Zhen Hao Liew (LSE) - 2022-23 Students

Carceral Spaces and Punitive Mobilities: Re-examining Chinese migration in Colonial Maritime Southeast Asia, 1900-1957

My proposed research approaches the research on Chinese migration in twentieth-century Southeast Asia from a hitherto new perspective, specifically through the prism of punitive policies. Focusing on the processes involved in the migratory process, the key issue to address is how did this play out in specific spatial sites, such as ships, plantations and internment camps, and specific mobilities, such as banishment and forced resettlements. My study involves a transnational approach that examines both intra- and inter-imperial movements that historically linked Chinese communities in Federated Malay States, Straits Settlements, Borneo in British Malaya and Sumatra in the Netherlands East Indies.

Focusing on the migration of Chinese labour, this study stems from both historical concerns and historiographical insights surrounding the import of labour for the extractive economy in the colonies. The central preoccupation for colonial labour policy had hitherto been about securing a large labour supply. The management and control of labour was not merely effected through the passing of labour legislation and immigration ordinances, but mediated by quotidian practices in various spaces, such as ships, plantations, internment camps and the prisons. Viewing these spaces as ‘carceral’ not only highlights the practical aspect of curtailing the mobility of Chinese workers in the management of their labour, it supports growing evidence against the conflation of ‘free’ wage labour with commodification of labour in global labour history. The significance of these carceral spaces and controls over the intra- and inter-imperial movements of workers also did not diminish with the prohibition of Chinese indentured labour in the early twentieth century.

This study also extends from recent historiographical development in histories of punishment, labour and imperial histories. Attending to the significances of punishment and penal transportation in the history of empires, there is a need to consider other forms of punitive mobilities beyond convict transportation, for the purpose of studying my topic. With the demographic and political changes in the European colonies in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century, the punitive regimes had to contend with both the threats posed by specific individuals and significant Chinese populations of an alien and ‘criminal’ disposition. Interpreting punitive mobility as a form of punishment necessarily means extending beyond the scope of the traditional criminal justice system, through considering how the uses of banishment and deportation for the individual, and forced resettlements of entire populations, interacted with incarceration in the colonial context. Central questions to be asked in my study include, but are not restricted to, the following: what did the formation and evolution of the carceral spaces reveal about the repression and negotiations in the construction of an ‘incomplete’ imperial sovereignty; how did the people within interpret these spaces and what strategies did they use to cope with their predicament; and how did the politics over punitive mobilities engage with wider political and security issues in the empires?

Informed by debates within the field of global history, a micro-spatial approach will be adopted for the study of Chinese migration. The examination of individual localities and moments adopts the prism of the micro-analytical perspective to highlight the discontinuities and significance of local conditions in mediating the movements of Chinese people along the established migratory networks. This is integrated with a spatially aware perspective that emphasises the interconnectedness of the different global, regional and local scales. A qualitative analysis of specific ‘carceral sites’, and individuals and groups who were subjected to ‘punitive mobilities’ will be undertaken.

Primary supervisor: Dr Chung Yam Po, LSE
Secondary supervisor: Dr Qingfei Yin, LSE

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