Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920–1940 by Su Lin Lewis (review)
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Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920–1940. By Su Lin Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xii+ 309 pp.

Cast as, "largely, a social history of an aspirational multi-ethnic group of urban professionals and their children who moved and thrived within the context of the colonial-era port-city" (p. 15), Cities in Motion seeks to draw on the cases of interwar Penang, Rangoon and Bangkok to make a contribution to the blossoming field of global history.1 The book is comprised of an introduction, six substantive chapters and an epilogue. Those chapters address "Maritime Commerce, Old Rivalries, and the Birth of Three Cities", "Asian Port-Cities in a Turbulent Age", "Cosmopolitan Publics in Divided Societies", "Newsprint, Wires, and the Reading Public", "Playgrounds, Classrooms, and Politics", and "Gramophones, [End Page 440] Cinema Halls, and Bobbed Hair". The epilogue bears the subtitle, "Cosmopolitan Legacies". Several of the chapters are rather long, with four running to more than forty pages each; the epilogue, crucial to the argument that the book would make, runs to nine pages.

Early in the book's introduction, Su Lin Lewis suggests the purpose that the dense chapters to follow will serve: to use a study of "multi-ethnic port-cities" to contribute to the rescue of scholarship on "twentieth-century Asia" from domination by narratives of "the rise of the nation-state" (p. 2). Following the lead of other scholars, she pursues that goal by studying "cosmopolitanism as a practice" (p. 7) in the three chosen cities in the interwar period. It soon becomes clear, however, that Lewis's goals transcend the merely historiographic. She seeks in fact to make a bold contribution to the political history of Southeast Asia, broadly understood. For, she contends, in the "forgotten history of urban cosmopolitanism" that Cities in Motion unearths lay an alternative to the rise of the "crude ethnic nationalisms" (p. 24) that would later characterize the region.

This ambitious goal gives rise to one of the two fundamental problems that shadow the book. For it is not clear how the practice of cosmopolitanism can effectively reveal "visions … [of] postcolonial futures founded on pluralism, tolerance, and a 'broad outlook' as opposed to a narrow nationalism" (p. 264), except implicitly or by imputation. Practice and vision are very different things, and so there appears to be a lack of fit between the rich substance of Cities in Motion and the bold argument that it would make.

The second of these basic problems is methodological. Cities in Motion draws on an astonishing range of secondary sources, a good number concerning contexts other than the three cities that represent the ostensible focus of the book; on numerous archives but rather little actual archival material; and on various English-language newspapers, school and university and club publications, and official reports. It uses some of these latter — for example, in its treatment of Burma, the 1928 Report of the Indian Cinematograph Committee — to fascinating effect. More often, however, the effect of the book's approach is dizzying or disorienting. One finds few [End Page 441] extended, let alone analytical, discussions, grounded in primary sources, of the personalities and institutions active in Penang, Rangoon and Bangkok whose names come up in the text. Rather, the author has taken an essentially opportunistic approach, knitting into her chapters passing references to innumerable personalities and institutions that she has encountered in her reading and research. The result is meant, it seems, to be a pointillist rendering of the practice of cosmopolitanism.

This approach has a number of unfortunate corollaries. Despite the appearance, for example, of a handful of brief and stimulating comparative passages that suggest what might have been, "the bulk of the book" is not in any systematic way "a comparative study" (p. 22). Rather, its chapters work above all to hypothesize and catalogue shared or common manifestations of imputed cosmopolitanism in the three cities. Nor does the book have an interest in changes in the practice of cosmopolitanism in these cities during the course of the decades that it treats, in the middle of which the Great Depression struck Southeast Asia. That event had...