Dyaks and Peacocks

Wallace describes the Dyaks as people of higher morality, intelligence compared to the other Malayan races. He assumes a moral and intellectual high ground by putting himself in the position of a judge. He sees himself and the white man is superior and capable of judging and ranking other races. Yet, while he takes the moral high ground, he fails to realize his own hypocrisy. He equates the Dyak’s participation in head-hunting as something “which no more implies a bad moral character than did the custom of the slave-trade a hundred years ago imply a general morality in all who participated in it” (68). Here, he excused all (in the west) who participated in the slave trade, absolving them of any individual fault. Yet, Wallace condemns the Malay traders for oppressing the Dyaks through slavery (71). Wallace’s own moral judgement is prejudiced, revealing his hypocrisy.

It seems to be that despite the praises that Wallace plies on the Dyaks, he does not really regard them as fellow men. They perhaps comes closest to being a human being, but still closer to a savage. Perhaps, to Wallace, the Dyak and the various Malayan races to him are no more than a specimen of birds/insects etc which he so assiduously collects information on. Just like how he praises the peacock to the most superior of all birds, the Dyaks in this case becomes the most superior of its specimen (the Malayan races). I do not think it is far fetched to argue that Wallace see the Dyaks and the various Malayan races as ‘specimens’. In his description of his journey out of Buitenzorg, he writes, “I had coolies to carry my baggage and a horse for myself, both to be changed after every six or seven miles.” In a single line, he puts coolies and horses in the same category. Animals, coolies, birds and Dyaks all belong to one same category of inferior beings to Wallace!

Bloody Racists.

I have to admit that when I read the introduction to Wallace’s essay on the Dyaks, I was thoroughly disgusted by the sheer presumptuousness of the man. Wallace systematically and unabashedly relegates the natives to savages in his chapter on Borneo, comparing the Dyaks with Malays and Chinese, and trying to rank them in order of superiority. He enters Borneo and Java with the intention of searching for a potential new commodity that he could exploit, and repeatedly quantifies nature.

I don’t know why I’m so indignant, this is not something we haven’t seen before. Wallace is the quintessential colonist with a typical imperialist mindset.

Wallace has absolutely no idea that he is being derogatory, and here I am reminded of Edward Said and his statement that all western texts are inherently racist. Certainly, to the Victorian civilian in England, Wallace may seem to be providing an impartial account of his experiences in Borneo and Java. I can see that Wallace did not write this text with the intent of belittling the natives,  but I do feel that no matter how hard the colonizers strive to appear objective (as Wallace is so nobly trying to achieve in “The Malay Archipelago”), by the mere virtue of their race and the time period in which these writers lived, the zeitgeist inadvertently trickles down to their writing and reveals their latent imperial mindsets.

In all fairness, I may also be guilty of occidentalism, where we automatically single out the western in the text and vilify them. By pointing my finger at them, there are also three more fingers pointing back at myself. Perhaps, as a former colony, we are particularly sensitive to the portrayal our own, and have become trained to read colonialism into all the texts that we study, be it overtly racist or not.

Rainbows and butterflies

There was an article I read in National Geographic on Alfred Russell Wallace published in December 2008. It’s still available online at the National Geographic website. The article describes, amongst other things, how his letter to Darwin sparked Darwin into publishing On The Origin Of Species, a little of his personality, and his methods as a naturalist for commercial and scientific purposes. Just like Stein (or possibly the current of similarity flows the other way round), Wallace collected butterflies and other species of insects. Wallace also had to sell his collections to museums in England to fund his trips around South-east Asia.

Now that I’ve used up a hundred words rambling about Wallace in order to mask my inability to contribute a meaningful post, I would like to say that in reading Wallace’s records about the Dyaks and the region, it is obvious to us that there is that sense of wonder and excitement that exudes from his writing. Yes, Wallace does exoticise us regular folks in the East and we could read some form of colonialism implicit in his writing, but in his defence, is it not natural for people when they come across something that astounds and awes them to embellish accounts and/or come up with speculations? Conrad may have been influenced by Wallace’s descriptions of the region when writing Lord Jim, but excitement and exuberance are replaced with a nagging sense of foreboding in Conrad’s texts.

Darwin never consulted Wallace when he announced their discovery to the Linnean Society, and read his papers along with Wallace’s. Wallace was pleased and flattered, but still preferred enduring the wet weathers, fevers and hardships in the region rather than returning to receive academic praise. How cool is that?

exoticism… can we ever escape it?

To add on to Russell’s observations about Conrad’s portrayal of natives, I do feel that it is difficult to escape this whole exoticization of the Orient and its people. One way of identifying oneself is in opposition to the other. So Conrad and Wallace define the native figure using the white, european male as the standard. thus the dyaks are described as shorter than europeans, their behavior favourable because they treat the europeans well etc. So in that sense, Wallace and Conrad are using their own ways of western knowledge to conceive the Other and construct the Other for us. And it is through these observations of their physical characteristics that meaning is later ascribe and judgement passed on their moral character and mental capacity. And it is through this process that myths such as that of the lazy native, the sensual native woman etc. come about and actually stick and these labels are hard to shrug off.

I mean, even in movies today, this exoticism of the native figure from long ago comes into play eg. Pirates of the Caribbean and its portrayal of Singapore as this dangerous, pirate-filled, opium-consuming place and how Sao feng is a brutal, cunning Chinese pirate (affirming Wallace’s observation that Chinese are untrustworthy) as well as in popular fiction like Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club where Chinese-ness is defined by eating dumpling, single eyelids, playing mahjong and well, myths of Chang-e (how apt since mid autumn festival is right around the corner). In many ways, popular media is perpetuating this notion of the exotic East and the scary thing is that these movies and books later become the top grossing film or best seller at the bookstore. So we as consumers are complicit in this system. How often are we attracted to book covers featuring a sensual woman with a flower in her hair eg. Tash Aw’s Harmony Silk Factory? Well i for one stop to take a second look. So can we ever break free from this constraints of exoticism that is commodifying our asian culture and objectifying its people? I sure hope we do.

Conrad in Singapore?

I was in the vicinity of Fullerton Hotel last weekend, trying to find my way amidst the flurry of road blocks and road closures when I chanced upon a Joseph Conrad plaque just outside Fullerton Hotel! Yes, imagine my surprise! Why in the world do we have a plaque of Conrad here in Singapore?

Apparently, the plaque was erected as one of national heritage board’s (NHB) heritage trails, and begins with the following words: “Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski, a Pole by birth, British Master Mariner and a great English writer who made Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world.” To read the rest of it, please go here: http://heritagetrails.sg/content/516/Joseph_Conrad_Plaque.html

It got me thinking—even if Conrad did make “Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world”—what kind of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known to the world? Looking at how Lord Jim draws on and repeats ideological constructions of Southeast Asian natives, to say that a less than flattering impression of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known would surely be an understatement. Here we have a description of immigrants from Celebes: “the men of that race are intelligent, enterprising, revengeful, but with a more frank courage than the other Malays, and restless under oppression” (Conrad 196). Compare this with Wallace’s desire “to rank the Dyaks above the Malays in mental capacity, while in moral characters they are undoubtedly superior” (Wallace 68). Keeping in mind that Conrad’s information on Southeast Asia was drawn from many sources, including Wallace, Brooke and McNair, surely Conrad is perpetuating the inherent ethnocentrism present in these sources? The ideological effects of enabling such racial generalisations are extreme! I wonder if NHB considered this before erecting the Conrad plaque in recognition of his putting Singapore and Southeast Asia on the world map.