Trans-Status Subjects: Gender in the Globalization of South and Southeast Asia

Trans-Status Subjects: Gender in the Globalization of South and Southeast Asia

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822384236
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/08/2002
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 626 KB

About the Author

Sonita Sarker is Chair and Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Associate Professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Esha Niyogi De teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Trans-status subjects

Gender in the globalization of South and Southeast Asia
By Sonita Saker

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2992-1

Chapter One


A major legacy of imperial rule has been what Chandra Mohanty, among many, has called "the racialization of gender and the genderization of race" (1995, 1058). To study the discursive operations of imperialism, the rhetoric that helped invent and sustain it, is also to study the continuing cultural process of gendering race and racializing gender. Mohanty aptly stresses that in approaching the project of empire, the process of decolonizing one's own thinking needs to include illuminating the "fundamental interconnectedness" of gender roles and racial categories for both imperial and indigenous peoples. And insisting on complexity and interconnectedness, as Ann Stoler (1992) has so eloquently shown in her own work on the Dutch in Indonesia, turns out to be a matter of quite specific locations, of a detailed and partialized sense of place (see also Thomas 1994, 3).

But what constitutes place, and how, and in what metamorphoses was it represented in the discourses mapping imperial presences in the nineteenth century? Considering only the empire-building activities of Great Britain, I would say that the nineteenth century was the result of two previous centuries of active imperial enterprise on the part of the British, but also notablydifferent from them. Although various explorations and forms of trading are appropriately to be considered the beginnings of empire, it makes sense to date Britain's significant entry into the business of empire building from the year 1600. It was then that Queen Elizabeth was at last persuaded to grant a royal charter, or government-backed trading license, to a group of London merchants who would come to be called the Company of Merchants Trading into the East Indies. The formation of the East India Company was the first big step for the British. But it was in the nineteenth century-understood as the long century-that Britain's continuing imperial aggressions became expansive and extensive enough to mark this time as Britain's era of globalization. Roughly commencing in the middle of the eighteenth century and continuing until World War II, the empire that was known as England underwent a monumental transformation of itself as well as its relations with the places and peoples with which it had traded, turning fully from an island of traders into one of colonizers, and replacing a commitment to profits and economic gain with one to territory and government power. At the start of the nineteenth century, as a matter of public policy rather than being limited to private enterprise, Britain had already occupied territory in such regions as parts of the Indian subcontinent and the West Indies, and small but crucially located lands in what is now called Southeast Asia. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain's holdings to its east extended from the Middle East all the way to Hong Kong.

What's in a Name?: Writing Britain's Era of Globalization

The rhetoric of empire that accompanied and participated in this era of globalization had several characteristics. Perhaps the most salient was an ongoing, explicit, and highly visible insistence on the part of the Colonial Office and successive colonial secretaries and prime ministers that England was not in the business of taking other people's lands. Among many moments, the India Act of 1784 officially declared British territorial expansion in India to be "repugnant to the wish, the honour, and policy of this nation." In 1824, Lord Robert Castlereagh, referring to disputes with the Dutch over lands known as the East Indies or Malay Archipelago (now Indonesia and some states in Malaysia beyond the Malay Peninsula), repeated this position, modified slightly by reality, in declaring that "territorial dominion is to be confined to India, an exception to prove the rule." Fifty years later, Lord Henry Herbert Carnarvon (4th Earl) articulated the now-familiar policy when he warned the English in the Malay states that "neither annexation nor government of country by British officials ... can be allowed." By 1914, the British ruled all of peninsular Malaya (Morgan 1996, 137-41).

The nineteenth-century era of globalization by Britain, then, is characterized by a distinctive doubleness in which Britain, through its navy as well as its royal and Indian armies, took over great amounts of land throughout the world while simultaneously articulating itself as officially opposed to doing so. Moreover, it is important to be clear that the articulation was never placed on ethical grounds. Not taking over other people's lands by force, or the threat of it, was hardly a matter of conscience or justice. Instead, it was regarded by British public servants as a matter of economic practicality and sound national policy, in establishing international relations that supported the island's dependence on trade.

This specific feature of the nineteenth-century era of British globalization is linked to another: the development of a range of rhetorical conventions that functioned to represent what the British were doing in various locations as something other than taking them over in some sort of colonial territorial move. If officially Britain's globalization process was not to be named as territorial expansion, then it had to be provided with another name-or more accurately, other names. Running throughout much of the discourse of the British global expansion of the nineteenth century are arguments about names. What do they/can they/should they call what they are doing? In these imperial discourses, localized places were being reboundaried, gathered up, and metamorphosed through rhetoric into new imperial spaces, with such now-familiar names as "protectorate," "company," "settlement," or "state" (see the introduction to this volume).

During the era of aggressive globalization that characterized Britain's foreign activities in the long nineteenth century, this mapping/naming process participated in significant ways in creating and sustaining the public ideology of an England that was not engaged in expanding its territories. That participation took many forms, depending on the specific histories of the localized places under discussion. Clearly, the rhetoric about Singapore was far different from that about Burma (now Myanmar). One unforeseen feature of the ideological drive to rename British empire-building activities in nineteenth-century discourse is that the impetus to call British imperialism something else opened up the discourse of empire to an array of possible meanings and definitions involving the interplay of notions of gender and race. If British occupation wasn't to be named as territorial takeover, which carried fairly simple masculinist/racist conventions of white Europeans as aggressive and heroic explorers/soldiers as well as rational and efficient rulers, then not only was the naming opened up but so too were the conventions mapping gender and race in the relations between colonizers and colonized. How the racializations of gender and the genderizations of race were actually represented is a matter of particular discourses of imperial mapping and also of specific locales (Morgan 1996; Blunt and Rose 1994; Gikandi 1996). The critical task of examining these imperial discourses is extensive. As one piece of that, the specific rhetorical location that I will turn to in this chapter is the "North Borneo" of a Victorian woman's travel memoir published in the final decade of the nineteenth century.

Ada Locke was a young, middle-class woman from the west of England who married William Pryer in 1883. In 1893, she published A Decade in Borneo, a memoir of the early years of the British presence, and particularly of her husband's activities, in the territories that had been named North Borneo, and some aspects of their life there. This little book has a unique rhetorical role in mapping the imperial geography of North Borneo. While the competing writings of the pro-mining North Borneo Company and the pro-farming Development Corporation administrators and apologists were politically explicit and directed primarily at a limited business and governmental audience, the one book aimed at locating North Borneo for a general British audience and capturing the political support of that audience without appearing to was Ada Pryer's A Decade in Borneo. It places itself precisely in the public sphere, concerned with influencing general public opinion in Britain. Neither an official nor a professional document, it also cannot be located as a domestic memoir with concerns directed to a female audience.

There was, of course, no North Borneo in the nineteenth century, as a real-that is to say, communally imagined-place. There were only competing ideologies of proto-imperial power staking their claims to a purportedly objective geography (Edney 1997; Rose 1993). In A Decade in Borneo, the place Pryer belongs, that she names home, is the discursively created imperial space of North Borneo. To do so, she has to rewrite place as well as identity, creating not only North Borneo but also the characters she peoples it with, including her husband and herself. Pryer's narrative functions to intervene in one of the central cultural anxieties undermining the British imperial argument in the late decades of the nineteenth century for the takeover of foreign places: that the colonial space can be a location that corrodes racial identity, becoming a locale where the British lose their "true" whiteness.

What kind of gendered and racialized transmutation of identities does Pryer's rhetoric perform in order to present her own colonial relocation as belonging? What imperial mapping is at work in this relocation? And how does the intersection of gender and race operate in this account to rewrite identity so as to assure narrative authority as British? Before approaching these questions, I must turn first to some of the details of the imperial historiography of North Borneo, and second to the particular masculine rhetorics that provided the frame for Pryer's work and in relation to which her own colonial locations belong.

Where Was North Borneo?

To ask "where" North Borneo was in the nineteenth century-not the same place it is now-is inevitably to ask what it meant to the imperial powers that were at work defining the world. The question of where is always a regional or contextual one, the meaning of the place being contingent on its relations to the meanings of the places around it, which in the nineteenth century were also undergoing the process of being mapped into imperial spaces by European powers.

From the 1870s on, the British slowly took over the states on the Malay Peninsula, effectively inventing Malaya. The takeover process was characterized, among other qualities, by a particular, localized imperial rhetoric that was as conflicted as it was inventive. Britain's increase in its territorial control was accompanied by that distinctive British imperial doubleness of voice during its era of globalization that at once declared, on the basis of practicality, a reluctance for territory and a commitment to order. The reluctance was continually overcome by the declared desire to provide what was called the stability and order necessary for profitable trade. To many business-minded imperial voices, perhaps the most famous being Frank Swettenham and Isabella Bird, local politics and customs, for all their charms, could in the end be explained as economic indicators of disorder. What was good for business in the Malay states turned out to be what was understood and described as the familiar predictability of British control.

British Malaya increasingly did provide riches for England, in tin and then rubber. The rubber plantations with which the British covered so much of the peninsula during the early years of the twentieth century were to produce, in a famous phrase referred to in a speech by a director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, "wealth beyond the dreams of empire" (Morgan 1996, 148). Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century economic development in British Malaya fulfilled imperial economic hopes and drew rhetorical praises in a way that British investments and enterprise on the adjacent island of Borneo did not.

The claim that Borneo lacked economic potential was an early and continuing theme in British government documents and occasional parliamentary speeches referring to the island in the second half of the nineteenth century. Blocking development of the northern part of the island (the south having been occupied by the Dutch) was a frequently announced Colonial Office policy throughout the century that a sustained British presence in Borneo would be a major financial mistake. It would not make money but rather would require it. Yet despite this recurrent, insistent, and economically persuasive discourse on the side of a noninterventionist policy, the British government in 1881 approved a government-monitored commercial charter for North Borneo (now Sabah, a state in Malaysia), and, in 1888, ended up taking over the huge lands and waters bundled together as northern Borneo as a British protectorate. How did this reluctant takeover come about? Or to put the same question another way, what particular meanings did Borneo have in British imperial geography and historiography?

What Borneo was for the British had, of course, to do with its imperial location, with where it was labeled as being, which in the nineteenth century turned out to mean where it was relative to other places invented or transformed into spaces carrying imperial significations. Its initial imperial geography was not that of a location in itself at all but as just somewhere en route to somewhere else, as a space whose value depended not on itself but on its being between other spaces of value. The single overriding significance to the British up to the middle of the nineteenth century of the lands that are now known as Southeast Asia was not for their lands but their waters, the shipping routes between India and China. The states between India and China were simply that: states between, crucial because through their waters passed a huge number of commercial vessels trading goods between China and India, and from India on to England and the rest of Europe.

Protecting the enormously lucrative China trade-from the French in the waters south of their colonies in Cochin China, from the Dutch coming north from the Indies islands including southern Borneo, and from the various Malay "pirates" and other regional peoples in that key waterway between the Malay Peninsula and Borneo-drove much of British policy in the region. The goal "repeatedly laid out by policy makers in London was not the acquisition of large amounts of territory-an idea repugnant to successive colonial secretaries-but the possession of small naval stations and entrepots which could command the sea routes through the Indian Ocean, the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea" (Wright 1970, 1). Borneo, as the largest island in the East Indies, that immense series of islands stretching from around the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula on into the Pacific and toward China and Australia, was of interest to the British quite simply because its long west coast bordered on the China Sea and was full of inlets and small islands where raiders, European as well as regional, could hide.

While Borneo, like the rest of the lands of Southeast Asia, held the attention of the British in the first half of the nineteenth century merely as part of the route to China, in the second half of that century, its imperial geography, along with the discourse that continuously created and reshaped that geography, changed significantly. Safeguarding the shipping lanes between China and India would remain through the twentieth century as the foundational explanation for the British presence in and around the island of Borneo. But other important reasons that had everything to do with sustaining and refreshing the ideology of imperialism back home in England would be articulated in imperial discourses as well.


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Table of Contents


Introduction: Marking Times and Territories / Sonita Sarker and Esha Niyogi De

I. Figuring Genders in the Colony and Nation: Native and Foreign

Designing Woman, Designing North Borneo / Susan Morgan

The Cordon Sanitaire: Mobility and Space in the Regulation of Colonial Prostitution / Philippa Levine

Feminizing the City: Gender and Space in Colonial Columbo / Nihal Perera

Failure of the Imaginary: Gendered Excess of the Indonesian Nation / Sylvia Tiwon

Gender, Paradoxical Space, and Critical Spectatorship in Vietnamese Film: The Works of Dang Nhat Minh / Kathryn McMahon

II. Transporting Genders Between the Village and City: Representations and Resistances

Traveling High and Low: Verticality, Social Position, and the Making of Pahari Genders / Karen K. Gaul

Nurturing, Gender Ideologies, and Bangkok’s Foodscape / Gisèle Yasmeen

Place and Displacement: Figuring the Thai Village in an Age of Rural Development / Andrew McRae

The City between the Global State: Architecture and the People in Singapore’s Gendered Imaginations / Esha Niyogi De

III. Gendering Local-Global Circuits: Labor, Capital, and Subjects of Social Change

South Asian Women in the Gulf: Families and Futures Reconfigured / Karen Leonard

Diasporic Alienness and Belonging: Selected Indian-American Cultural Expressions / Ketu H. Katrak

Jewish Diaspora through Colonial Spaces: Negotiating Identity and Forging Community / Jael Silliman

Unruly Subjects: Cornelia Sorabji and Ravinder Randhawa / Sonita Sarker

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares: South Asian Domestic Workers in North America in a Time of Global Mobility / Anannya Bhattacharjee




What People are Saying About This

Antoinette Burton

This collection brings together an astonishingly wide variety of original research about the problem of globalization and the relationship of gender, time, and space to it. Focusing on 'embodied subjects' in diverse locations and shifting grounds allows the authors to excavate conditions-cultural, political, socio-economic-under which the people they are writing about become what the editors call 'trans-status subjects.'
— author of At the Heart of the Empire

Lisa Lowe

This valuable anthology gathers together feminist perspectives on gender, postcolonial critique and critiques of western modernity, and the considerable work on global capitalism and transnationalism. The work is theoretically sophisticated and ethnographically rich, intervening in the discussions of women, colonial and neocolonial modernity, and globalization with respect to South Asian and Southeast Asian women and locales.
— author of Immigrant Acts

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