LKCRF Presentation at National Library of Singapore

I haven’t been posting much because life is short, but you can catch me in June in pixilated person when I share my research findings as part of my Lee Kong Chian Research Fellowship at the National Library of Singapore. As the press for the talk explains:

“From roadside shrines to sacred graves, Singapore once abounded with keramat. As post-independence development spread across the island, many of these sites were destroyed, their stories and history poorly recorded. Using site-specific research methodologies, this research project has analyzed the archival traces of extant and vanished keramat to build an archival catalog with entries for each one. The complete catalog contains close to 1,000 pages of textual, cartographic and photographic records for more than 50 keramat, as well as appendices for special topics such as kubor panjang (long graves), police station shrines and keramat families. The study paves the way for a wide analysis of the keramat phenomenon, revealing ethnohistoric patterns that otherwise remain obscure.

In this sharing session, Dr Gibson will discuss the research methodology he used to build the catalog, and use examples from his research to explain the outcomes of this methodology.”

Register at the link below…but be warned…my research is so hot, your brain will melt and run out your ears!

Dr Phil Video Featuring Moi

I was very pleased to go for a short trek around Lower Pierce Reservoir in Singapore with my long-time friend Phil Towndrow and to participate in his on-going video blog project.

Check that out here:

This was totally extemporaneous so some of my explanations are a bit garbled. Here’s some more info:

The white guy who had a planation nearby was none other than John Turnbull Thomson, and he did indeed build a bridge or at least improve an existing bridge.

There were actually numerous bridges in the area and they may hold they clue to the name Ang Mo Kio…however, the colonial district name of Amokiah appears on maps in the early 1840s and thus predates Thomson’s planation.

Here’s one from 1842 from National Archives of Singapore:

The official National Heritage Board trail guide for AMK, written a decade ago by the excellent researcher and writer (and my friend) Tan Chui Hua, has this to say:

So, like, next time I go on a walk with Phil, maybe I should script it a bit first!

Siam Society Raquez Talk on Youtube

If you missed my talk for the Siam Society on Alfred Raquez’s visit to Bangkok for King Chulalongkorn’s jubilee in 1903, you can catch the recording on the Society’s Youtube page here:

In 1903, French journalist and explorer Alfred Raquez visited Bangkok to cover the jubilee of King Chulalongkorn for the Hanoi-based newspaper L’Avenir du Tonkin, leaving one of the most detailed accounts of the pageantry of the celebrations, which has unfortunately been all but forgotten. However vivid his descriptions, they must also be read against the background of French-Siamese political tensions of the time, tensions that continue to have an impact on Thailand’s relations with its neighbors of former Indochina. This presentation will discuss Raquez’s coverage of King Chulalongkorn’s jubilee as 1) a historical artifact of French colonial posturing at the fin-de-siècle; 2) a descriptive travelogue that offers a vivid portrait of the event; 3) a source for traces of biographical information about the elusive Raquez himself.

Siam Society Talk on Raquez in Bangkok

My talk at the Siam Society on Alfred Raquez’s 1903 trip to Bangkok is next week. Unlike Raquez, due to pandemic travel restrictions, I will not be in Bangkok but broadcasting from my dining table in Singapore…so you can tune in too on the Society’s Facebook Live and YouTube Live pages, streams, sites, whatever…links in the link above!

See you there!

In 1903, French journalist and explorer Alfred Raquez visited Bangkok to cover the jubilee of King Chulalongkorn for the Hanoi-based newspaper L’Avenir du Tonkin, leaving one of the most detailed accounts of the pageantry of the celebrations, which has unfortunately been all but forgotten. However vivid his descriptions, they must also be read against the background of French-Siamese political tensions of the time, tensions that continue to have an impact on Thailand’s relations with its neighbors of former Indochina. This presentation will discuss Raquez’s coverage of King Chulalongkorn’s jubilee as 1) a historical artifact of French colonial posturing at the fin-de-siècle; 2) a descriptive travelogue that offers a vivid portrait of the event; 3) a source for traces of biographical information about the elusive Raquez himself.

German Girl in BiblioAsia

My most recent article for BiblioAsia investigates the German Girl shrine on Pulau Ubin, a space-shipped shaped island just off the coast near Singapore’s Changi airport. Its a fascinating story and you can read it here:

This article is the second in my site-specific studies in Singapore. The first, also published in BiblioAsia, focused on Karikal Mahal. Read that here:

I am now working on a study of keramat in Singapore as part of a Lee Kong Chian Research Fellowship from NLB. This will be followed by work on the intersection of zoos, films, and exotic/erotica in the region. All of this work is planned as a book that presents an alternate history of Singapore…sometime in the next few years (check out my most recent book here:

There were some images for the German Girl shrine we did not include in the published article. Check those out here:

This map from 1923 shows the Wee Cheng Soon Quarry operation at the 190-foot-tall Ong Lye Sua, now Ketam Quarry. This is where the original shrine was located before being moved in the 1970s. Note that the 190 foot peak would have been a navigation mark for the dangerous shallows around the nearly flat Pulau Ketam. In this map, Bukit Puaka is unnamed but sits across the Sungei Puaka estuary, home to the Topham Jones & Railton Quarry.

This aerial photograph shows the extend of the quarrying works at Ong Lye Sua in 1969. Within a few years, the hillside by the shore would be completely levelled. The original shrine is somewhere in this photograph…but where? A bend in the Sungei Puaka can be seen at bottom left.

Here are some images of the shrine itself:

[“Foreign Girl Becomes a ‘Datuk Girl’”], Xin Ming Ri Bao, 29 December 1987, 4.

The “Man in the Hat” (and my friend) Julian Davison walks away from the shrine in these still images from a 2004 episode of the TV show Site and Sound. “The Last Wild Place to Change Its Face.” Site and Sound with Julian Davison S02 E12.

The shrine in 2007 from (the pages needs updating now that my research is published). This is how it looked when I first encountered it in 2006.

As I explain in my article, it underwent a complete renovation in 2015.

Here are some early photos of the altar, for those who are curious about the urn. The first is the oldest known image, [“Strangely Wondrous Temple”], Lianhe Wanbao, 14 July 1990, 2. Note the perfume and cosmetics left as offerings.

Ten years later, this still image from Ho Choon Hiong’s documentary film shows the same urn in place.

And here’s Julian leaning on the altar in 2004. Note the lottery number taped to the altar.

And the urn as it appears today, between the “haunted Barbie” and the new icon. A note on the doll…there are numerous photos of it online and it clearly has been changed regularly. I haven’t collected and collated all those images…you give it try…its fun!

This large termite mound can be found in the scrub just behind the shrine. As I explain in my article, the so called German Girl most likely began as a datuk kong (earth spirit) shrine, a termite mound that was in the shape of a woman laying down.

BUT for those of you who want to hang onto the German Girl story, there is a provocative name associated with the rubber plantation that replaced the coffee plantation. This information is not included in the BiblioAsia article. It’s only for the brave few who found my sad little blog.

The Singapore and Straits Directory for the year 1913 lists an assistant on the Pulo Obin Estate with the Dutch name of “A. Milkuizen,” and it is possible this man was present on the island for part of the following year, as his name appears as “Milkhuisen” in The Directory & Chronicle for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits Settlements, Malay states, Siam, Netherlands India, Borneo, the Philippines, &c. for 1914, the year of the war (though the later date could be explained by the publishing schedule in Hong Kong).

Nothing more is known about this man. Could his daughter be the origin of the sweet Dutch-German girl villagers remembered years later? The mystery won’t die!!!

There’s much more to the story that I investigated that did not make it into the BiblioAsia article. The presence of Tamil workers on the coffee planation, and later Bawanese workers on the rubber planation, multiple misidentifications of the names of the owners and managers of the plantation by bloggers and even NParks, a broader discussion of the quarrying operations on Ubin and the transformation of the island into a nature reserve (at one point in the 1990s there was a plan for an HDB New Town on the western end, complete with MRT stations!)…there wasn’t space for all this in the magazine article but it will appear in some form at a later date. Stay tuned!!

Yours truly keeping good with the spirit (photo by Hikari D. Azyure).

The Future of AI is a Mundane Hellscape (from which none of us will escape)

So here’s a fun one. Many years ago, I started a YouTube channel to which I mostly uploaded videos of audio of my vinyl record collection and very occasionally personal projects. I haven’t uploaded anything in years and frankly forgot about it except that every so often someone will comment on a video—”Wow! Thanks, been looking for this!”—which would be emailed to my Google email. In case you don’t know, Google owns Youtube.

About a week ago, I got an email from something called Google AdSense that said they did an internal audit and owe me money. Wary of a scam, I Googled this and figured out that this was a monetization program for Google Youtube…so, not a scam. Turns out, that after about a decade, my Youtube channel had generated revenue and Google wanted to pay me.

The amount is not huge, but also not insignificant: about SG$400, or around US$350. Certainly, worth logging in to retrieve, which I did. Turns out I needed a PIN and Google snail-mailed me a new PIN since I didn’t have the old one. So far, so Google.

I logged in with the PIN then was asked to add my bank details…and now the fun started.

When I hit SAVE an error message popped up that read: “We couldn’t complete this action. Contact us. Learn more. [OR-BAIH-10]. Dismiss.”

The “Learn More” was a hyperlink that takes me to…Google Pay, Google’s money transfer service. Nice fella on their Live Chat function told me he couldn’t help with AdSense issues and sent me a link to the AdSense Help Center.

Despite the injunction in the pop-up error message, I quickly realized that there is literally no way to contact AdSense. No email. No phone. Instead, “Help” is provided by a “community forum.”

Multiple posts to this “community” either garnered no response or useless responses. I noted that people (are they?) who replied to my posts were awarded status levels based on precious metals: gold, silver, bronze, etc. In other words, getting “help” from Google is akin to participating in the Olympics. It’s a global sport in which the spectators are also the athletes. If the warrant underlying that system doesn’t scare you, it should.

A few days later, Google emailed again, via a “noreply” address, to remind me to “take action” so they can pay me. I went through all the steps again…and again had the same result.

I assume that if I can’t figure out the magic formula to unlock Error OR-BAIH-10, Google eventually will consider me either dead or uninterested and will simply absorb the funds it owes me back into its moist money maw.

Searching further for some sort of contact, I found a webpage that said Google AdSense used to have Managers for Accounts, but now uses AI to manage…I guess, everything? Do I get a silver medal for discovering this?

To underscore the situation, mega-corp Google has entered into a financial arrangement with me in which we both profit by advertisements appearing on A/V content that (for the most part) neither of us originated. As due course of this financial arrangement, Google refuses to provide any method to contact them when they owe me money.

Apparently, this is both legal and desirable. The future of frustration. The bold new world AI is going to provide to us peons who are silly enough to trust it.

So…the action I will take is to leave this account open until either I’m paid or Google steals the funds we created together out of a dubious copyright arrangement. Then I will delete my YouTube channel and all other relations I have with the Google ecosystem. That will be difficult since Google has, in many ways, simply become the public space of the Internet. But it’s a step I will take, at least to the greatest extent possible…hopefully after they pay me the four hundred bucks!

Alfred Raquez biography is now here!

My biography of Alfred Raquez is now available from Routledge. Get your copy here:

A Study of an Enigmatic Travel Writer and His Work in Colonial Asia during the fin de siècle.

In 1898, a man calling himself Alfred Raquez appeared in Indochina claiming to be a writer travelling the world to escape unfathomable sorrows back home in France. He published thousands of pages of highly detailed travel accounts that open a unique window onto the European presence in the Far East. He travelled far into the Zomia of upland Southeast Asia, a peripheral zone populated by people who lived beyond official state power. Raquez explored the nightlife of Shanghai and operated a popular cabaret in Hanoi. An amateur anthropologist, he helped mount expositions of colonial material in Hanoi and Marseille. Raquez met people in the highest circles of belle époque Indochina, as well as the kings of Annam, Cambodia, Laos and Siam. And yet, despite the charm and the ebullience and the erudition, through all his travels and rising fame, the man kept a secret that was so mortifying that even his closest companions would not learn of it until after his death in 1907. In truth, Alfred Raquez did not exist.

A fascinating read for students and scholars of colonial Southeast Asia, and European colonialism more broadly.

Table of Contents

1. Mitchell-Innes and Orts – Who is M. Raquez? – Batavia – King Norodom and Master Léopold – A Water-borne Mirage – Doctor of Law – Slow Boat to China 

2. In the Land of Pagodas – Exote Flâneur Punk – The Paris of the Orient – General Chen Jitong – Not a single li is level – The Sounds of Guiyang –Vérascope Richard – Mayflies 

3. Sugar Stick – Bird or Mouse? – Governor General Doumer – Endangered Species – Liquor and Opium – I always carry a khene in my luggage – Good Enough to Eat – Muang Sing – Soul-piercing Desolation – Le Comptoir Laotien 

4. Le Petit Lac – F. H. Schneider – Laotian Pages – Mysterious Angkor – L’exposition de Hanoi –Human Zoos – Adventures with the Press Corps – Governor General Beau – War with Challaye 

5. Famine in Guangxi, Railroads in Guangzhou – Norodom’s Last Bon Om Touk – Salome in Singapore – Chulalongkorn’s Jubilee – Sel Hybat – Is the Emperor Mad? – Even the dead are partying – Farewell to the King of the Khmers – Typhoon 

6. Adieu, Hanoi – The Conquest of Hearts – Instructions pour les voyageurs – Postcards and Singing Ghosts – What Day is This? – Sisavang Vong’s Dancing Rats – Everyone wanted to see the King’s funeral pyre 

7. Home Again – The Colonial Exposition of 1906 – Pigeon Coop – La plus gracieuse des Ballerines laotiennes –Sisowath’s Royal Troupe – Avant Garde Exoticism – The Christopher Columbus of Laos – Naturhistorisches Museum Wien 

8. Black Pox or Death by Valentine? – Eulogies and Monuments – L’affaire Gervais – Loose Ends – The Unknowable – Fading Traces – The Repressed Returns 

9. Longing for the Past

Grab the complete collection!

Both translations of Raquez’s travel books are available from NIAS Press:

Alfred Raquez and the French Experience of the Far East, 1898-1906

Some nice comments about my forthcoming biography of Alfred Raquez from the good folks over at Asian Books Blog!

Mission Raquez Final Dispatch

Don’t miss the thrilling conclusion to Alfred Raquez’s adventure through Laos in 1905 in the final dispatch posted to our Mission Raquez blogsite!

Interview in The Serangoon Times

I’m very pleased to have been invited to interview in The Serangoon Times, an independent magazine that serves the Tamil community in Singapore, about my recent work on Karikal Mahal [read more about that here.]

The interview is in Tamil, a language I don’t speak, so I’ve cut and pasted the original English interview as text below the pages.

Dr. William L. Gibson Interview – The Serangoon Times
 1.       Could you briefly share with us about your education, profession and research interests?
My PhD is in literature, which I earned at the University of Leeds in the UK. I have taught courses in literature and media studies at universities and private colleges in New York, Singapore and Jakarta. My current research interests are in the historical representations of the Exotic in Southeast Asia.
2.       How did your research interests turn towards Southeast Asia?
I first moved to Singapore in 2005 and became very interested in local history and culture as well as the intersections between these and the colonial representation of them. I have recently published two critical translations of the travel narratives of the French journalist Alfred Raquez and my biography of Raquez is forthcoming from Routledge this spring. After living in Indonesia for many years, my family has returned to Singapore and I’m focusing my research closer to home.
3.       You have published a trilogy historical fiction set in 19th century Singapore, namely Singapore Black, Singapore Yellow and Singapore Red. In about 1000 pages combined, what was the ratio between history and fiction? What was your motivation to set the plot particularly in that period?
I did a lot of historical research into the time period of the books, the 1890s, so almost all the factual information in the books is accurate and true to life (though I did make a couple of mistakes I’ll correct if there are any reprints). The 1890s is an intriguing time because it is modern enough that we recognize it as something like our own lives, but it was also long ago and the world has changed in many ways. I try to capture that tension in my novels.
4.       Your recent publication in BibilioAsia entitled ‘Karikal Mahal: The Lost Palace of a Fallen Cattle King’ attracted my attention. Who is this Cattle King Moona Kader Sultan?
As I explain the article, Moona Kader Sultan came to Singapore from Karikal, part of so-called “French India” in modern Tamil Nadu, toward the end of 19th century when he was a young man. By the First World War, he had established himself as the “Cattle King” of Singapore, the biggest importer of livestock in the colony. The livestock trade had been dominated by Tamil Muslims for many years, and Moona Kader Sutlan managed to work his way to the top. But the royal title was short-lived. By the 1930s, his business empire had collapsed and he passed away an old man back in Karikal. It’s a fascinating story and yet there is still much to be learned. I am currently researching his life more closely to see what I can discover.
5.       Do we know how – in the midst of established Tamil Muslims in late 19th century – a teenage Kader Sultan eventually figured his way up to become Cattle King?
There are not many details in the public record from this period of his life, so it is a bit of a mystery.
6.       Kader Sultan’s glorious rise and steep fall has happened in the two decades of interwar period in Singapore. Is this coincidental or the choice of his cattle business led his way?
There were several factors, including the stock market collapse in 1927 as well as differences in the way business was conducted more generally. The older business models were changing and Moona Kader Sultan was growing old and couldn’t keep up with the new “business landscape,” as we say today.
7.       We understand that you are continuing further research about ‘Karikal Mahal’. What is so unique about ‘Karikal Mahal’?

Good question. The houses present a fascinating reflection of Singapore’s history. From the time before MKS acquired and developed the land in the late 1910s up to the present day, the site is a microcosm of the changes Singapore has undergone throughout it’s colonial and post-colonial history.
8.       Your research has also talked about a short-lived publication ‘Karikal Chronicle’. How did European prisoners ended up publishing a ‘chronicle’ in Singapore carrying the name of a French controlled territory which is in Tamilnadu (India)?  
This name comes from World War Two, when the European civilians were rounded up and placed in a holding camp in Karikal Mahal prior to being transferred to the more infamous prison at Changi. A couple of journalists were also held there and came up with the idea of printing a typed broadsheet for the other prisoners to read. The took the name from the buildings and added the word ‘Chronicle’ almost as an ironic title to the publication, which was hand typed then mimeographed before being distributed.
9.       Where is ‘Karikal Mahal’ now?
As I detail in the article, during the 1970s, Still Road was extended as the land reclamation works that formed East Coast Park were underway. The extension of Still Road meant that the original site was cut in half. One building was demolished but two remained (now on either side of Still Road between East Coast Road and Marine Parade). These were turned into a hotel called the Grand Hotel. When that shuttered in the year 2000, the buildings stood empty for ten years until being converted into kindergartens.
10.    Had there ever been an impetus in history to preserve ‘Karikal Mahal’? Do you think generally conservation is in conflict with economic development hence become a luxury for land scarce cities such as Singapore?
The two remaining buildings have both been designated as historically important by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) so can’t be torn down, though the owner can modify them. The question of conservation versus development is thorny one not only because of land scarcity but also because of land prices. What is left of Karikal Mahal sits on ‘freehold’ land that is valued well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s a hefty sum for some old buildings that can’t be torn down!
11.    Are there any significant physical traces still left in Singapore to remind us about Moona Kader Sultan or his ‘Karikal’ passion?
Not much. The rather grand building where his business—the Straits Trading Cattle Company—was located at 22 Sungei Road was demolished many years ago. His initials used to stand on the pediment above one of the building on Still Road, but they were removed during the most recent renovation. There is a Karikal Lane near this building, and that is probably the closest thing we have to a trace of the original owner’s name and heritage.
12.    How much of Moona Kader Sultan’s history we know about is likely objective and impartial?
There is very little about him in the public record. I have relied mostly on newspaper articles in English for information. There were several obituaries that briefly outlined his life as well as an extended ‘interview’ with a police superintendent that was published ten years after his death, but that source is dubious for reasons I point out in my article.
These days, there’s lots of blog and websites online that mention him in connection to Karikal Mahal, because people are naturally curious about these old and beautiful buildings, but these blogs are often poorly researched and inaccurate.
There is more information about MKS to be found in Tamil-language sources, and I have a research assistant, a former student, helping me to search these sources because I understand very little of your beautiful language. Happily, she’s already found some very interesting material.
I’m hoping through my own research to learn much more about this fascinating figure and to restore his place in the story of Singapore’s growth.

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