In its eclectic choice of subjects, Filipino writer Lio Mangubat’s collection of historical essays Silk, Silver, Spices, Slaves betrays its origins as a podcast. It resembles, not least due to Mangubat’s skill at spinning a good yarn, a collection of short stories rather than non-fiction pieces; and what the book lacks in an easily recognizable throughline, it more than makes up for in a readable prose style that manages to be both erudite and conversational. 

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.” 

There’s a popular folk hero in Puebla, Mexico—Catarina de San Juan, who Mexicans hailed as a devoted religious figure after her death in 1688. She’s credited with creating the china poblana dress, a connection of dubious historical veracity made several centuries after her death. But Catarina is one of Mexico’s most famous “chinos”—despite the fact that she was likely from India, not China. In fact, any Asian that disembarked in Mexico, whether from China, Japan, the Philippines, India, or even further away, was called “chino”. It was not a particularly beneficial classification: “chinos”, under Spanish law, could be enslaved; “indios”, or indigenous populations, could not.

Diego Javier Luis hardly bothers explaining to his readers that of course there were Asians in the Americas centuries before the California Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. But given the common and almost automatic conflation of the United States with “America”, it can nevertheless come as a surprise that Mexico had entire Asian communities before the Pilgrims even set foot on Plymouth Rock.

T his time last year, Penguin Southeast Asia released Amado V Hernandez’s first novel The Preying Birds (Mga Ibong Mandaragit), a classic of modern Filipino literature that had somehow more or less missed the attention of international publishers up to that point. This has been followed, in just the space of just twelve months, with Hernandez’s second and last novel Crocodile Tears—or Luha ng Buwaya, first published in 1962.

“Take up the White Man’s burden— / Send forth the best ye breed— / Go bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need,” starts Rudyard Kipling’s notorious poem of American expansionism in the Philippines, “The White Man’s Burden”. Those lines will ring familiar to many, particularly those who have received an education in the United States—so widely has the poem become emblematic of American imperialism and the “civilizing mission” during the 19th and 20th centuries.