Literary Institutions and Taste-Formation in the Straits Settlements, 1800-1870

Image: ‘Singapore, 1850’ by unknown Chinese artist. Oil on canvas: Copyright © 2017 The Kelton Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Image: The Singapore Institution, Singapore, 1841 by J. A. Marsh. © British Library Board, WD 2969.

Prof. Porscha Fermanis (UCD)

This case study focuses on the inter-relationship between the formation of literary taste and the formation of literary institutions in the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca, and Singapore) from 1800-1870, looking in particular at the foundation of libraries (such as the Penang Library and the Singapore Library), literary and other societies (such as local branches of the Asiatic Society), journals and newspapers (such as the Journal of the Indian Archipelago), and Malay and Chinese bookshops, libraries, and print cultures. One aim of this research to establish the extent to which economic, logistic, and other administrative practices impacted on literary life in the colonies, as well as to consider the ways in which colonial administration and taste-formation coincided, both directly (colonial administrators were among those who founded literary journals, clubs, societies, and coteries) and indirectly (as imperialism and laissez-faire liberalism affected and transformed the values associated with cultural capital). A second aim is to examine the extent to which it was possible for South-East Asian elites, despite the increasing textualisation of indigenous traditions, to negotiate positions of agency for themselves in the literary field. A final aim is to consider how the role of literature differed from that of more obviously ‘useful’ knowledge in the colonies? How did the learned versus pleasurable functions of literary texts operate and interact? And how did sentimental versus rationalist approaches to reading texts work either to highlight or elide ideological interests? The larger objective of this research therefore is to reflect on the evolution of literary taste in the Straits Settlements, and to consider the role of local, indigenous, and diasporic groups in that evolution.

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