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My Cayugan Creolizing Sojourn, by Guo-Quan Seng

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My Cayugan Creolizing Sojourn

By Guo-Quan Seng

As a recipient of the National University of Singapore Overseas Postdoctoral Fellowship, I was fortunate to have the freedom to decide where I’d like to be working on my book manuscript on the history of cultural change among Chinese settler families in Dutch colonial and Indonesian Java. I did my Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago, which has a social science history tradition and long-standing programs in South and East Asian studies, all of which benefited me immensely. But Southeast Asia, being the missing piece in my intellectual jigsaw, made Cornell’s SEAP the obvious choice.

Writing progresses in fits and starts. Having Cornell’s wonderful Indonesia collection at hand has helped to fuel productive prosaic spurts out of these occasional fits. My work has benefited in particular from the library’s Indonesia newspaper microfilms, its comprehensive collection of early independence publications, and its most up-to-date acquisition of recent works from Indonesia and the region.

Tentatively titled “Creole Crossings and Connections: Chinese Minority in Colonial and Postcolonial Indonesia,” the book on which I am working argues that Dutch colonial law shaped how the creole Chinese conducted their family and domestic matters and explores how creole Chinese and native subjects continued to make connections and crossings across these legal-religious ethnic boundaries in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Java.  

I use “creole” in its broadest sense to refer to the ethnically mixed frontier conditions in which Chinese settlers found themselves in Dutch colonial Java.[i] Deploying “creole” as an analytical concept historicizes the formation of J. S. Furnivall’s “plural society” by uncovering the lived experiences of colonial Java’s internal ethnic border-formation process.[ii] Ann Stoler has argued that Foucaultian notions of white sexuality had a racializing effect on creole households in Java from around the 1890s.[iii] By attending to Chinese indigenous interactions alongside colonial determinations, the creole framework allows for inter-Asian agency to shape Java’s and Indonesia’s social history.

For the dissertation project, I made use of a wide range of colonial and local Sino-Malay archival and ethnographic sources, researched from multiple sites in Indonesia and the Netherlands, to reconstruct transcultural and creolizing social practices surrounding ethnic Chinese families. Going through the voluminous nineteenth century Dutch Indies law reports, for instance, one theme that recurs is the Dutch juridical attempt to deny all women legal rights of representation under the European law of coverture, which subjected married women to the guardianship of their husbands. By reading colonial legal sources against the grain, I ethnographically reconstruct creole Chinese women’s agency and show that property-holding creole Chinese women continued, literally, to hold their own court until around 1900.

At Cornell, faculty and friends have helped pushed my project in new directions in our formal and everyday conversations. Professor Tamara Loos’s comments for a draft article challenged me to rethink the “transcultural” in more dynamic and precise terms. Professor Eric Tagliacozzo’s questions encouraged me to set my findings in more comparative frames. Casual conversations with Professor Kaja McGowan and Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana pointed me to seminal works that have made me reconsider some parts of my argument. Dr. Erick White is always at hand both to inject critical enthusiasm into still-born arguments and to co-ruminate about frustrating academic disciplinary boundaries.

This past semester, I have been working on a new book chapter about the post-independence assimilationist policy of encouraging name changing among the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. I was happy to find in the Kroch Asian Library collection the pro-assimilationist, ethnic-Chinese Bahasa newspaper Star Weekly, from which I reconstructed parts of the public debate over name changing.

Beyond the routine regimen of inquiry and writing, SEAP events and related classes provide structure to my life on the Cayugan hill: Gatty lectures that range from Javanese kondé hair styling symbolism to the politics of Siamese hyper-royalism, dinners with SEAP alumni who wax lyrical about their halcyon days (and nights) in the Kahin Center, biweekly Bahasa discussions about contemporary Indonesia with Ibu Jolanda and classmates, and all the gamelan-accompanied festivals at Barnes Hall. They give the otherwise long winter nights the warm feeling of community and purpose.

The nation form, Ben Anderson reminds us, has its particular way of homogenizing the imagination of “our” communities that makes it harder to see the “other” in us.[iv] I hope that my work on the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, in general, and those in Java, in particular, will show they have deeper and more intermixed histories than the way they’re often perceived in the popular imagination. The creoles in Anderson’s global theory of nationalism were, after all, the pioneer nationalists. Theory aside, my own journey back home through Ithaca has been a creolizing one, thanks very much to the SEAP community!


To read the print version of this article and other Bulletin stories, please visit: SEAP SPRING 2017 BULLETIN 

[i]           The Chinese settled in significant numbers in northern coast Javanese cities from the eighteenth century, mainly for trade. They fluctuated between 10 to 20% of Java’s major urban settlements for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. See G. William Skinner, “Creolized Chinese Societies in Southeast Asia” in Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese. Anthony Reid ed. (Honolulu: University of  Hawaii Press 1996), 51-93.

[ii]           John S. Furnivall, Netherlands India, A Study of Plural Economy (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1939).

[iii]          Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

[iv]          Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).


Guo bahasa class