AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 150

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Session 150: Spectacles and the Southeast Asian City

Organizer: Lawrence Chua, Hamilton College, USA

Discussant: Craig J. Reynolds, Australian National University, Australia

This panel looks at the historical development of urban and architectural spectacles with the aim of questioning their cultural and political effects in the Southeast Asian context. The built environment is explored as both the frame and subject of various forms of spectacles, and the panel seeks to consider not just the visual, but also the spatial, affective and performative dimension of such spectacles. With sites ranging from stadia to casinos to crime scenes and state funerals, the papers raise questions by moving across scales and perspectives. On the one hand, how have architectural and urban spectacles shaped conduct and subjectivities, and to what ends? On the other, how have such spectacles intersected with larger processes of urbanization, nationalism and globalization?

Politics of the pyre: Early twentieth-century Siamese funeral architecture and national identity
Lawrence Chua, Hamilton College, USA

This paper demonstrates that the architecture of the funeral spectacle in early twentieth-century Siam was a contested site for competing interpretations of political power. By examining the architecture of the public funeral pyre, or Phra Merumat, this paper shows how these spectacles broadcast the cosmological rationale for political rule as a physical reality to a nascent Thai public. In the early 20th century, both royalist and anti-royalist regimes used funeral architecture and new forms of symbolism to articulate new ideas about national identity and belonging. I look at the funeral of King Rama VI, the architect of Thai nationalism, on the royal parade ground, Sanam Luang, in the late 1920s and show how attempts to modernize the funeral spectacle and its symbols were rooted in efforts at creating a self-identified Thai public. I then examine the first use of the same site for the funeral of commoners in 1933. The new constitutional government used Sanam Luang to honor the soldiers who had died defending the constitution against a royalist rebellion. Against strong protests by the court, the state organized a grand spectacle that eschewed the royal symbolism associated with earlier funeral architecture and attempted to re-shape national identity. These case studies will demonstrate the ways that Siamese funeral architecture not only mapped out the social and spatial relations of the influential cosmological text, Traiphum Phra Ruang, in lived space, but also created a site of leisure, entertainment, and political spectacle that would unify unruly “masses” into a homogeneous political body.

What have lotteries got to do with national celebrations - Questions on the spectacles of chance in Singapore
Kah Wee Lee, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Since the 50s, the war against gambling in independent Singapore – as a moral hazard as well as a criminal activity – has been waged through direct police action and media campaigns. Petty fines, imprisonment, confiscation of property, public education and urban renewal all played their part in solidifying the line between legal and illegal gambling. But, it was also a war fought with new forms of public spectacles – the live lottery draw with its peculiar forms of transparency and opacity, excitement and discipline, spatial dispersion and concentration. At the heart of such performances lies a paradox – how can the state take over the role of its enemy without becoming what it sought to eradicate? By looking historically at live lottery draws from the 50s to the present, this paper poses preliminary questions about how such performances of chance are also in action at Singapore’s waterfront and the newly opened Marina Bay Sands casino. To avoid becoming the enemy, the casino had to look and perform unlike a casino, and become part of an urban choreography that sanitizes it through a master narrative of national progress. The architectural form and simulated images of the casino and live spectacles held at the waterfront serve as the objects of analysis. Just as the live lottery draws are carefully staged to excite the punters without encouraging or glamorizing gambling, this choreography also embraces, through the figure of the casino, a future full of risks, without diluting the state-spun mythology to guarantee prosperity in perpetuity.

Spectacles for Comparison: Urban Sport and Postcoloniality in Southeast Asia
Chee-Kien Lai, Independent Scholar, Singapore

Urban sporting spectacles pervaded architecture and urban design in the capital cities of Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, through the convening of such events as the Merdeka Games, Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, the Asian Games, and the Games of the New Emerging Forces. Expressed within the objectives of such games is the remnant discontent after respective disentanglements from prior colonial governance under different developmental and economic conditions (such as Konfrontasi between Malaysia and Indonesia and Sukarno’s attempt to create the Non-Aligned Movement). The constructed stadiums were also embodiments of ambitions that created spaces not only for imagining a collective citizenry through sport and exercise, but also for staging national spectatorship (like Independence in 1957 at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur). Among the plural citizenry of Malaya, urban sport also served emancipatory and connective purposes. The Chin Woo Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, for example, was a space for the overseas Chinese communities to connect with Chinese nationalism, and for women to change imposed societal constrictions of domesticity and modernity. The winning of the first Thomas Cup in badminton complicated readings of political “Malaya” but galvanised its very understanding of a potential Malayan “nation.” Using the stadiums of Malaysia and Indonesia, I argue that such spatial convergences and networks of spectatorship contributed to a reflexive and multivalent regionalism that backgrounded the post-war nations’ paths in Southeast Asia.

The Aesthetics of Evidence: The Spectacular Display of Crime, Science, and the City in Thailand
Samson W. Lim, Singapore University of Technology and Design, USA

Something terrible has happened in Thailand: a murder, a rape, an assault. No third party witness is present at the tragedy. To recreate the horror and implicate a guilty party, the police conduct a crime scene investigation. In the process, they carve an spectacular space out of a pedestrian one: science, law, fiction, the state and it subjects are fused through the inspection of an empty bus stop late at night, the inside of a cheap hotel room on the outskirts of town, the front of a 7-11 at the end of a narrow alley. The police’s autopsy of the urban is then made public by the press, giving Thais a window into the violent history of their cities and towns. This paper tell the history of the practice, arguing that its development and subsequent display have materially changed how the police and the public conceptualize space that is at once rational and fantastic. That is, reports, photos, and video presentations of crime scenes and their investigation and reconstruction have turned an esoteric police practice into a common, standardized trope through which Thais understand their built environment; the spaces of the city emerge through the graphic display of violence and its detection. The effect has been to link violence and the city to the public sphere in a single object of information, the crime news report.