Friday, January 20, 2012

Lao Steampunk: Steaming up historical Southeast Asians

One of the big responsibilities a writer of steampunk set in Southeast Asia, whether in Lan Xang or elsewehere, is to find a way to make interesting presentations on alternate possibilities of figures who are historically significant to us, but not necessarily widely known or documented by the other major powers of the time.

A significant quandary is that unfortunately the vast majority of history regarding particular figures veers towards hagiography and deification of royal figures and their supporters. This runs counter to many of the counter-culture aesthetics of steampunk. From a more practical standpoint as a writer, this can also lead to considerable controversy, even potential accusations of lese-majesty unless one writes such figures as mary sue/marty stu paragons. And what would the point of that, if one is merely interested in reinforcing the existing narrative of those who have historically been in power?

There is a certain irony in being unable to attribute deeply imaginative qualities, interactions and conversations to those whose biographies already have some significant liberties taken with them.

Conversely, I can also see how many of us might have a reluctance to take on such figures because so much of their biographies have been significantly distorted, or 'enhanced' sometimes to meet the literary and socio-political needs of colonial powers. One might also object to taking on such figures whose stories are told in ways to justify the perpetuation or eradication of different power structures in the region. One nation's heroes are another's insubordinate rebels, another's visionaries are foreign puppets. Freedom fighters might be seen as mercenaries, bandits or merely nuisances.

Bearing all of that in mind, we still need to try and start somewhere, just so we know what our options might be. So who are some of the significant figures in Southeast Asia that might be interesting to address within steampunk and other alternate history literature?

Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthramaha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua also known as Rama IV or King Mongkut: Thailand A fairly obvious choice for the era. I wouldn't focus a steampunk story based on Anna Leonowens historically very limited interaction with him. Because of the way he embraced new ideas, even from the West, Rama IV is regarded as "The Father of Science and Technology" by many Thai today. That all but asks for a deeper examination of how he might have approached retro-futuristic technologies and culture.

I would also take note of his brother, Prince Isaret. The astrologers at the time indicated that Prince Isaret was also capable of being a good monarch. Historically, Rama IV had his brother crowned as King Pinklao, a second king who was known for his command of foreign languages and diplomatic relations. In this, there is certainly interesting wiggle room to explore 'behind-the-scenes' socio-political negotiations.

Chao Anou or Prince Anouvong: Laos. For stories set in the 1800s, Lao would most likely want to address the figure of Chao Anou, and what might have happened if things had gone differently at the beginning of the century. Historically, Chao Anou made a number of military errors and miscalculations that led to the end of Lan Xang and the sacking of Vientiane, among other unfortunate issues. Chao Anou came into conflict with Lady Mo, also known as Thao Suranari and General Sing Singhaseni. There aren't many records of Chao Anou's subordinates during this time.

Chaleunsilp Phia Sing: Laos. Born in the old royal capital of Luang Prabang, around 1898, he was the royal chef and master of ceremonies to the kings of Laos at the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang. From what we know of him, he was also a Lao renaissance man, being a physician, architect, choreographer, sculptor, painter and poet. He served as a mentor to the Laotian princes of the early 20th century, and accompanied them when they studied at the University of Hanoi in the 1920s. He literally wrote the book on Lao cooking. While we don't have many notes on what he was like otherwise, and he was born a little later than works well for most steampunk stories, he provides a good model for what someone serving the Lao royal courts could have been like who weren't royalty themselves.

Pa Chay Vue: Hmong. He was prominent from 1918 to 1921, a little later than most steampunk historical figures. Pa Chay Vue is chiefly noted for leading a Hmong revolt against the French. He is potentially a VERY interesting figure to examine in an alternate history story. A charismatic orphan who began in the Vietnamese province of Lao Cai, over the years significant number of legends that have emerged regarding him, many elevating him to a messianic figure, although French colonial forces largely regarded him and those who followed him as lunatics.

Trung Sisters: Vietnam. Although they are figures from the first century (at least up until 43 AD), an interesting alternate history might examine what different directions their legacy might have taken, or what might have happened if they had emerged later in Vietnamese history. That's of course a lot to try and take into consideration. But these two sisters led the first resistance against occupying Chinese following nearly 250 years of domination. As some historians note, between the legend of the Trung sisters and Trieu Thi Trinh, there's evidence that Vietnamese society was very matriarchal and open to women leaders.

Emperor Tự Đức: Vietnam  is more contemporaneous to the other figures I've listed here than the Trung sisters. He had to deal with a near-constant spate of internal rebellions which had become routine for the Nguyễn Dynasty. Throughout this era there were hundreds of small rebellions and uprisings against them.

Ultimately fearing a loss of power and potential death at the hands of rebels,  Tự Đức opted to sign away the southern Vietnam to be a French colony and accepted the status of a French protectorate. This was an enormously unpopular decision, and encouraged people such as Trương Định to denounce the emperor, refusing to recognize the treaty. Smallpox had left Tự Đức impotent , and despite his large harem, he left no heir when he died in 1883. According to legend he cursed the French with his dying breath. As I mentioned earlier at the beginning of our steampunk inquiries, had Emperor Minh Mạng succeeded in developing and implementing steamboat technology, Tự Đức might have had a very intriguing and impressive navy to work with which would have changed many aspects of the geopolitical landscape.

King Norodom: Cambodia. Regarded by many as the first modern Khmer king, he was credited with saving Cambodia from disappearing altogether, making a decision to have Cambodia become a French protectorate rather than be swallowed up by Vietnamese and Siamese interests of the time. While we might today wonder at the wisdom of the decision, it was a calculated risk to preserve his people's culture. His brother, Prince Si Votha, engaged in open rebellion against the French colonials in Cambodia. Historically, people note this wasn't because of desire for independence from the French but out of jealousy regarding his brother's coronation. Prince Si Votha rebellion wasn't regarded as the act an independence fight but more of a nuisance and an aspiring usurper of the Cambodian throne.

In 1906, a number of Cambodian court dancers of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia inspired the famous French sculptor Rodin so much that he followed the company from Paris to Marseilles in 1906 to sketch them and produced over 150 of his most famous illustrations from their visit as part of King Sisowath's entourage. It's an interesting story with many possibilities to an alternate historian.

Alternate historians working in Southeast Asia will find it significantly challenging but rewarding to recover the names and accounts of figures within the Khmu, Mien, Tai Dam, Lahu, Akha, and other cultures who have primarily oral traditions for preserving their history. This is especially in light of recent discussions over Zomia, which seems well-suited for examination in an alternate history story, especially steampunk.

But who are some of the Southeast Asian historical figures you think might be interesting to examine through an alternate history lens?

No comments: