H.H. Hahn: Cross-Cultural Exchange and the Colonial Imaginary

Cross-Cultural Exchange and the Colonial Imaginary. Global Encounters Via Southeast Asia

Hahn, H. Hazel
328 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Yasmine Najm, Leipzig University

The collective volume edited by historian H. Hazel Hahn from the University of Seattle, brings together interdisciplinary scholarly work on the history of quotidian culture in colonized Southeast Asia in the modern and contemporary eras. By reassessing the long-standing binaries (colonizer-colonized, metropole-periphery, precolonial-colonial, colonial-postcolonial) that have long shaped historical accounts about colonial encounters in Southeast Asia, the book uses the framework of “cross-cultural exchange” to shed light on the complexities and continuities of colonial encounters in Southeast Asia.

It is organized along three thematic sections. The first section, Knowledge Exchange, brings together three essays on cross-cultural learning, adaptation, and resistance between Europe and Southeast Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The four essays that make up the second section, entitled Material and Architectural Exchange, address material culture and issues of trans-imperial colonial legacy in Southeast Asia, as well as how these material objects are apprehended in contemporary times. The third and last section of the book, titled Leisure Exchange, in three studies looks at photography, transgressive dress, and music, respectively, to show how these cultural activities were used by the actors as mediums of cross-cultural exchange and to circumvent cultural colonial norms.

In what follows, I have selected three contributions that deconstruct colonial binaries and show the multi-layered history of Southeast Asian spaces colonized by actors acting on behalf of the French, Dutch, and British empires. The first is Hahn's own contribution titled Absent Narratives and Missing Jewels: Cultural Heritage of a Tamil Temple in Ho Chi Minh City. Through her analysis of the architectural symbolism and cultural context of three Tamil temples and more particularly of the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple built in colonial Saigon, Hahn shows that the power relations and binary hierarchies expected in French Indochina, i.e., the domination of the white, metropolitan French colonizers over the local Vietnamese population, were complex and nuanced. In fact, the mere existence of these temples shows the influence and higher social status of the Tamils and especially the Chetty in the region, as some of them, due to the precedent of the French empire in India, acquired a privileged status and became French. This in turn allowed them to be represented politically, unlike the local Vietnamese population during much of the rule. Hahn also shows the continuity of colonial binaries in post-colonial times as she recounts how the multi-layered history of these temples has been ignored for decades because colonial legacy and in some instances “the positive effects of the presence of Europeans in the area” (p. 146) is in contradiction with the contemporary narratives about Vietnamese cultural heritage.

Then, in the same vein, Arnout Van der Meer's study Rituals and Power: Cross-Cultural Exchange and the Contestation of Colonial Hegemony in Indonesia brings forward the surprising power dynamics at play in the Dutch East Indies in the early 20th century. At the centre of Van der Meer’s contribution is the case of a young Javanese civil servant working for the Dutch colonial administration who refused to act with special deference toward his European superior in a remote province of Java. According to Van der Meer this seemingly anecdotal incident “illuminates the various ways in which cross-cultural exchange both supported and undermined Dutch colonial legitimacy” (p. 99) in colonial Java. In fact, the Dutch administrators assimilated to Javanese aristocratic cultural rules by adapting and hybridizing their manner of dress and by expecting deference rituals from the local population. However, the Dutch hybrid style of rule in the East Indies came into jeopardy with the rise of the Indonesian nationalist movement by the mid-20th century. In fact, the Indonesian nationalists claimed the right to speak Dutch, dress with European cloth and to be free from deference rituals towards the Dutch. In other words, Indonesian nationalists claimed the right to access European culture to emancipate themselves from colonial domination. The hybrid nature of the strategies adopted by the Dutch and Indonesians to rule and resist break with the standard narrative of binary power relations between colonizer/colonized.

Finally, Frederick J. Schenker’s essay, Jazz and the British Empire: The Rise of the Asia Jazz Professional, focuses on the trans-imperial and global circulation of jazz and in particular its reception in the burgeoning early 20th century British Empire. Originating from the Southern United States in the 1910s, jazz, a distinctly African American music style rapidly made its way in all corners of the British empire as it soldiers brought it along to both urban centres and rural areas. Jazz’s popularity and increasing demand in the British empire led to a “market setting in which Asian musicians, especially Filipinos and Goans took part in this performance of modernity by providing the latest music for European dancers” (p. 265). In performing in jazz bands, Asian jazz professionals used music to negotiate their place in the imperial system and show their capacity for independence. Indeed, as Schenker shows, Filipino and Goan jazz players took advantage of market demand to circumvent imperial hierarchies and the imperial work they were expected to carry out.

Overall, Cross-Cultural Exchange and the Colonial Imaginary brilliantly brings together a fascinating collection of in-depth studies that illustrate the complexities and continuities of colonial encounters in Southeast Asia. Each essay, in its own way, demonstrates the relevance of examining colonial encounters through the lens of cross-cultural exchange by highlighting the complex process of change that colonization has brought about in the modern era. This book will certainly be of interest to scholars interested in new imperial history, architecture, and material culture studies. By moving beyond the colonial binaries that still permeate writings on colonial history in Southeast Asia, this book is valuable to scholars and students alike. I highly recommend this well-structured and written collective volume. By adding a collection of new perspectives to think about the exchanges and transfers that have shaped and continue to shape our contemporary period, the book is a significant contribution to ongoing debates on decolonization, coloniality and decoloniality.

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