Friday, April 26, 2013

Book 122, Niue: "Savage Island" by Basil Thomson

Every now and then, I'm intensely grateful for good writing. It doesn't need to be transcendent: something engaging in some way, something fun, is quite sufficient.

This week, I'd thought I was plum out of luck as I was flipping through an epub version of W.G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea, a miserable hagiography of an early missionary in the Pacific, published in 1909 by the Reverend Joseph King. The title had sounded like a swashbuckler's story - how was I to know it'd be so long and dull? 

I was halfway through when I decided to ditch the bugger and turn over to this other virtual archived text, dating even earlier, to the year 1902:

And boy oh boy, I'm glad I did. Basil Thomson was a civil servant with the Colonial Office - in fact, this book describes an official visit to Niue to arrange for its formal annexation as part of the British Empire, as well as a stop at Tonga to formalise its status as a British Protectorate. But he was also a professional writer, and consequently he knew how to render his descriptions of exotic realms so amusing that even an ardent postcolonialist like myself is delighted at his words.

You see, unlike Rev. Joseph King, Thomson actually accords individual personalities to the people of the Pacific. Of course, he's laughing when he describes the fashion for fatness among the women, and King Tongia's pompous folly in dressing himself in hoop skirts and military hats - a flavour of that half devil and half child colonial mindset of the time. Yet he also acknowledges that these guys have a culture, and real motivations for what they do - e.g. the king had no small talent for being able to convince the elders that they needed a king at all after no-one had occupied the role for 80 years...

Of course, one of the reasons Thomson can afford to make light of the situation is that everything's peaceful. I hadn't known much about this side of colonial history: how some countries would, of their own accord, join the British Empire for the sake of protection, to avoid more destructive invasion and exploitation by the Germans or the French. This is why Tonga, for instance, has been able to hold on to its royal family, one of the few surviving systems of monarchy in the realm.

And then the whole matter of being modern - how these Pacific people, who had been part of a freaking Stone Age civilisation just a couple of generations ago, were now aware of the greater world around them, were consuming its cultural artefacts (Christianity, icons of Queen Victoria, whom they called Vika) and even building themselves Western-style houses. And then their participation in world trade - the Niueans are characterised as the most hardworking of Polynesian races, being actually eager to work overseas, to the detriment of their local industries of growing coconuts and weaving hats out of pandanus leaves. (Seems they've done pretty well for themselves since then - ten years ago, they became the world's first nation to be completely covered by free Internet wifi.)

Add to this the usual staples of colonial travel memoirs: documentation of the flora and fauna (they had crazy plagues of flies and hornets), some notes on national custom and myth (oral history for Niue only goes back 500 years, suggesting that they split off from some other island civilisation before then). Some notation of the music and dance of the islands, too, before a rather abrupt ending.

But once again, I'm bloody glad that this peripatetic journey is bringing me to books that are actually worth digging up and reading. It's not just about going around the world: it's about not having a miserable time doing it.

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P.S. Why "Savage Island", you ask? Seems that when Captain Cook visited in 1774, the Niueans were one of the few Pacific peoples to refuse to engage in dialogue with him, answering him instead with spears and darts. Smart folks!

Representative quote: "The procession was headed by a dozen men in slop clothes and villainous, billycock hats set at a rakish angle. They all carried spears and paddle-shaped clubs in either hand, and a similar rabble brought up the rear. In the middle of this grotesque bodyguard walked the king and queen, both in petticoats, as befits the sex to which they belonged, for if the queen was a young woman, the king was assuredly an old one. To their united ages of ninety-four His Majesty contributed seventy-six, but what he lacked in youthful elasticity he made up in con- descension, for she had been but a beggar-maid or what corresponds therewith in Niue, where beggary is unknown when he had played Cophetua to her a few months before our visit. She wore a wreath of roses, he the soldier's helmet with the cock's plume, which was all that the officious Samoan teacher would leave him of his military uniform, and from which he refused to be divided, although it assorted ill with his petticoat. To tell the brutal truth, His Majesty was unsexed by the garments that had been chosen for him, and his appearance justified the remark of a friend who, holding the photo- graphs of Their Majesties in his hand and con- fusing them, exclaimed, "Why, the queen's got a beard!"

Next book: Arthur Grimble's A Pattern of Islands, from Kiribati.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book 121, Tokelau: "A Way With Words: Language and Culture in Tokelau Society" by Ingjerd Hoëm

On the plus side, we're finally reading something else by a female author in the Pacific region. On the minus side, she isn't native - she's from Norway. On the even more minus side, she's an anthropologist.

Yesiree, here's one of those dry, brain-numbing, jargon-filled texts (purism? doxic?) that I'd never waste my life reading if I wasn't doing this godforsaken project. It's even marginally about linguistics, which my PhD student sister has proven to be a headache of a pseudoscience, why oh why etc.

But really, this wasn't so bad - except for the bulk of the second half, which consisted of Hoëm consulting every person she could about the meanings of specific Tokelauan terms, from uluifa (spirits that possess people) to fatupaepae (a female authority figure), just to show the imbalance and instability of information between genders and classes. Major snoozefest.

You see, Tokelau's an odd place.  It's a territory of New Zealand, consisting of three atolls, with a combined population of 1,411 (that's today's figures, but the country's always dealt with overpopulation through emigration). Despite that teensy number, they've got a number of feuds and village dialects, exacerbated by the fact that missionaries converted some of them to Catholicism and some to Protestantism (the Catholics allowed more of the indigenous culture to survive, for which I suppose they deserve some thanks).

In the '80s, when the author was conducting her fieldwork, the Tokelauans had only recently adopted a written form of their native language and begun teaching it in schools. They'd previously been using English and Samoan - so they had the weird situation of kids being fluent in a traditional language, their twenty-something year-old parents recommending that they follow their elders for even greater mastery of the tongue, and of course the elders jabbering away in Tokelauan that was infected with Samoan words to begin with...

And that's just the background. The messy politics of how language is used is bewildering: characterised as the shyest of the Polynesian peoples, Tokelauans hold their fono (their ceremonial meetings) in near silence, wary of contradicting people and making enemies, sometimes postponing the most serious issues of each Women's Council or Council of Elders to the next fono, just so no-one's feelings will be hurt. 

(The example given was sorting out a feud so that one island's parents would stop barring their kids from attending school. As an Asian person I believe school is bloody important and they should've just trod on each other's feelings. But that's why I'm not an anthropologist.)

Details of the use of gossip as a sanctioning device, the strange disruptive appearances of older women as clowns, invading official events to mock the hierarchies that keep them bound (yet this is part of the culture that keeps them bound). And the syncretic lyrics of the fatele song and dance shows.

Yet believe it or not, the Tokelauans feel dreadfully insecure about their culture - they feel they're hybrid, westernised folk (many of them have studied or worked in NZ; there's a steady exchange of unruly offspring between Tokelau and the migrant families in Samoa and New Zealand). They even envy the Maoris for the strength of their identity, never mind that Maori culture has been reduced to a superficial display of hakas and carven masks in the midst of a mainstream pakeha culture. (In Tokelau, they call them palagis).

But aren't we in Singapore the same? Weirdly cultured and problematic and unsure if we can be proud of what we have? 

Ah, but Yi-Sheng, the world does not exist for the sake of your reflections. Here's a fatele text.

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Representative quote:
Fakalogo atu

Fakalogo atu kite leo e sau
Tena e sau
sau mai i ko
pati tokoto ko te toeina
ko te uto kua tini, tini, tini O.

Listen to the sound coming
That is coming
coming from there
applauding [while] lying down, the Elder
The young sprout of the germinating coconut [i.e. the young people] have finished, finished, finished.

Next book: Reverend Joseph King's WG Lawes of Savage island and New Guinea, from Niue.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sorry, no Tokelau yet!

Been busy marking, writing miscellaneous new articles... and organising lit nights!

Tonight was Young and True, an NTU non-fiction reading - seven students from my non-fiction class went up shared their work at BooksActually. Great buzz, attentive audience (and the truth is, with a floorspace that small, *any* attendance feels like a crowd), and some very moving work.

This weekend's gonna consist of marking and finishing up my MFA application to East Anglia. Wish me luck!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bangkok books?

So I'm back from the ILGA Asia Conference in Bangkok! Will be writing a Fridae article about it, too. But it wasn't much of a holiday - didn't even make it to Chatuchak Weekend Market. Too busy blogging during the conference, and attending the ASEAN SOGI Caucus in the two days afterwards.

Thus, the only book I acquired during that sojourn was this:

The English title seems to be Violated Lives: Narratives from LGBTIQs and Internatioanl human Rights Law. I got it free from a table where goodies were being handed out.

Yes, it's mostly in Thai, but the annex is bilingual, and it covers the Yogyakarta Principles (and can I say right now how proud I am as a Southeast Asian that a landmark document on sexual orientation and gender identity rights was crafted in my own neighbourhood?).

What I actually spent most of my time reading, however, was this:

I'm doing an article on classic gay Asian lit now (not gay Asian American lit, thank you very much), so of course I've got to peruse Yukio Mishima's landmark tortured-gay-man-in-the-closet novel, Confessions of a Mask. 

Oh god, but I don't know if I should recommend it to the average reader. It's so dark and twisted and upsetting, perhaps even dangerous for the insecure gay man. And honestly, his other works, like his Noh Plays and The Sailor Who Fell With Grace From the Sea, are more transcendent and beautiful, presenting psychosis on a platter rather than being immersed in it.

I'll probably list it, anyway, due to its historical importance. Must live with the possibility that one of my future readers will end up committing hara-kiri because of me.

Too many deadlines now to even think of heading down to the library to read my Tokelau book, by the way. Maybe I can squish it in towards the end of next week.