Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

From Travelogues to Guidebooks: Imagining Colonial Singapore, 1819-1940

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

From Travelogues to Guidebooks: Imagining Colonial Singapore, 1819-1940

Article excerpt

People come to know about places in a variety of ways, among which the most important and highly valued is through travel. Travel experiences seldom occur in a vacuum, but, instead are filtered through preconceived images and expectations. Moreover, even though these images or travel representations may or may not be congruent with the actual experiences, they, nevertheless, give rise to a definition of the "place" as an entity with an identity, spirit, and personality internal to it self. In this paper, I examine travel representations of Singapore (18191940) produced by the two genres--travelogues and guidebooks. By doing so, I hope to show how these discourses are instrumental in the constitution of the colonial gee-body of Singapore.

The earth is in effect one world, in which empty, uninhabited spaces virtually do not exist. Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons, but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings. (Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993, p. 7)

Introduction

People come to know about places in a variety of ways, among which the most important and highly valued is through travel. Travel experiences seldom occur in a vacuum. Instead, they are filtered through preconceived images and expectations. These images or travel representations may or may not be congruent with the actual experiences. But what is interesting is that these conceptions give rise to a definition of the "place" as an entity with an identity, spirit, and personality internal to itself. By exploring travel representations of Singapore in a particular time frame (circa 1819-1940)--the high colonial era--I hope to show how these discourses are instrumental in the constitution of the colonial geo-body (1) of Singapore. My larger theoretical aim is to unravel the "historicity and complexities of location, of what constitutes a place, of how geographic and political boundaries are constructed and reconstructed" (Morgan 1996, p. 33).

This paper will focus on the discourses produced by the two genres --travelogues and guidebooks. The first part of this offers a portrait of the Singapore cultural (that is, population, culture, ethnicity) and physical (that is, urban built environment) landscape drawn from travelogues. I will highlight how these constructions do not arise out of some transcendental principles but are charted by social and economic material relations. The emergence of the first guidebook on Singapore in 1887 did not result in the displacement of the travelogue; rather it presents a significant transformation in the register in which these constructions are captured. In the second segment of this paper, I will use Berhad's (1994) insights on the discursive distinctions between travelogues and guidebooks to address these questions: How has the writing of Singapore's landscape and its hinterland changed with this transition? Do guidebooks still arrogate the representations (presented by travelogues) accrued to the British Empire? These questions are prompted by my belief that the complexities of "places" could be better demonstrated though an investigation of travel genre transitions over time.

Power, Travel Discourses, and Place

Place is a commonly used and deceptively simple term in the geographical lexicon. We often take place to mean a specific concrete setting Singapore--a state (politically defined territory) in Southeast Asia; the place "Singapore" may also refer to a particular site in time, an intersection of collective histories and personal biographies (Yeoh and Kong 1996, p. 52). Places are not natural givens, static and unchanging. They are socially constructed positions and sites within a particular time period, that is to say, places have meanings only in relation to an individual or a group's goals and concerns. …

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