‘Ports, Past and Present’ Closing Event: ‘The Imperial Port as Cultural Entrepôt’

Last week I was lucky enough to be part of the closing event for the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ project led by Prof. Claire Connolly at University College Cork. Alongside academic papers by Gillian O’Brien, Isabel Hofmeyr, Finola O’Kane, and Carola Hein, among others, we were treated to discussions by community members, heritage architects, port authorities, and other stakeholders, as well as attending a Cork Harbour cruise and a performance of ‘We Have Always Been Your Harbour’ by Peter Murphy.

Without attempting anything like a full summary of the event, I was impressed to observe that discussion encompassed the contribution of ports to imperialism, colonialism, and slavery (both in relation to Irish ports and globally); colonial customs houses; oceanic studies; submerged and submarine histories; port identities; port engineering; shipping and containerization; maritime architecture, tourism, and heritage; the literary and cultural life of ports; dredging and coastal/ocean ecologies; deep mapping; small and forgotten ports; and port cities and their imagined futures. As this very brief overview suggests, the event provided a wonderful balance between port history and port presence, between ports as vibrant economic hubs and ports as contested and/or forgotten spaces. Ultimately, it became clear how different the past, present, and future can look when we think from ports, moving away from land-based approaches to approaches that encompass coasts and oceans, and even move below ocean surfaces to sea-floors and their often-submerged histories.

Congratulations to Prof. Connolly for organizing such a rich and productive event, and on the achievements of the project more generally: https://portspastpresent.eu

Below is a slightly extended version of the paper I gave at the event.

The Imperial Port as Cultural Entrepôt

Writing in the 1980s before the change in city form that accompanied the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the cultural geographer John Western argues that, despite their many differences, ex-colonial port cities such as Cape Town and Tianjin were most fundamentally shaped by regimes of separation or racialized segregative zoning (Western 1987: 335). In South Africa, the legacies of colonial segregation are, of course, well known, but port cities more generally were historically hubs not just for trade and commerce, but also for slavery, indentured labour, transportation, and other practises that Isabel Hofmeyr has identified as ‘hydrocolonialism’ or colonialism of, on, in, and by way of water (Hofmeyr 2019: 13).

Like most port cities, Cape Town and Tianjin had immense strategic significance in the nineteenth century, both as shipping or trade routes and as economic hubs or gateways. Most obviously, British control of Cape Town in 1806 allowed for provisioning on its Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts before travel to Australia or South America, thereby opening up and connecting the southern hemisphere in ways that had previously been impossible. The treaty-port city of Tianjin was essentially the port of Beijing, which lies 120km to its north-west. 

The site of nine foreign-controlled concessions between 1860 and 1945, Tianjin has been characterised as a ‘hyper-colony’, a term Ruth Rogaski has used to describe an urban space that is divided among multiple imperialisms (Rogaski 2014: 11). Not all colonial ports were hyper-colonies, but the term is useful in drawing attention to the complex divisions of power that can arise in port cities (whether formal or informal), as well as to their status as multi-ethnic sites of unruly super-abundance, unmoored from any single worldview or cultural perspective. Despite—or perhaps because—of their strategic status, imperial port cities encouraged both mobility and the arresting of mobility, both disciplinary surveillance and the destabilization of colonial hierarchies, resulting in social and cultural heterarchies.

The term hyper-colony draws attention, too, to ports as hyphenated or intermediary places: as ‘something in between’. Indeed, in many ways, port cities function as what we might call ‘cultural entrepôts’, a word derived from the Latin roots inter or between and positum or position, literally ‘interposition’ or ‘that which is placed between’. The product of long-distance trade that is often associated with the rise of mercantile empires (although it existed well before then), an entrepôt is, in its simplest form, an intermediary place or clearinghouse where goods are imported, stored, and traded, usually to be exported again via various forms of trans-shipment. In its more labour-intensive form, entrepôt trade can involve the grading, processing, and repackaging of a commodity to increase its value. 

The warehouses or ‘godowns’ that feature in many images of nineteenth-century Singapore and Hong Kong provide a good example of value-added entrepôt trade, graduating from being merely storage or accommodation facilities to production factories involved in the packaging of pineapple, rubber, pepper, and other raw materials to be re-exported. As Ian Y. H. Tan has noted in his work on the maritime architectural history of Singapore, the term ‘godown’ itself reflects ‘a rich trans-cultural history of seafaring interactions between Asia and Europe’: ‘First appearing in 16th-century Portuguese texts as gudão, the term was incorporated into the common languages of Asian port cities. The word was gedung in Malay and gudam in Bengali’ (Tan 2020: 2). 

‘Boat Quay on Singapore River’, in A. S. Bickmore, Travels in the East Indian Archipelago (London: John Murray, 1868), 520.

Historically, entrepôt ports like Singapore were located at strategic points along sea-trade routes, removing the need for ships to travel the whole distance of the shipping route. For instance, Hong Kong’s geographic position made it an entrepôt for trade with China, while Singapore was located at a pivotal point on the Malaccan Straits, straddling the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea, and was therefore the centrepiece of a network of British trading ports that formed the gateway to the Asia Pacific. As Stamford Raffles, the first governor of Singapore, put it in 1819: ‘Our object is not territory but trade … a great commercial emporium and a fulcrum whence we may extend our influence’ (Letter to Colonel Addenbrooke, 10 June 1819). 

Raffles was not wrong in understanding the port as a fulcrum or lever of history, just as, if not more, important than the domination of land. His view of Singapore as a ‘seat of commerce’ is also, however, enhanced by his recognition of its potential status as a cultural centre from whence ‘its influence may be diffused and gradually extended’. Metaphors of enlightened diffusion abound in Raffles’ speeches, writing, and correspondence, but coalesce in a particularly striking speech given during the opening of the Singapore Institution in 1819, in which he imagines Singapore as a cultural beacon that will call ‘forth the literary spirit’ of the Malay people and awaken its ‘dormant energies’: ‘The rays of intellect now divided and lost will be concentrated into a focus from whence they will again radiate with added lustre, brightened and strengthened by our superior lights’ (Raffles 1819: 24).

Raffles’s view of Singapore as both an economic and a cultural fulcrum understands it as a highly connected transnational node of convergence within a multi-nodal network. As his speech suggests, the cultural dynamics of entrepôt port cities ask us to look between as much as within. As the Deputy Protector of Chinese, G. T. Hare, put it in the inaugural volume of the Singapore-based periodical, The Straits Chinese Magazine, in 1897: like the port of Singapore itself, the magazine was designed to stand ‘half-way between east and west’, to ‘interpret China to Europe, and Europe to China’, operating as a kind of cultural broker for elite Asian and British readerships (Hare 1897: 3).

As a self-described journal of both ‘Oriental and Occidental’ culture, The Straits Chinese Magazine is just one example of the kind of cultural entrepôt produced in and by imperial port cites. Modelled on the miscellany format of British monthly magazines, its editors were Straits Chinese and its contributors were Chinese, Malay, Indian, and British, but its articles and original fiction were primarily written in English with interlineal English-language translations of Chinese, Hindu, and Malay source texts. The magazine itself encouraged all kinds of cultural hybrids, such as translations of Chinese fiction into Romanized Malay, joint British and Chinese philosophical societies, Anglo-Chinese and Anglo-Malay Schools, Chinese and Malay lending libraries and bookshops, and other hybrid print and publishing endeavours. 

Like its cultural artefacts, the port city more generally is often characterized as a hybrid or border city, mid-way between sea and land, registering ‘shifting points of contact, arrival, departure, and transformation’ (DeLoughrey 2018: 94). The liminality of the port city certainly produces a particular type of cultural, social, and political space: one that enables the movement of goods and people, but also allows for a worldview that transgresses the frontiers and boundaries of states and empires. Port cities can thus be areas of transition, requiring constant innovation and adaptation. They can also be counter-sites and radically unsettling spaces. As Tim Harper and Mark Ravinder Frost have shown, South and Southeast Asian port cities were central to the rise both of pan-Asian internationalism and anti-colonial nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Frost, for example, sketches out an interconnected public sphere in and between Bombay, Rangoon, and Singapore after 1870, one that was characterized by a distinctive multilingual periodical culture with new progressive modes of pan-Asian addressivity (of which The Straits Chinese Magazine was one) (Frost 2002; see also Harper 2021).

As Su Lin Lewis puts it in her 2016 book Cities in Motion, ‘[port] cities provide us with a different kind of history than the territorial boundaries of kingdoms and nations. … [in port cities] we can begin to trace a lineage of cosmopolitan social practises and regional connections’ (Lewis 2016: 29). Cosmopolitanism is often used as a way of describing the cultural life of ports, as an analytical category that seeks to ‘destabilise rigid cultural identities’ and thus acts as a kind of ‘humanist counterpart to globalisation’ (Lewis 2016: 7). Yet the idea of the port city as a floating or coastal cosmopolis never fully acknowledges the forms of violence and coercion that were and remain equally central to ports. In Southeast Asia, port cities enabled, for example, inter-imperial networks of trafficked and  indentured labour such as the Anglo-Dutch migration corridor between Penang (in the British Straits Settlements) and Medan (in Dutch East Sumatra). Similarly, as Clare Anderson has shown, port cities were central to southern hemisphere networks and routes of slavery, coercion, and confinement linking, say, Robben Island, St Helena, and Botany Bay (Anderson 2016).

Returning to John Western’s initial comparison of Cape Town and Tianjin as racialized zones, in  Singapore in 1822 Raffles implemented the Raffles Town Plan, also known as the Jackson Plan, to address the perceived issue of growing disorderliness in the settlement. Ethnic residential areas were segregated into four zones. The European Town housed European traders, Eurasians and elite Asians (such as the Straits Chinese), while ethnic Chinese were located in present-day Chinatown and south-east of the Singapore River. Ethnic Indians resided north of Chinatown, and  Kamong Gelam housed Muslims, ethnic Malays and Arabs. While, in part, the plan was designed to allow for shared access to the vital waterfront and its segregated zones were not strictly enforced, it also clearly followed a cadastral logic. 

Lieutenant Philip Jackson, ‘Plan of the Town of Singapore’ (1828). Lithograph. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore.

Later, in 1877, the British established protectorates in Singapore, including a Chinese Protectorate, which aimed to maintain racial boundaries amid the chaotic crossroads of overlapping ethnicities and mobilities.  Behind both protectionism and segregation was a principle that Ruth Rogaski has termed ‘hygienic modernity’. As Hare put it in his previously cited article in The Straits Chinese Magazine : ‘One of the first things that strikes an observer who knows China well is that the Straits-born Chinese is clean. This seems a small thing to say but it means a great deal’ (Hare 1897: 3).

Actively encouraged by the Chinese Protectorate to territorialize their own populations into ethno-environmental categories, The Straits Chinese Magazine’s cultural cosmopolitanism and pan-Asian solidarities repeatedly break down in the face of ‘backward-looking’ Malay peasants and foreign-born, sojourning Chinese and Indian diasporas, who are portrayed as unsettled, unhygienic, self-regulating entities without any permanent loyalty to the British crown (Fermanis 2021: 362). The magazine even published an article that was essentially an apology for indentured labour, entitled ‘Sugar Plantation Life in the Straits Settlements. By an Assistant’. Describing a day in the life of a ‘ubiquitous [South Indian] coolie’, the article assesses the work done as ‘relatively light’ and ‘easily got through by all’. For Europeans, work stops at 11am for breakfast and the luxury of a cold bath before returning to work and then tennis, billiards, the reading rooms, and bed, while coolie relief gangs continue sugar production throughout the night (SCM 1898: 54).

By printing articles such as this one, settled Straits Chinese communities attempted to separate themselves from a Chinese, Indian, and Malay lumpen proletariat of what they called ‘cooks, coolies, [and] carters’. The elite orientalizing of ‘social inferiors’ as ‘backward’ was particularly prevalent in cosmopolitan port towns like Singapore where large diasporas and multi-ethnic states produced various modernizing projects based on the desire to literally and figuratively separate the ‘modern’ from the ‘pre-modern’ subject (Fermanis 2021: 362). The disciplinary ‘body project’ of The Straits Chinese Magazine and its disparagement of the ‘opium wreck’, for example, was rooted in the idea that self-discipline would lead to an autonomous Chinese society free from colonial and paternalistic protective measures. Similarly, in mainland China, weisheng or health came to embody both cleanliness of bodies and the fitness of race and nation (Rogaski 2014).

The arrival of Western imperialism in Singapore, Hong Kong, and treaty-port China thus brought with it new understandings of public health, disease, and sanitation. In 1894, when bubonic plague hit Hong Kong, the British colonial government enforced extreme measures when the whole Chinese neighbourhood of Taipingshan was razed to the ground. Similarly, ‘unsanitary’ Chinese godowns along the Singapore River were increasingly removed and replaced by more dense, vertical buildings, and eventually by the skyscrapers and podium malls of the finance and service-oriented economy we now identify with contemporary Singapore. By the 1970s, Hong Kong and Singapore were still centres of entrepôt trade—and such trade accounts for around 30% of Singapore’s exports today—but container shipping was seen as one of the main drivers of the country’s future economy.

In contrast to the idea of nineteenth and early twentieth-century port cities as cosmopolitan incubators of modernity, entrepôt port cities are now often characterized as sites of container and supply chain capitalism. As historians of containerization have shown, the rise of the container ushered in the mechanization of ports and a host of other changes, including the deregularization of dock labour and the denationalization of shipping. Even more critically, geographic specificity has given way to spatial fungibility (Chua 2023: 129). If shippers once used to select ports on the basis of their strategic geographical location, ports today increasingly act as substitutes for each other, with choices based on price and efficiency.

Modern ports are also increasingly hidden in industrial zones on the outskirts of cities rather than being in urban centres. In a 2021 article on the urban history of port cities, Laase Heerten has gone so far as to say that ‘the port city as a city that is economically, socially, and culturally defined by its port is a relic of the past’. For Heerten, the cultural life of ports survives only ‘in the simulacrums created by the tourism industry’ or in high-end ‘waterfront recovery’ (Heerten 2021: 351). In contrast, Nadia Alaily-Mattar argues in a ‘Port City Futures’ blog post that there has been a significant ‘return to water’ from the late twentieth century onwards, an important development culturally and socially since historically the waterfront has always been a site of exchange (Alaily-Mattar 2020).  Reconnecting cities with and to the water, she argues, allows such cities to diversify their connectivity beyond container trade.

Alongside both this celebration of reclaimed ports and a more dystopian vision of containerized globalization, the modern port city also registers the creeping rise of sea levels. In ‘Submarine Futures of the Anthropocene’, Elizabeth DeLoughrey notes that while critical attention has previously focused on ‘mobility across transoceanic surfaces’, we now face a planetary situation that demands a theorization of ‘oceanic submersion’ (DeLoughrey 2017: 32). Between, she suggests, must give way to below

In the introduction to a recent special issue on Southeast Asian Chinese literature in the journal PRISM, one of its editors, Carlos Rojas, draws attention to SEASTATE, a nine-part series of art works by Charles Lim Yi Yong about Singapore’s changing relationship with the sea. As Rojas points out, with an average elevation of only fifteen metres, Singapore is one of the lowest lying countries in the world, with significant portions of its territory vulnerable to inundation (Rojas 2022: 266). SEASTATE also interrogates the act of land reclamation in Singa­pore, an act of reclamation or, more accurately, terraforming that is ostensibly a response to changes to surrounding sea levels. Indeed, reclaimed land constitutes some 30% of Singapore’s current total landmass and it is currently the largest importer of sand worldwide. 2010 reports note that Singapore’s quest for sand has contrib­uted to the disappearance of at least twenty-four Indonesian islands, mainly off the coast of North Sumatra—impacting the very communities from which Singapore extracts most of its foreign labour for infrastructural projects, such as its 3.5 billion-dollar mega-port Pasir Panjang, which opened in 2015 and will itself soon be moving to an even larger location (Chua 2020: 244). As well as importing sand from neighbouring countries, Singapore has also dredged its own coastal seabed for sand and levelled its hills.

A crucial theme of Lim’s SEASTATE art project—a multi-modal collection of videos, photographs, audio recordings, maps, and found objects—is its focus on ‘the slow violence wrought by the state on the land/sea/people triad’ (Wijaya cited in Rojas 2022: 267).  In the image displayed here from SEASTATE 8 or ‘seabook of the submerged histories of gsp1’, Lim took a nautical GSP1 chart published by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and split it into two: one half showing the original landmass and the other showing reclaimed land that was once sea in the Singapore Straits. 

Charles Lim Yi Yong, ‘SEASTATE 8: Seabook of the Submerged Histories of GSP1’, https://www.seastate.sg/8. Copyright Charles Lim Yi Yong.

The submerged history, in this case, is Singapore’s silent history of land reclamation, terraforming, and sea erasure, one that presupposes that the sea is aqua nullius or empty space to be claimed and transformed into land. Charmaine Chua has rightly drawn attention to doubts about the legality of terraforming under international law, arguing that it is a form of creeping sovereign expansion that echoes colonial history, as well as a form of geophysical engineering that destroys ocean environments (Chua 2020: 241).

Lim himself explains that the inspiration for SEASTATE 8 came from the various maritime maps that have been produced of Singapore from the nineteenth century to the present day, characterizing the work as a kind of cartographic archival accumulation that began with an earlier solo exhibition entitled ‘In Search of Raffles’s Light’: an exhibition that took as its starting point Raffles’s lighthouse on the offshore island of Satumu and interrogated Singapore’s colonial legacies, including the  principle of enlightened diffusion that Raffles so often invokes in his writing and speeches.

In ‘SEASTATE 9: Pulau’ (the Malay word for island), six imaginary islands are made from laser-cut paper. Each island is embossed with a urban grid pattern under which  multiple layers of paper emerge as ‘sediments of subsumed landmasses’ (Rojas 2022: 271). The ocean itself is invisible or absent in this art work while the grid-like structure of urban planning remains highly visible. On the one hand, the work reminds us that Singapore is part of an archipelago of more than seventy islands rather than being just a single island state. On the other, it suggests that we must reconnect ports not just with water but also with cities. If urban historians have tended to ‘treat cities as if they stop at the water’s edge’, then global historians have tended to follow flows and connections without paying much attention to the city space itself (Heerten 2021: 358).

Charles Lim Yi Yong, ‘SEASTATE 9: Pulau’, 2021. Laser-cut STPI handmade paper, 1.02 cm, edition of two. Copyright Charles Lim Yi Yong and STPI.

What role, then, can port cities like Singapore play in our decidedly more watery future, a future in which the ocean is increasingly theorized as a point of submersion rather than connection? If the port is no longer a ‘home’ or ‘refuge’ in the face of climate change acceleration, the cultural lives of ports must themselves be reconfigured in the ways that Lim’s SEASTATE suggests. The idea of the port as cultural entrepôt—as something in between—remains a valuable one, but not in the sense of the port as a transnational node in a network. Instead, port city futures must involve an acknowledgement of the often-submerged entanglements of sea, land, and people, one that, as Elizabeth DeLoughrey puts it, ‘renders oceanic space into ontological place’ (DeLoughrey 2017: 32).

Works Cited

Alaily-Mattar, Nadia, ‘Port Cities, Architecture and the Return to Water’, Port City Futures, 20 November 2020: https://www.portcityfutures.nl/news/port-cities-architecture-and-the-return-to-water [accessed 25 May 2023].

Anderson, Clare, ‘Convicts, Carcerality and Cape Colony Connections in the 19th Century’, Journal of Southern African Studies 42, no. 3 (2016): 429–42.

Chua, Charmaine, ‘Docking: Maritime Ports in the Making of the Global Economy’, The Routledge Handbook of Ocean Space, ed. Kimberley Peters, Jon Anderson, Andrew Davies, and Philip Steinberg (Abingdon: Routledge, 2023), 126–37.

——–. ‘Sunny Island Set in the Sea: Singapore’s Land Reclamation as a Colonial Project’,  inDigital Life in the Global City: Contesting Infrastructures, ed Deborah Cowen, Mitchel Alexis, Emily Paradis, and Brett Story (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2020), 238–47.

DeLoughrey, Elizabeth, ‘Submarine Futures of the Anthropocene’, Comparative Literature 69, no. (2017): 32–44.

——–. ‘Revisiting Tidalectics: Irma/José/Maria 2017’, inTidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic  Worldview through Art and Science, ed. by Stefanie Hessler (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2018), 93–101.

Fermanis, Porscha, ‘”Some Genuine Chinese Authors”: Literary Appreciation, Comparatism, and Universalism in the Straits Chinese Magazine‘, in Worlding the South: Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture and the Southern Settler Colonies, ed. Sarah Comyn and Porscha Fermanis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021), 358–77.

Frost, Mark Ravinder, ‘“Wider Opportunities”: Religious Revival, Nationalist Awakening and the Global Dimension in Colombo, 1870–1920’, Modern Asian Studies 36, no. 4 (2002): 937–67.

Hare, G. T., ‘The Straits-Born Chinese’, Straits Chinese Magazine 1, no. 1 (1897): 3–8.

Harper, Tim, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire  (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021).

Heerten, Lasse, ‘Mooring Mobilities, Fixing Flows: Towards a Global Urban History of Port Cities in the Age of Steam’, Historical Sociology 34, no. 2 (2021), 350–74.

Hofmeyr, Isabel, ‘Provisional Notes on Hydrocolonialism’, English Language Notes 57, no. 1 (2019): 11–20.

Lewis, Su Lin, Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 

Lim, Charles Yi Yong, ‘SEASTATE No. 8’: https://www.seastate.sg/8 [accessed 25 May 2023].

Raffles, Thomas Stamford, Minute by Sir T. S. Raffles on the Establishment of a Malay College at Singapore (Singapore: n.pub., 1819).

Rogaski, Ruth, Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).

Rojas, Carlos,’“Introduction: Worlds Built of Sand’, PRISM: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature 19, no. 2 (2022): 265–282.

Tan, Ian Y. H., ‘The Colonial Port as Contact Zone: Chinese Merchants and the Development of Godowns along Singapore River, 1827-1905’, Architectural Histories 8, vol. 1 (2020): 20, 1–15.

‘Sugar Plantation Life in the Straits Settlements. By an Assistant’, Straits Chinese Magazine 2 no. 5 (1898): 54–56.

Western, John, ‘Undoing the Colonial City?’, Geographical Review 75, no. 3 (1987): 335–57.

Wijaya, Elizabeth. ‘Learning to See, Finally: Charles Lim Yi Yong’s Staggered Observations of a Coast’, in Staggered Observations of a Coast, by Charles Lim Yi Yong (Singapore: STPI, 2022), 20–85.


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