Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Ethnicity and the Galactic Polity: Ideas and Actualities in the History of Bangkok

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Ethnicity and the Galactic Polity: Ideas and Actualities in the History of Bangkok

Article excerpt

Siamese melting pot: Ethnic minorities in the making of Bangkok


Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2017. Pp. 296. Illustrations, Figures, Tables, Bibliography, Index.

Edward Van Roy's Siamese melting pot: Ethnic minorities in the making of Bangkok is a tour de force and one of the most important books on the history of Bangkok and late-modern Thai history ever to be published. It is clearly written and presented, it provides excellent maps, and brings to light little-known sources and surprising facts about the history of the most iconic neighbourhoods in the city. It exposes the histories of various Muslim, Mon, Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese, European, Indian, and other communities in late Ayutthaya and Bangkok, as well as highlights various ways of seeing Bangkok as a feudal city, a vibrant port-city, or a galactic polity. Van Roy also reveals the complexities of defining ethnicity and class in Bangkok's changing neighbourhoods. In this review article I will look closely at two issues Van Roy exposes that need some theoretical and critical interrogation: the 'galactic polity/mandala', and 'ethnicity'. Then I will provide a short vignette about the Chettiar community in Bangkok and the idea of Hinduism in Bangkok history that both supports and supplements Van Roy's excellent research. I write this not to discount or criticise Van Roy's monumental achievement, but because I believe a book this important to the field deserves serious attention and engagement.

Whither the galactic polity?

Unlike most scholarly studies of urban history, Van Roy leaves the theoretical reflections and critical questions about how to think about the history of ethnic diversity, city planning, and foreign influence on the history of late modern Bangkok largely until the very end of his book. In this way, they seem less like guiding principles and more like reflections and afterthoughts. Clearly, Van Roy feels more comfortable in the wonderful world of details and curiosities than he does in the realm of theory. We, the readers, benefit from this.

His book comes off less as a didactic prescription of how to understand the history of Bangkok and more of a delightful stroll through the network of shifting neighbourhoods that make up one of the planet's great cities. I continually found myself thrilled to learn a fascinating tidbit about a street that I had walked down many times or a palace or monastery that I thought I knew well. While I have been researching the history of the Portuguese, Indian, Lao, Persian, Vietnamese, and Tamil histories of Bangkok for many years as a kind of hobby and thought I knew a lot, I was struck by the level of care Van Roy took in assembling his evidence. Even the most seasoned historian of Bangkok will learn many things from Van Roy's years of service to the field. The legendary Thai scholar Anake Nawigamune may be the only person I have read that knows the streets of old Bangkok better. The problem though with leaving theoretical reflections until the end of the book is that it is hard to determine where Van Roy stands. Should we see Bangkok as a mandala, as an ethnically diverse port-city, as the centre of a feudal monarchy, or as a melting pot? It seems that Van Roy doesn't quite know himself or, perhaps, is telling us not to settle on one definition (if this is the case, I concur) and enjoy the process of speculating and reflecting.

Regardless of how Van Roy wants us to consider Bangkok, I want to argue for what it isn't. It is not a mandala in anything but a purely symbolic idea that was abandoned early in the Chakri Dynasty. The competing terms 'mueang' (city-state), 'mandala' (galactic polity), 'theatre state', and others have been applied to cities in Asia for decades. In this short review, I cannot review all of these terms, but they are models scholars have employed to understand the ways in which royal symbolism, architectural decisions, and ethnic and class divisions have factored into the design of certain cities' historical cores--Angkor, Ayutthaya, Beijing, Bagan, Madurai, Kathmandu, and Kyoto being perhaps the best examples. …

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