Books I’ve Read This Week: The History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 45: The History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia:¬†Next week, I will be giving a lecture series on a cruise ship sailing to Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In recent weeks, I have been researching the history of Southeast Asia, reading a general history of the region, two histories of Singapore, two histories of Vietnam, two histories of monarchy in Thailand and the surrounding nations, and a novel set in colonial Malaysia that includes a historical afterword about the history of the Straits Settlements. Here are this week’s reviews:

#309 of 365 A New History of Southeast Asia by M.C. Ricklefs, Bruce Lockhart, Albert Lau, Portia Reyes and Maitrii Aung-Thwin.

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 572 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: October 31, 2018

Review: A strong overview of the political and religious history of the region. There is less space devoted to society and culture as well as the status of women. The early chapters are little hard to follow but the modern history is well organized and described for those who are new to the history of southeast Asia. There are certain key developments that seem to be summarized very quickly, especially the Vietnam War. The further reading section is exceptionally detailed and useful as it is organized by time period, country and theme. A good introduction to Southeast Asian history.

#310 of 365 Singapore A Pictorial History 1819-2000 by Gretchen Liu

Date Read: November 8, 2018

Genre: History/Photography

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 400 pages

Review:¬†An informative and beautifully illustrated history of Singapore that reflects the country’s cultural diversity from the 19th century to the present day. Liu does not only provide a political and social history of Singapore through visual culture but also the history of art and photography in the region. The author discusses the origins of the images in the book as well as the events depicted in them. There are some interesting photographs of royal tours including the welcome of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (the future King George V and Queen Mary) in 1901, a garden party in honour of the Duke of Connaught in 1906, the future King Edward VIII at the Malaya Borneo exhibition in 1922, and Queen Elizabeth II at a military review in 1972. The book concludes with panoramic landscapes of modern Singapore. A fascinating volume, especially for travelers to the region.

#311 of 365 Monarchy in South East Asia: The Faces of Tradition in Transition (Politics in Asia series) by Roger Kershaw

Genre: Political Science

Date Read: November 9, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Paperback, 268 pages

Review: An analysis of monarchical governments in southeast Asia from the Second World War to the end of the 20th century with an introductory chapter summarizing the influence of key events from the mid 19th century. The book is a comprehensive study of monarchy in the region, encompassing Laos, Brunei, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia, and includes rulers and dynasties who are comparatively little known. Since the book was published in 2001, the discussion of current events is a little dated and some of the predictions did not unfold quite as described by the author but the historical context, theoretical framework, and further reading list is detailed and informative.

The book includes a timeline of events and would have been enhanced by the inclusion of maps and geneological charts. Since the focus is on the influence of monarchical government on political structures rather than the wider history of region, Monarchy in South East Asia is best read after finishing a general history of the region as the author assumes a certain degree of general knowledge of historical and political events. A detailed and informative book relevant to both scholars and general readers interested in royalty and Southeast Asia.

#312 of 365 Vietnam: A New History by Christopher Goscha

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 11-16, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 23 hours and 42 minutes

Review:¬†An excellent book that provides an overview of the political, social and cultural history of Vietnam with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries. Vietnam: A New History¬†is thoroughly researched and scholarly but written a style accessible to readers new to the history of southeast Asia. While most English language histories of Vietnam focus almost exclusively on the Vietnam War, Goscha provides an extensive analysis of Chinese and French influences on Vietnamese culture in addition to the impact of the United States in the region. Goscha also addresses the cultural diversity of the region and Vietnam’s relationship with other countries in Southeast Asia. An informative and interesting read.

#313 of 365 The End of the Absolute Monarchy in Siam by Benjamin A. Batson

Date Read: November 17, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Paperback, 349 pages

Review:¬†A fascinating in-depth study of the reign of King Prajadhipok (reigned 1925-1935), the last absolute monarch of Siam (Thailand) that draws upon a wide variety of sources including memoranda drafted by the King (which are included as an appendix in the book) and the popular press of the time. Batson explains the King’s routine and responsibilities during the final years of the absolute monarchy, which included reviewing¬†personally all the petitions that he received as well as participating in court ceremonies and undertaking foreign tours. The King visited Canada and the United States in 1931 to seek treatment for an eye condition and described his stay in Banff as “a real holiday for me.” Batson does an excellent job of explaining the court politics of the time and the roles of the various princes within the wider royal family and the government. An interesting and informative book.

#314 of 365 Singapore: A Biography: by Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Date Read: November 19, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 456 pages

Review:¬†A history of Singapore from the 1300s to 1965, incorporating images from the History Galleries of the National Museum. The book discusses the history of the island¬† including the mysterious fire that destroyed the settlement that predated the British colony, the goals of Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquar in creating a British outpost there, the cultural and social history of the island, trade and commerce in the region, and the effects of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The illustrations include the London Illustrated News coverage of the royal visit to Singapore by the future King George V and Queen Mary in 1901. A fascinating and engaging book that presents Singapore’s rich history from a variety of perspectives.

#315 of 365 A History of the Vietnamese by K.W. Taylor

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Paperback, 626 pages

Review: A monumental history of the lands and peoples that comprise present day Vietnam with the majority of the book devoted to the centuries before European contact and conquest. Taylor focuses on the steady influence of China over Vietnamese politics and culture over the centuries with comparatively brief periods of French, Japanese and American involvement in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a strong emphasis on royal court politics and dynasties including the policies and personalities of successive rulers. Women played a prominent role at court and often helped to determine which one of the numerous princes within the extended royal family would become the next ruler. The Vietnam War is summarized relatively quickly in the second last chapter but the events of this conflict have received extensive attention in other works of Vietnamese history. A detailed and comprehensive history from the earliest surviving sources to the present.

#316 of 365 The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Genre: Historical Fiction/Supernatural

Dates Listened: November 18-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 8 minutes

Review:¬†“Desires and feuds lingered even after death.” A unique novel that is both historical fiction set in the Chinese community of 1890s colonial Malaysia and a ghost story where the heroine visits the plains of the dead and discovers family secrets. In the novel, the living and the dead are connected through numerous channels as the dead draw upon offerings left by their living family members and recreate the same social hierarchy that they experienced while they were alive. The writing has a dreamlike quality as the ghosts move differently than the living (they have difficulty moving in straight lines) and travel at different rates through the various stages of the afterlife. I expected the book to spend a bit more time in land of the living and would have been interested to read more scenes set in colonial Malacca. An interesting read that includes a detailed historical afterward that discusses the Chinese communities in the Straits Settlements and the ideas of the afterlife that existed in that place and time.

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