Meet the Researchers: Associate Professor Huang Jianli

13 June, 2011

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…

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 their Southeast 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 research?

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 detail. 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 the Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Initiative on Southeast Asia click here: http://www.fas.nus.edu.sg/nusstanfordsea/ and for information on Prof Huang and his work click here:http://profile.nus.edu.sg/fass/hishjlhttp://ap3.fas.nus.edu.sg/fass/hishjl/