Plural Pasts in Southeast Asian Port Cities

By Su Lin Lewis, University of Bristol

Conflict and division characterize the way we often think of race relations in the colonial era, but the social history of Asia’s most multi-ethnic cities gives us a different view.

The colonial scholar J.S. Furnivall’s notion of the “plural society” has proven to be remarkably resilient in Southeast Asia. Furnivall believed that the plural society was a creation of the colonial economy, as large numbers of Chinese and Indian migrants arrived to aid in administration, provide capital, and work in plantations and rice deltas. In his eyes, migrant communities, which included Europeans, were not bound together by any social bond but rather segregated themselves from other communities, and co-existed solely to make money out of each other.


The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in George Town, Penang. Photo: Su Lin Lewis

Furnivall was writing from multi-ethnic colonial Rangoon, where in 1930, over half of the population was born elsewhere. But diverse populations had lived and traded together in Southeast Asia for centuries, particularly in its port cities, long pre-dating the colonial era. Foreign travelers to the region from the fifteenth century commented on the presence of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Arab trading communities in the great emporia towns of Malacca, Pegu, and Ayutthaya. Within these cities, enclaves grew for particular ethnic communities, with Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities represented by their own ‘kapitan’, appointed to resolve disputes.

Colonial settlements followed this pattern, encouraging migrant trade diasporas to form communities. When the British razed the Burmese port city of Yangon in 1852 and re-named it Rangoon, grants of land were given for an Armenian church, a Hindu temple, a Mogul mosque, a Gujarati mosque, a synagogue, and a Chinese temple. The new city of Bangkok, established in 1782, was founded on a Teochew trading settlement, near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River; as in Ayutthaya, the Siamese king’s benevolence was shown in governing an array of migrant trading communities within the city.

The self-segregation of the population was most salient not along ethnic lines, but in demarcating the lines between ruler and ruled. Old historical maps show how European rulers cloistered themselves within military cantonments, often located in hillside areas as in Rangoon. In Bangkok, the Thai aristocracy, like their predecessors, segregated themselves behind palace walls but in a new, semi-colonial twist, hired European architects to build new suburban playgrounds in eclectic and mock Tudor style. But in the city, ethnic enclaves blended into each other, with different religious sites co-existing in close proximity, often across the street from one another.

When examining ethnic relations in the colonial city, urban historians have focused on social segregation and division rather than interaction and exchange. This is at least in part due to sources: official government records were concerned with categorizing ethnic populations within particular racial groups, policing conflict and maintaining order. As a result, we know more about “race riots” in Penang, Singapore, and Rangoon than we know about the ways migrant communities and local communities interacted on a daily basis.


A Thai Buddist Monk Looks Out at the Portuguese Santa Cruz Church in Bangkok. Photo: Su Lin Lewis

Newspapers, student magazines, memoirs, oral histories, and the work of ethnomusicologists give us a different kind of story than the one described by Furnivall of isolated communities communicating purely for economic purposes. In my new book, I explore the sites where diverse communities in Penang, Rangoon, and Bangkok interacted in the 1920s and 1930s. In street-food stalls, markets, red-light districts, and popular theater venues, urban communities traded, exchanged gossip, fraternized, and were entertained. Alongside the communal associations, schools, and newspapers that fostered particular ethnic and religious identities, there were also multi-ethnic associations, newspapers, and schools, where English often served as a link language among a multi-lingual, aspirational professional class.

51d1dbi6x3lFurnivall himself was a member of the Burma Research Society, a space where Burmese and European intellectuals (and the Sino-Burmese Taw Sein Ko) convened to study Burmese culture, including the variety of ethnic groups within Burma and relations with neighboring countries. Despite his own paternalism towards the Burmese, Furnivall’s sympathies lay with the Burmese nationalist movement. For Furnivall, pluralism was a blight on society, one he contrasted with the “homogenous” culture and unity of Western society, particular his native England (a somewhat spurious claim, given the long history of migration to the U.K).

The belief that homogeneity was central to political unity was one that Southeast Asian rulers tried to implement in the postcolonial era. Cultures of ethnic pluralism have been buried through government policies of assimilation, including education in Thai, Malay, and Burmese to integrate migrant and minority communities. The promotion of ethnic nationalism has been a pillar of government policy in Burma and Malaysia since at least the 1960s.

But cities, in their openness to trade, migration, and cross-cultural interaction have continually challenged the homogenizing tendencies of nation-states. Today, urban heritage organizations are trying to recover cosmopolitan pasts. After years of community organizing by Malaysian heritage activists, Penang’s George Town and Malacca were given UNESCO world heritage status in 2008, celebrating the diverse, eclectic cultures of the Straits. Thai designers and intellectuals created Bangkok’s Museum of Siam to play with the fluidity of Thai identity and multiple influences on Thai society from the rest of the world.


Burmese-Indian Children Wearing Traditional Burmese Thanaka in Yangon. Photo: Su Lin Lewis

This is a particularly significant moment for Yangon, economically isolated from the world for decades, with many of its old colonial buildings still intact. As the city opens up once again to globalization, the Yangon Heritage Trust has recently launched a heritage strategy, arguing that “Yangon can be a beacon of religious and cultural diversity; home to hundreds of places of worship, representing all the world’s major religions.”

Southeast Asia’s port cities have long been spaces of multiple faiths, where relationships are constantly negotiated across religious and ethnic lines. While Furnivall believed that the “homogenous” West was a model for the plural societies of colonial Southeast Asia, as civil society groups in the region know, it is their cities that are in a unique position to teach us lessons about tolerance, diversity, and globalization.


Su Lin Lewis holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and is Lecturer in Modern Global History at the University of Bristol. Her monograph Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia 1920-1940 was published by Cambridge University Press in summer 2016. She is currently leading an AHRC collaborative research project on Afro-Asian Networks in the Early Cold War, exploring transnational networks across Asia and Africa in the 1960s and 1950s.

This entry was posted in Article and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s