Transpacific Dialogues and Imaginaries: Culture, Politics, and the Environment in the Twentieth Century

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Asian American; International Relations; Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples


Each of the papers on this panel explores ideas and imaginaries that were fostered through transpacific dialogues as well as interactions across the twentieth century. In other words, these studies explore how historical actors have understood and thought about the people with whom they built relationships who either come from or inhabit spaces that have been cast as “opposite sides” of the Pacific Basin. These relationships were built around material connections between these actors, based on their involvement in the international trade of Chinese art, the production of new political systems at the dawn of Philippine national independence, and the activist movements forged to resist the extractive exploitation of native land through mining. Ian Shin will explore how U.S. and Chinese art collectors obscured a dynamic Pacific World at the turn of the twentieth century through mutually reinforcing Orientalisms. Karen Miller will analyze the contradictory transpacific imaginaries that Muslim Filipinos used to make claims about their autonomy as the Philippines was becoming an independent, Catholic-dominated state in the 1930s. Focusing on the 1970s and coal mining, Megan Black will explore the relationships between Māori and Native American activists, as well as environmental organizations staffed disproportionately by white middle class individuals across the Pacific. Together, these papers suggest that the geographical scale of the transpacific is a useful category of analysis that illuminates how historical actors produce a range of contradictory ideas about what international identities and actions may mean. These figurations have the potential to disrupt received wisdom about faraway people and places, and to advance decolonial agendas. But they can also be infused with a range of seeming contradictions that reinforce stereotypical sensibilities and imperial arrangements. At the heart of these contradictions is the strategic agency of Chinese-Anglo-American-Hawaiian art collectors, of Muslim Filipinos, and of activists organizing under the banner of “indigenous rights” to work both with and against U.S. interests in order to secure social status, political protection, and environmental justice.

Papers Presented

Aligning Orientalisms: U.S. and Chinese Art Collectors in the Turn-of-the-Century Pacific World

This paper explores how different modes of Orientalism aligned to facilitate the movement of objects and ideas across the Pacific World at the turn of the twentieth century. Motivated by the belief that the U.S. was an exceptional steward of world culture, collectors like Charles Freer built new collections of Chinese art in the United States in the early twentieth century. But how did these collectors learn what to collect and how to interpret those objects? Scholars typically praise the collectors’ good taste and connoisseurship, but their learning and acquisitions ran through channels and networks that rested on unequal power relations. Examining these networks elucidates the transpacific politics of collecting and knowledge transmission during this period. On one hand, Americans like Freer sought “authentic” sources of knowledge in order to bolster their authority as new collectors of Chinese art. Doing so meant Orientalizing the collectors they met in China as representatives of a timeless and static culture. Yet collectors in China were not merely victims of these reductionist attitudes and ideas. In at least one case that this paper will examine, a collector in Hong Kong named Chun Tong adopted a similar mode of thinking to refashion his identity as a Hawaiʻi-born child of Chinese and hapa-haole parents. These Orientalisms—of others and of self—aligned to help cultural intermediaries between the U.S. and China secure their social and cultural status, in the process covering up a more dynamic and complex Pacific World.

Presented By
K. Ian Shin, University of Michigan

Muslim Regional Sovereignty, Philippine National Independence, and the Contradictory Figure of the American Colonial State

In July 1934, hundreds of Muslim leaders from the Philippine province of Lanao signed onto the Dansalan Petition. This petition, addressed to the American Governor General, called on him to ensure that signatories’ demands would be brought to the floor of the upcoming Constitutional Convention. Petitioners were concerned that national independence led by the majority Catholic population would undermine Muslim control of the southern areas they inhabited. They were asking for religious autonomy, for Muslims to assume all local appointive positions, for servants to remain bound to their masters, and for the state to implement a twenty-year hiatus on titling lands to non-Muslims in the region. The Constitutional Convention had been called because the U.S. Congress had set the Philippines on a path to national independence. Filipino Muslim leaders were petitioning the American head of the colonial state to represent their interests among Filipino convention delegates, including some Muslim Filipino delegates. This strategy points to their belief that their transpacific relationship to the U.S. held more promise for ensuring regional autonomy than their political connections to Catholic Filipinos could, especially under a sovereign Philippines. Indeed, they asked the Governor General to be their “witness”—to ensure that leaders of non-Muslim provinces agree to their demands. If not, they asked him to separate Muslim-majority areas from the “Independent Philippines” and remain U.S. colonial territories. This paper will analyze these contradictory transpacific imaginaries—exploring how a range of Muslim Filipinos understood regional sovereignty vis a vis both Manila and the United States.

Presented By
Karen R. Miller, LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York

Social Engineering across the Pacific: The Institute of Pacific Relations, Land Utilization Surveys, and the Quest for Peace

This paper will contribute to the panel, “Transpacific Dialogues and Imaginaries: Culture, Politics, and the Environment in the 20th Century,” by examining the scholarly exchange among American and American-educated Japanese, Chinese, and Korean social scientists associated with the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR). Founded in 1925, a year after the United States government added the Japanese to the long list of Asians prohibited from immigration, the IPR believed that exclusionary immigration legislation such as the Johnson-Reed Act (1924) posed a grave danger to international peace. Yet rather than reopening U.S. immigration to Asians, IPR’s social scientists reasoned, perhaps international peace could be secured by solving the “problem” of Asian immigration at its source. By raising the standard of living, they imagined, Asian countries could eliminate the “push factors” that caused outmigration in the first place. Furthermore, they believed that once Asian emigration stopped at its source, Americans (as well as Canadians and Australians) would be convinced to dismantle their own discriminatory immigration laws. This would be a win-win for Asians and Americans. Interestingly, the largest and the most expensive projects that the IPR commissioned with this goal in mind were “land utilization surveys.” IPR’s social scientists assumed that the true origin of outmigration from Japan, China, and Korea lay in Asian farmers’ inability to sustainably exploit natural resources to their full potential. Racial condescension clearly colored this assumption, of course, but what is fascinating to observe is that American-educated Asian social scientists themselves shared this assumption and made various recommendations to better “utilize” the land to raise the standard of living in Asia. But placing the burden of environmental and economic change on destitute Asian farmers only took the IPR so far. By the early 1930s, social scientists learned that their envisioned path to international peace was far more difficult to realize than initially assumed. When the Japanese military invaded and occupied Manchuria in 1931 with the argument that Japan needed to secure more land and food for its people on the mainland during the Great Depression, the results of IPR’s research primarily served to disprove this argument and further alienated Japan from not only China but also the United States and the British Dominions, all of which agreed with the League of Nations Assembly in 1933 that Japan’s invasion of Manchuria was unjustified.

Presented By
Chris Suh, Emory University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Lon Y. Kurashige, University of Southern California
Lon Kurashige is professor of history and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California. He studies racial ideologies, politics of identity, emigration/immigration, historiography, cultural enactments, and social reproduction, particularly as they pertain to Asians in the United States. He is the author of Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Pacific America: Empires, Migrations, and Exchanges, co-edited with Madeline Hsu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2016); Major Problems in Asian American History, 2nd edition, co-edited with Alice Yang (Cengage, 2016); and Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934-1990 (2002), winner of the Association for Asian American Studies’ History Book Award.

Presenter: Karen R. Miller, LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York
Karen Miller is professor of history at LaGuardia Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is also on the faculty and deputy executive officer of the Masters in Liberal Studies Program at the Graduate Center at CUNY. She is the author of Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit (New York University Press, 2014). This paper is part of a larger project on inter-island migration in the twentieth-century Philippines.

Presenter: K. Ian Shin, University of Michigan
Ian Shin is Assistant Professor of History and American Culture at the University of Michigan. His teaching and research focus on the U.S. in the world and Asian American history between 1850–1950. He is currently completing his first book, Imperfect Knowledge: Chinese Art and American Power in the Transpacific Progressive Era. His publications have appeared or are forthcoming in the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, the Connecticut Historical Review, and the Journal of Asian American Studies. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Presenter: Chris Suh, Emory University