Associate Professor Huang Jianli (Department of History) is the 2011 Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Distinguished Fellow on Southeast Asia. The Fellowship provides an expert on the region the opportunity to travel, write and conduct their research in residence both at NUS and at Stanford University. What makes this year’s fellow so interesting is that Prof Huang’s research topic is actually Lee Kong Chian himself, the benefactor of the fellowship. Between field trips, Prof Huang was recently back in FASS to tell us more about his findings so far…
About A/P HUANG Jianli: A/P Huan Jianli is an Associate Professor with the History Department of the National University of Singapore. Within the university, he is concurrently a Research Associate with East Asian Institute.
Born in 1956 in Singapore as the eldest child in a third-generation migrant family, he completed his Bachelor of Arts (B.A. Honours, majoring in History and Economics) in the National University of Singapore. He is most indebted to the Chinese history training he had received from Professor Hsiao Chi-ching who later moved on to the Qinghua University in Taiwan and became a fellow of the Academia Sinica. He then secured a Commonwealth Scholarship to study for his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD, Modern Chinese History) in the Australian National University under the mentorship of Professor Wang Gungwu who later moved on to assume the Vice-Chancellorship at the Hong Kong University and then as University Professor in the National University of Singapore.
His first field of research interest is on the history of student political activism and local governance in Republican China from the 1910s to 1940s. His second area of study is on the postwar Chinese community in Singapore, especially its relationship vis-à-vis China and the larger Chinese diaspora. He has published a monograph on The Politics of Depoliticization in Republican China: Guomindang Policy towards Student Political Activism, 1927-1949 (1996, second edition 1999). To reach out to the scholarly world in mainland China and Taiwan, a Chinese-language version of this monograph has just been published in 2010. He has also co-authored with Hong Lysa, who has been his long-time, academic soul mate in the NUS History Department, a book on The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts (2008). In terms of edited volumes, he has co-edited Power and Identity in the Chinese World Order (2003) and Macro Perspectives and New Directions in the Studies of Chinese Overseas (2002).
He also has articles in international journals such as Modern Asian Studies, Journal of Oriental Studies, East Asian History, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, South East Asian Research, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Journal of Chinese Overseas and International Journal of Diasporic Chinese Studies. He is deeply committed to good teaching within the university as a way of sharing the production of knowledge with the younger generation. He has won the Teaching Excellence Award at the faculty level in 2002, 2008 and 2010. As for contributing towards cultivating an interest in history within the local society, he has given numerous talks in schools and agencies and has served as a member of the Singapore History Museum Board from 2001 to 2005 and the Singapore National Archives Board from 2005 to 2007.
Transcript of interview with A/P Huang Jianli:
Prof Huang, thank you for dropping by to tell us more about your fellowship and what you are up to. Firstly, can you tell us why you chose to make Lee Kong Chian the subject of your investigations?
Well, I am actually building on one of my previous works, a journal article published in 2009 entitled “Shifting Culture and Identity: Three Portraits of Singapore Entrepreneur Lee Kong Chian (1893-1967)”. Lee Kong Chian (LKC) is practically a household name in Singapore, and is known for his successful business empire and his legacy which continues through The Lee Foundation. LKC was among the most influential Chinese entrepreneurs in the Asian diasporic landscape from the 1920s to 1960s. In 1903, as a young boy, he migrated from China to then-British Singapore. He went on to build a formidable plantation-based business empire. Known in his heyday as Southeast Asia’s “Rubber King” and “Pineapple King,” he left profound imprints on business, education, and philanthropy that can still be felt in the region today. The period of the 1920s -60s was very volatile for the region encompassing the Great Depression, colonialism, WWII, occupation, decolonisation, and independence. Much of this turmoil meant business documentation was lost or even destroyed along the way for various reasons. It is fascinating to trace how LKC and his business fared and largely profited through this tumultuous period.
Can you tell us about your stint at Stanford?
Yes, I was at Stanford University, in theirSoutheast Asia Forum (SEAF) during the months of March and April this year. I spent much time with the SEAF Director Prof Donald Emmerson, and his colleagues and I enjoyed access to the various Stanford libraries and archives (for example, the Hoover Archives holding on the Chiang Kai-Shek Diaries). The Fellowship is very well resourced and afforded me ample opportunity to interact closely with Stanford scholars, graduate students and undergraduates as well as to attend seminars and deliver two key seminars. The first of these was titled “Rethinking the "Overseas Chinese": What's in a Name?” This SEAF Seminar drew the attention of the USA Chinese language daily newspapers World Journal and Sing Tao Daily. The second seminar was directly related to my research on LKC titled, “Beyond Representation? Portrayals of an Overseas Chinese Tycoon in Southeast Asia”. In this seminar I discussed how different impressions of LKC have been produced and projected at different times in different places: as “a leading capitalist and philanthropist in Nanyang,” “a representative patriot of the Chinese Diaspora,” and “a virtuous pioneer in the revised national history template.” What I am trying to achieve now is to go “beyond representation” by exploring the lesser well-known aspects of Lee’s life and times, including the nature of his economic empire and the political sensitivity of his position at a time when the sun was setting over the British Empire.
What have you found challenging in the course of the reserach?
Since the Lee companies and The Lee Foundation are all privately held there is little open information available pertaining to these institutions’ historical significance. I am aware of the impressive legacy LKC has left but at the same time I don’t wish my work to be a hagiographical account of his life. I am seeking to flesh out some issues of LKC’s representation from a sometimes limited essentialization and to move towards a more empirical, evidence-based approach with much greater details. The narrative will not necessarily be chronological and I hope to produce a more nuanced and analytical account of his life and business dealings. It is not likely to be a drastically revisionist account but certainly a more robust, contextualized and scholarly study. The challenges I face are the perennial challenges of the historian – reviewing and piecing together limited information, and discerning where to look to find the next piece of the puzzle.
Tell us about your plans for the rest of your term as Distinguished Fellow.
During my fellowship I have already tracked some of the historical linkages of LKC’s business empire through Southeast Asia. I visited many sites of LKC’s former rubber plantations in Southern Thailand, Northern Indonesia and Southern Indonesia. I conducted interviews for some oral history input as well as consulted photographic and documentary evidence. In June and July, I plan to travel to Peninsular Malaysia to consult old news reports and visit more old rubber and pineapple plantation sites. I will also go to China, to Nan'an, Fujian, the hometown of LKC and to Hong Kong to look at some bank records at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation archives. Once everything is collated I hope to produce at least one good journal article on my findings.
For more information on Prof Huang and his work click here: http://profile.nus.edu.sg/fass/hishjl