Houses in Motion: The Experience of Place and the Problem of Belief in Urban Malaysia


Houses in Motion: The Experience of Place and the Problem of Belief in Urban Malaysia is about the transformation of urban space and the reordering of the demographic character of Brickfields, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur. Baxstrom offers an ethnographic account of the complex attempts on the part of the state and the community to reconcile techno-rational conceptions of law, development, and city planning with local experiences of place, justice, relatedness, and possibilities for belief in ...
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Houses in Motion: The Experience of Place and the Problem of Belief in Urban Malaysia

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Houses in Motion: The Experience of Place and the Problem of Belief in Urban Malaysia is about the transformation of urban space and the reordering of the demographic character of Brickfields, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur. Baxstrom offers an ethnographic account of the complex attempts on the part of the state and the community to reconcile techno-rational conceptions of law, development, and city planning with local experiences of place, justice, relatedness, and possibilities for belief in an aggressively changing world. The book combines classic methods of anthropological research and an engagement with the work of theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Henri Lefebvre, and moves beyond previous studies of Southeast Asian cities by linking larger conceptual issues of ethics, belief, and experience to the concrete trajectories of everyday urban life in the region.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Particularly interesting in this monograph are Baxstrom's in-depth vignettes of specific interviewees and groups struggling to find their place within a space of flux. These ethnographic segments give a grounded depth to his work, underscoring the fluidity of Malaysian identity, rather than trying to fit individuals into neat categories of affinity."—Sandra Smeltzer, Urban Studies Journal

"Readers interested in issues of race, governance, and the transformation of Malaysia's urban landscapes will find Baxstrom's work relevant to the growing body of Malaysian urban studies."—Frank Chua, H-Net Reviews

"This timely, sensitive ethnography describes the transformation—amounting to the near-disappearance—of Brickfields, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia."—Patricia Sloane-White, Journal of Urban History

"Houses in Motion provides an absorbing look at the ways Brickfields residents negotiate urban space through religious discourse, not in spite of it."—Sareeta Amrute, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Houses in Motion is an innovative, playful and yet deep analysis of what makes for moral subjects in the city. Henceforth when I visit Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur in my imagination—or when I become overcome by the moral load of terms such as religious reform, development, secularism, or corruption—I will remember the ordinary ways in which Brickfield residents inhabited, suffered, or tried to overcome the monumentalism of these projects."—Veena Das, Johns Hopkins University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804758918
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 8/6/2008
  • Series: Cultural Memory in the Present Series
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Baxstrom holds the position of Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh.
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Table of Contents


1. The Founding of Brickfields and the Prewar Development of Kuala Lumpur....................25
2. The Malayan Emergency, Islamic Reform, and the Trajectory of Urban Governmentality in Kuala Lumpur....................54
3. Law, Justice, Disappearance: The Experience of Place in a Time of Radical Transformation....................85
4. Strangers, Counterfeiters, and Gangsters: Figures of Belonging and the Problem of Belief....................130
5. Ambivalent Encounters in the City: Islam, Hinduism, and Urban Governmentality....................176
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First Chapter


The Experience of Place and the Problem of Belief in Urban Malaysia
By Richard Baxstrom


Copyright © 2008 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5891-8

Chapter One

The Founding of Brickfields and the Prewar Development of Kuala Lumpur


The aim of this chapter is to provide a brief history of Brickfields and of the development of the area as a distinct neighborhood in the city in the context of the founding and growth of prewar Kuala Lumpur. By examining the processes through which Kuala Lumpur was established as the capital of colonial Malaya, this chapter hopes to show how neighborhoods such as Brickfields acquired their own identity within the city. Of particular concern in this narrative are the ways in which the urban environment was differentially understood and inhabited by the colonial authorities and other social groups. This chapter will provide a summary of the multiple understandings and uses of the urban space in colonial Malaya, paying close attention to how conflicts over what constituted the proper form of the city arose and how these conflicts were addressed by each of these groups. Framing the early history of Brickfields and Kuala Lumpur in this way turns our attention to the practical nature of everyday life in the colonial city, highlighting the space of the urban as a contested terrain both in terms of colonial ideologies of proper social organization and the local meanings generated through the seemingly mundane practices of the everyday.

Since the 1960s theorists of urban development have sought to establish frameworks that distinguish the development of colonial cities from classic conceptions of the urban that broadly privilege "preindustrial/ industrial" or "sacred city/market city" dichotomies (Forbes 1996; Sjoberg 1960, 1965). Scholars such as David Simon, Ronald J. Horvath, and Terence G. McGee observed at that time that classic theories of urbanization did not take into account the force and impact of colonialism when applied to so-called Third World cities. While recognizing the diversity of forms that the colonial cities could take, these scholars articulated a notion of urban development in colonial contexts that attempted to account for the relations between the social and functional features of these spaces and their role in the establishment and maintenance of colonial rule (Horvath 1969; King 1990; McGee 1967; Simon 1984). In her survey of this emergent literature pertaining to colonial cities, Brenda S.A. Yeoh identifies three characteristics particular to the colonial city that are commonly cited by these theories: (1) the racial, cultural, social, and religious pluralism characteristic of colonial cities, (2) the presence of a system of social stratification distinct from that associated with the class structures of preindustrial and industrial cities in the West, and (3) the concentration of social, economic, and political power in the hands of a racially distinct colonizing group (Yeoh 1996, 1-3). In general terms, all three of these characteristics were present in colonial Kuala Lumpur. From its founding in the 1870s the city has been home to a diverse population of immigrant Chinese and Indian communities, small Malay enclaves, and British expatriates (Adnan 1997; Gullick 1993, 2000). These populations were subject to a system of social stratification rooted in nineteenth-century understandings of race that defined the social and economic terrain under which each of these groups lived and worked. Finally, although the British instituted a system of indirect rule that granted formal sovereignty to the Malay sultans, actual governance was largely in the hands of the British residents, the colonial bureaucracy, and the European economic interests operating in the colony.

While this framework is useful in formulating an analytic understanding of the organization of Kuala Lumpur as an urban configuration, its usefulness must be qualified in light of the assumptions regarding the nature of power in colonial societies and the relative stability of social categories that are evident in its logic. In particular, the assumption that an overwhelming asymmetry of power existed between stable groups of colonized and colonizers that allowed for the colonizers to largely "create" colonial cities and towns is complicated considerably in the case of Kuala Lumpur. There is ample evidence that British government officials and city planners imagined an urban landscape ordered by segregated living quarters, racially defined economic functions, and separate social worlds. Just as clearly, local imaginations of community, justice, and order emerged as equally critical factors in the material development of Kuala Lumpur as a city and Brickfields as a distinct neighborhood within that city.

The struggle between the colonial power and the various categories of inhabitants to define people and places is key to understanding the creation of Brickfields. Colonial power in Malaya was exercised through the imagination and the attempted imposition of definitional categories related to the social and the spatial that sought to order both public and private domains. Yet this power could not be exercised in an unbridled way. In more recent times scholars, following Foucault's insights regarding power, discourse, and discipline (Foucault 1977, 1991), have argued that local arenas of action must also be considered in understanding the development and regulation of colonial cities (Ferguson 1999; Holston 1989; Low 1999; Mitchell 1989; Rabinow 1989; Yeoh 1996). As with other colonial cities, the microprocesses of everyday life were critical factors in the formation of urban space in Kuala Lumpur.

The physical environment of Kuala Lumpur held different uses, meanings, and interpretations for the various communities who came to live there. As such, there was no absolutely dominant or privileged discourse that operated to totally define or dominate the space of the city. Spaces like that of colonial Kuala Lumpur must be seen as polydiscursive, with the operating discourses in constant flux due to everyday habitation by ordinary people who may read different meanings and usages into what is nominally the "same" built environment. Kuala Lumpur spatially reflected the desire of the colonial state to create a segmented, utilitarian space that divided the city into racial and economic domains according to prevailing understandings of proper colonial social organization (Dick and Rimmer 2003). The ability to successfully manifest this ideal urban environment was clearly linked to both the functional and symbolic aims of the British colonial empire. However, by the 1920s the continued "failure" to realize these ideals generated a great deal of anxiety and pessimism regarding the colonial project in Malaya. This "failure" clearly Founding of Brickfields and Prewar Development of Kuala Lumpur 27 demonstrates that this ideal colonial landscape was never fully accepted by those who inhabited neighborhoods such as Brickfields and that, through the articulation of local notions of community and relatedness, the everyday social practice in the city challenged the idealized plan. Spaces such as Brickfields were thus never entirely subject to colonial control; on the other hand, Brickfields residents could not simply ignore the pressures generated by colonial attempts to order the space. Rather, the development of Brickfields and Kuala Lumpur demonstrates the tensions, negotiations, compromises, and conflicts that existed between social groups over time in prewar Malaya (Andaya and Andaya 1982; Blythe 1969; Butcher 1979; Cowan 1961; Gullick 1993, 2000; Heussler 1981; Roff 1994; Sandhu 1969).

Frank Swettenham, Yap Ah Loy, and the Founding of Kuala Lumpur

Brickfields has always been strongly linked to the global. Without the combined forces of British colonial power, the capital and efforts of Chinese entrepreneurs, and the labor of emigrants from South India, the place would not exist in the form it does today. Despite its contemporary reputation as a forgotten, "closed" area, Brickfields materially owes its existence to the desires of "strangers"-desires to cleanse, to build, to order, and particularly to make money. The story of Brickfields is not simply that of an autonomous community, as the area has always been an integral part of larger processes, schemes, and conflicts. Yet, as I will demonstrate in this chapter, it was precisely these wide-ranging historical processes that made the experience of Brickfields as a local space all the more intense for early neighborhood residents.

For all I have heard of Mr. Swettenham he will do his work well wherever he is. Is he however exactly the man for Salangore? [sic] Might he not drive the coach a little too fast? -Lord Kimberley, Colonial Secretary, 1882 The Captain China is as impecunious as ever, he is a speculative, energetic and enterprising man ... he must work. -Bloomfield Douglas, Resident of Selangor, 1878

At first glance, it is difficult to imagine a more unusual partnership than that of Frank Swettenham and Yap Ah Loy. The former, born "outside Belper in Derbyshire," educated at St. Peter's School in York, and finding himself from 1871 attached to an evolving Malayan colonial bureaucracy, was an ambitious young officer with a passion for Malay culture and a taste for broad "civilizing" projects enacted in the name of the crown. The latter, a poor Hakka Chinese laborer who had immigrated to Malaya to work in the tin mines, had risen through a combination of contacts and guile to the position of Captain China and was primarily interested in maintaining the viability (not to mention the profitability) of his position. In the fluid social terrain of late nineteenth-century Malaya these two men were brought together by circumstance and discovered a surprising degree of overlap in their ambitions. Through the joint efforts of these two men Kuala Lumpur was established as the preeminent city in the Malay peninsula, and Brickfields came into being as a distinct neighborhood within the town. J.M. Gullick describes Yap Ah Loy as follows:

Yap Ah Loy was a typical example of the Chinese immigrants who came to seek their fortunes in the Malay States. Born in the Kwangtung province of China in 1837, he came of a peasant family of the Hakka community, which was itself divided ... into distinct, and often hostile, "clans" (Ah Loy was a Fei Chew Hakka). At the age of seventeen, he had come to Malacca, and thence had moved on to the mines at Lukut and, after that, in Sungei Ujong (Negri Sembilan). Originally a laborer, like the rest, his ability had gradually raised him to leadership. He was at first one of the panglima, who were the bodyguards and assistants of a Captain China in control of a particular mining area. [B]y 1868 he had become Captain China of Kuala Lumpur. (Gullick 2000, 13)

A fuller account of Yap Ah Loy's remarkable life is beyond the scope of this work (see Middlebrook and Gullick 1989). What is important to note is that by the 1880s Yap Ah Loy had been the de facto leader in Kuala Lumpur for well over a decade and, in his position as Captain China, controlled both the commercial and municipal spheres of the town. During his tenure Yap had weathered natural disasters and a civil war that had resulted in the repeated destruction of Kuala Lumpur. Despite this adversity the town began to prosper, and for Yap Ah Loy it was proving to be a profitable venture. Middlebrook notes that by 1880 there were 220 buildings in Kuala Lumpur and that Yap owned 64 of them outright. His holdings constituted fully Founding of Brickfields and Prewar Development of Kuala Lumpur 29 two-thirds of the urban land east of the Klang River (Middlebrook and Gullick 1989, 98). Coupled with the fact that he controlled the profitable tin mines situated at the edges of Kuala Lumpur, Yap Ah Loy's influence over the town was unchallenged until he died in 1885 at the age of forty-eight.

Frank Swettenham first set foot in Malaya in 1871, arriving from England as a cadet in the then-new Straits Civil Service. After an apprenticeship in Singapore, Swettenham was dispatched to the peninsula in 1872 where he would remain in numerous capacities for the next thirty-three years. Arrogant and overachieving, Swettenham rose fast in the Civil Service and held several important positions throughout his career, including separate terms as Resident of Perak and Selangor, as Assistant Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements, and finally as Resident General of the Federated Malay States. In retirement Sir Frank, who was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1897, continued to serve the British government as head of a royal commission to Mauritius in 1909 and as Joint Director of the Official Press Bureau during World War I. Swettenham also remained active in Malayan affairs from afar, exercising an influence in the Colonial Office that would remain strong forty-two years after his exit from Malaya. Swettenham's amazing ninety-six years of life would be read as parody if created by a novelist; his civilizing ambition, jack-of-all-trades résumé, colorful yet "correct" rapport with "the natives," corrupt land deals, suppressed sex scandals (complete with blackmail), and bitter longterm rivalries matched the archetype of the colonial pioneer ideal so closely it is hard to believe Swettenham actually existed at all.

The Origins of Brickfields

Brickfields came into being as a discrete zone within Kuala Lumpur due to a financial venture initiated by Yap Ah Loy. In the wake of the collapse of the tin market in 1876 Yap was, in Gullick's words, "energetically seeking alternative employment for his miners." One project he undertook at this time was the completion of the unfinished Damansara Road. Another was the production of bricks, originally intended for export to Singapore. Swettenham described Yap's efforts in an 1878 report:

He has established a brickfield and kiln, and has already produced a large number of excellent bricks and tiles ... to be sent to the Singapore market ... hitherto supplied from Hong Kong. The clay of which these tiles is made is of a peculiar quality, which enables them to be made at once thin and light, whilst they are stronger and more durable than ordinary tiles. (Gullick 2000, 23)

As an export-oriented venture, this project was a failure due to the prohibitively high cost of shipping to Singapore at the time. The undertaking did have two lasting effects, however; the area3 came to be generally known as "Brickfields" (identified as such by 1889 on official maps), and the presence of fifteen brick kilns in the area by 1886 (Selvaratnam 2002) made it possible for Swettenham to undertake his ambitious rebuilding of the entire town of Kuala Lumpur in the 1880s.

Over the objections of Bloomfield Douglas, the British Resident for Selangor, colonial officials in Singapore (including Swettenham, who was Assistant Colonial Secretary at that time) relocated the headquarters of the state government from Klang to Kuala Lumpur in March 1880. This shift was in large part due to the fact that, unlike Klang (which appeared "deserted" and "decayed" to Swettenham) Kuala Lumpur was fast becoming the commercial center of Selangor and its active tin mining operations (Butcher 1979; Dick and Rimmer 2003; Lim 1978). This move was undertaken despite the fact that Klang was the functioning port for the region and Kuala Selangor served as the traditional center of power for the local Malay community, with the Sultan of Selangor continuing to reside there even after the colonial state government decamped to Kuala Lumpur. At this early stage it was clear that commercial interests were the first priority for the colonial authorities. Until the late 1870s Kuala Lumpur itself was administered directly by local Malay and Chinese headmen with little oversight by colonial officials, although this situation began to change with the formation of a Mining Board in 1878 and the arrival of a colonial magistrate in Kuala Lumpur in September 1879 (Gullick 2000, 33). For the authorities in Singapore, however, these developments were not enough to "safeguard" their stake in the area and thus the relocation of the headquarters of the state government itself was undertaken the next year.


Excerpted from HOUSES IN MOTION by Richard Baxstrom Copyright © 2008 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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