Typewriters, Slogans, and Sewing Machines—From SFO to Seoul and Back with the Journal of Asian Studies on My Mind

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

As Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, as I prepare to go to the AAS Annual Conference (when our editorial board meets) or AAS-in-ASIA (where I hold “meet-the-editor” sessions), I spend some time thinking about the articles we have published recently and have in the pipeline. I did this before heading to Asia last month on a trip that began with a short stopover in Hong Kong and ended in Seoul at the AAS-in-ASIA meetings that Korea University did so well in hosting.  

One thing that was different this time, though, was how often during the trip I saw things that made me think of JAS articles. In five dissimilar places, I was reminded of the following: an article from last year on the Umbrella Movement; two “Asia Beyond the Headlines” commentaries on recent events in South Korea that are coming out in November; and the two lead pieces in a forum on machines in East Asia that appeared in the same August 2016 issue as the essay on Hong Kong. Here’s a rundown of the sights I saw that brought these articles to mind, with photos I took along the way. 

DAY 1: John Lennon, Ernest Hemingway, and the Chinese Typewriter

One thing I like about changing planes in San Francisco is seeing the displays that the creative folks at the SFO Museum dream up. (A favorite was an Art Deco exhibition I saw when heading to Shanghai, a city associated with the style, in 2015.) So I was excited to hear from Stanford historian Tom Mullaney that he was providing some machines and other objects relating to China and Japan to the SFO Museum for an exhibit on typewriters that would be up when I headed to AAS-in-ASIA. There was a rub, though: it would be in Terminal 2 (Virgin, American), not 3 (United, which I was flying), and you can’t move between these parts of the airport without going through security an extra time. Unfortunately—well, fortunately, in this case—I ended up with a long layover, so decided to check it out.

I’m glad I did. It’s a wonderfully eclectic little exhibition, with much to interest non-Asianists—a display case devoted to John Lennon and Ernest Hemingway, complete with typewriters they used, some very early and strange looking alphabetic machines, black-and-white photos featuring female typists that would provide excellent fodder for an essay on gender and work during the industrial revolution—and a section featuring Mullaney’s materials sure to whet the appetite of some visitors to check out his book, The Chinese Typewriter: A History, when MIT Press publishes it next month. Before that, you can always read his article, “Controlling the Kanjisphere: The Rise of the Sino-Japanese Typewriter and the Birth of CJK,” in the JAS.

DAY 4: Signs of the Times

If SFO was an example of a partly planned excursion linked to a past JAS article (I intended to see the exhibit, but only if the timing worked), the walk I took on my final morning in Hong Kong was a completely planned one. I made a point of following the same route down through the Central financial district that I had taken in 2014 (a key difference being that back then it was an Occupy zone and I could walk on freeways that were now filled with cars), when I visited the city briefly while the Umbrella Movement was underway. 

While I walked, I thought about what I had read in Sebastian Veg’s “Creating a Textual Public Space: Slogans and Texts from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement,” as well as what I had seen two-and-half years before. The then-and-now contrasts were striking. For example, the placards, signs, and messages on post-it notes pasted on the iconic Occupy Central Lennon Wall in 2014 (pictured above) had been emblazoned with diverse statements and, like those carried at this year’s Women’s Marches in the United States, often were completely original creations by individuals playing with general protest themes. This time, what caught my eye was a series of signs, each with one of several different official slogans, all emphasizing that the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Handover was something that should be marked with joy. 

The slogan on the most frequently repeated sign celebrated “Together, Progress, Opportunity”—interesting phrasing, as the city is now marked by a great deal of division, doubt about whether what it has been seeing constitutes progress, and anxiety, especially among youths, that opportunities are diminishing. The propaganda signs were brightly colored in a way that evoked the Lennon Wall, but nothing else about them did.

The saddest moment in my walk came when I looked at the concrete wall that protesters had festooned with post-it notes in 2014 and turned into the Lennon Wall. Now, not surprisingly, it is just a slogan-free post-no-bills space (pictured left). I’ve written before about seeing parallels between pre-Handover Hong Kong and Cold War-era West Berlin, as places in close physical proximity to but very separate from large Communist Party-run countries. Returning to the Lennon Wall gave this admittedly imperfect analogy a new meaning: the West German side of the Berlin Wall had been covered with colorful art, the East German side guarded and kept blank.

DAY 5: Dueling Demonstrations

When I arrived in Seoul, I thought that I was leaving behind encounters that linked up to the places (China and Hong Kong) and issues (protest, for example) that I have studied, taught, and written about. The events of the next day changed all that. It began with John Delury, a Seoul-based scholar who participated in a roundtable on media and the state in Asia that I moderated, telling me that he had heard there would be a demonstration outside of the American embassy in Seoul later that day. It ended with me at a Harvard-Yenching Institute reception speaking with its director, Elizabeth Perry, a leading China specialist and former AAS president, about the things we each noticed observing that demonstration, as well as a competing pro-American one, that reminded us of Chinese events we had researched or seen (such as, in my case a 1999 anti-NATO protest that included a papier-mâché missile similar to one carried in Seoul).

If the interest the demonstrations held for a scholar of protest was obvious, what did this have to do with the JAS? Well, even though the specific focus of the demonstration was to express criticism of the U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD, the protests followed in the wake of and had ties to the dramatic but peaceful Candlelight Movement of late 2016 and early 2017 that led to Park Geun-hye’s removal from power.

This significant political upheaval will be treated in two different contributions to the November issue of the Journal. One of these is Hyejin Kim’s “‘Spoon Theory’ and the Fall of a Populist Princess in Seoul,” which came in over the transom as an “Asia Beyond the Headlines” submission and got very positive reviews. The other is Jamie Doucette’s “The Occult of Personality: Korea’s Candlelight Protests and the Impeachment of Park Geun-hye,” which we commissioned as a complement to Kim’s. I won’t try to summarize their arguments, but between them, I think they offer readers a pair of valuable perspectives on the events that have kept South Korea in the headlines more than usual during the past year.    

DAY 8: The Singer Sewing Machines of Seoul

One of the very last things I saw in South Korea, while taking a walk with an old friend before we headed to the airport to board the same flight to SFO, was a surreal-looking display of sewing machines behind plate-glass windows. I have no idea why a department store in the center of the city decided to put so many of these objects on display—perhaps to trigger nostalgia, as they had such a low-tech look in what has become a high-tech city.  We found them intriguing enough as a sight to stare for a bit and I took some photos, but we went on with our walk rather than going in to ask. It somehow felt just right to stumble across that sight, as the piece paired with Mullaney’s typewriter article in last year’s JAS had been Antonia Finnane’s “Cold War Sewing Machines: Production and Consumption in 1950s China and Japan,” with comments on both by Andrew Gordon and David Arnold, historians of Japan and South Asia respectively, completing the Asia and machines forum.

On the long flight from Seoul to SFO, where I would make a final plane change before reaching my Southern California home, one thing I did to pass the time was look through my photographs from the trip. Doing this, while pondering the things I had seen that had brought JAS articles to mind, I was struck as I have often been before by how varied the content of the publication is, and how lucky I have been to be spurred to read about so many places, times, and topics. The images on my computer screen reminded me that the trip, when thought about in JAS terms, had been punctuated by recurring sorts of sights and the completion of a cycle. It had begun with me taking shots of typewriters, then pointing my phone at walls and signs in Hong Kong, and then ended with me photographing a wall of sewing machines in Korea, not far from the spot I taken pictures of protesters carrying signs three days before.

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