Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Travel Writing: Tales from the South China Sea

New York Times Bestsellers

I often read books about Singapore and the region. I guess that isn’t very surprising, since I love reading, and have a real interest in the area of the world which I have made my home all of my adult life. One of my favorite reads has been Charles Allen's Tales from the South China Seas.

This book was very thoughtfully written. In it, Allen presents an edited version of oral histories about expatriate life in Southeast Asia during the period just before WWII. It is different from other books I have read on the topic, though, for two reasons.

First, the book is something of a composite story, as opposed to Allen’s own story. He has taken stories from many former expats (most of whom appear as characters in the book, of course), and compiled a composite look at the region and the life of Europeans here during that time. That alone makes the book interesting.

The second point which I appreciate about the book is perhaps more significant. It seems to me to be a book very much written in a postcolonial age, with a real sensitivity to the imperfections inherent in the colonial agenda. But at the same time, it does not come across as a sort of “penance�" in which the Great White Hunter must now apologize for his former insensitivity and demonstrate that he is truly reformed (at last!). This often seems to be the tone of other books about expatriate living during the colonial period which I have read (at least those which take postcolonial concerns seriously). Instead, Allen writes with a view of what these men and women believed they were doing at the time. It seems to me to offer a very balanced view, taking into account the feelings which have been expressed by those formerly labeled or treated as Other, but not at the expense of a sense of honesty about what the colonialists thought they were doing (however misguided one may accuse them of having been). For the most part, he points out, these men and women were not as arrogant as they have often been portrayed. Rather, they were often under the thumb of the very same powers which were ultimately responsible for the colonial mentality which has become so dispised today -- whether King or Company, or both.

It is worth the read, both for the sake of the interesting stories presented, and also for the voice in which those stories are expressed.

Shop Amazon for Charles Allen's Tales from the South China Seas

Tales from the South China Seas: Images of the British in South-East Asia in the 20th Century

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this post first appeared on my other blog here

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