When I went to the National Museum a few days ago, what really challenged my views on culture was this vase that was made in China. It had dragons engraved, but was influenced by the Greeks (the color of the vase was white/yellow, like the color of colosseums and other buildings in Greece). It may have been an ethnically Chinese vase maker who either saw Greek goods in China and was influenced by them, or a vase maker who went to Greece and then back to China to make the vase. Because of improved technology and mass communications, which causes countries to increasingly depend on each other, geographical borders have shrank and changed the nature of cultural exchange and mixing. Nowadays, we can just search things on Google, making cultural influences even easier. Because most countries are westernizing, a lot of cultures have become much more homogenized (such as seeing McDonalds in practically every city)- not only have landscapes and food become more homogenized, so has culture, because the types of dress, food, language (English being spoken), have slowly changed and become more similar (not talking about traditional dress here; talking more about everyday outfits). Whether culture (defined as the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group; the attitudes and behavior characteristics of a particular social group) is being lost or created is debatable, but the shift in cultures definitely has impacts on people’s identity and attitudes. I’ve grown up in a very Western-influenced environment, yet I’ve never lived in the West, which creates identity issues for me, and people will always ask “Why do you speak with an American accent? Did you live there?” which makes me have to explain “I was born in Singapore then my parents kept moving … sent me to international schools….”.
Another question I had was whether there is an “original culture”. Because it seems like all cultures influence each other, I got confused about who “started” these customs and if we can trace them. For the 3 years I spent in Jakarta, I thought the origin of Batik was from Indonesia. However, after visiting the museum, I found out that the Batik was very influenced by the Chinese, particularly in terms of the methodology of making it. Also, the Peranakan nyonya wear kabayas, which have lace on the bottom as fringes. After the museum visit, I discovered that the lace came from the Dutch, and the kebaya was modified to suit the climate because it was hot, so the nyonyas altered the traditional kebaya. After talking to Annette, she told me “Culture is a dynamic, living thing. It is always changing and is not “hermetically sealed”- which means there is no way to “stop” things from entering and leaving a culture, nothing to stop it from influencing other cultures and being influenced (unless you live in a secretive, oppressive and highly dictatorial state like North Korea- even then people find ways to engage in different types of products that speak to a widely different way of life)”. This was eye-opening because I’ve realized that there is no physical boundary for cultures, nothing stopping it from seeping into other cultures. However, can one region “claim” their culture, despite another region having a similar/identical culture? Can the Chinese claim that the vase was theirs (despite being influenced by the Greek)? It seems like with the vast improvements in technology and transportation/communication, cultures are increasingly becoming homogenized, to the point where no one can really “claim” their culture, because truth is, we reproduce/circulate culture and we are humans that cannot be forced into not interacting with others, so cultures will always mix and hybridize, which can create new cultures (like the Peranakan culture).
(Peranakan Batik design- you can see the Chinese-influenced flower design)
This is a closing chapter for me in Jakarta, and being culturally and historically immersed in this city has been both an exciting and heavy (in a good way) journey, particularly because I’ve lived here, and did not know how heavily the Chinese/Dutch/Indian/Arabian cultures have influenced Jakarta.
Next stop → Manila!
Thank you for this post Nicole! The questions asked a so interesting. I’m also thinking about whether a region and a nation can lay claim to “culture” – or to change the angle of this question, why nations would want to lay claim to a “culture” and its signifiers.
For example, an individual laying claim to a vase that reminds them of the place and the community they grew up in reflects their experiences and expresses a desire for belonging. e.g. My grandpa migrated from China to Taiwan (migrated/escaped with the KMT in 1949) and for the last few decades he’s been a collector of “Chinese” antiques, these antiques still travel between China and Taiwan and I think my grandpa’s sense of identity and belonging is also suspended between the two. Today individuals are enmeshed within nation state systems, and so their own stories of belonging and their own lived experiences reflect these narratives of state.
However, when a nation state i.e. China or Taiwan lays claim to a “culture”, this becomes a political act which references the shared history and conflict between the two countries for very different ends. When Taiwan under Tsai Ing-Wen lays claim to its own unique culture and political system, its asserts that it is different from the People’s Republic China. When the PRC identifies Taiwan (Republic of China) as a “province of China”, it lays claim over both Taiwan’s culture, and its sense of autonomy. In Taipei we have this museum called the “National Palace Museum” filled with Chinese imperial artefacts which were moved to Taiwan from Beijing in 1949 (same time grandpa moved). the Kuo Min Tang government initially built the museum (which looks magnificent) to back their claim to their status as the only preserver of “traditional Chinese culture” which in turn was used to legitimise the KMT’s political claim to China as a whole. For a long time the PRC claimed that these artefacts were stolen from the country whereas the KMT claimed they were protecting it from civil war. Today, the narrative is that the museum houses “China’s cultural heritage that is jointly owned by people across the Taiwan Strait.” Interesting huh?