Review: Visiting the Neighbours – Australians in Asia

Cover of Visiting the Neighbours

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia by Agnieszka Sobocinska (New South: 2014).

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia gives an overview of more than a century of Australian travel in South-east Asia. It demonstrates that the Australian relationship with Asian countries is long and complex. Focussing primarily on private travel, the author, Agnieszka Sobocinska provides a book which will cause many readers to reflect on their own relationship with Asia.

The breadth of Sobocinska’s work is ambitious. Using diaries, letters, travel books and other sources, Sobocinska looks at the experiences of Australian tourists, business people, travel writers, soldiers, humanitarians, drug traffickers and more. Sobocinska shares glimpses of their experiences to demonstrate that contrary to the proclamations of various Australian politicians, Australia’s engagement with Asia is not new and it has a complex history.

While Visiting the Neighbours focuses on the twentieth and twenty-first century experiences of Australians travelling in Asia, Sobocinska acknowledges the fact that Aboriginal Australians have had a trading relationship with the Macassans (who lived in what we now know as Indonesia) for centuries. In the twenty-first century Sobocinska notes that nearly twice as many Australians visited Indonesia than visited the United Kingdom.

The book unfolds in a broadly chronological sequence starting at the time when the British Empire reached around the globe. The issue of race is a theme that runs through much of the book. Sobocinska shows that travel in Asia forced Australians to think and in some cases, re-assess their views on the White Australia policy. She continues to examine race issues by reflecting on the post-colonial relationships that some of the Australian travellers developed with locals when they visited to give humanitarian service as well as the experience of travellers on the ‘Hippie Trail’ of the sixties and seventies. Sobocinska points out that the travellers on the Hippie Trail had little to do with the local populations, preferring to hang out with fellow western travellers: Continue reading

Australian Wartime Entertainment in a Century of Wars

Banner of the title of the exhibition on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition.The arts were important to many Australian soldiers during the World War I. This is evident from reading the diaries of Australian soldiers. Soldiers wrote about the books they read, the songs they sang together, quoted extracts from poems and many diaries have sketches and accounts of the beautiful churches they visited. I am planning to do some further research on the singing of Australian soldiers so I was pleased when I accidentally found an exhibition at the Victorian Arts Centre about the entertainment of Australian soldiers.

The exhibition, ‘Theatres of War: Wartime entertainment & the Australian experience‘ tells the stories of the professional entertainers who put on concerts for Australian troops in war zones over the last one hundred years. The exhibition looks at the entertainment provided during wars to boost morale on the home front, military personnel who entertained troops and those entertainers who were not part of the military but who travelled to war zones to entertain the soldiers.  Continue reading

We’re Baaaack… in Sydney!

BalconyOur Singapore sojourn is over. We have packed up our stuff in Singapore and are now back in Sydney. Saturday was New Year, or Naw-Ruz, for many people in the world including the Baha’is. It was a propitious day to take the keys to our new place in the Parramatta region of Sydney.

It is good to be back and close to the archives I need to consult for my writing. I am looking forward to two conferences which will take place in Sydney in the middle of this year – DH2015, the international Digital Humanities Conference hosted by the University of Western Sydney and the annual Australian Historical Association conference hosted by the University of Sydney. It is the first time in the twenty-six year history of the Digital Humanities Conference that it will be held outside Europe and North America. Continue reading

Singapore’s Red Dot Design Museum

Darkened room with illuminated sign saying "red dot design awards"From the moment I entered this small museum I enjoyed the experience. Singapore’s Red Dot Design Museum is one of three museums in the world which features the winners of the Red Dot Design awards.

This museum has an eclectic mix of modern products that feature innovative design. In the entrance we saw two mountain bikes and a carbon-fibre commuter bicycle, together with a large umbrella with innovative lighting mechanism, a table-soccer game made from recycled materials and all sorts of watches.

A commuter bicycle folded up so that the two wheels are placed next to each other.

This commuter bicycle weighs only 7.9kg and features a special folding system that enables it to be opened and closed easily.

This small museum highlights developments in designs of products as diverse as cars, baths, refrigerators, socks, books and pushers (strollers, buggies, push-chairs… or whatever you call them). Any visitor would see items that they may have a deeper knowledge of due to their line of work or style of living, but all visitors will be stimulated to think of products they don’t normally give much thought to. This is the strength of this museum.

At the entrance we were told that it would take about forty-five minutes for us to view the exhibition. We spent considerably longer there. Exhibitions like this spark the imagination and share innovation. I was surprised at the number of books on display. The books about Chinese calligraphy looked interesting. One of the features of this exhibition was that visitors were able to touch many of the exhibits. There were stools so if you had the time you could sit and browse the books properly. Some books made me wonder why they had won a design award, but the difficulty with international design awards is that they reward an aesthetic as well as function. Both are significantly influenced by culture, whether this culture derives from an ethnic, professional or wealth background. Continue reading

Singapore’s Education History on Display

The building housing Singapore's Ministry of Education Heritage Centre

Singapore’s Ministry of Education Heritage Centre

On the second day I was in Singapore I left the bus and became lost. My phone was low on batteries and my GPS was not working properly. I trudged off in the direction I thought I should be going and found myself walking through a large HDB housing complex.

Getting lost on foot in a new place is a good thing. My family is not convinced about this, but that is their loss. Losing one’s way in a new place is a wonderful way to discover things that you may not ordinarily encounter.

Behind the HDB (public housing) complex I discovered Singapore’s education museum – the Ministry of Education Heritage Centre. This museum does not make the lists of museums that tourists are urged to visit so if I hadn’t become lost I may have missed it. Not many people would be excited by this but I have a background in education history so I made a mental note to visit it once I knew a bit more of Singapore’s general history.

Last week I visited the Heritage Centre with a friend of mine, Betty Wee, who is a retired Singaporean primary school teacher. The first section starts with the point where most accounts of Singaporean history start, Sir Stamford Raffles and the early nineteenth century. The first thing that visitors are informed about is Raffles’ vision for a Malayan college in Singapore which he was unable to establish before he left the island in 1824. The college was opened as a primary school in 1837.

However, the exhibition then notes that formal Malay education started well before Europeans arrived in the region. The visitor is told that this was mostly of a religious nature but aside from this there was very little detail. Perhaps the historical records have disappeared? Continue reading