angola and was under the charge of a certain Captain Crocker, who was assisted by First Mate Mr. Campbell, and Second Mate Mr. Brown.

In addition to these three men, the crew also consisted of the following:

A Norwegian carpenter named Bjanson.

A cook from Madras (a native Christian) named Alexander.

A cabin boy from Mauritius named Euleys.

And then there were the following seamen: Johansen (Swede), Miguel (Spaniard), White and Brown (Germans), Bill and Tom (English), Peidel (Russian), Augustus (French), Antonio (Italian), Lloyd (American), Emanuel (Chilean), Emil (Russian Finn), and Hjalmar (Norwegian).


Six days after leaving Manila, the ship smashed into a reef and capsized. One of the Germans and the Russian drowned, but the rest of the crew climbed up onto the side of the ship and sat there for four days without food or water.

The men then made two rafts out of the wreckage of the ship. Five men got on one raft and 11 on the other, and for the following three weeks they drifted. They saw numerous steamers pass by, but those ships were all too far away to notice the small rafts.

The American died, and one of the Norwegians died, and both of these men were dropped into the ocean.


Augustus, the Frenchman, then started to go crazy. He was angry that the other men had thrown the American and Norwegian overboard and had not eaten them.

Augustus then ended up killing Mr. Campbell, the first mate. “He then drank the blood and ate the brains of Mr. Campbell and threw the body overboard.”

That was clearly not a good idea, as the first mate had a friend. . . the second mate, Mr. Brown, and the following day Mr. Brown killed Augustus. All of the men on that raft then drank the Frenchman’s blood and ate his raw flesh.


A few days after that a Russian went crazy and jumped overboard. The men resorted to drinking sea water and urine.

The Norwegian carpenter was the next to die, and then Alexander, the Madras Christian cook, and then Mr. Brown. . .

None of these men were eaten. Instead, the survivors learned how to catch fish using crooked nails as hooks and a piece of canvas as string.

In the end, however, only two men survived, Johansen, the Swede, and Miguel the Spaniard.


On 28 November 1900, these two men landed on Subi Island in the Natuna Archipelago. By that time their bodies were covered with boils and they were too weak to walk. This is what Johansen remembers:

“There were about two hundred natives on this island – Malays, I think. We went up to the chief’s house and lived there for about two months. We had only cocoanuts and mangoes and a little fish to eat. We talked Malay to the natives and they were very kind to us. After living there for about two months, a Chinese junk arrived from Singapore with a cargo of rice, and we went on board.


The men eventually arrived in Singapore.

On 13 April 1901, a Marine court of inquiry was held at the Marine Court at Singapore in order to determine what had happened to the Angola. This is what the Court concluded:

“The ‘Angola,’ during bad weather, while on a voyage from Cavite to Singapore, struck on a reef in the China Sea, on or about the 17th October, 1900, and became a total wreck. The position of the reef is unknown. As far as is known only two out of the crew of nineteen survive.

“In the absence of any reliable evidence on the subject, the Court is unable to form an opinion as to the navigation of the vessel, but from the evidence before it the Court is satisfied that the loss of the vessel was due to perils of the sea, and that no blame attaches to anyone in connection therewith.”

wreck report

Another point that was made in the report was that “The Court did not consider that it would serve any good purpose to inquire too closely into what happened on the raft during the thirty-eight days which it was drifting about.”

It must have been known to the members of “the Court” that cannibalism had taken place after the Angola had wrecked, but. . . the members of the Court did not want to deal with that.

In an effort to think about this phenomenon where people can be confronted with what is perhaps the most horrific human act (cannibalism) and be disinterested, I have created a soundscape that I call “Eating a Frenchman.”

Here is the report that appeared in the The Pacific Commercial Advertiser: 42 Days.