“After all, the grand tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home.” – Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar
So what have I learned from this year of nostalgia and re-discovery?
I’ve learnt, for a start, that the colonial is alive and well. That it still suffuses every aspect of our daily life in Southeast Asia, and it colours our aspirations as Southeast Asians. Particularly as denizens of post-colonial capital cities – where colonialism is still not-so-distant memory, and where traces of the past, whether in the form of buildings or ways of living, are still stubbornly present, even if obscured by nationalism.
I’ve learnt that the colonial was multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious; that Singapore doesn’t have the patent on “multi-cultural,” by any means. Not when Bangkok, Saigon, Jakarta, Yangon and even tiny Vientiane can claim to be a microcosm of all Asia. The same kaleidoscopic melting pot of peoples are all over these tropical islands and peninsulas and this fusion of everything is what makes Southeast Asia and its capitals unique. Because all these capitals were centres of international trade and commerce, they also became centres of immigration and peoples – cultural entrepôts, as well as business entrepôts.
I’ve learnt that these colonial cities of Southeast Asia were all variations on the same urban model. All had the same ethnic quarters with the same mix of religious places of worship and proliferation of Chinese two-storeyed shophouses. All had the same European city centres with civic and commercial buildings, private residential villas, and Grand Hotels. There were variations of course – the Dutch built their cities big and sprawling; the French intimate and pleasant; the Spanish and Portuguese built mediaeval forts; the British and Americans erected monuments to Empire and Commerce – but on the whole, all these cities invariably answered to the same fundamental challenge: how does one re-create home away from home, in an unfamiliar clime, and with alien peoples?
What else have I learnt?
I’ve learnt more about being Southeast Asian. Part of the intent of my Grand Tour had been to plug a gap in my education in Singapore, which has considered itself an anomaly in Southeast Asia for so long now that it no longer perceives of itself as Southeast Asian. Growing up on the island, I never once felt like I knew enough about the region I was in, because I never once gave a thought to the fact I lived in this region.
I’ve learnt that Singapore is not unique in its search for a national identity.All the nations and city-states of Southeast Asia are struggling with the same dilemma of how to re-present a part of their history that they would rather forget altogether, but can’t, because it is quite simply everywhere. This crisis of identity has manifested itself in the form of often very public debates about heritage conservation and preservation. The approach undertaken has varied considerably, with cities like Jakarta and Vientiane adopting an attitude of nationalistic neglect or purposeful obliteration; while others such as the Straits Settlements cities of Singapore, Malacca and Penang seem far more reconciled with and even proud of their colonial past.
Finally, I’ve learnt more about being Singaporean, only because being Singaporean requires an understanding of where Singapore fits in within the larger global context and narrative of colonialism; how Singapore the global emporium and melting pot of cultures was not an inevitable outcome, but merely the latest in a line of similar successes – a product of centuries of trial and error in Southeast Asia. And so, leaving Penang and returning to Singapore twelve months later, I feel well and truly more Singaporean; like I’ve finally come to know this place I call home.
And so what’s next?
This survey only covered 12 cities in Southeast Asia, but admittedly there are many other important cities of note, not a few of which also have their own historic hotels: Semarang, Jogjakarta, Hue, Haiphong, Siem Reap, Luang Prabang, Hua Hin, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Iloilo, Dili, etc. The heritage of the Grand Tour of the Far East also encompasses East Asia, in particular the colonies and treaty ports of Japan and China – Yokohama, Kobe, Tientsin, Tsingtao, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macao – and the colonial cities of the Indian Subcontinent – Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Goa, Colombo, Lahore.
It is my hope that enough interest is sustained by my effort to document and preserve the colonial past, such that I may embark on subsequent installments of the Grand Tour in Southeast Asia or much farther afield.
Hong Kong, here I come. I hope.
Kennie Ting, 30th June, Singapore