Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past


Southeast Asia

Islands and Change

I’ve spent my entire adult life on islands – 6 years on Taiwan and 23 years on Oahu (Hawaii) – and all of the professional knowledge that I have today was learned on those islands.

When I arrived on Taiwan in the summer of 1989, I only knew one word in Chinese – xiexie, “thank you” – and basically did not know anything about the history of any Asian society.

I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’ve also seen so much change since then.

Continue reading “Islands and Change”

Imagined Communities and an Imagined Southeast Asian Communitas

There are different types of knowledge that have been (and continue to be) produced about Southeast Asia, from area studies knowledge produced in places like North America, Australia and the UK, to nationalistic and ASEAN-focused scholarship produced in the region, to what I would call “academic knowledge” that is produced by scholars (mainly those studying/working in “the West” but who could be from anywhere) who focus on addressing issues in their respective academic disciplines rather than contributing to the understanding of a geographic area (as area studies and ASEAN-focused scholars do) or a nation (as nationalistic scholars do).

These different forms of knowledge exist in tension with each other, and this talk looks at ways to bridge the divides between these different ways of knowing Southeast Asia.

This is a talk that I gave for an event that I could not attend. I have edited out the parts at the beginning and the end that refer to the event, and am sharing the rest for anyone interested in this topic.

Vin(group) University, Melbourne U. and the Future of the Humanities (and Asian Studies)

[I posted this piece on the Content Asian Studies site. Given that it covers topics (the future of Humanities/area studies education in and outside of Southeast Asia) that overlap with issues that this blog deals with, I thought I would post it here as well for anyone who might be interested.]

Major Vietnamese property developer, Vingroup, just announced that it will build a world-class university in Vietnam with consultation from some of the world’s top universities, such as Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Vin University, or VinUni for short, “will be a private, non-profit university of Vietnam established on international standards and integrating the world’s elite models of higher education.”

What exactly are “the world’s elite models of higher education”? A recent job application for a historian of Vietnam at Melbourne University, one of the top-ranked universities in the world made me wonder about that, and what the implications of “the world’s elite models of higher education” are for the future of Humanities scholarship, the “home” of some of the key fields in Asian Studies.”

The trend in “the world’s elite models of higher education” indicates quite clearly that the future of the Humanities and Asian Studies is bleak as long as we persist on doing things the way we always have. But there is a potentially much brighter future awaiting for us if we change.

President Trump’s Opinion of Le Minh Khai

At the recent APEC meeting in Vietnam, President Donald Trump of the USA was apparently asked what he thought of Le Minh Khai by two reporters from The Guardian.

I’m amazed that reporters from such a respectable newspaper would even know about me, and I’m pleased to see that President Trump’s assessment of my work is pretty accurate. I didn’t expect that.

Popular Music in Twentieth Century Southeast Asia: A New Book!!

One topic that has received very little attention by historians is twentieth-century Southeast Asian popular culture, especially popular culture in the 1950s-1980s. There is a new publication, however, that seeks to at least partially remedy this situation by providing an overview of popular music in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century.

The book is called Popular Music in Southeast Asia: Banal Beats, Muted Histories (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017) and was written by Bart Barendregt, Peter Keppy and Henk Schulte Nordholt. Further, there is an open access version of the book that is free to download and read.

Continue reading “Popular Music in Twentieth Century Southeast Asia: A New Book!!”

Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Colonizing Animals (Week 4)

This week in the seminar we read some of the scholarship of Jonathan Saha, an historian at the University of Leeds in the UK.

While I discuss his scholarship in the video, it is also important to note that Jonathan maintains a wonderful “online presence” through his blog, Colonizing Animals.


Here are the articles that we read:

Continue reading “Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Colonizing Animals (Week 4)”

Seminar in Modern Southeast Asian History: Thinking Big (Week 3)

This week in the seminar we looked at “big history,” that is, history that is large in scope, be that temporal (i.e., looking at a society over the longue durée) or spatial (looking comparatively at a topic across a large geographic area).

The most famous work on Southeast Asian history that falls into this category is undoubtedly Victor Lieberman’s, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, a work that examines the trend toward state centralization in Southeast Asia over a long period of time, and then places that history in a global context.

Strange Parallels, is thus “big” in its examination of the past at both the temporal and spatial levels.

I’ve assigned Strange Parallels in seminars before, but this time we decided to look at a series of articles that take a “big” approach to the past in various ways by another scholar, historian Eric Tagliacozzo of Cornell University. My intent here was to try to give students a sense of not only what different forms of “big” history can look like, but to also give a sense of what “big” scholarly output looks like as well, as Tagliacozzo has been extremely productive, and in the academic world that is important.

Continue reading “Seminar in Modern Southeast Asian History: Thinking Big (Week 3)”

Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Water (Week 2)

This is a video summary of a weekly seminar that I am teaching (Fall 2017) on modern Southeast Asian History.

The readings from this week are listed below.

Peter Boomgaard, ed., A World of Water: Rain, Rivers and Seas in Southeast Asian Histories (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007).

Jonathan Rigg, ed., The Gift of Water: Water Management, Cosmology and the State in South East Asia (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1992).

Lindsay Lloyd-Smith, Eric Tagliacozzo, “Water in Southeast Asia: Navigating Contradictions,” Trans –Regional and –National Studies of Southeast Asia Vol. 4, No. 2 (2016): 229-238.

Continue reading “Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Water (Week 2)”

Chainsmokers “Closer” Covers in Southeast Asia

I read an article last week by Ariel Heryanto called “Popular Culture for a New Southeast Asian Studies?” [in The Historical Construction of Southeast Asian Studies; Korea and Beyond, edited by Park Seung Woo and Victor T. King (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013), 226-262.]

Essentially what Heryanto argues in that article is that popular culture is a topic that scholars have traditionally not focused on, but that if we examine what kind of popular culture is popular in certain areas we can gain an interesting perspective on “what is Southeast Asia.”

Continue reading “Chainsmokers “Closer” Covers in Southeast Asia”

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