Bracketing Home: The Asian Century

July 3, 2015
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asiaPost by Yiu Fai Chow (Hong Kong Baptist University), Sonja van Wichelen (University of Sydney), and Jeroen de Kloet (University of Amsterdam)

This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies, where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna.

The 21st century is often heralded as the Asian, if not the Chinese, Century.

We understand the seduction of such nomenclature. At the same time, we think it is important to be critical and cautious about such narratives that are often accompanied with strong doses of nationalism; after all, who needs another hegemonic power in the wake and form of the United States? But we understand the seduction of calling this century the Asian one, as much as we see the urgency to acknowledge changing dynamics between here and there. It seems undeniable that the Rise of Asia in the global context of our century has been engendering important shifts in geopolitical power relations. They necessitate more nuanced empirical inquiries and intellectual thinking on all sorts of issues, rather than one grand narrative. Mobility is one such issue. In a world that is increasingly globalized, in flux, groups of people are constantly on the move, either voluntarily as businessmen, academics or tourists, or by necessity as migrants or refugees. And yet, we must not forget those who stay put. The majority of Americans, for example, do not have a passport, while their films, music and television shows are likely to constitute the heaviest cultural (and economic) traffic in the world. In the meantime, in nations like China, many citizens have no choice but remain in their hometown, paradoxically involved in paid labour enabled by global capital.

We are, however, not only interested in mobility in a general sense. More specifically, we want to inquire into the “Asianization” side of this. Such more specific configuration of our intellectual curiosity is interwoven in our biographies. All of us traverse between “the West” and “the East,” making do with what we have, occasionally wondering where on Earth we are. And then we become sharply aware that home is not merely a manifestation of personal choice and affect, but also an issue of politics and power, when we are asked by those who insist on asking: Where do you really come from? Where is your real home?


Questions of place, belonging and citizenship have been high on the intellectual agenda since the early 1990s, yet most of these studies take “the West” as their focal point. The Asian turn urges us to rethink these notions. Can we still feel at home in a world that is so much in flux? Is home such a nice and cozy place as we are often expected to believe? The demand to feel at home is ridden with power; it is often imposed upon migrants to enforce assimilation; it may render us less mobile than we would like to be; and it may hinder rather than support the multiculturalist dynamics of a city. A migrant worker who left his hometown in Anhui in search for a better life in Shanghai is less likely to feel at home, given that local urbanite Shanghainese may look down upon him as having less “quality” (suzhi). On the other hand, can he ever feel truly at home in the big city, while his hometown is still struck and stuck by poverty and a lack of opportunities? Home is consequently fraught with longings and belongings that may produce a deadlock, rather than a sense of intimacy, capable of pushing us into a perpetual state of schizophrenia.

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An appeal to reconceptualize “home” seems necessary, not only to find a way out of such schizophrenic states of mind, but also to investigate how the Asian Century contributes to changing the notions of place, belonging, and citizenship so deeply anchored in the colloquial definition of home. Increasingly, we witness disjunctures and fractures between these three different modalities of home. People are forced to move and then even if they do develop a strong sense of belonging to that new place, they have to fight for their citizenship’s rights. Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong, for instance, have left behind their own families to take care of the families of their employers. This displacement of homes plunges them deeply into the workings of global capitalism, without earning them any citizen rights from the authorities. In other fast-changing cities in Asia, such as Beijing, people often feel alienated, negotiating a deep sense of non-belonging with the massive mutation of the cityscape. It is our contention that these disjunctures, as demonstrated in such “Asianization,” will increase in the future; the tensions between home and the actual place we find ourselves living in, between home and our sense of belonging, and between home and the rights attached to it, are increasingly disjointed.


Where home is matters not just geographically, but also historically, politically and culturally. Given the complex realities of home and the persistent simplicity or simplification in its imagination, we want to make a modest plea: to bracket home, not unlike the way we hyphenate identity. We find it necessary to bracket home as (making) place, (not) belonging and (flexible) citizenship-–to foreground the never-ending process of homemaking, the multiplicity of feelings and experiences, and the possibility of transcending old loyalties. To bracket home is to remind us that home is always already implicated in such complexities, thus always already in the processes of making. It is a profoundly sensory enterprise that involves a structure of feeling, an affective mode of belonging, that requires constant maintenance, and that remains perpetually fragile. Perceiving home in this manner paves the way for probing into the role that imagination plays–including old and new media–in the negotiation of home. Campaigns, pictures, and other visual materials (for example in the local branding of Hong Kong) attest to this important role of the imagination, as significantly as the limitations of such. Put differently, they are concerned with moments when memories flow in frustration with imagination, when longings duly evoked run havoc with the construction and maintenance of a sense of belonging.


In the editor’s note to this post, you will find the reference to a special issue of articles on “home,” which, in turn, found its roots in a conference we organized. The conference took place in Hong Kong in early 2013. Let us end with what took place in the city more than a year later, as an extended postscript to underline the urgency to revisit notions of home, belonging and citizenship in the Asian context. The protests loosely grouped as the Umbrella Movement were in many ways implicated with contestations precisely over home. Protesters claimed the streets, eventually calling the occupied areas “villages” with postal addresses, donning flyovers and highways with works of art, equipping public toilets with personal but communal toiletries, in short, making a place yet to be defined. At the same time, other populations fought to “reclaim” their city back to the older manners of running their shops, going to their work, and generally to the place already made. More immediately, the protests, and the counter-protests, were part and parcel of the larger contest over political power, democracy and freedom: who has the right to decide the city’s future? Beijing? Hong Kong? Who in Hong Kong exactly? The protests took place also in the midst of heightening Sino-Hong Kong tension not only in the political arena but also in everyday life. Many “local” people complain that “local” resources are being abused by increasing numbers of newcomers from mainland China, sometimes culminating in instances of intra-ethnic discrimination or downright xenophobic attacks. While mainland Chinese tourists are accused of being “unpatriotic” for spending money in Hong Kong, Hong Kong people are blamed for their lack of nationalistic feelings for their mother land. The latest controversy flared up when the largely local audience booed the national anthem of China when Hong Kong was hosting a football match against Bhutan for the World Cup preliminary match.

Such are the complex realities of home being played out in Hong Kong, China, Asia and, we believe, everywhere else. If this were the Asian Century, it’s time we learned more about place, about home–about the emerging processes of place-making, of belonging and of regulating citizenship statuses.

[For the full introduction to this special issue, see “At Home in Asia?: Place-making, Belonging, and Citizenship in the Asian Century,” forthcoming in International Journal of Cultural Studies. Currently available as an OnlineFirst publication:]

All photos taken by Jeroen de Kloet.


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