Port Cities Environments in Global Asia

Henry Luce Foundation New York University Project

Port Cities Environments in Global Asia

Research Group (NYU Shanghai)

(Trans)Ports: The Internal Life and External Reach of Indian Ocean Port Cities

The NYU Shanghai research group will focus on circulations among port cities across the Indian Ocean, the links between port cities and their hinterlands, and the internal compositions and socio-cultural as well as politico-economic dynamics within port cities.  “(Trans)ports” – these special places-cum-people – are regarded as “hubs,” i.e., as highly connected nodes of convergence, entanglement and divergence in the global streams of human beings, animals, plants, finances, ideas and other matters. The aim is to examine the mobile and multifaceted connections, networks, circulations, and routes of exchange that course within the life worlds of port cities and beyond them, into their immediate hinterlands or even more distant localities. This research group intends to demonstrate that port cities are not only market places but also places that incubated and transmitted new ideas, values, habits, cuisines, religions, technologies and medical knowledges into the hinterlands and across the seas.

Members of this research group, each focusing on different port cities of the Indian Ocean and through interdisciplinary perspectives, will address several issues in order to understand the internal dynamics and the external entanglements of Indian Ocean port cities across time and space. How were and are port cities governed? Are the various ethnic, occupational, or religious groups quasi-autonomous or embedded in and subject to a hegemonic and hierarchical political system? Other important aspects in this context include the relations between the ports and their hinterlands, between trading companies and fishing communities and the other social, political and/or military establishment(s) of a port city, between port dwellers and foreign settlers and religious institutions, the heritage-making in port cities, and the impact of individual ports on the wider Indian Ocean connections.

The Luce Foundation Grant funds will reinforce the ongoing collaboration among researchers engaged in the study of the Indian Ocean at New York University, Shanghai (NYU-SH) and the Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg (MLU).  At NYUSH, the researchers are affiliated with the Center for Global Asia (CGA).  At MLU, the participants are affiliated with the Center for Interdisciplinary Regional Studies (Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Regionalstudien, or ZIRS).  In part due to a grant from the Volkswagen Foundation, this collaborative research cluster has already developed a series of projects under the overarching theme of “(Trans)Ports.” In addition to conducting individual research, the research cluster intends to meet every year to discuss the research findings, plan presentations at conferences, and publish their outcome in edited volume(s).  

The Luce Foundation Grant would facilitate the ongoing cooperation between NYU-SH and MLU, and would in addition allow NYUSH to build research and teaching collaborations with its partner portal campuses in New York City and Abu Dhabi.  In particular, NYU-SH will build relationships with faculty at NYU-NY and NYU-AD interested in the study of the Indian Ocean World as a conceptual framework and problem (rather than merely as a territorial “container” or geopolitical “stage”), an historical arena of competition, conflict, and cooperation among various actors and agents on sea and land.   

Given the foundations already laid by the Center for Global Asia at NYU-SH, the Shanghai core faculty involved in the Luce Foundation Grant would concentrate its funds on (1) promoting connections and encouraging interactions among researchers with common interests within the NYU Global Network and beyond, and (2) generating new collaborative research frameworks and projects based upon those connections. Our model for this type of ongoing work is the successful implementation of a three-year series of “summer schools” organized between NYU-SH and MLU with funds from the above-mentioned Volkswagen Foundation.  The one-week Summer School on Indian Ocean World Connectivities afforded faculty from the two institutions to meet with junior and senior scholars (historians, anthropologists, geographers, and archeologists) from around the world working on the Indian Ocean to discuss a variety of thematic focal points.  From these one-week interactions, collaborative projects have emerged that will, for instance, focus on Chinese sources on maritime Asia and joint editing of an online journal on the Indian Ocean World.  Another emerging collaborative project would focus on the transfer of living biological species across the Indian Ocean for purposes of scientific study, commercial profiteering, political gift exchange, agrarian production, or personal desire and pleasure.  With the funding of the Volkswagen Foundation soon coming to an end, NYU-SH would be eager to mobilize the support of the Luce Foundation to continue these collaborations and, indeed, to build upon them by integrating more colleagues from the two other NYU campuses in the Global Network.

Another area of interest would be educational, pedagogical, and curricular development with a “global Asia” thematic emphasis, which would unite the faculty and institutional resources of the three NYU portal campuses.  For example, we hope to use Luce Foundation funding to develop online courses in which professors and students and professors from NYU-AD and NYU-SH can teach and learn together. NYU-SH and NYU-AD have already offered an online course on Global Asia, which we hope to introduce as the foundation course for Asian Studies minor at NYU-AD. NYU-SH and NYU are currently discussing the possibilities of offering a MA program in Global Studies. NYU-SH already offers one postdoctoral fellowship for study of the Indian Ocean World. Additionally, through the Luce Foundation grant, the three campuses hope to develop a regular workshop for doctoral students working on the Indian Ocean.

Research Participants and Project Summaries

Tansen Sen   

    Professor, NYUSH  

    Director, Center for Global Asia at NYU-SH

“The Internal and External Connections of Guangzhou.”  For most of the first millennium CE, Guangzhou (aka Canton) was the leading port in the southern coastal region of China with links to several Indian Ocean sites. It was the main conduit for the import and export of commercial items, a place where some of the earliest Buddhist monastic institutions were established, and also a site for interactions between foreign settlers and local traders and elites.  This part of the research project examines the maritime connections of Guangzhou and the social, cultural and economic impact of these connections on the port city as well as the hinterland areas during the first millennium CE. Specifically, it will study the following three aspects: 1) the influence of foreign merchant communities, Buddhist institutions, and imported goods on the daily lives of the people in Guangzhou, and through the port city into the hinterland areas, with regard to knowledge of foreign regions, changes in cuisine and medical cures, and the acceptance of new religious traditions; 2) the economic growth of the port city as well as the hinterland areas triggered by Indian Ocean trade; and 3) the contribution of Guangzhou to the expansion of intra-Indian Ocean interactions through the development of port facilities, administrative and market structures, and investment opportunities. A variety of textual sources, including those in Chinese, Arabic, and Persian languages, and archeological evidence will be used to study these three aspects.    

Duane Joseph Corpis

    Associate Professor, NYU-SH

“Transporting Protestant Charities to India:  German and English Missionary Networks in the Port Cities of Eighteenth-Century India.”  This part of the project analyzes the ways that the movement of charitable funds, goods, and services helped to create a dynamic and interconnected infrastructure linking German, English, and Indian actors located within India’s eastern ports in the eighteenth century.  This infrastructure generated and stabilized networks of material and cultural exchanges, which tied those Indian port cities with European towns, merchants, political authorities, and religious institutions. Charity is often viewed as a mode of resource distribution that exists outside of the structural logics of the political economy of commercial activities. As a result, there are few theoretical or empirical studies that take account of how the movement of charity across vast distances was actually a core element for creating a set of powerful connections among colonial, imperial, and commercial hubs in Europe and India.  The empirical focus of this research examines the collaborative projects of the German missionaries sent by the Danish King to his colony in Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) along with the London-based Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), which worked with the German missionaries in Tranquebar as well as in the English outpost of Madras (Chennai).  The charitable activities of the German missionaries and the SPCK expanded European material and ideological influence in the region through the mobility of missionaries themselves, the books and Bibles they produced and distributed for free, the schools they established, the money they shipped from one port to the next, as well as the food and other resources they offered to local residents in order to convert them to Christianity. Charity cannot be seen as a minor and exogenous variable within the imperial and colonial economies of exchange in the Indian Ocean. Rather, charitable networks participated in the creation and consolidation of European colonial influence in the Indian Ocean as much as it attempted to promote the export of Protestant Christianity within the region. 

Tzu-hui Celina Hung

    Assistant Professor, NYU-SH

“From Fishermen to Forgotten Slaves across International Waters: Writing Environmental and Labor Outcries in Taiwan’s Ocean Literature.”  This part of the research project is based upon a historically-sensitive, text-based analysis of a corpus of recent literary writings from Taiwan by both Han-Chinese and Indigenous authors.  These writings concern the relation between the island country (focused on its various sea ports) and its surrounding oceans and seas, through the lens of a highly profitable but ethically problematic offshore fishing industry, involving a transnational group of Taiwanese companies, international labor agencies, and both Taiwanese fishermen and Southeast Asian migrant laborers (many of whom came from small fishing villages in rural Indonesia, for example). This lucrative but also internationally notorious industry has traversed many waters (from the Pacific side to the Indian Ocean and even the Atlantic) and gained growing (but still not sufficient) public visibility through independent news reportage over the last few years, which has raised public concerns at home and abroad. Celina Hung’s project is thus a socially engaged literary analysis that will shed light on the many forms of Taiwan’s connections — not to the East Asian continent — but to its seaborne neighbors and environment. 

Lena Scheen

    Assistant Professor, NYUSH

 “Remembering the Treaty Port: Colonial Nostalgia in Oral Stories about Shanghai.” This part of the research project stands at the intersection of history, ethnography, and literary studies. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, it analyzes the representation of Shanghai’s semi-colonial history in oral stories by Shanghai residents affected by the city’s large-scale demolition and relocation process. Mixing personal experiences, historical facts, with urban legends, the stories nostalgically portray a cosmopolitan city shaped by its past as a Treaty Port. The project explores how the act of storytelling has become an important means through which Shanghai residents cope with, make sense of, or resist and protest the rapid disappearance of their living environment. It also traces the historical accuracy of these stories to analyze how the residents strategically use the city’s Treaty Port history in their petitions for certain buildings or neighborhood to be recognized as historical heritage.

Burkhard Schneppel

    Professor, Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg

    Acting Director, Center for Interdisciplinary Area Studies at MLU

“Mauritius’ Path from Port of Call to Cyber Island.” This part of the research project aims to be a contribution to the ethnohistory of hubs, especially island hubs, using the port city of Port Louis on the island of Mauritius in southwest of the Indian Ocean as a case and paradigm. Geo-strategically, this island belongs to the category of what could be called “useful-island-in-the-middle-of-nowhere.” Lying roughly halfway between the Cape of Good Hope and India, Mauritius (i.e., place and people) provided a welcome intermediate anchoring point and shelter in the vastness of the sea during the age of sail. The project is based on the hypothesis that it has been and will be the raison d’etre, that is, the primary function and most basic characteristic of this island to be a hub. Mauritius, to put it bluntly, was born to be a hug. Furthermore, originally starting as a maritime hub, the expertise and functions, which were acquired and developed by Mauritius in this capacity were gradually transferred to several non-maritime domains, where they sooner or later began to lead an independent life. In this way, over the centuries, Mauritius has become an expert or master in the art of hubbing.

The project shall seek to demonstrate the above point by looking at Mauritius’ history as a hub and at the changes that have taken place within this history, starting from the island’s early phase as a naval base up to its present roles as tourist destination, off-shore banking place and cyber island. It shall also investigate the transformative, value enhancing processes which take place within the Mauritian hub, arguing that for an understanding of Mauritian society and culture it is no longer viable to look at it, as has been done in the majority of studies, as a plantation society only, but as a “hub society” as well.

Katja Müller

    Postdoctoral Researcher, Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg

“Digital Port City: Mumbai and Indian Cultural Heritage.”  Port cities have always been hubs for the influx, circulation, and outflow of ideas, goods and, people. Bombay or Mumbai, an island city with a comparatively young harbor history of 600 years, is situated on the Indian Ocean and thus has been strategically an entrance and exit point from travels and shipments between India and Europe. From the ports of Bombay, artefacts of cultural heritage – among other goods – have been shipped predominantly outwards, to form the stock of cabinets and studies across ethnographical museums and institutes in Europa (and Northern America). In the context of museum’s postcolonial agendas, digitized cultural heritage travels in bits through submarine cables and again finds Mumbai as the major port. Bridging the gap between cultural knowledge in colonial and concurrent times, this part of the research project asks how the port characteristics of the city of Bombay contribute to its continuing importance in the realm of cultural heritage and its transoceanic circulation. It aims to connect ideas of port cities with current changes in the tangibility of goods being shipped in and out of Bombay. It will argue that recognizing Bombay as a port city and a digital port city allows us to take the example of Indian cultural heritage and trace its former and present ways of circulations across the Indian Ocean.

Boris Wille

    Doctoral Researcher, Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg

“Trans-infrastructure and the spatiality of political protest in the Maldivian hub-city Malé.”  The controversial change of the Maldivian government in February 2012 sparked an unprecedented wave of counter-protest that was mainly staged in the capital city Malé. This protest movement interacted with urban spaces in particular ways as to transcendent its local boundaries by tackling, subverting and interlacing various networks for the protest movement’s own political cause. In the island nation of the Maldives the capital Malé occupies a pivotal role in terms of trans-infrastructure: it acts as a hub in terms of maritime as well as airborne transport; it caters for most trans-national organizations and businesses like the UNDP, diplomatic missions, NGO’s, as well as tourism and finance corporations; it accommodates most trans-regional facilities in higher education, research, health, religion and media; and most importantly it houses most national institutions of the state like ministries, authorities, the security forces’ headquarters, the parliament and the president’s office. The concentration of these infrastructures on a single densely populated small island presents a particular spatial configuration that enables transmutations of assets between various networks that in turn form the base for the accumulation of power. These vital nodes were crucial targets for the protest movement to pursue its political project. This part of the research project analyzes the spatial tactics of the protest movement in terms of how it approached these infrastructures, through occupying, blocking and undermining, or through linking, juxtaposing and conflating associations in order to dispute the legitimacy of the power transfer. It will show how the movement’s spatial appropriation of trans-infrastructures reveals the intertwinements of power and connectivity. It will argue that the investigation of the spatial performance of the protest movement offers a useful approach to unravel the politics of networking within the hub-city.

Mareike Pampus

    Doctoral Researcher, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

“Port City Cuisines: Histories and Routes of Maritime Connectivities.”  This part of the research project offers an anthropological approach towards port city cuisines. Ingredients, recipes, and dishes traveled for centuries through maritime trading networks.  Therefore, in-depth analyses of food, foodways, and port city cuisines in particular reveal histories and routes of maritime connectivities and trans-cultural contacts. Since eating together is a social act and certain dishes are used as identity markers, this study will offer a new perspective on the ethno-histories of port cities and the manifold identities within them. Drawing from primary research on Penang, it will be a multi-sited examination and consider not only Penang’s port city cuisines, but also use examples from Macau and Calcutta within the framework of connected histories of the Indian Ocean World.



#Center for Global Asia



Email: shanghai.cga@nyu.edu

Phone Number: +86 (21) 20595043

WeChat: NYUShanghaiCGA


Room W822, 567 West Yangsi Road,

Pudong New Area, Shanghai, China

NYU Shanghai Logo-white

© 2024 All Rights Reserved