AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 535

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Session 535: Sexual Modernities in Southeast Asia: Autoethnography, (Auto)Colonialism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Gothic

Organizer: Ben V. Tran, Vanderbilt University, USA

Chair: Jack A. Yeager, Louisiana State University, USA

Discussant: Jack A. Yeager, Louisiana State University, USA

This panel focuses on gender and sexuality in order to examine colonial modernity in Southeast Asia. Collectively, the papers illustrate how modernizing discourses were translated, subverted, and reinvented through gender and sexuality. Working with a range of twentieth-century cultural texts, the presentations address the negotiation between Southeast Asian sexual and gendered identities and concepts of European modernization. They investigate the ways in which these nuanced negotiations were mediated by the political discourses of different colonial forms present in twentieth-century Southeast Asia: colonialism, postcolonialism, auto-colonialism, and neo-colonialism. Individually, the papers draw on texts from Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, while considering various cultural forms, including ethnography, novels, short stories, film, and visual art. Tony Day explores the translation of foreign models of gender identity across different cultural ideologies and media--from Soviet socialist realism to Indonesian Islamic film. Focusing on Thai economic development during the Cold War period, Janit Feangfu looks at the construction of Thai masculinity through the sexualization of foreign women and the criminalization of Thai women. Rachel Harrison considers the influence of Victorian underground pornography, specifically fantasies of necrophilia, on early twentieth-century Thai novels. Ben Tran elaborates upon the autoethnography of Vietnamese interwar reportage that challenged constructs of gender and sexuality buttressed by French colonialism. Together these papers represent new scholarship on the relationships between gender and modernization, offering new perspectives in the fields of Southeast Asian Studies and postcolonial studies.

Sexualising Foreign Bodies, Criminalising Local Bodies: the Negotiation of Modern Gender Identities in 1970s Thai Semi-fiction
Janit Feangfu, Independent Scholar, Thailand

Through reference to four, semi-fictional Thai short stories from the 1972 collection Kai-phi Bangkok chut 1 (Bangkok Tour Guide Collection 1) by Ta Tha-it, this paper explores the negotiation of gender identities through the lens of Western tourism to Thailand. It examines the sexualisation of the foreign/farang (female) body and the concomitant discrimination against the local (female) body, as narrated by a (male) tour guide The entire series was composed against the backdrop of a Thailand in the flux of rapid socio-economic and cultural change, effected under the dual rubrics of ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’ with support from the US government during the Cold War era. The popularity of Kai phi Bangkok lay in its depiction of farang experiences in Thailand, interspersed with Thai historical tales, occasional lessons in English, anecdotes about farang clients, and exciting encounters between the handsome young guide and Western women. The guide/narrator is placed in the ambiguous position of a sightseeing service provider and a sexual opportunist, revealing the complexity of inter-cultural relationships and of power negotiations between the Thai and the Westerner/the foreign and the local within the framework of gender and sexuality. As the guide attempts to negotiate his Thai masculinity vis-à-vis the sexualised bodies of stereotypical Western femininity (as ‘loose woman’), he further defines and idealises an opposing Thai femininity, albeit at the expense of criminalising the Thai women engaged in the “darker” side of tourism and its sexual services.

“Bangkok Gothic”: Colonialism, Adventure and the Erotic in Khru Liam’s Modern Siamese Novel Nang Neramit (‘Divine Nymphs’, 1916)
Rachel V. Harrison, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

The publication of Nang Neramit (‘Divine Nymphs’) in 1916 appealed to the dominant literary tastes of its day by setting its action in ‘darkest Africa’, without reference to Thai characters, locations or social problems and by referring only to Western heroes and heroines alongside their native servants. The novel appears to have been a Thai literary response to Rider Haggard’s She, which Khru Liam himself translated/adapted between 1901 and 1904. Yet while translations of She have remained readily available in Thailand, ‘Divine Nymphs’ has only recently come to light. Building on the recent, extensive work of Thak Chaloemtiarana, this paper explores the influence of late Victorian fiction on the evolution of the early Thai novel, with particular reference to the relationship between Khru Liam’s work and that of Haggard. Focusing on the erotic interludes incorporated into ‘Divine Nymphs’, the paper explores the role of these episodes, likening them to the bot atsajan tradition of classical Siamese literature. It speculates on the extent to which the fantasies of necrophilia - the objectification of women as embalmed corpses revivified in religious ritual for the purposes of male sexual pleasure – owe their inspiration to Victorian underground pornography, to which Khru Liam may have had access while studying in London at the close of the nineteenth century; or whether such scenes are entirely local accretions that speak to a complex engagement with - and rejection of - a rampant and irreligious sexuality associated with the simultaneous allure of European modernity.

Gorky, Hollywood, Yogyakarta: Inventing Indonesian “Men” and “Women” in the 1950s.
Tony Day, Yale-NUS College, Singapore

In this paper I want to return to a number of underdeveloped themes on gender identity, translation, and cosmopolitanism in my recent work and think more about them in relation to Indonesia’s modern art movement. As recent and forthcoming studies are demonstrating, the 1950s were an extraordinary time of cultural development in Indonesia, in which writers, filmmakers, and painters explored possible “Indonesian” identities in their work, drawing on foreign as well as indigenous sources of inspiration in an atmosphere of freewheeling political debate. In my essay I want to compare the leftist Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s translation of Maxim Gorky’s famous socialist realist novel Mother, which he published in 1956, to the right-wing, Islamic filmmaker Usmar Ismail’s prize-winning political satire Tamu Agung (‘Honored Guest’, 1955), which was based on the 1949 Hollywood rendition of Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General, starring Danny Kaye, to modernist paintings by the Yogyakarta artists Sudjojono, Affandi, and Hendra. I want to understand how foreign models of modern gender identity were translated into various cultural settings in newly independent Indonesia, how those models were transformed during the translation process, how the nature of translation differed from one medium to the next, and how different expressive media, in this case literature, film, and painting, influenced one another at a time when many of the same people, including the artists mentioned here, were reading the same literature, going to the same movies, and visiting the same exhibitions by the leading artists of the day.

The Autoethnography of Sex in Colonial Vietnam
Ben V. Tran, Vanderbilt University, USA

This paper examines the practice of autoethnography in Vietnamese reportage works from the 1930s. During this period, Vietnamese writers employed ethnographic techniques and observed commercial sex and interracial marriages as a strategy to expose French colonialists' reification of racial hierarchies through gender and sexuality. This presentation will focus specifically on the participant-observer narrators in Tam Lang’s Toi keo xe [I Pull a Rickshaw] and Dem Song Huong [A Night on the Perfume River], as well as Vu Trong Phung’s Ky nghe lay Tay [The Industry of Marrying Westerners]. I argue that this indigenous practice of autoethnography does not reverse the power dynamics between the colonizer and the colonized, but rather shifts the differential authority to the uneven relationship between modern Vietnam's male writers and female subjects. This essay probes the causes and implications of the male autoethnographic gaze in Vietnam's burgeoning, modern literary field.