Archive for the ‘Southeast Asia’ Category

I still have a few posts to post about our “field trip” day, but for now, I think it about time that I skip ahead and post the following, which I wrote on my last evening in Okinawa this summer.

The main worship hall of Azato Hachimangû.

Monday, Sept 20. Okinawa.

Boy, today was incredible. After doing some laundry, packing my bags, and otherwise just coordinating things to get ready to fly out tomorrow, I poked over to Azato Hachimangû, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryukyu, which turns out to be quite close to my hotel. Had things gone a little differently, I might have actually seen three of the Eight Shrines today – and having already seen four on my previous trip to Okinawa, that would leave only the one, Kin Shrine way up in Kunigami. But, even having not seen those other two today, it’s okay.

Azato Hachiman Shrine was quite small, and just sort of tucked away in a residential neighborhood. So, my trip there was quite brief, just a sort of check it off the list sort of thing. By then it was already 10am or so, maybe later, I don’t remember, and I was trying to catch a bus at 12:23, so I knew I didn’t have too much time to do too much else. I had been thinking of going to the Okinawa Prefectural Library, to try to see if I could take a look at some original (primary source) documents, or to at least see what was on the shelves and get a sense of some books I didn’t previously know about, maybe make some photocopies. But even just walking there and back might have taken up the great majority of the time I had, and looking at books or documents could very easily take far more time than I had.

So, I decided instead to head over to Sueyoshi Park, to try to see Sueyoshi Shrine, another of the Eight Shrines. The park is fairly large, and situated right between Gibo and Shiritsubyôinmae stations on the monorail; what I didn’t know is that the park is actually quite mountainous, that there are very few signs or maps once you get into the park, and that the shrine is way over on the far side. Of course, if I had bothered looking closer at my map, or at Google Maps, rather than just heading out, I might have realized this. But, that’s the way it goes sometimes. I got into the park, and just sort of took a path, up, knowing that shrines tend to be located at the top of hills more typically than lower down, and basically just taking my chances. The staircase ended at a dirt path roughly cut through the greenery… I decided to check it out, and soon found a small stone sign, indicating the site of a princely tomb called Ginowan-udun – just a sign, along a forested path, with nothing else of any ruins or structures immediately visible. Cool, I thought. Nothing much to see here; clearly nothing much remaining of the site, but cool to know it was here. But I kept walking, and a stony path emerged, along with an old-looking stone wall. So we’re no longer walking on just pure dirt any more. And then, then, I see a much more serious-looking stone wall, and a set of stone steps leading up through the wall. Oh ho. What is this now? I turn the corner and get a better look, and – whoa. A very large traditional-style Ryukyuan “turtle back” tomb. Wow. I’m not sure the picture does it justice. To stand there, before this immense thing, so relatively intact and so hidden amongst the forest of this public park, just sitting there, hidden… well, it was quite a feeling. And I certainly would never have found this site except just by luck, as I did.

I then poked around a bit longer, in the hopes of finding Sueyoshi Shrine, but eventually had to just give up, as I found myself all the way over at another end of the park, and yet still completely the wrong side, having never come across so much as a sign or pointer towards the shrine.

I made it back to my hotel just in time, pretty much, to catch the bus. I had left a fair bit of time, but after walking the extra three or so blocks to the post office, waiting in line for the ATM, walking back to the general area of the bus stop, asking at a major hotel right in front of the bus stop about just where exactly the bus stop was, how to pay for or get on the bus, and whether or not I need a reservation, and finding them utterly uninformed, I ended up finding the bus stop on my own with literally something like 1 to 3 minutes to spare. Fortunately, the bus came ten minutes late. So, yes, by the way, if you’re ever in Okinawa, and looking to get to certain parts further north, the Yambaru Express Bus is actually a really easy and relatively inexpensive way to get to Kakazu (Ginowan), Nakagusuku (that is, the Nakagusuku bus stop on the side of the highway; I’m not sure about how convenient this is for getting to the castle), Nago, Motobu, Nakijin, and Unten Port (and to the aquarium, I’d imagine). It doesn’t run too often – today, if I had missed my 12:23 bus, the next would have been at 3:something PM; and on the way back, there were buses at 4:20ish, and 6:05, which was the last one for the day. Glad I got a ride back instead of having to deal with that. But, you don’t need any reservation, you just get on, take a ticket that shows where you got on, and then a display screen on the bus shows how much you need to pay for each exit. So, for example, when I got on, the ticket showed a number 4. Then, when I got off at Nakagusuku, the screen said “1: 500 yen, 2: 450 yen, 3: 430 yen, 4: 430 yen” or something like that, and so I paid my 430 yen, or however much it was. So you just drop the right number of coins, along with your ticket, in the collection box on your way off the bus. It’s a nice cushy tour bus style bus, and takes the highway, so it actually goes quite quick – got me to Nakagusuku in 20 minutes. Going all the way to Unten will take the better part of three hours, and as much as 2000 yen (approx. US$20), but, still, it’s good to know that it’s so relatively easily doable – renting a car to get around Okinawa is not as 100% required as I had been led to believe. Now, sure, 3 hours each way doesn’t make for a good day trip, so I don’t know about taking this bus just to go to the aquarium, all the way from Naha, but if you need to get to Unten to take a ferry to Izena or Iheya Island, where you’re going to stay overnight (I’m told you kind of have to, the ferries run that infrequently), it could be worth it. Or, just to get up there to then mosey around that part of the island for some time…

Anyway, returning to my story of today, I had met Garrett Kam, a fellow UH & EWC alumnus, the previous week, and Garrett, a dancer of traditional Javanese and Okinawan forms, had let me know about a kumi udui performance going on in Ginowan, at 2pm on Monday (“today,” the day I’m talking about).

Right: a poster for an April performance of Yukiharai at the National Theatre Okinawa. This was the same performance, by the same troupe/school, which I saw that day in September.

Kumi udui, to put it quite simply, is the chief traditional theatrical form of Ryukyu. It draws influences from Noh and Kabuki, and to someone more familiar with those forms, like myself, it definitely bears resemblances to both, and fits somewhere between the two, featuring bold colored costumes like kabuki, but also very slow, drawn-out chanted speech, and subtle movements, like Noh. It also has some connections with Chinese and Southeast Asian forms. I had seen kumi udui before on YouTube, but never in person, so this was very exciting.

Ginowan City Hall, right next door to the shimin kaikan (Community Center) where the performance was held.

I got to Ginowan about an hour early; less, really, once one takes into account the time it took to hike up into town from the Nakagusuku bus stop, which is right on the side of the highway, near a highway rest stop. Still, I had some time to spare, so I stopped into a local bookstore called Miyawaki Shoten (now that I look up the website, I realize it’s a national chain, not even based in Okinawa), thinking, oh I’ll just see what they might have. Turns out Miyawaki’s “local books” (read: Okinawan history, culture, etc.) section is quite good, including full runs of several series I’ve only seen bits and pieces of before (e.g. a series of short, popular history 1000 yen books on each of the kings of Ryukyu), as well as other books I’d never come across before at all. Resisting the urge to buy more than I could fit in my luggage, I ended up with just one thing, a thin volume of the magazine Momoto, focusing on sites in mainland Japan related to the Ryukyuan missions to Edo (how perfect, given my research topic!). Momoto seems a really excellent magazine – each issue is quite short, so without actually reading them I couldn’t actually say just how thorough or actually informative they might be, but on the surface, they do seem to cover a good range of topics, with issues on Shuri, on Naha, and on Reversion (in 1972), though some of the earlier issues focus more on Okinawan lifestyle and the kinds of things that don’t really pertain so much to my interests. But it’s a relatively new magazine, just a few years old, and on the surface (yes, I am judging books by their covers. What of it?), they at the very least have very nice design aesthetic to them, plus I’m just taken, so to speak, with the idea of such an Okinawa-specific magazine.

I had thought about exploring the town a bit more, maybe trying to see something of the outsides of the highly controversial Futenma Air Base, which is right there, occupying the center of the town, and thus was never more than a few blocks away from the places I was today; I was also thinking of trying to make my way to Futenma-gû, or Futenma Shrine, another of the Ryukyu Eight Shrines. But, time was pressing, so I skipped all of that and just made my way to the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan (which they translate as Civic Hall, though it really means something more like “citizens’ meeting hall). Turns out it was not a public or publicly accessible performance, but rather a performance in conjunction with the annual meeting of the pension “friends” group of the Ginowan branch of a Japanese Agricultural Coops organization (JAおきなわ・宜野湾支店 年金友の会), or something like that.

Not really understanding what was going on, I went in and explained I didn’t have a ticket, and asked if I could buy one, and to my surprise, the fellow asked me immediately, “Garrett-san?” “Ah, no. Garrett-san’s friend,” I answered, and before I knew it I had been taken to the actors’ dressing room (!!). I spoke with them very briefly, and got to take some pictures and watch them put on hair and makeup, as they very kindly and generously allowed me to just sit there and watch as I waited for Garrett. I suppose I should have taken greater advantage of this, to stay longer and see more of the process (and get more pictures) – as it is, I only have pictures of some earlier / middle stage of the process, which is still super cool; I can’t imagine I’ll ever see such a thing backstage at Kabuki-za, for example. But I don’t have pictures of any later stages, or indeed of the costumes at all, since I presumed there were no photos allowed during the performance. Sadly, since it was this weird special private event, there are also no posters, flyers, or websites about the performance to keep to help remember it, nor to share with you.

So, I went outside to wait for Garrett, and he eventually came, and he was then invited backstage again, to say hello to the Sensei, who he had met some years before. I managed to tag along.

The show itself was interesting, and quite enjoyable, though considerably lower energy than Kabuki can be – in this respect, it’s not so much “entertaining” in a direct way, but rather something you appreciate, or try to appreciate, as a cultural expression, as a practice/performance of a traditional form. The story, a new interpretation of a relatively traditional story, was at its core about a young woman whose mother has passed away and whose father has gone off on official business. Her evil stepmother, very much in Cinderella-like fashion, forces the girl to do difficult household chores, in the snow, without an outer kimono (i.e. it’s quite cold). Why there’s cold and snow in a Ryukyuan play, beats me. But, she eventually collapses due to cold and exhaustion, sees the ghost of her mother, and is then found, collapsed, by her brother, and then by her father. I may be missing a few bits, but basically, in the end, the father gets upset with the stepmother, and makes to kill her, but is stopped by the children, and they all make up (somehow) and become a happier family, the end. The chanting and movements were quite slow, highly stylized, and minimalist, like in Noh, but of course quite different in style, coming out of distinctly Okinawan traditions, and being chanted in Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi). The costumes, though, unlike in Noh, were brightly colored, and quite beautiful. The young woman wore a white bingata robe, covered in multi-colored patterns, and under it, a red underrobe, while other characters wore similarly bold costumes. The musical ensemble – sanshin, kutu, drum, and I think maybe a few other instruments, played classical (koten) Okinawan music as I am familiar with, though no specific pieces with which I am familiar. … I’m not sure what else to say about the piece exactly. I am quite glad to have gotten to see it, and certainly look forward to seeing more kumi udui in the future. At first go, it’s certainly not as captivating as Kabuki can be, but then, it was only on my Xth time seeing Noh that I first had a real sort of “experience” with it, having/gaining a certain insight, a certain appreciation, that I hadn’t appreciated before. So, maybe after seeing kumi udui a few more times…

A video of Garrett’s “Okijawa Hi Sigh” dance piece, combining Javanese and Okinawan elements. Thanks for filming & sharing this video to YouTube user angeline158.

Garrett’s friends Chiyo and Yuko-san then gave me a ride, driving us all to Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai), where Garrett shared one of his fusion Javanese-Okinawan (“Okijawa”) dances with the gamelan circle. I was quite thrilled to get to come along, having passed by but never actually been inside Okinawa Geidai campus, and more to the point, having heard – years ago – of the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group, which takes advantage of the musical similarities between Javanese and Okinawan musical forms, scales, and such, to play Okinawan music on the Javanese instruments. I don’t really know why, or how to express it, but ever since hearing about this, I just wanted to visit and meet this group, and perhaps even play with them, so badly. And today I got my chance. And not only that, but somehow I’d had an impression that this was a very serious group – this is Japan after all, and an arts university – and that any interactions with them I might ever have might be highly formal, and sort of exclusive – like trying to talk to them after a performance and them being, understandably really, too important and too busy to care what some random white guy grad student wants to say. Maybe I’m dragging this out too long, making too much of it. But, in any case, in the end, today at least, with the gamelan circle (a student club, not a formal class), it was just about as laid-back, friendly, and welcoming as could be. After Garrett shared his dance, we practiced trying to play that song a few times, and I actually got into it, despite having not played gamelan for several years; I’m no good at it, of course, but so long as you’re just repeating over and over, it’s not so hard to get into the pattern, and that’s where it becomes wonderfully meditative and kind of relaxing, as you just play 3, 2, 3, rest, 7, 5, 7, rest, 7, 3, 2, 3, …. going through X sets of four notes each, at a regular pace, and then repeating the whole X sets, around and around, as it gets a bit faster, and a bit slower, again and again, until finally coming to an end.

The Okinawa University of the Arts gamelan group performing a Tanabata concert, July 2014. The piece I’ve cued up here is a version of the classic Okinawan folk song Asadoya Yunta, performed as you can see on a combination of Okinawan sanshin and Javanese gamelan.

These are the kinds of adventures/experiences I dream(ed) of when I think about continuing my involvement in academia. To get to meet and speak with someone like Garrett Kam, who’s doing such exciting fusion work, and who is so knowledgeable and thoughtful about multiple cultures and about their co-mingling; to get to go backstage at a kumi udui performance at the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan of all places; to get to hang out and even practice with the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group… as I’m not as directly, explicitly, involved in the arts as some people are, who knows if these kinds of experiences or opportunities will come as frequently or as easily as they might otherwise, but here’s hoping that they do continue to come. In particular, if the Okigeidai gamelan group is indeed as laidback and welcoming as they were today, here’s hoping that if/when I find myself in Okinawa for a more serious length of time sometime, that I might be able to join them more regularly, practicing together, and just building networks and friendships, and some sense of actual belonging & involvement at such a place as Okinawa Geidai… what a thing that would be.

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Just a few things that have come up this week.

*Korea’s National Treasure Number One, Seoul’s Namdaemun (“South Great Gate”), severely damaged by an arsonist in 2008, has been reopened to the public after a US$24 million restoration project.

*Speaking of heritage issues, the New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return a pair of statues to Cambodia after Cambodian officials presented clear evidence that the statues had been taken out of the country illegally in the 1970s.

I find it heartening that the Cambodian Secretary of State is quoted as saying “This shows the high ethical standards and professional practices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which they are known for.” It is wonderful to see the Metropolitan characterized in such a positive manner, as a potential partner and not as an adversary or obstacle.

*Meanwhile, on the subject of museums, there are apparently plans for a giant bubble to be installed at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn sculpture museum, seasonally, serving as a decidedly (post-?)modernist additional gallery space.

The Smithsonian Magazine article I found discussing this (thanks for the heads up, dad!) expresses concerns that the plan may not fly, as DC, the very model of a bureaucratic city, loves its drab grey concrete too much, and similarly creative contemporary-looking sort of projects have failed in the past. I guess only time will tell if it does manage to go through.

*On a separate subject, a recent blog post posted by the Queens Museum of Art invites us to consider social activist artistic practice, and the questions of what makes it “art”? and Why call it art?

Simply protest? Or Art?

There may be a standard term out there in the scholarly or art critic discourse for this precise type of art, but if there is, I do not know it. What this Queens Museum blog post, and I, are referring to is engaging in flat-out social activist activities — whether it be a protest poster, a march or sit-in, a stand where you sell or give away something in order to raise awareness for a cause, organizing communal/public vegetable gardens, or volunteering at, e.g. a soup kitchen or hospital — and then calling it “art” or “artistic practice.”

This is only extremely tentative, but my initial reaction was to, first, say that one key element is simply whether or not it is called “art” by its creators/organizers, and whether it is called “art” by critics or scholars. I think the difference is largely in how it is conceptualized. One person might engage in a given action or activity out of (more or less) purely political motives; she might make all organizational, logistical, and aesthetic decisions about the project based chiefly on how effective they will be towards successfully achieving the political goal. And others might see this activity, and might analyze it, describe it, through a political or social sciences lens. And then someone else might engage in precisely the same activity, but might choose to see the performative and discursive aspects of the act itself as being of chief importance over (or equal with) the success of the political aims. This person might call themselves an artist, and call what they are doing “artistic practice.” And others might examine the act, conceptualize it, describe it, in terms of art, aesthetics, or performance. Somewhere in there, I think, may be the answer. Not solely, simply, a matter of calling it art or not calling it art, but, truly, conceiving of it and conceptualizing its meaning differently, on a very fundamental basis.

Or, to touch upon a slightly different perspective of a closely related interpretation, perhaps what separates it is simply its cleverness and intertextuality. A protest that is powerfully clear in its targets, its aims, and its methods, may be art in the sense of the argument that everything is art, because everything contains aesthetic and performative aspects, and deeper meanings. But, when a social act is not clear in its targets, its aims, or its methods, when its purpose or meaning is not readily apparent, but requires some interpretation, discursive or intertextual references, or the like in order to understand – in short, when it’s clever – does that make it more strongly, more definitively, “art”?

As for the other question — why call it art? What does the person classifying it as such have to gain (or to lose)? — I leave it open.

What do you think? What makes an act of social engagement or protest “art”? What distinguishes it from purer, “non-art,” forms of social or political engagement?

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The Asahi Shimbun reports today that a document has been discovered, sent from Annam (Vietnam), and addressed to Toyotomi Hideyoshi using the title “King of Japan” (日本国王). The announcement comes from the Kyushu National Museum. Up until now, the oldest known extant document related to Japan-Vietnam relations was believed to be one from 1601, received by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and visible today at the National Archives of Japan Digital Archive – a document which, incidentally, I once wrote a paper on.

The Tokugawa-era document comes from Nguyen Hoang, lord of southern-central Vietnam1, who writes to Ieyasu reporting that he has captured the pirate Shirahama Kenki, who had terrorized the Vietnamese coast sixteen years earlier. Nguyen uses this occasion as a pretext for extending offers of good will, and requests for a continuation of good relations. Ieyasu’s response, which I have never seen as an image of an original document, but have only read descriptions of, describes the shuinjô (“red seals”) system, explaining that any Japanese seamen who do not carry licenses with the shogunate’s red seal can be apprehended as smugglers or pirates, but that those who do carry such licenses are licensed “above-board” merchants, authorized by the shogunate. Thus was the earliest known extant document recording, marking, the establishment or continuation of Japanese-Vietnamese relations – that is, until now.

The 1601 letter from Nguyen Hoang to Tokugawa Ieyasu, from the Gaiban Shokan.

The newly discovered Hideyoshi-era document is on display at the Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture) as part of a Vietnam exhibition which opened April 16.

In this document, a Lord Nguyen (presumably the same Nguyen Hoang, r. 1558-1613) writes, in Classical Chinese of course, something to the effect of “I offer gifts, and would like to bind us in friendly relations.” The document is dated with a Vietnamese reign era which corresponds with 1591 on the Western calendar, and is explicitly marked 「日本国・国王」 (“Country of Japan, King”). It seems to have been brought to Japan by a Japanese merchant, many of whom were actively engaged in maritime trade in Southeast Asia at the time. The primary figure active in Japan at that time for whom the title “King of Japan” would correspond would have been Toyotomi Hideyoshi; however, whether the Vietnamese were aware of Hideyoshi, or knew specifically who they were writing to, is unclear.

1) Generally known as Quang Nam 広南 or Cochinchina, in contrast to Tonking 東京 to the north, ruled by the Trinh family, and Champa, the territory of the Cham people to the south.

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Every year, the Theatre & Dance department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa puts on a stunning theatrical production from a different East or Southeast Asian traditional theatre form. Last year, I was privileged to be involved in their kabuki production; the previous year they did jingju (Beijing opera), and the year before that, Noh.

This year, UHM’s Kennedy Theatre brings us Randai, a traditional martial arts / dance-drama form from the Minangkabau people of Western Sumatra. This is the only place outside of Indonesia that Randai is performed, and so I feel quite privileged to get to see it.

I started writing a rather lengthy post sharing everything I know about randai (mostly learned secondhand through friends, through a talk or two I’ve attended, and through just seeing the performance itself), but what I really ought to be doing here is sharing my impressions, having seen the show last week.

The randai is performed in the round. A giant circle has been built into the normally rectangular stage, and bleachers placed up on stage, around it, offering the opportunity for audience members to sit up on stage, mere feet away from the performers, and all around them. The entire arrangement is meant to attempt to simulate the feeling of a village performance, where villagers would simply gather around, in a full circle surrounding a central circular area where the performance takes place. Dancers move around the edge of the circle, performing martial arts routines mixed with powerful, energetic pants-slapping percussion called tapuak. The pants are quite low-slung, providing plenty of fabric against which the performers slap their hands – when they pull their legs apart, the fabric becomes taut, and great sound can be produced. All of these motions are tightly choreographed, and performed alongside instrumental and vocal music performed by musicians off to the side of the stage. Song lyrics describe the ongoing plot, even as the martial arts / dance action on stage does not depict it. One dancer, the goreh, shouts “hup” and “ti“, vocal cues for the dancers to strike the next silek pose (silek being the name of the Indonesian martial art used in randai); their coordination is incredible.

You can get a taste of the action in these two segments from the local news, or in the clip below:

Actors playing the major roles enter from off-stage, passing through the moving dancers, and entering the center of the circle. The section of silek (martial arts) and tapuak (pants-slapping) ends, and a “normal” plot scene begins. The dancers sit, facing inwards and watching the action. I really quite like this convention; it brings out a sort of “storytelling” feel to the whole thing, as though the action in the center is manifesting magically, appearing like a spirit vision. Sometimes, a dancer will be brought into the scene as his character, but while it might sound like this breaks the illusion or ruins the distance between the imagined world of the play, and the dancers who are outside of it, actually I find this kind of playing with boundaries quite enjoyable.

The acting is done without any particular stylization of the voice (i.e. as is done in jingju or kabuki), which for me sort of broke the illusion of that theatre world, that world within the story, and brought be back out into the reality of sitting on a stage watching friends perform roles. But, the acting was very well done, as was the martial arts stage combat – much more realistic, less stylized, than kabuki. There is actual grappling, and, well, I won’t give anything away, but there are some pretty impressive moments.

Overall, I am not quite sure how to describe my feelings on this, other than to say it’s a true spectacle. Colorful, magical, and extremely impressive. The energy these people bring to the stage, the complex movements they perform, with such strength, speed, and most importantly precision and coordination (unity of timing) is truly incredible.

This weekend is your final chance to catch The Genteel Sabai before it goes away forever. UHM is the only place outside of Indonesia where Randai is performed, and the only place in the world it is performed in English. For more information on times and tickets, see the Kennedy Theatre website.

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So, not to toot my own horn or whatever, but I’ve been published! Woo!

My thesis paper from my previous MA (currently working on my second; don’t ask), entitled “Seals of Red, Letters of Gold: Japanese Relations with Southeast Asia in the 17th Century“, has been published in Explorations, the Univ. of Hawaii Southeast Asian Studies graduate student journal. It’s freely available at the above link.

Since most treatments of Japanese foreign relations, in any period, focus on relations with Korea, China, and European countries (and the US in later eras), I was curious about Japanese relations with Southeast Asia. What was traded, and more importantly what kind of formal relations existed between the shogunate and the various kings, lords, sultans, etc. of Southeast Asian polities? If the maritime restrictions policy (kaikin 海禁, a term I much prefer over sakoku) was indeed chiefly a response to the threat presented by missionary activity, or other rationales associated with the Europeans, as many historians’ accounts would have it, then how did the implementation of these restrictions affect relations, and trade, with Southeast Asia?

Focusing chiefly on the independent Southeast Asian polities in Viet Nam and Thailand (i.e. not upon European colonies in Macao, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc.), I look at the history of trade and formal diplomatic relations, and of Japanese settlements in SE Asia (that is, the Nihonmachi, or “Japantowns”), from the late 16th century into the 17th.

I suppose on some level it was just an excuse for me to learn more about early modern Southeast Asian history while connecting it in to fields I was already more familiar with… I would love to expand on this and do more research in this area at some point.

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This is what happens when I put off writing entries… I end up with a whole bunch of articles and blog posts that I wanted to link to and discuss, and as I continue to be too busy and/or tired to do a proper full write-up, I’m just gonna do some quick bits.

(1) Art Radar Asia shares with us today the work of Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann, who combines batik textiles with photography to produce some truly amazing work.

Yee I-Lann, Orang Besar series: ‘Kain Panjang with Carnivorous Kepala‘, 2010, direct digital mimaki inkjet print with acid dye, batik canting Remazol Fast Salt dyes on 100% silk twill, edition of 3 + 2AP. Image taken from original Art Radar post. No claims to rights made; no revenue earned.

The realism of the photography, somehow transformed into an image that looks painted, drawn, or otherwise created by hand, and accompanied by more abstract and hand-painted forms, creates a really interesting aesthetic. I also quite like the balance of the people to the right and the plant image – looking like a gold-backed Japanese screen painting – to the left. Most importantly, of course, is the distinctly Asian flavor. The plants, the gold-backing, the batik borders, and of course the ethnicity (and fashion? perhaps?) of the figures give the image an extra flavor, an extra texture and punch that your standard acultural panglobal Western modern art work would lack.

(2) Cai Guo-Qiang, meanwhile, has been busy at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where his largest gunpowder drawings yet are on display. I’ve heard of Cai Guo-Qiang numerous times – he’s one of the biggest names in Chinese contemporary art here in the US – but I am not sure if I have ever seen his work. I was under the impression that he worked in gunpowder in the sense of actually creating shapes in the flames, in explosions and fireworks shows, the event itself being the art, and the photography of the art, and boring, shapeless piles of ashes and scorchmarks being merely the records and aftereffects.

But it would seem that I was quite mistaken. These gunpowder “drawings” seem to cover the full four walls of the gallery, and are gorgeous works of art that look not like the aftereffects of a performance piece, but as artworks in themselves, reminding one of traditional style sumi (ink) monochrome paintings, albeit in a most unusual medium.

(3) The big news in Japan this past week was the discovery that two swords found under the Great Buddha at Tôdaiji are now believed to be 1,250 years old, and to be the very same individual swords mentioned on an ancient list of national treasures.

The swords were found roughly 100-150 years ago (some time in the Meiji era 1868-1912), but were not until recently identified as being the “Yin Sword and Yang Sword” listed at the very top of the swords/weapons list within the Kokka Chinpô-chô (国家珍宝帳, “List of Rare Treasures of the Kingdom”), which lists treasures held at Tôdaiji, including treasures in the famous Shôsôin Imperial Storehouse.

I had had a video to share, a clip from TBS news, but like many Japanese news services, they don’t seem to have any interest in keeping content up for more than a few days.

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Thanks to Archaeology Magazine’s online news feed…

Some further details on the 18th century ship unearthed at the World Trade Center site have been unearthed. After the preserved wooden skeleton of the ship was discovered back in July, archaeologists have been working to figure out what sort of ship it was, its age, and other such details.

It remains unclear just how the ship came to rest under the World Trade Center, though it is important to note that the site was, 200+ years ago, part of the Hudson River. Whether the ship was intentionally or accidentally used as part of landfill to build up Manhattan Island, we might not be able to determine. The scientists are now saying, however, that the ship was a “Hudson River sloop,” traveling up and down the river, or perhaps up and down the East Coast, carrying such goods as sugar, rum, molasses, and salt. Seeds, nuts, and fruit pits have been found in the ship’s remains, though scientists are still considering whether these represent the goods being carried, or just the crew’s lunch.

The ship was originally roughly 60-70 feet long, the length of an extra-long NYC bus, the article explains, though only 32 feet remain today. As is the case with many other older ships found in this manner, underground or in bogs or the like, it was the waterlogged, anaerobic environment which preserved the ship, preventing microbes from breaking it down, as they had no access to air. Now uncovered, the ship must be kept soaked, to prevent it from decaying, so they have apparently placed it in a tank of purified water. It was not the only thing from the late 18th and early 19th centuries to be found in the course of cleaning up the Ground Zero site: china dishes, many many shoes, stemmed glasses, and bottles were found too, as well as a coin, found inserted into the ship’s structure, a half-penny from the reign of George II (1727-1760).

Today’s article finishes with a brief summary of how the ship was originally found, for those who haven’t heard about it until now (all too often, I feel, the news assumes you’ve been keeping up with it, and only tells you the newest part of the story, so this is a welcome addition).


Meanwhile, a brief article about Vietnam’s World Heritage Sites being under threat from wear and tear of the great numbers of tourists visiting, and lack of funds to repair or maintain the sites.

This is, of course, nothing new. World Heritage Sites and other historic sites the world over, especially in Southeast Asia, suffer from the damage done by millions of hands and feet, by the moisture in our breath, and by the lighting used to make the sites visible and accessible. A friend wrote her MA thesis on this subject, and I am sure it is a much-discussed topic, a serious problem with no obvious answer.

I just hope I get to see some of these sites in Vietnam before they are gone. Let me rephrase that. I hope that the funding can somehow be obtained, from within the country, or overseas, from governments or non-profits, to preserve and maintain these sites already acknowledged as being of importance to the entire world.

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Alex Kerr, author of Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons, an American who has lived in Kyoto & Bangkok for decades and who has his hands in a lot of heritage protection and cultural revival activities, has finally published his latest book, Bangkok Found, which he had been working on for many years.

Of course, the book relates to Thai history and culture, concepts, and language, and I cannot imagine that I will find it as easy to understand or to appreciate as “Lost Japan”, but nevertheless, I have faith that Kerr’s writing style and skills will paint for us, the reader, an entrancing and intriguing view of the city that is at once romantic and yet fully in touch with, and frank about, the less appealing or attractive aspects of the city.

At $20, it’s more expensive than your average paperback, but far cheaper than most academic volumes… I must admit I’m not exactly running out to the store this very moment to buy a copy, but someday I will get my hands on a copy. I expect to enjoy it very much, and will write a review at that time…

In the meantime, some reviews from people who’ve actually read the book and know a lot more about Thailand than I:

Christopher G. Moore
Bangkok 101
Women Learn Thai.com

(And, yes, these links are all reviews Alex has linked to himself on his site. No, I am not a shill for him, no I am not getting paid by him, and as you’ll see from my previous posts on the subject, I’m not exactly 100% his biggest fan. I’m just being lazy, is all, not directly intentionally biased. If/when I get my hands on the book and write my own review, I can practically guarantee it won’t be 100% positive or promotional.)

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Another beautifully written art review from Holland Cotter, New York Times art critic.

This Viet Nam show really sounds wonderful. Wish I could be there.

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Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: From River Plain to Open Sea” opens today at the Asia Society in NY. It seems to me relatively rare that any large exhibits are ever devoted to Viet Nam, with most museums devoting most of their Asian art attention to Chinese and Japanese art. (And there are plenty of good reasons for that, starting with the nature & composition of their collections, the history of collecting which led to the collections being this way, etc.) This seems a nice and special opportunity, therefore. It’s made all the more exciting by the fact that the exhibit does not restrict itself purely to ancient Viet Nam, but covers Hoi An as well, a major early modern trading port of the 16th-18th centuries. Hoi An was one of the chief SE Asian ports for Japanese trade, and the site of one of the largest Japanese communities, in the late 16th to early 17th centuries, which is how it attracted my attention, and came to form a major section in my (first) MA thesis.

I really wish I could be in NY to see this exhibit. If you are, go check it out.

(I must say, however, that I remain perplexed by the overwhelming dominance of ceramics and other “decorative arts” or “craft goods” in exhibits of Southeast Asian art. Yes, I know it’s not really PC to make a distinction any longer, to imply that decorative arts, crafts, ceramics are any lesser than so-called “fine arts” such as painting. But, those politics aside, where are the paintings? Surely, Viet Nam produced paintings just as every other country in the world has, heavily influenced by Chinese traditions just as much as Okinawa, Japan, and Korea were, the art of painting raised up above ceramics and other arts and treasured and celebrated just as much as in any other Sinosphere culture. So, where are the paintings? Okinawa was ravaged by war, and a great deal was lost; but even so, there are still paintings surviving and exhibited in Okinawa and Japan, if not in the US. … Well, at least the exhibit doesn’t focus exclusively on religious sculpture, like so many SE Asian galleries in major museums do.)

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