Although it is the Silk Road that captures most of the contemporary attention and discussion, it was in fact spices, not silk, that drove Western Europeans to seek routes to Asia. “Lightweight and durable, spices” writes Roger Crowley in his new history (appropriately entitled Spice), “were the first truly global commodity … they could be worth more than their weight in gold.” 

“At least 45,000 years ago, an artist using red ochre painted a mural of warty pigs at the back of a cave near modern-day Makassar on Sulawesi. The artist ‘signed’ the work with hand stencils. The mural is the oldest known representational art associated with modern Homo sapiens anywhere in the world.” This is just one of a multitude of details in Eric C Thompson’s The Story of Southeast Asia that one feels one should have known, but probably didn’t. A rather later one is that the word “Malay” did not originally specify an ethnicity.

As Comet Hyakutake passes Earth in March 1996, four friends experience an array of puzzling events: the dead reappear and the living disappear. Daryl Qilin Yam’s Lovelier, Lonelier begins in Kyoto, where the paths of Isaac Neo, Tori Yamamoto, Jing Aw and Mateo Calvo Morales first intersect, and where the trajectory of their lives change after one weekend together. Divided into three parts to weave through different perspectives, years and cities including Kyoto, Madrid and Singapore, Yam presents a story of once-in-a-lifetime encounters, not just with the brightest and closest comet to approach Earth in 200 years, but also with people.

From the temples of Angkor Wat and Borobudur to images of Ganesh and references to the Ramayana, anyone who visits Southeast Asia cannot fail to be struck by the influence of centuries-old Indian culture, an influence that seems more profound and deeply rooted than that of China. Yet in today’s Southeast Asia, the situation is largely reversed; India is very much a political and commercial also-ran.

Singaporean Creatures: Histories of Humans and Other Animals in the Garden City, Timothy P Barnard (ed) (NUS Press, January 2024)
Singaporean Creatures: Histories of Humans and Other Animals in the Garden City, Timothy P Barnard (ed) (NUS Press, January 2024)

Modern Singapore is the city in a garden, a biophilic and highly managed urban space that is home to a variety of animals, from mosquitoes to humans to polar bears. How has this coexistence worked as we enter the Anthropocene? How have human-animal relationships shaped Singapore society—socially, economically, politically and environmentally—over the last half century?