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  • Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders
  • Kwee Hui Kian
Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders. By Adam M. McKeown. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 472 pp. $32.50 (cloth).

In this book, McKeown's main arguments are, first, that the present-day form of border regulation—in which border control was increasingly placed in the charge of nation-states (rather than polities like empires, kingdoms, port-cities, tribes, etc.), and the use of passports, photographs, and fingerprinting to document migrants—is an old thing. Its birth dated from the period from the 1880s to the second decade of the twentieth century, when white settler nations sought to regulate Asian migrations. These principles have gradually diffused throughout the world such that they have become universal today. Second, he argues that border regulation created a new order, a "melancholy order," in which migration regulation is directed at the individual migrant, nation-states became the authority of border control, and everyone in the world accepts the right and legitimacy of each nation-state to restrict who may enter its borders or not. [End Page 174]

How have borders become globalized in history? How was this melancholy order created? McKeown traces the process as follows. In the 1860s and 1870s, white settler nations espoused ideals of individual freedom and rights, but Asians were not welcomed. These nations rejected the Asian migrants with reasons that the latter were not civilized (in comparison with the whites) and came from stagnant polities (rather than progressive democracies like the whites). The irony was that as these nations excluded Asians, particularly the Chinese, from white settler nations, they were simultaneously demanding that Asia should be "opened" to foreign trade. In the practice of regulating borders, these authorities individualized migrants' identities. While there were multiple types of identities linked to ancestry, caste, class, title, nobility, and so forth, migrant regulation in white settler nations was done through regulating migrants as "free individuals." Techniques such as photography, fingerprinting, and anthropometric measurement were used to define persons as "unique objects." These techniques were first used in white settler nations to regulate against Chinese migration but gradually diffused to other parts of the world, creating a universal standardization of regulating migrants.

Gems in the book include the suggestion that the "main achievement of identification procedures was not to document identities but to produce them." For the migrant control officers, the physical individual is irrelevant. Individuals only exist in papers. Officers must be able to cross-reference these individuals with the legitimate data and numbers. More important, the production of identity is also to produce the image of some groups of migrants as lesser beings, having lesser rights to the society to which they immigrated. In history, examples would include the Chinese coolies and indentured Asian workers in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. In the present day, they would include guest workers, as well as undocumented, irregular, and illegal migrants.

"Even as they become an indispensable part of the economic community, they can obtain few legal or social protections and are scape-goated as the enemies of the political and social communities" (p. 359). Here, McKeown also cogently reminds us that it was not just the state but also "democratic and popular institutions" like workers' unions that were willing to disregard migrant rights. Even in the present day, the fact that we keep quiet and not contest such notions means that we are accepting and endorsing the system of discriminating against individuals based on the types of their migrant status.

I have doubts about some arguments in the book, however. McKeown suggests that the form of controlling migration by regulating [End Page 175] individual migrants started from the 1880s. But is that the case? Here, one might consider the control of Chinese newcomers to Dutch-controlled Java since the seventeenth century. The documentation was of individual Chinese newcomers, even if the Dutch colonial authorities delegated the duties of collection to designated headmen of the Chinese.

McKeown also suggests that the form of nation-state control over migration criminalized other forms of organizing migration, unless they were useful or worked with the state. But these...