Meanwhile, over in Amsterdam…
To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know how it happened. But in January 2005, I somehow managed to land the job of IIAS Amsterdam Branch Head. Apart from having worked in bars for a decade, I had little experience managing people and I cannot imagine that my ability to pull a perfect pint gave me a winning advantage. But perhaps Wim Stokhof thought I was speaking metaphorically.
The branch office and its affiliated fellows were located inside a large, old-but-renovated building at the southernmost part of the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, next to the Oudemanhuispoort. It was a place I visited a few times a week, as a casual lecturer for the Asian Studies in Amsterdam (ASiA) program. Responsible for the program were my patron saints Jacqueline Vel, Willem van Schendel, Mario Rutten, and Leo Douw. They introduced me to Thomas Voorter and Ireen Hoogenboom, and the equally lovely Heleen van der Minne, IIAS’s local administrator. Most of us were located along the same dull hallway, which we tried to breathe life into by way of posters, some samplings of Willem’s Bangla pop, and a glass display cabinet with a collection of, surely, inedible canned food from across Asia. I like to think it made a difference, though in my memory the hallway was always quiet and deserted. The IIAS office, on the other hand, was a small but vibrant center full of books, colorful merchandise, and large plants that we hoped would one day add some green.
The people were all fantastic to work with and learn from. At Leiden University and SOAS, I had been affiliated with East Asian studies, and it was exciting to be part of an area studies community in another city and to learn about other parts of Asia. Heleen took care of all the real work, conscientiously filling in forms and managing finances, and politely answering emails and phone calls. My job was much easier than hers. Although I occasionally helped provide support to fellows, I was mostly engaged in the promotion and coordination of IIAS-related activities, while trying, at least, to resolve administrative complications and complex requests. I also sought to salvage our office plants, which somehow refused to grow without the occasional shot of espresso. Many of our activities routinely took place in one of the nearby former offices of the East India Company (VOC), which added a degree of gravitas that we often neutralized by way of a post-event drink at our then favorite local hangout Kapitein Zeppos. I wish I had been able to engage more with fellows during my time at the IIAS, but I lived in an outskirt of Rotterdam, and it was a long journey home.
To me the IIAS occupies a unique and important position in Asian studies. While scholars working on Asia can be found around the world, there are few places that make a genuine effort to foster synergies in research across the humanities and social sciences. As someone who works on entertainment and popular culture in East Asia, it’s exciting to know the Institute continues to support a broad range of approaches. It may not advocate area studies per se, but the culture that I was fortunate to be part of for some time, certainly embraced multi-disciplinarity and an interest in the full complexity of Asian cultures. My time at the IIAS had a profound influence on my career since, and I hope it will continue to support the work of countless fellows in the future.
Some six years after I left in 2006 to take up a position in Australia, the office was closed. I suppose those caffeine junkie plants were donated to a nearby café, but I do wonder what happened to the canned food collection. I imagine it’s still there, waiting for one very courageous adventurer with a mean appetite.
Roald Maliangkay, Australian National University, Australia