Southeast Asian lives
ROXANA WATERSON, ed.
Southeast Asian lives: personal narratives and historical experience
Singapore: NUS Press; Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007. viii + 317 pp, photographs, index. ISBN 9789971693442, pb US$27; S$38
Reviewed by Michael Hitchcock, University of Chichester
The turbulence that accompanied the demise of colonialism, the Japanese occupation of World War II and the emergence of new nation states had a marked impact on the lives of the people of Southeast Asia that has been documented in the memoirs of the region’s leaders, most famously Lee Kuan Yew. However, very little is known about the experiences of ordinary people through these difficult times and, though fragmentary accounts do exist, it is almost impossible to find an overview. This welcome volume neatly fills that gap with a series of fascinating narratives with accompanying analyses that reveal remarkable stories of adaptation and survival in a time of rapid transition.
All the contributors are anthropologists, but the volume is not aimed at anthropologists and instead addresses a multi-disciplinary audience covering heritage, social history, literature and biography. These biographies may be diverse, but they are unified by ethnography with all the contributors reflecting on what it means to do this kind of research in the current era while focusing on the past. This reviewer’s hunch is that these kinds of debates will prove attractive to various disciplines, notably history, underpinning the steady spread and acceptance of ethnographical approaches throughout the humanities and social sciences. In fact, so interesting and varied are the observations about the value of ethnography in elucidating history that it is impossible to capture all of them in a review such as this.
Therefore to give a flavour of the vitality of these debates on research methods this reviewer would like to draw attention to Robert Knox Dentan’s observation that traditional descriptive ethnography had come under fire because it was conducted by Anglophone men based in universities whose master narratives simply added to the injustices inflected on subaltern peoples. The fact that researchers from other social categories have become involved in ethnography over the last half century has not, in the minds of its critics, outdated this critique, and, though Dentan is inclined to agree with them, he has one caveat; talking about ‘postcolonial studies’ vexes him. He asks what is postcolonial about colonialism when one considers that the policies of the educated ruling Malaysians of today towards indigenous people like the Semai are almost indistinguishable from those of the former colonists. Dentan argues that through narrative ethnography he tries to present facts as he experienced them, leaving readers to make up their own minds about the facts and the research. That said, he appears to be wary about the essentialism of potential readers in his own country, particularly with regard to popular notions of violence, which he himself shares to some extent.
Another interesting reflection is that of Annette Hamilton who points out that life history or life story inevitably overlaps with oral history and questions of veracity and accuracy emerge. She argues that in anthropology it is not a concern with the accuracy of the informant’s memories, but with the ethnographer’s forms of eliciting and recording that have led to questions about the validity of life history writing or at least recognition of its collaborative character. Despite these observations, Hamilton’s study is located in Thailand and she argues that her approach offers perspectives on the individuals’ encounters with the local and the national, an important consideration given the process of ‘nationalist narrativisation’ that began in Thailand in the 19th century and had by the 1980s produced a consistent and homogeneous version of Thai history and Thai culture. Hamilton points out that these questions are of particular interest in Thailand because of the extent to which national consciousness had obscured local particularities and memories, though this reviewer would add that they are equally applicable in other parts of Southeast Asia.
There could have been a conclusion on the value of ethnography in recovering history at the end of the book, though there is a mini-conclusion to this effect in the first chapter, but clearly the editor and her contributors wanted the life-histories themselves to occupy centre stage and not be overshadowed by a debate on methodology. This leaves us with a diverse and engaging series of narratives that often reveal how tightly constrained ordinary peoples’ lives were in ‘traditional societies’ where local leaders exercised almost dictatorial power. The fact that many of the societies were under colonial rule at the time did not necessarily mean that foreign domination percolated down to ordinary people and as Warren’s Balinese informant opines ‘I don’t think the Dutch really ran things completely then’ (p. 55), a bottom up rebuke to both colonial and contemporary national narrative. This book deserves to be warmly welcomed not just because it fills an important gap and provides some fascinating reflections on methodology, but because it does what it says on the cover and ‘will intrigue anyone living in or concerned with this extraordinary region’.