Letters from Southeast Asia

Nationalism assumes that the world-system naturally divides into unified societies, identifiable by the essential characteristics of language, culture, religion, history, or ancestry, and that these characteristics are held in common and retained over time. Nations are seen as rooted in a specific territory, the repository of its history and memory. The interests of the nation are taken to be the supreme good, and those interests can only be promoted by self-governance, by a nation-state.

In the twentieth century, ethnic nationalism entered East and Southeast Asia like a virus, which modernized Japan caught from Europe and spread to its colonial acquisitions. In the twenty-first century, this set of assumptions continues to shape the perceptions of Asian peoples and the activities of Asian governments: to turn neighboring countries into adversaries rather than partners, to reduce pluralism to tribalism and persecution, and to reject progressive change as foreign even where it originates within.

The complexity of Asian societies today and the interdependent origins of traditions commonly regarded as exclusive defy the easy myths of nationalism. Examples of ways that individuals, groups, ideas, and customs have existed and continue to exist across borders only recently fixed to this vast and varied continent are more necessary than ever.



Never step back    Never a last
Scent of plumeria

When my parents left
You knew it was for good

    It’s a herd of horses never
        To reclaim their steppes
—Mai Der Vang, “Dear Exile,” (1981)

Thailand is home to the world’s largest Chinese community outside China. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as many as 34,000 Chinese arrived annually, fleeing Qing unrest, droughts in Southern China, or war and cultural revolution. Teochew Chinese, or Chiu Chow speakers from Fujian, took over much of Thailand’s rice trade with strong links to Hong Kong. Today around one of every seven Thais are either immigrants from China or their descendants.

Chiang Mai has an even older link to the Middle Kingdom. Traders from Yunnan and Guangxi, who often preferred the overland route to the watery one centered on Guangzhou, crossed the mountains to the markets here, where the Ping River trailed south to the Chao Phraya and to Ayutthaya and later Bangkok. Hill tribes, including the Hmong, the Yao in red or pink, the Akha in patterned black, the Lahu and Lisu, and the long-necked Karen, followed the same routes into more temperate and peaceful valleys.

Chiang Mai’s touristic Night Bazaar, as well as the more local and diverse Warorot Market at the end of Lou Zhou Alley, are two legacies of that trade and migration. At the Friday morning Kad Chin Haw farmer’s market, Yunnanese Muslims, who fled centuries of violence in southern China through the mountains of Burma and Laos, sell halal produce alongside Tai Yai Buddhists from Myanmar’s Shan state selling vegetables, traditional blouses, and homemade pork sausage.





There are many
Flying coucals
In the hills.
Some coucals
Fly for food
Some coucals
Fly for metaphors
And arrive in the city . . .
—Mya Kabyar (2012)

Kôw soy is the signature dish of Chiang Mai, but its origins are characteristic of culinary exchanges between South, Southeast, and East Asia.

The flat egg noodles are Chinese, the turmeric and coriander come from India, while the mildly spiced broth of coconut milk and soy sauce emerged in the Shan highlands, entering northern Thailand and Laos via the cookbooks of Yunnanese-Muslim traders who prepared it halal with beef or chicken in spite of the Thai preference for pork. The Thais added a crispy topping of deep-fried noodles to the stew, served with the traditional sides of lime, raw shallot, and pickled cabbage to accentuate its sour hints.

Today, the Laotians use wide rice noodles and pork rinds in their khao soi; the Burmese add hard-boiled egg to their ohn no khao swè; lentils have found their way into East India’s khow suey; and in the countryside of Chiang Rai you’ll sometimes find curdled blood or minced pork in the traditional broth. Nonetheless, the wide-spreading roots are shared.



In the city named the Temple of Patience,
In the city of Former Eloquence, and eventually
In the city of Angkor, this brahmin girl of royal rank
Became the beloved of King Jayavarman.
—Indradevi (c. 1190-1200)

Ankor—on top of the terrace
in a stone nook in the rain
Avelokitesvera faces everywhere
high in their stonyness
in white rainmist

Slithering hitherward paranoia
Banyans trailing
high muscled tree crawled
over the roof its big
long snakey toes spread
down the lintel’s red
cradle-root
elephantine bigness

Buddha I take my refuge
bowing in the black bower
before the openhanded lotus-man
sat crosslegged
and riding in the rain in the
anxious motorcycle putting
in the wetness my shirt
covered with green plastic
apron shivering
and throat choking
with upsurge
of fear
—Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

The King of Cambodia was hunting elephants on the northern edge of the Tonle Sap when he stumbled upon the ruins of Angkor, abandoned for two centuries. He marveled at the height of its towers over the reclaiming jungle, far higher than the buildings of the new capital, and ordered his men to open them. Six thousand burned and cut and cleared, and three days later the king entered the temples of Angkor, saw the stories of his ancestors written on the walls, and decided that this was their true home. Today, it is the only ruin to appear on a national flag.

The temple-mountains of Angkor are works of religious and political syncretism. The earliest ones, dedicated to Shiva, reflect the indianization of the Khmer empire. The influence of brahmanism on ritual, of Hindu kingship on Khmer royalty, and of Indian literature and iconography on the art of Angkor continued until the rapid conversion of most Khmer to Theravada Buddhism in the critical 13th century.

Under Buddhist patronage, the bas-reliefs of scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata which encircle earlier temple-mountains gave way to the Bayon’s depictions of historical events and, more interestingly, of ordinary life in the palace, temple, and market as the work of the Buddhist king become that of the people’s redemption.



Oh Frenchman, you miserable robber,
You dared to lift your foot
To kick the secretary of the king.
—Santhor Mok (1846-1908)

Blas Ruiz and Diego Veloso arrived in Cambodia unannounced, burnt read and strangely appareled. The King, honored by their appearance, gave them titles and land and his own daughters to marry. They came with fewer than a hundred retainers, but they had mastered the cannon and used it to terrify the Khmer—the Cortez and Pizarro of the lower Mekong. By advancing the King’s interests they advanced their own and those of King Philip of Spain, at least until the ensuing chaos forced them to flee back to the Philippines.

Early modern accounts of European adventures in Asia often stressed the simultaneous prosperity and decay of the country involved: the king was always magnificently wealthy, the elite hollow and corrupt, the army emasculated, the people primitive and lazy and naturally servile. Cambodia in the account of Ruiz and Veloso was a land of gold and silver, which the king flung behind him to distract enemy armies after a rout. There was silk, lacquer, ivory, and incense, and the Mekong brought jewels downriver from Laos. And all was ripe for the taking.

A similarly romanticized account by the naturalist Henri Mouhot preceded the French protectorate of Cambodge in 1863. French-language sources on the colonial period are flush with the same offensive clichés: the Orient as timeless, mysterious, and backwards, the setting for a romantic operetta. The French mythology of the Cambodian character justified an inordinate tax burden with reference to their inherent docility (‘la mentalité d’esclaves’), a lack of development with reference to their stupidity and corruption, and a failure to respond to communism with reference to the country’s eternal stability.

The result of foreign adventurism, here as in other colonized nations, was catastrophic, and Cambodia is still recovering.

(Postnote: The earliest interactions between European colonizers and the colonized often followed a similar script. Thousands of Portuguese came to Rakhine with the condottiere Felipe de Brito, and when he betrayed his employer and was defeated by the King of Burma, they were forcibly settled in the northern highlands of modern Myanmar. His cannoneers spent the rest of their lives there, adopting local dress and marrying local women. Their descendants served the King as translators and artillery officers into the 18th century, and some northern villages still show signs of an Iberian lineage.)




In this village deep in the central plain
the sky is always low, forcing us to look at its blue,
the way our ancestors make us look inside ourselves,
narrow and empty, so we look out again
at the full September—
we’re comforted by its insignificance but hurt by its smallness.
Living our life this way, we feel secure.
So much rice. Where does it come from?
So much gold color. Where does it come from?
Year after year I’ve been blessed, and then deserted.
When happiness and sadness come in the same color code,
   I’m happy
to be forgotten. But who am I separated from?
I don’t know. I stay close to my own hours.
—Yu Xiuhua (b. 1976)

The nine-day Daoist festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, who manifest the stars that some call the Big Dipper, honors their annual descent to earth. While Chinese in origin, today it is mainly celebrated by Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and especially in Thailand, where it is called Thesagan Ghin Jeh, or the Vegetarian Festival.

In addition to paying reverence to gods and ancestors, the nine days are a period of purification. Participants should dress in white and abstain (ghin jeh) from meat, seafood, eggs, dairy products, garlic, and onion, in addition to alcohol and sexual intercourse. The food is the most ubiquitous aspect in Thailand, where pop-up tents, street carts, and convenience stores all fly the yellow flag marked in red with the word เจ (jeh, derived from Jain). Many of the vegetarian dishes are indistinguishable from those most common in Thailand, substituting soy for fish sauce and including imitation meats made from soy products, wheat gluten or seitan, mushrooms, and roasted black sesame seeds.

The best places in Bangkok are in Talat Noi, the Yaowarat Chinatown, and around the Wat Mangkon Kamalawat. However, the most enthusiastic celebration is on the island of Phuket, long a trade hub in the southern seas, where more than a third of the modern population is of Chinese descent. According to legend, an entire Chinese opera company sickened while on tour in Phuket and only grew better by following a strict vegetarian diet and offering prayers to the Emperor Gods. Today’s devotees, perhaps influenced by the “burden dance” of the Tamil festival of Thaipusam, enter a trance before ritually mutilating themselves by impaling their cheeks or slashing their tongues with knives, to mention a few of the least gruesome examples.


O Mother Durga!
Enter our bodies in Thy Yogic strength.
We shall become Thy instruments,
Thy sword slaying all evil,
Thy lamp dispelling all ignorance.
Fulfill this yearning of Thy young children,

O Mother!
Be the master and drive the instrument,
Wield Thy sword and slay the evil,
Hold up the lamp and spread the light of knowledge.
Make Thyself manifest.
—Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950)

On the last night of Navarathri, the idol of Durga is removed from her chamber in the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple and paraded around a four-kilometer block lined with shrines to Shiva, Ganesha, Lakshmi, and the Mother Goddess. There women in saris sit shivering with their teeth clamped on their tongues and blood dribbling down their chins, or they dance in a frenzy and howl in otherworldly tones. Some men and women come with bowls of vegetarian food, platters of cakes, or just armloads of bottled drinks which they distribute freely for merit. And always there is someone blowing a conch, clanging a bell, or swinging a pellet drum.

The temple staff clear the road, telling everyone who sits on the edge to remove their shoes and tuck in their knees, and they press out the crowd by marching with hands linked. The Tamil priests approach in a trance, three of them, naked from the waist up, crowned with huge silver vessels, their faces fixed as if electrified, their cheeks pierced with swords or tridents, their sanctified hands casting out handfuls of turmeric and vermilion and water. The crowds cry out for it on their knees, voices high and pleading: “Om mani hum! Om mani hum!” They press their hands together while they chant, quiet only when the priests throw their blessings, only when the Mother is upon them. They raise platters of fruit and flowers and smoking candles. On the asphalt the water and powders mix to a red like running blood under the bare feet and bent knees of the supplicants.

Where does this zeal come from? Who are these thousands who fill the blocks around Silom Road and the office where I used to work? Where do the mutilations and the howling and the blood-red goddess go on the weekdays, when our only concern is catching the train and making enough money to pay the rent? Nowhere! She is here, she is here!

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