What drove you to specialize in history?
During my undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge, I came across Tim Harper while I was looking for a thesis advisor. In the early noughts of the 2000s, he published an essay in the eulogy volume to Lim Chin Siong, called Comet in the Sky, and his essay opened my eyes to what history can do. It was only after reading it that I asked myself how I knew nothing about Lim Chin Siong, considering how he’s such an important figure in my own history. It was then that I discovered the power of History.
Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore story describes his awkward relationship with Lim Chin Siong. In the words of Tim Harper, he was “almost like a ghost”. He haunts the Singapore story because he’s so important you cannot write it out.
The way Tim Harper teased out the kind of social world that gave us and made possible the radical politics of Lim Chin Siong is an example of what history can do – It recovers lost worlds. Alternative histories often show what could have been radically different from now.
I later wrote my undergrad thesis on the left wing in Singapore in the 1960s.
Where do your research interests lie? Could your share with us a surprising moment?
I define my research interests as covering two major fields. One is Chinese migration and the overseas Chinese. The other is very broadly defined as the history of capitalism in Asia and the way it was imposed on Asia by European imperialism. I also have a minor interest which I continue to maintain in Singapore historiography.
While working on my first book, I came across something very interesting that changed my research direction in ways that I did not expect. I found female voices that I hadn’t expect to see in the archives. I had started off thinking that I would write a PhD dissertation on the formation of Chinese identity in Dutch Indonesia. At that point, I was interested in how identity was created through dialogue with the state and the law – One’s “Chinese-ness” is related to how the state tries to define us.
However, when I looked at the archives, I was very surprised to find that many of the legal documents of the Dutch East Indies of the 19th century were left behind by women. Because of that, I had to include a gender element in my research.
For instance, in probate papers, the assumption tends to be that Chinese women didn’t really have much property rights, and that property would be inherited by the husband or son. However, I was very surprised to see so many women arranging how their property would be divided, according to their own will.
Women wrote their own wills and own quite a fair bit of property, and this was a phenomenon that I hadn’t encountered before reading Chinese social history and even diaspora studies. There’s relatively little written about this, and this is something unique to Peranakan women. That became the strongest chapter in my dissertation, and I later rewrote and published it as a journal article.
Do you have any general advice for the current freshmen, especially for those who might still be unsure of whether to pursue History?
You are lucky to have a choice. I went through a British system, in which you did the one major you were admitted for. I will say, it’s good spend your first year experimenting with two or three disciplines before you decide.
At History, I see us as the bridge connecting the social sciences and the Area Studies discipline. Because we’re strong in Asian history, and you need the Asian languages to read the primary sources, it immediately puts us in dialogue with our friends over in Chinese, Malay, South Asian, Japanese Studies. Yet for those of us who do social, economic, business, religious and gender history, we grapple with social science theories (and some methods) that our friends over in Sociology, Political Science, Philosophy, Economics, English, although of course often with a slightly different emphasis. If I may exaggerate things a little, besides being a bridge, that makes History the Mother of all FASS disciplines!
What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?
My favourite book is Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost. My favourite author is Cao Xueqin, author of Dream of the Red Chamber. My favourite theorist would be Karl Marx.
What’s is something you will put on your bucket list?
I want to live in Java for at least a year.
Who is your favourite cartoon character?
What genres of music do you like the most?
I listen to Mando-pop and a little bit of classical.
What’s your least favourite food?
Lastly, could you describe your personal motto?
Live reflectively and live fully.
Thank you so much for the interview.
*Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity