A specialist book, Writing the South Seas is, steeped with lexicon which could take getting used to unless you work in the field. The title, however, is vivid: the term “South Seas” or (Nanyang in Mandarin) is familiar to everyone of Chinese ancestry from Southeast Asia. It refers to the lands south of China which are connected by an expanse of water aptly known as the South China Sea. Between the 1850s and the 1940s, the waves of this sea carried twenty million people from southern China to the varied countries of the Nanyang. Some of my ancestors were among them.

Born and raised in Beijing, Bei Dao spent decades in exile in Europe because of his alleged involvement in the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. City Gate, Open Up is his eloquent, moving memoir in which the foremost Chinese poet rebuilds Beijing, his fond hometown and lifelong anchor, through poignant memories and portraits, rendering the generations who have lived through such surreal, turbulent times.

The Opium Wars are probably the only actual shooting wars in history that are named after a drug. They may be the only major wars between countries that are named after a commodity of any kind. Britain and Iceland had their cod war, but that hardly counts. The United States had a Whiskey Rebellion and Australia had a Rum Rebellion. France and Mexico fought a desultory Pastry War in 1838 that cost Santa Anna his left leg and catapulted the rest of him to dictatorship. But the Opium Wars set the trajectory of the East Asian interstate system for 100 years and resonate in historical memory to this day.

“Once you have decided to have your photograph taken,” Matsuzaki Shinji wrote in 1886, “you should clean your entire person, comb your hair, shave your face (while those with long beards should wash them thoroughly), and take care that no dirt is attached to the face or the rest of your body.” He followed this up with twenty-five more “dos and don’ts” for the customer.

The “Asia Rising” story has been written and reported about so often that it has almost come to be accepted as truth. Driven by the rise of China and more recently, that of India and Southeast Asia, the combination of massive populations, rising economies and rapid modernization means Asia is set to become the new center of the world. Even China’s recent economic slowdown has not prevented Asia bulls from maintaining their positive forecasts. Scholar and academic Michael Auslin provides a rare voice of dissent with The End of the Asian Century.

The ASEAN Miracle observes that Southeast Asia is the world’s most diverse region. Although obvious once mentioned, it still seems novel. Southeast Asia’s history is a mix of Chinese, Indian and Islamic influences, with sizable populations of several of the world’s major religions. Yet despite this and its complicated colonial and postcolonial history, Southeast Asian countries have fought no major wars between them over the past half-century. The most significant war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War, involved an extra regional power: namely, the United States.