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Speakers and Abstracts

Panel 1: Aftersound/Aftertaste: Audial and Material Flows in the Capitalocene

Moderator: Anna Naiyapatana
Discussant: Tamara Loos

Miasmas, Microbes and Manufactures: Sanitary Science and Pineapple Tinning Industry in Early 20th Century Singapore 

Sophia Chen

Keywords: tropical Fruits, tinning Industry, the Germ Theory, hygienic, antisepticonscious

Abstract: The Tropics has been a land of allure, warmth and fecundity. Singapore was once the largest exporter of tinned pineapples in the 1930s. The preservation of tropical fruits, driven by tinning technology and the “Germ Theory”, as detailed by Nancy Tomes in “The Gospel of Germs”, marked a revolutionary shift in the late nineteenth century. This essay explores the chaotic transition from the miasma theory to the germ theory and analyzes its acceptance in Singapore regarding food handling. It argues that the acceptance of the “Germ Theory” in Singapore was shaped by people’s sensory experiences, particularly through the senses of smell, taste, and sight. Additionally, it highlights the environmental impact of discarding pineapple pulps and addresses the negative impacts in the urban landscape. For instance, the unpleasant odors, or “miasma”, emanating from rotting pineapples in the market in the urban landscape. The essay further investigates the manufacturing process of food tins, focusing on the influence of capitalism on the development of a racialized, personal hygienic behavior, particularly with the dominance of Chinese workers in the industry. “Antisepticonscious” was thus developed through the standardization and normalization of manufacturing sanitary regulations applied not only to the products but also to the residues.

Exotic dye and the time of rebuilding: The Production and Consumption of Siamese Sappanwood in the 18th-19th Centuries

Ziquan Zhou

Keywords: Thailand, dyestuff, sappanwood, state-building, natural resources

Abstract: Siamese sappanwood, favored as a dyestuff for red colors over those from other origins, was more than just a local resource; it became a linchpin in the intertwined realms of commerce, politics, the environment, and the aesthetics of red during the 18th and 19th centuries. Historical records indicate that Siamese sappanwood had markets in different levels of dyeing houses across East Asia and Europe for centuries. From a Thai perspective, the export of this dye-bearing wood was pivotal in the process of state-rebuilding in the late 18th to early 19th century. Following the 1767 downfall of the Ayutthaya dynasty and amidst a period of war-induced disturbances in the rice trade, the rejuvenated sappanwood forests became a primary economic asset for the Siamese state. When the state power weakened during the war, the forest power once deprived by the state had an opportunity to revive. This forestry recovery, in turn, allowed a new state power to be built on the ruins of the old one. Drawing from sources in Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Dutch, and English, this paper sheds light on the interplay between the Southeast Asian natural landscape, the state-rebuilding endeavors, and Siamese sappanwood’s influence on the Asian commercial network.

The Price of Beauty: Exploring Indonesia's Songbird Trade through Education and Storytelling

Ben Mirin

Keywords: songbird trade, conservation, Indonesia, storytelling, education

Abstract: This project uses participatory storytelling and education to explore the human dimensions of Indonesia’s songbird trade. One in five Indonesian households keeps a pet songbird, creating intense trade demand that threatens 43 bird species with extinction in Southeast Asia. But bird-keeping also provides income for millions of people, and a source of reclaimed identity after it was outlawed under centuries of colonial rule. Over the past year, Ben Mirin lived alongside Indonesian bird-keepers and documented their stories with a team of Indonesian university students in the city of Yogyakarta. Working arguably in the center of the bird-keeping world, they amassed a collection of over 10,000 photographs, 2,000 audio recordings, and 75 in-depth interviews, and used the materials to co-create and teach a songbird education program for the Indonesian public school system. Now the team is curating these media for an exhibition in Yogyakarta, where we will invite the people we interviewed to attend focus groups about the future of songbirds. We are piloting the exhibit at Universitas Gadjah Mada on November 9th, 2023, and would like to bring it home to Cornell for the 2024 SEAP graduate conference. As part of the exhibit we will invite our students to share their experiences and stories, which reveal opportunities for conservation compromise and amplify the voices of Indonesia's next generation of conservation leaders. Our goal is to bring diverse voices together around a shared love for songbirds, plant the seeds for conservation in common ground, and highlight Indonesia as a source of solutions for trade-driven songbird extinction around the world.

Panel 2: Regrowing/Retrieving: Land Reclamation and Farmed Frontiers

Moderator: Hui Yuan Neo
Discussant: Tom Pepinsky

Frontier Atmospheres: High-Rise Urbanization in Postcolonial Singapore and its Discontents

Marcus Yee

Keywords: vertical frontiers, urban development, postcolonial Singapore, air, counternarratives

Abstract: Singapore’s public housing “success story” depended on the mass ungrounding of its urban population into high-rise new towns across the island. Contrary to triumphalist narratives of high-rise public housing in Singapore today, and notwithstanding the state’s longstanding anxiety over land scarcity, the transformation of the skies into a national frontier in the 1960s and 1970s was met with hesitation, if not resistance by urban dwellers. This paper recounts the planning alternatives, sociological critique, and popular ghost stories that served as counternarratives to high-rise public housing, revealing the unsettled formation of Singapore’s atmospheric frontier, better understood through air’s substantiations than concrete’s solidity (Choy 2011). With the state-led development of Singapore’s real estate market and the rise of private condominiums by the mid-1970s, a newfound perception of high-rise living as luxury complicated frontier narratives of necessity and scarcity. As the atmosphere becomes a site of contemporary climate anxiety, aspirations for cities to become inhabitable, carbon-neutral climatic media put to question the city-state’s urban formula (Furuhata 2022). Recovering historical counternarratives of Singapore’s vertical urban development speaks to both the hauntings of postcolonial displacement, alongside an urban futurity embedded in reconceptualizing high-rise urbanization as historical path-dependency—one pullulated with ambivalence, rather than geographical inevitability.

Land along the Straits: Living amongst Land Reclamation

Tenn Joe Lim

Keywords: land reclamation, infrastructure, livelihoods, ocean spaces, fishing

Abstract: Connecting global shipping, urban land reclamation, and fishing, this paper highlights the stakes of infrastructuring the Johor Strait for existing coastal fishing communities in South Western Johor. When the Malaysian state announced Iskandar Malaysia, designating Johor as a regional economic development corridor, the rapid urbanization process left fishing communities increasingly precarious. Johor’s geographical proximity and economic relations to Singapore has also contributed to wide-ranging speculative financial activities in recent years, including real estate, logistics, and manufacturing. While reading Johor Strait as a site of global trade chokepoint (Carse et al 2018) and speculative urbanism (Goldman 2021) enables an analysis of how inequality is reproduced geographically with transnational capital, this paper augments local articulation of environmental, livelihoods, and heritage loss to land reclamation projects, such as Forest City, in Johor. Using the case study of community organizations, such as Kelab Alami, this paper highlights the people's movements and activities in relation to these newly built land. Reading these activities as a form of infrastructure that articulates and rehearses connections between environment, poverty, the state, and developers, I argue that these community programs generate spaces of shared responsibilities and reassert the presence of the village amongst rapid urbanization.

Local Power: Gangsters, Genocide and Palm Oil in Central Kalimantan

Dominik Juling

Keywords: Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, authoritarianism, palm oil, supply Chains

Abstract: The story of my proposed paper is set in Central Kalimantan in Indonesia and combines biographical elements with an analysis of the local power relations and the closely intertwined environmental issues. The story begins before the end of the Suharto era, but really picks up after 1998, and the following globalization, democratization and decentralization in the country. The name of the leading figure is Abdul Rasyid, the current "boss" of the province. But how did he and his family go from illegal logging to becoming one of the biggest palm oil exporters in the region? With the help of theories and concepts from the repertoire of subnational authoritarianism and clientelism literature, I explore this question. In doing so, I encounter involvement in attacks on activists and journalists, ethnic massacres, institutionalized bribery and a link to hazardous floods and forest fires in the province. Rasyid and his family in 2023 have a well-oiled rural political machine at their disposal. much to the suffering of the local population, which is displaced, affected by corresponding health problems and has little say in what is supposed to be a democratic province in a democratic country. But the last word has not yet been written.

Panel 3: Violence/Reverb: Memory and Survivorhood

Moderator: Brian Sengdala
Discussant: Magnus Fiskesjö

The Rose That Grew From Concrete, The Lotus That Grew From Mud: Triple Edge and QT Việt Cafe Performances

Paige Chung

Keywords: Hip-hop, Queer/Trans, Thailand, Vietnam, freedom movements

Abstract: Across Southeast Asia exist movements for sovereignty and liberation from authoritarian regimes. Though there is a gap in the literature discussing the arts/cultural interventions by political hip-hop rappers and queer trans performers from localized communities. Cultural appropriation is the dominant discourse and criticism of hip-hop. However, this framing is limiting. Turning to Paul Gilroy’s questions and Michelle Wright’s theory of Blackness as a “when” and “where,” I engage hip-hop with more nuance allowing for discussion about special analytical problems and use of hip-hop within freedom struggles. I look at Triple Edge, a hip-hop collective based in Chiang Mai, Thailand showing their value in hip-hop’s roots speaking against injustices. In the Thai monarchy presence, Triple Edge outgrow their government regime; its flowers, the rose that grew from concrete (Tupac), the lotus that grew from mud. Mob Party, Triple Edge’s annual event financially supports the Burma struggle to rid of the military regime. I engage with QT Việt Cafe Collective of Artists, a group based in California who reconciles with the Vietnam War aftermath. Đồng Quể, their performance showcase unites queerness and Vietnameseness across oceans. My engagement with Triple Edge and QT Việt reveal the power of performance in liberation movements.

"The forest is our life": Towards Burmese land ontologies

Nicole Venker

Keywords: land, militarization, Myanmar, resistance, migration

Abstract: In Myanmar's borderlands, forested landscapes are important sites for subsistence, survival, and resistance against the Burmese state, particularly for agrarian and ethnic minority communities. The forest facilitates shared survival and food sovereignty through activities such as hunting, fishing, foraging, and shifting agriculture—modes of subsistence peripheral to capital’s reach. Amidst decades-long armed conflict, the forest is also a site for refusing, surviving, and resisting the state’s control. For both civilians evading state violence and resistance fighters engaged in armed struggle, the forest is a site for negotiating individual and collective freedoms. This paper investigates Burmese conceptualizations of "taw (တော)," or "forest," by centering the narratives and experiences of those displaced within and from Myanmar’s margins, particularly following the 1988 pro-democracy movement. In doing so, I show that "taw" contains multitudes, challenging human-nature dichotomies by encompassing a range of rural subjectivities and social relations to land. Framing "taw" as an entry point to a wider set of localized land ontologies, the paper argues that indigenous land relations in Burma are both shaped and threatened by the enduring context of militarization and conflict. More broadly, this work shows how relations to land emerge and are at stake within revolutionary struggles.

Panel 4: Detritus/Wilderness: Transnational Exodus and Recovery

Moderator: Matthew Venker
Discussant: KT Wong

The Role of “Sustainable Use” Wildlife Conservation within Southeast Asia: Revisiting Cultural Histories, Rethinking Economic Transformation

Francine Barchett

Keywords: indigenous peoples, sustainable use, wildlife economy, Indonesia, South Africa

Abstract: While indigenous peoples across Southeast Asia have long valued wildlife for spiritual, communal, and utilitarian purposes, only more recently have conservation biologists documented the region’s importance to biodiversity. Now wildlife and wild lands in the region lie at a critical crossroads. Colonial and post-colonial cultivation projects have disturbed tropical forests and peatlands, imbuing significant costs upon communities dependent on wildlife. Meanwhile, scholars warn that the region may lose its most iconic species within the next few years. My research considers alternative strategies for Southeast Asian conservation, partly through revisiting local histories around “sustainable use.” I discuss the effects of the Global North’s colonial-era export of the protected areas model, a legacy where many indigenous groups, once forcefully removed from wild lands, are still legally barred from benefiting from wildlife. Finally, I introduce the concept “wildlife economy.” Since the 1980s, Southern Africa, a biodiverse region experiencing its own postcolonial afterlife, has demonstrated that communities living near wildlife have a clear role and stake in managing nature, and that economic incentives may support sustainable use. I thus compare and contrast South Africa, with its multisectoral, government-supported wildlife economy, to Indonesia’s oil palm plantations and their potential for locally-driven, nature-positive alternatives.

In the Same Boat: Nanyang Chinese’s Border-crossing and Imperial Anxieties across Wartime Xiamen Bay (1938-1942)

Zhiqing Chen

Keywords: overseas Chinese, WWII, state mobilization, wartime mobility, South China Sea

Abstract: This research addresses the tension between wartime sovereignty, rural mobilization and migrant mobility across the South China Sea in the global Second World War. It foregrounds the rural population in southeastern coastal China, especially small-time merchants seasonally sojourning between native places and Southeast Asia in the early 20th century. Using county-level archives in coastal Fujian, this research examines how rural Chinese emigrants manipulated overseas connections and negotiated wartime mobility between the belligerent China and Japan. Clandestinely or above board, they broke the coastal blockade and crossed Xiamen Bay to the still-peaceful Southeast Asia. This long-established migrant network triggered local governments’ anxieties over smuggling, collaboration and the loss of rural population. The multivalent identities of diasporic Chinese also opened room for the belligerent parties to manipulate, leading to the shifting identification of “overseas Chinese” in wartime Fujian. This research sheds light on the geopolitical significance of Xiamen Bay, a crucial migrant hometown, as a window for China and Japan to broadcast their policies to the far-reaching overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. It also sidesteps the elite-centered and Sino-centric discourse of “overseas Chinese” (huaqiao), to showcase the agency of grassroots Chinese emigrants at the interstices of empires and nations.

Broken Rice and Postcolonial Promises: Independent Southeast Asia and the ‘United Nations’ of Disaster Relief in Postwar Colonial Hong Kong

Quinton Huang

Keywords: political economy, humanitarian aid, decolonization, development, material culture

Abstract: As squatter fires rendered thousands homeless in Hong Kong during the 1950s, a common remark from aid recipients was gratitude to the ‘United Nations’ for delivering relief. Yet the United Nations Organization never delivered aid to the British colony. To understand why squatter residents would credit the United Nations for something in which it played no part, this paper reconstructs the 1950s in Hong Kong through the perspective of disaster relief and the postwar decolonial moment. I first retrace how Hong Kong became the purchasing and logistical headquarters for North American and Western European aid operations in Southeast Asia, providing the materials and models for long-lasting development campaigns. At the same time, countries such as Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia contributed rice and offered resettlement assistance to the victims of the squatter fires. The colony of Hong Kong and postcolonial Southeast Asian countries were thus simultaneously providers and recipients of aid to each other during the 1950s, reflecting the symbolic utility of aid offered despite their own material circumstances. Invoking the ‘United Nations,’ I argue, demonstrates how squatter fire victims conceptualized the postwar, postcolonial moment and reveals the underlying mentalities of decolonization at the heart of this regional economy of aid.

Panel 5: Oculus/Memoria: Filmic Intimacies in Southeast Asia

Moderator: Eric Goh
Discussant: Sirithorn Siriwan

Different Kinds of Love and Migration: Reconceptualize Transnational Marriages’ through Intimate Event in Heartbound

Namfon Narumol Choochan

Keywords: Thai documentary, Thailand, transnational marriages, intimacy, globalization, Northeastern Thailand

Abstract: In popular media, the discourse of heterosexual transnational marriage between Northeastern (Isan) Thai women and western male foreigners is often narrated as hypergamy where opportunistic working-class women only seek for upward mobility while men are incentivized to marry for oriental ‘Asian’ femininity. This article explores how Heartbound: A Different Kind of Love Story (2018) reconceptualizes these gendered and racial transnational marriages. This sweeping 10-year saga of women’s pilgrimage from a small village in Isan to brothels in Pattaya and then to Jutland, Denmark unravels and redefines ‘intimacy’ and ‘intimate events’ that transcend the nation’s spatiality, heterosexual romantic love, and the preconceived upward mobility. These intimate events do not only limit to marital bonds, but expand to the ‘interdependent’ relationship between women here and at home, emanated from Sommai, the progenitor of Isan woman in Jutland and also the ‘suitor’ and ‘godmother’ to subsequent Isan-Danish couples. The transnational bonds also thread the underlying remnants of colonialism on global and domestic level with the proliferation of chances for ‘new’ lives–be it for their individuality or their family back home in Isan.

Soul Cinema: Rhythm and Perception in Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hans Richter

Sean Lambert

Keywords: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hans Richter, Film Theory, Avant-Garde, Queer Theory

Abstract: This paper compares editing techniques in Hans Richter’s Rhythm films (1921; 1923) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) – films that freight cinematic technique with spiritual importance. In his essay “The Ill-Trained Soul,” German avant-garde filmmaker Hans Richter suggests that “soul” is no longer just a mystical concept, but a perceptual apparatus, which cinema can “attune” to the rhythms of modern life. I argue that Apichatpong uses long takes, slow zooms and a static camera to acclimatize viewers’ perception to the rhythms of our own moment. These techniques direct us to meditate on themes relevant to this conference: cycles of regeneration and our queer kinship with forms of life other than our own. Although Apichatpong is often analyzed in relation to Thai nationalism, this paper situates him within a lineage of international avant-garde filmmakers, reconsidering his films not only as responses to regional politics, but to modernity as a global phenomenon. Read together with Richter, these films make the case for the continuing relevance of “soul” as a metonym for the affective and perceptual energies coordinated by cinema; energies that connect us to the natural world and each other.

Negating Nonexistence. Discovering the Past and Screening the Present of Cinema in Laos.

Anna Koshcheeva and Misouda Heuangsoukkhoun

Keywords: Laos, cinema, history, culture, filmmaking

Abstract: In 1999, a Lao director, Som Ock Southiponh, stated, "Laotian cinema does not really exist." Referring to the state of cinematic production in Lao PDR at that point, he might have been right. Only two feature films were produced since 1975, including his Red Lotus (1988). Nonetheless, the broader history and the present of the cinema in Laos are brighter than Som Ock outlines. The movie scene in 1950-1975 was particularly vibrant and cosmopolitan. Indicative of this fact are the holdings of at least 5000 reels at The National Film Archive of Laos from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, India, France, the USA, and the USSR. From the late 2000s, the filmic production started to revitalize again, largely due to the efforts of the Lao New Wave Cinema. By now, independent filmmaking in Laos is, perhaps, the country's most active and socially engaged creative industry, despite the lack of state support and tight censorship. This panel seeks to negate Som Ock's claim of the nonexistence of the Lao cinema. It examines the history before and the filmic proliferation after Red Lotus. Anna Koshcheeva will present her archival research on filmmaking in Laos, and director Misouda Heuangsoukkhoun will explicate the current experiences of filmmakers and introduce her projects. Together, they will curate a mini Lao film festival comprising contemporary and historical films exclusively for the conference.