Society consists of more than just people; many studies of society, indeed, focus on people’s interaction with material things. Fewer delve into the relationships between people and animals.
At the end of a network of quiet alleys just to the east of Beijing Railway Station sits Kuijiachang Hutong—Armor Factory Alley. Few stumble across it; you have to search it out. In imperial times, as the name suggests, this was an area dedicated to the manufacture of munitions and the paraphernalia of war. It is not stretching the historical association too far, I hope, to link the street’s former purpose to the explosive power of a work of journalism completed on this hutong in the 1930s, for few could dispute the international impact made by Edgar Snow’s 1937 work of reportage, Red Star over China.
Much of early-modern history, up until the early 20th century, was characterized by empire—not just or even particularly the colonial projects of Britain and Spain, but contiguous empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, China and the Ottomans. These latter were multi-ethnic and—using modern sensibilities—in some ways multinational edifices. They all came to an end around the time of the First World War: China and Russia morphed into republics and largely kept their territories; the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were replaced by a welter of new countries.
Relatively little had been written about Indonesia during World War II and the conflict between the Dutch and Japanese in the Pacific. In her recent memoir, All Ships Follow Me, Mieke Eerkens starts with the complexity of her father’s upbringing in colonial Indonesia. The son of a Dutch family that had lived in what was then called the Dutch East Indies for three generations, Eerkens’ father spent his first ten years living a life of privilege in Java.
On 26 April 1895, the trial of Oscar Wilde began at the Old Bailey. He was there because he had attempted to prosecute the marquess of Queensberry for libel, an action which had led to unforeseen revelations about Wilde’s sexuality (Queensberry, whose command of spelling didn’t equal Wilde’s, had called Wilde a “somdomite” [sic]), forced him to abandon his suit, and himself face trial for gross indecency and homosexuality. If Wilde had read of a trial which had happened in far-off India two years earlier, he might have thought twice about suing Queensberry. The trial in question, here ably presented and carefully analyzed by Benjamin Cohen, was, like Wilde’s, a long, salacious saga of sex and lies. There was, of course, no videotape, but a nude photograph which no one seemed able to produce was verbally offered in evidence. Like Queensberry, the defendant was acquitted and, like Wilde’s, the plaintiff’s life, as well as that of his wife, completely ruined, although neither ended up doing two years’ hard labor. The Hyderabad incident serves, particularly in retrospect, to reveal some of the British Raj’s nastier sides, involving questions of race, gender, bourgeois morality and, to a somewhat lesser extent, religion.
There is sometimes a feeling—it may even be a sort of implied ASEAN policy—that Southeast Asia will, or at least should, converge: that the countries of the region will develop economically and differentials in standards of living will lessen, that the military will ease itself out of politics, that civil society will strengthen. This has, if seen with a perspective of decades, been a trend largely born out if far from completed.
Even if Philip Jablon had kept strictly to his original premise of documenting Thailand’s purpose-built movie theatres—an obsession he claims first took hold in 2008—this volume would’ve filled a worthy niche. From the book’s earliest temple of celluloid, Bangkok’s Prince Theatre from 1912, Jablon’s photographs capture a wealth of 20th-century architectural styles, from Bangkok’s tropical art deco Scala Theatre (built in 1969) to the brutalist Siri Phanom Rama Theatre (built in 1979) in Chachoengsao Province, each filtered through a distinct Southeast Asian sensibility.