Lanfang as Frontier

The Lanfang Republic 兰芳公司 illustrates non-European, early modern, self-organizing, frontier settlement. Many of the self-reinforcing dynamics of the American West described by Frederick Turner can be sketched at work there, as can other geographic and historical contingencies that ultimately limited its expansion and led to its fall.

The Elegant Republic

The Lanfang Republic was a Chinese settlement in Borneo from 1777 to 1884. As described in Yuan Bingling’s study, Chinese settlers were originally invited by the Malay sultans of Borneo for their mining expertise. The multiple settlements founded in Borneo, of which Lanfang is the best documented, were organized politically around kongsi 公司, literally “common management”, today used as the Chinese word for corporation. The historical usage was broader and this usage survives in, eg, the organization for temple societies in Taiwan and clan associations throughout SE Asia (eg Khoo Kongsi in Penang). The translation of “republic” comes from 19th century Dutch orientalists who visited and studied these specific kongsi in Borneo.

The Chinese settlers in Borneo innovated on these existing civic institutions to construct the state infrastructure they required, around the council of the zongting 总厅.

The zongting had their own courts of law, their own financial systems, minted their own money, levied their own taxes, and maintained a number of treaties with the neighbouring Malay sultanates and Dayak tribes.
— Yuan Bingling, Chinese Democracies: A Study of the Kongsis of West Borneo

Lanfang acknowledged and paid tribute to the Qing emperor as part of the foreign policy conventions of the region, but did not depend on the Qing state in a colonial relationship. They had a similar relationship with the Dutch, before falling more directly under Dutch control later on. In this sense they arguably exercised more sovereignty than early American or Australian colonies.

Much of the immigration was Hakka or Hokkien, more historically mobile ethno-linguistic groups within the Han Chinese ethnicity. Hakka 客家 literally means “guest families”. Chinese communities as part of existing polities in SE Asia go back at least to the 13th century Yuan dynasty and trade links between SE Asia and China are a historic feature of the region, waxing and waning over time. 18th century immigration built on these existing trade links.

Turner, in The Significance of the Frontier in American History, describes the trader as “the pathfinder of civilization”, though in SE Asia it is the geographic interface of multiple civilizations as well as indigenous and non-state tribes. The traders were then followed by “sudden tides of adventurous miners” (reapplying Turner), followed finally by farmers. Turner is criticized as culturally imperialistic and nation-centric, and he tends to be a cheerleader for the advancing state. In this sketch we take “civilization” as just a synonym for “state-connected people”, without particularly seeing state or non-state non-state societies as better, hopefully without interfering particularly with the rest of the comparison.

Yuan Bingling, from whose book much of this detail on Lanfang is taken, does explicitly address the question of whether Turner’s frontier theory applies to the Chinese settlements in Borneo, but only to put it aside without conclusion. She is a meticulously detailed historian, and doesn’t commit to a theory where there are still many gaps in the available evidence. Yuan also points out Borneo had a complex social context where the frontier was not simply an open space sparsely peopled by Dayak populations. Yuan doesn’t explode the theory, either, or dismiss its relevance, so there is still some room to sketch how it would apply, even if what we are doing may no longer be strictly history.

James C Scott describes that in pre-modern SE Asian states, “oceans connect, mountains divide”. The frontier was not so much the ocean itself, as the more ambiguous barrier between accessible coastal settlement and mountain or jungle interiors. As in Turner’s America, “the frontier […] is not the European frontier — a fortified boundary line running through dense populations.” Scholars like Anthony Reid and William Skinner describe SE Asia generally as a place of creolization and hybridization. This creation of a new mixed culture in the new environment is a focus of Turner, for whom “the frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization”. In Lanfang specifically there was linguistic creolization and intermarriage between Chinese settlers and Dayak tribes.

Stack Trace

In Lanfang and the other kongsi of Borneo, you have a Chinese maritime culture, self-reinforcing, individually-directed settler dynamics with autonomous government and innovation in civic institutions. These all parallel the American frontier experience. It is also history that the Borneo kongsi had less extent in space and time than the American frontier experience and the subsequent American nation states.

This note doesn’t rigorously address why those differences exist, but we can sketch possible answers within the framework of recurrent reinforcing processes. The arguments fall roughly into whether the settlement process lacked strength in each iteration, or whether the environment was less conducive to the process. In the Lanfang Kongsi case, the process specifically stopped when the Dutch colonial state chose to destroy the kongsi militarily, as threats to their regional interests.

Borneo is the world’s third largest island, bigger than Great Britain and Honshu combined, but it is still much smaller than continental North America. The frontier of state settlement in SE Asia generally was not exhausted in the 19th century – arguably it exists in Myanmar and Laos today – but the opportunities were not so abundant and geographically contiguous as in the enormous American Midwest. The frontier process was not so extensive in time, lasting a century instead of several centuries, so there was less recurrence, and less reinforcing feedback.

The archipelagos of SE Asia made the naval power projection of European empires more crucial. Simply being attached to a power was hardly enough to ensure success, and other centres like Melaka flipped control between Malay sultans and various European empires. It is still notable that the kongsis existed outside support by great or regional powers. They didn’t benefit from nearby similar state-sponsored immigration or colonies, the way, eg, independently founded Plymouth did from state-founded Jamestown being in the same region. The kongsis also couldn’t benefit from imperial military support, either active or reluctant entanglement. After the state sponsored voyages of Zheng He 郑和, a kind of Ming Dynasty Apollo Program of superior technological achievement for reasons of political prestige, the Chinese state gave up on naval power, and the embattled 19th century Qing was in no condition to help mining colonies on the other side of the South China Sea.

Turner describes attempts by established states to establish a defined border being undermined by the self-settling frontier process, and those empires being drawn reluctantly forward, into yet further wars, by yet further waves of pioneers. Compared with America, the missing figure in Chinese maritime settlement in SE Asia is perhaps not the settler but the privateer.

Louise Levathes – When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433
Anthony Reid – Hybrid Identities in the 15th-century Straits in Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century: The China Factor
G William Skinner – Creolized Chinese Societies in Southeast Asia in Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese
James C Scott – The Art of Not Being Governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia
Frederick Jackson Turner – The Significance of the Frontier in American History
Yuan Bingling – Chinese Democracies: A Study of the Kongsis of West Borneo

Nostromos of Nanyang

All history is political, and all history is suffused with a sense of loss. 兰芳记, The Chronicles of Lanfang, sifts through both. Working with a team of writers and performers, director Choy Ka Fai brings into being a speculative museum of the Republic of Lanfang (兰芳公司), an 18th-19th century Hakka Chinese settlement in what is now Indonesian Borneo. The piece can be explored as a museum site alone, and there are also performed tours of the museum.

The Lanfang Republic was a real place, and there is a serious argument to consider it a small state with a population of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, depending on the time, and how you count. (For example, the wikipedia page points out only ethnic Chinese had voting rights in presidential elections. Without disputing major race discrimination was going on, the territory of the republic was probably not clearly controlled at borders in the modern sense, either.) The settlement existed because of, and the economy was dominated by, a nearby gold mine. It’s a fascinating moment in time, and the musuem setup includes archival material and books like Yuan Bingling’s intriguingly titled Chinese Democracies for those that want to follow up further.

The exhibits, and the performances, hold up artifacts to the light for us to see. This ranges from historical, to speculative, to impossible-but-thematic. A photo of a Chinese merchants Dayak wife, and her son; with a note that Dayak women were bought with a dowry. As well as conventional monogamy and traditional multi-wife polygamy, the massive gender disparity on the gold fields also spawned other relationships: like multiple miners pooling their funds to match the scarce erotic capital of a single Dayak wife, who would be free to sleep with other men or buy her way out of the marriage.

The speculative De Groot Collection organizes reconstructed artifacts into a museum tour. The curator/actor relates a timeline around the artifacts linking it to more familiar events in consensus history like the Napoleonic Wars or the abdication of Qianlong 乾隆帝. There’s a beautiful momentum to Ng Yi-sheng’s speech, though the inclusion of Luo Fang Bo’s mythical crocodile harnesses in the collection derailed it slightly for me. Choy Ka Fai is interested in obscured history, he tells us in the performance prologue, but undersignalled mythology obscures it further.

The short documentaries, The Man Who Rode Crocodiles, and Insignificant Landscapes, are meditations on emptiness and ruin, using locations tied to the republic. This whole piece isn’t just about the history, or else it would be a museum exhibit. The films are more about showing an absence, which is harder than it sounds.

A small number of artifacts, like the banknote at the top of the post, are from a parallel present that never existed. I have a weakness for these. They taunt me to see if I can pay with Luofang yuan (LFY) when booking tickets for the upcoming test match between the Confederate States of America and the Republic of Kashmir.

Parts of this piece have been staged once before at the Singapore Art Musuem, but it is sited now at the Ying Fo Fui Kun Cemetry 应和会馆墓. It’s an evocative place, founded by Hakka from the same Chinese prefecture as those that founded Lanfang Kongsi, three years later. Two short solo performances make a great theatrical use of the space. Epic Poems of the Kongsi War, in the form of a Malay family history, has a particular strength. The explicit performances give the actors the freedom to use full hysterical throttle as required. For the more curatorial pieces, it’s harder to strike the appropriate tone. This isn’t Banksy upending institutional hypocrisy with postmodern untruth, after all, unless I’ve misread the intent entirely. To reveal obscured history, I wonder if it might have been simpler to get a grad student from one of the local history departments involved as a guide, if harder to coach for a broad audience.

These are minor points. I spent the afternoon exploring the remnants of a republic founded a year after the United States declared independence, with the population of classical Athens, that lasted for a hundred years, but was convenient for people to forget. The study of the classics, Mary Beard recently wrote, is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. Sometimes antiquity happens very quickly.