Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011
James F. Warren

Pirates, Prostitutes and Pullers
Explorations in the Ethno- and Social History of Southeast Asia

Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-9802965-4-9 (pbk), xiii + 418 pp.

reviewed by Stephen Dobbs

  1. Pirates, Prostitutes and Pullers Explorations in the Ethno- and Social History of Southeast Asia brings together in a single volume more than three decades of essays by one of the foremost historians of modern Southeast Asia, James Warren. Whilst the chapters in this volume have in most cases appeared previously the collection has been through a process of revision and some additional commentary and new materials are included. Warren's work throughout his career has been squarely aimed at bringing back into the narrative of history the voices of underclasses that for the most part have been overlooked in the colonial and nationalist histories of the region. His work also has been at the forefront of conceptualising the region not as a cluster of colonial or nation states but rather as a region of dynamic interactions and confluences. As this collection of papers clearly shows, Warren has positioned himself as an historian who empathises with the subjects of his work. The introduction to the collection reflects on the way his life and work have been mapped simultaneously in a process of 'passing over.' Clearly influence by John Dunne's very personal The Way of All the Earth, Warren places great emphasis on his attempts to develop a 'sympathetic understanding' of other peoples, societies and cultures. From a methodological point of view Warren's work, as reflected in the essays in this collection, has been strongly influenced by the Annales School with his focus clearly on the less obviously sensational and great moments (and 'men') of history. Warren has taken some central methodological positions from this school of historical practice and applied them to the study of the Sulu region as an economic and socio/cultural and political zone. Similarly, he has examined through this same lens the lives of rickshaw pullers and prostitutes as they were played out against the backdrop of the great global forces of European colonial expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  2. The collection can be divided broadly into sections which cover some of the major historical projects of Warren over the past thirty years. The first seven chapters relate to his work on the Sulu Zone incorporating essays on the evolution of the zone as a multi-ethnic polity, Conrad's fiction as history, slave raiding and the ethnogenesis of the Balangingi Samal to mention only a few of the topics covered. There are eight chapters in the collection relating to Warren's social history study of rickshaw pullers and Ah Ku (Chinese) and Karayuki-san (Japanese) prostitution in Singapore during the later colonial period. These essays cover a broad range of issues in exploring the underside of a colonial success story from the perspective of these labouring classes in Britain's ''queen of the further east' Singapore. Within all these essays whilst one is drawn to empathise with the central historical characters and the hardships they faced there is no sense that Warren simply sees these subalterns as victims. On the contrary, he is at his best as an historian in highlighting the fact that whilst victimhood was part of their experiences they were real historical actors in their own right. Not simply being acted upon by history but making and shaping history by their actions. The final essay in this collection examines transnational crime, in particular piracy and human trafficking, against the background of China's recent re-integration into the global capitalist system. It provides an interesting and contemporary rounding out of the collection and of Warren's thinking.
  3. This collection of work is perhaps most valuable for the insights it provides into the thinking and methodological approaches taken by Warren. His mastery of both archival research and new approaches to historical understandings are clearly chronicled in these papers. Insights into the diversity of his approach and methodology spring from every essay however a number of papers in the book focus more directly on the practice of history and some of the less traditional sources and approaches the author has utilised in his efforts to give voice to these ignored subaltern groups. Warren clearly loves the adventure of the archival search as his description of finding the colonial Coroner's Records in the basement of the Subordinate Court in Singapore demonstrates. These records would provide him considerable substance for his study of rickshaw pullers and prostitutes in Singapore. In his own words, 'as I began to read the certificates and inquests and inquiries, the rickshawmen, their kinsmen, clansmen and women…walked beside me' (p. 151). Warren's nuanced and 'imaginative' reading of these sources is unmatched by any contemporary and in the pages of his histories three-dimensional characterisations leap out at the reader. However, he was also a pioneer in his studies of Singapore's social history in advocating and utilising oral history and also sources such as photographs. He also recognised the value of looking at fictional works such as Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and Lord Jim for the windows they provided on the world of colonial Southeast Asia. Chapter ten of this volume examines the place of photographs in researching and writing social histories of Singapore. It stands out as a fine example of Warren's depth of historical understanding and methodological prowess. Whilst recognising the interpretative difficulties in using such sources the author has proven himself a master at utilising these visual materials to throw light on the material existence of rickshawmen and prostitutes as well as the nature of the urban colonial environment they inhabited.
  4. A notable aspect of this collection is the introduction it provides to the work Warren undertook to bring to life the voices of colonised women—Japanese and Chinese prostitutes. In many respects he led the way in this particular area of social history in the Southeast Asian context. He understood before many of his contemporaries (writing on Southeast Asia) that for social history to have any real meaning in opening up the world of subalterns in the region it would have to deal with the intertwined yet distinctly different historical place of lower-class women. His study of prostitution in Singapore is an attempt to write women into history in a way that is more than simply an appendage of male-centric history. The essays in this collection provide the reader with a glimpse of the outcomes of his efforts and more importantly an analysis of his reasoning, method and approach.
  5. This collection of essays will be welcomed by historians and anyone else who has an interest in the history of Southeast Asia. There would be few historians (I hope none) working on research of any Southeast Asia-related topic that have not made themselves familiar with Warren's work. His meticulous research methodology and ability to write readable and interesting history are well represented in this volume. The scope of the essays in this volume highlight why he has been such an inspiration for a younger generation of historians working on the region to challenge the boundaries of nationalist histories and also the boundaries of the mind in terms of conceptualisation and practice of history.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 24 February 2011 1225