The Tropical City as Diseased: Races, Migrants and Subalterns in Southeast Asia

Country: Singapore

City: Singapore

Abstr. due: 31.05.2017

Dates: 06.09.17 — 09.09.17

Area Of Sciences: History and archeology;

Organizing comittee e-mail:

Organizers: University of Malaya


This session considers an influential trope on Southeast Asian cities: colonial imaginaries of the backward, insanitary and disorderly urban dwellers – sometimes the natives but more frequently the immigrants. These imaginaries were to shape not only Western understandings of tropical disease and the emerging field of tropical medicine in the 19th century. They also profoundly influenced both the colonial regimes’ perspectives of the unruly nature of the populations they governed – who had to be tamed into classifiable races – and the dark, wild and dangerous spaces of Southeast Asia’s primate cities – whose proliferation had to be stopped and reversed. Ultimately the imaginaries would define the identity and role of the ruling regimes in the region, most impactfully in relation to their civilising projects and missions in the early 20th century. At the same time, colonial attempts to govern and transform polluted minds and bodies were fraught and difficult, partly being contradictory and under-resourced, and also often frustrated by tactics of evasion and passive resistance from the urban subalterns. Above all, Southeast Asia’s socio-cultural diversity and its openness to trade and migrants also introduced or sustained countervailing ideas about health, disease and treatment, which in complex ways interacted with, subverted or even amalgamated with those of Western biomedicine.

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