AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 404

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Session 404: Cosmopolis II: Urban Aspirations

Organizer: Tim Bunnell, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Chair: Kong Chong Ho, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Discussant: Mike Douglass, National University of Singapore, Singapore

‘Aspiration’ is emerging as a key concept in efforts to understand and shape the future of urban societies. In addition to foregrounding what kinds of urban futures people want, aspiration is part of ongoing processes of making and remaking cities. This panel assembles researchers each working on dynamics of urban aspiration in Asia. We fit the ‘Border-crossing’ panel category in that our collective interests extend across both disciplinary boundaries (including sociology, anthropology, history and human geography) and diverse areas or contexts of study. While the first paper is primarily theoretical in scope, the other four papers respectively examine urban aspirations of overseas Filipina workers, Thai rural-urban migrants, colonial authorities in Vietnam, and Indonesian planners. All five papers either conceptually and/or empirically consider aspirational practices extending across urban and national contexts. The aim is to make our individual contributions speak to burgeoning work on relational forms of comparative urbanism – taking seriously diverse constitutive connections between sites as opposed to mere empirical juxtaposition. The papers are intended to follow on ‘back to back’ from the proposed panel Cosmopolis I: The City at the Grass Roots, and in turn to be followed by Cosmopolis III: Intercity Knowledge Sharing. We have invited C. Michael Douglass, who is organizing the Cosmopolis I panel, to act as discussant before we open out the discussion to participants of all three panels and other audience members. Our panel on Urban Aspirations will thus consist of five paper presentations and one discussant.

Urban Aspirations and the Aspirational City
Daniel P. S. Goh, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Some cities are mere locations, some debate their identity within themselves, some represent themselves and their aspirations to the world. Without succumbing to an evolutionary model, this paper discusses the processes whereby citizens, residents and migrants acting on their aspirations transform an urban place of trade and administration into an aspirational city. Drawing on our multi-city and inter-city ethnographies in Asia, we discuss the nature of urban aspirations as future-oriented desires and ambitions that tie individuals and groups to the future of a city. Urban aspirations grow in dynamic cultural environments where religious, ethnic, nationalist, modernist and cosmopolitan discourses and practices clash, combine and separate. Urban aspirations are fundamentally representational and are expressed in many forms, from vernacular spatial appropriations to technocratic master plans, from oral stories to art biennales, from household appliances to architectural icons. Though future-oriented and grounded in a city, they are also defined by collective memories and heritage and inter-city and rural-urban mobilities. Within these spatial and temporal complexities, we argue for a focus on aspirational projects where groups use representational forms to variously impose their group aspirations on others, defend their aspirations from others or exchange their aspirations with each other, and thereby derive power to shape the city and its future. The urban is therefore a crucible of these projects and we discuss the resulting aspirational city in terms of a typology related to the scholarship on urbanism: technopolitan, demopolitan, cosmopolitan and metropolitan.

Rearticulating Home: Absent Voices
Louie T. Navarro, Independent Scholar, Philippines

As the concept of home/ home-place/ homeownership is redefined by the accelerated growth of condominium living in Metro Manila - primarily bolstered by Overseas Filipino Workers remittances - this article will attempt to decipher the changing landscape of the city built from the hopes and dreams of an absent generation and how it gives meaning to the existence of those ‘left behind’. By engaging Derrida’s concept of différance in exploring the absence this phenomena engenders and through the deconstruction of the predominant discourse arising from various advertising campaigns/ marketing strategies utilized by local property developers and internet forums that primarily focus on condominium ownership, this article will attempt to reconstruct a space with an identity that is at a constant flux, in which meaning is forever deferred, suspended in a state of redefinition as it is driven full speed by the remittances (past and future) of the absent homeowner consequently redefining what constitutes a ‘home’. From the spatial character of ‘home’ as a residence, a retirement address or as an investment opportunity afforded by the introduction of ‘condotel’ living, to the abstract notions of permanence, aspirational and eventual suspended ‘neither-here-nor-there’ nature of the same embodied in cyberspace as home-place, one will see that perhaps homelessness, ironically, as denouement is but a small price to pay in homeownership.

Rural-to-Urban Mobility Across National and Transnational Space in Bangkok, Jakarta, and Singapore
Eric C. Thompson, National University of Singapore, Singapore

A wealth of research and scholarship exists on urbanism. One body of literature concerns transnational flows – of people, images, capital and the like – in and across “global cities.” Another takes as its object rural-to-urban migration, in the tradition of understanding “peasants in cities.” Academic division of labor and the way in which researchers have conceptualized different flows based on methodological (trans)nationalism result in these sorts of migration portrayed as strictly separate domains of human experience. Most literature would appear to assume that migration across rural-urban divides within nations and migration across nation-state borders have little or nothing in common. Based on research among migrants to Bangkok, Jakarta and Singapore, all of whom have origins in either rural Thailand or Java, this paper queries that assumption. Comparison of migrant experience clarifies not only the most obvious differences in intra-national versus inter-national migration – such as the impact of citizenship regimes – but also less obvious experiential differences, such as the sorts of social networks these differently situated migrants create. At the same time, rural-to-urban and transnational migrants are not so distinct as the literature would imply. For many if not most migrants, these two domains are collapsed into the same experience. In some cases, for migrants who travel from rural areas to foreign cities, the act of migration is simultaneously urban-to-rural and transnational. For those who move exclusively within national spaces, movement into the urban is often as well experienced as movement into the “global” and transnational.

Ideologies of Urban Planning and Local Dynamics in Hanoi and Saigon in the Interwar Years
Haejeong Hazel Hahn, Seattle University, USA

This paper examines ideologies of colonial urban planning in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the 1920s and 30s, based on archival research. While colonial authorities and planners aspired the cities to be modeled on European urbanity, there were some complex elements in the planning due to the characters of colonial cities as well as local specificities. While the planners looked towards the metropole for models rather than treating the urban spaces as “laboratories” for something truly new and modern which could then be exported back to the metropole, regional influences were also important. The indigenous parts of the cities, especially in Hanoi which had long predated the arrival of the colonizers, were conceptualized as being different. Ideas fluctuated as to whether to assimilate or differentiate indigenous portions. Cholon, the Chinese counterpart to Saigon, was also a complicating factor. Saigon and Cholon were eventually “fused” into one city, due to the local dynamics including the economic power of Cholon as well as bad management of Saigon by the municipal council. Charting evolving aspirations for planning, this paper points to locally specific elements that influenced and/or hindered such aspirations. This paper also comments on Vu Trong Phung’s novel Dumb Luck as expressing a distinctly modern sensibility regarding rapidly evolving Hanoi, a sensibility that contrasts the aspirations of the Vietnamese residents to those of the planners.

Going Solo: Cosmopolitan Leadership and Everyday Life in a City in Central Java
Tim Bunnell, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Since 2001, when Indonesia’s decentralization laws came into effect, sub-provincial kabupaten (district) and kota (city) governments have enjoyed greater regional autonomy and an increased share of total government expenditure. While this was vaunted as bringing the government ‘closer to the people’ (in an era of post-Suharto democratization) and allowing a flowering of local governmental initiative and innovation, the reality has more often been one of resource capture by local elites and of insufficient capacity. It is true that many city governments have looked globally for models of urban development – as evidenced by the popularity of so-called studi banding (comparative study tours) to supposedly exemplary cities such as Singapore. However, even in those cases where studi banding is about more than just shopping and dining, regional and global models often feed into and legitimize policies and priorities that primarily benefit a consumerist middle class. Poorer members of cities are thus either bypassed or else deliberately targeted in efforts to ‘clean up’ the city or to make it more attractive to investors and visitors. This paper represents an attempt to identify and analyze a counter-example which may itself become exemplary. The case is the city of Solo (or Surakarta) in Central Java where city mayor Joko Widodo is widely credited with having effected cosmopolitan leadership (drawing upon experiences gained from international business) with urban transformation which has benefitted the lives of a wide and diverse range of citizens.