Having initially brought a proposal of travellers in South-East Asian port cities to the table for discussion at the unconference, I was able to test different approaches, and experiment with prospective angles in this free-flowing space. The discussions I had, together with questions I posed to myself after the event, led me down quite a different path from the start of the day. Through reading parts of Tim Harper and Sunil Amrith’s new edited collection, Sites of Asian interaction (2014), I became fascinated by this notion of the ‘Asian Underground’.
This underworld, outside of the traditional confines of ‘empire studies’, represented a semi-colonial periphery with no clear boundaries. The seamless migration from city to city, and rural to urban, meant that people were constantly reinventing themselves. These were shared sites where people met, shared their own experiences, living beyond notions of ethnicity or national character. Thinkers ‘saw a vision of free Asia’. As anti-imperialists began to move across the interstices of empire, they became specialists of this underworld and shared skills. Worldliness was a set of tools that people could take from city to city as they moved ‘through this urban continuum’. This world has rarely been studied, but what is striking is the mix of eclecticism, independence, and anti nationalism.
Reading about this ‘Asian Underground’ only left me with more questions. How did anti-colonial ideas flow in South and Southeast Asia? More importantly, how connected were these ‘radical networks’? And in what ways? Why do these connections matter? How ‘flat’ were the borders between colonial empires?
With these questions in mind, I chanced upon the incident of the Komagata Maru, a Japanese owned steamship, chartered by ‘Punjabi Sikhs’ from Indian communities right across the China seaboard, setting sail from Hong Kong to Vancouver, via Japan. The intention of this voyage in 1914 was to highlight the exclusionary laws in Canada and the United States. The ship was not permitted to dock in Vancouver, and was turned back, eventually terminating at Calcutta. The incident became something of a cause célèbre for the Ghadar Party in India, but also for wider anti-colonial, pan-Asian movements in general. It is often cited as a catalyst for the Singapore Mutiny in 1915, an event in itself that Japanese historian, Sho Kuwajima, has argued was ‘a turning point of [the] Modern History of Asia’.
With Tim Harper having established how far radical networks needed others to connect with each other, I would like to launch an investigation into the connections, ideas, and movements of some of these ‘pan-Asianist’ figures. The opportunity to chart webs of interconnection, as well as maps to trace itineraries is a particularly interesting one. The use of the term ‘pan-Asianist’ is obviously problematic, because it meant different things to different people, but as an anticolonial term, one should consider its use to be ascribed to thinkers who sought a post-colonial vision outside of the confines of the nation-state paradigm.
There are, no doubt, many challenges to face, particularly the question of primary sources. However, I believe this project will be hugely valuable as we reassess questions of anti-colonial movements and connections in twentieth century Asia, as well scrutinising the notion of imperial ‘control’ and ‘spheres of influence’.
See: Tim Harper & Sunil Amrith (ed.) Sites of Asian interaction (2014)