The Legend of the Golden Boat: Regulation, Trade, and Traders in the Borderlands of Laos, China, Thailand and Burma

By Denes, Alexandra | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 2000 | Go to article overview

The Legend of the Golden Boat: Regulation, Trade, and Traders in the Borderlands of Laos, China, Thailand and Burma


Denes, Alexandra, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


The Legend of the Golden Boat: Regulation, Trade, and Traders in the Borderlands of Laos, China, Thailand and Burma. By Andrew Walker. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999. 232 pp.

In the economic historiography of mainland Southeast Asia, the Lao People's Democratic Republic is frequently cast as an isolated and underdeveloped frontier; a tiny, landlocked nation-state repeatedly by-passed by the progressive currents of socio-economic development due to its geo-political marginality. Andrew Walker's important and timely book, The Legend of the Golden Boat: Regulation, Trade, and Traders in the Borderlands of Laos, China, Thailand and Burma, presents a cogent challenge to the persistent stereotype of Laos' economic isolation. Offering a detailed regional history of trade in the "borderlands" of northwestern Laos which spans from the eighteenth century to the present day, The Legend of the Golden Boat reveals that this seemingly stagnant hinterland was, in fact, a dynamic commercial crossroads. Moreover, Walker argues that recent developments in trade liberalization and the regional economic integration of Laos are best understood in light of their historical precedents, in so far as historical regimes of regulation underlie and hence continue to exert considerable influence on contemporary regional trading systems.

The Legend of the Golden Boat is comprised of two main sections: historical and theoretical background (chapters 1-3), and four ethnographic case studies from "the borderlands" (chapters 4-7). In the first three chapters, Walker uses a wealth of detailed historical data on trade in the borderlands to launch an incisive critique against the prevailing trope of centre-periphery economic relations in mainland Southeast Asia. The popular centre-periphery model, derived from Wallerstein's world systems theory (1974), posited that the geographical periphery invariably exists in a subordinated, exploited, and marginalized position vis-a-vis the powerful economic centre. This inherently inequitable and extractive alliance is governed by the state bureaucratic apparatus and legitimated by religio-symbolic structures which naturalize the hierarchical system.

In both the historiography and contemporary socio-economic analyses of mainland Southeast Asia, the centre-periphery model has gained considerable currency. Tambiah's "galactic polity" (1985) describes a pre-colonial state formation wherein the divine authority of the god-king emanated from the politico-religious centre, casting light on the populations and tributary states which fell within its luminous sphere of influence. The territories beyond this sphere of influence represented zones of ambiguity and darkness inhabited largely by ethnic minority groups. Scholars of Lao history (Stuart-Fox 1997; Taillard 1989) have employed the "galactic polity" model to articulate how the pre-colonial muang, or petty chiefdom, functioned by garnering support through tribute and taxes from surrounding villages in exchange for military protection.

Walker contends that a closer examination of local histories within the periphery reveals a more complex and subtle picture of socio-economic activity than the centre-periphery model allows. Globalization theory (Appadurai 1991; Harvey 1989), with its emphasis on connectedness and flows, redresses some of the limits of the centre-periphery model. Walker draws on globalization theory to highlight how historical transborder economic relationships in northwestern Laos established a social geography of interconnectedness in the borderlands, an analysis which contrasts starkly with the dominant image of frontier marginality and economic stagnation.

A history of cross-border trade in the Upper Mekong region does not, however, imply free trade. Indeed, Walker's most salient point is that pre-colonial and colonial trading systems in northwest Laos fostered an enduring legacy of trade regulation. In keeping with Polanyi's (1944) substantivist stance on the socio-cultural embeddedness of economics, Walker maintains that trade and regulation developed concurrently, and hence a history of trade would be impossible without a corresponding record of regulation. …

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