The Asian Studies Parade: Archival, Biographical, Institutional and Postcolonial Approaches

Michiel Baas

At the biennially held International Convention of Asia Scholars, Paul van der Velde’s presence was always unavoidable. Now happily retired from a job well done, as its General Secretary he was chiefly responsible for finding a suitable location to host the next ICAS meeting and bringing together an astonishing array of Asia scholars from around the world. Van der Velde coordinated most of its preparations from his office at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden, together with his right hand Martina van den Haak, who is now taking the lead, together with Wai Cheung and Narutai Riangkruar, in bringing ICAS to the city of Surabaya in Indonesia in 2024 (28th of July till 1st of August).

While many will know “Paul” from his exuberant presence at ICAS, he was also the founding editor of The Newsletter (formerly IIAS Newsletter), a crucial outlet for Asia scholars eager to share their work and insights in a shorter and more accessible way. Van der Velde’s latest book, The Asian Studies Parade, needs to be understood as reflecting his many talents ranging from organizing one of Asian Studies’ largest conferences to taking the lead in establishing the ICAS Book Prize. Yet it also marks a return to his roots as a scholar himself. While “archival” is only one descriptor in the book’s subtitle, in essence this is what this volume is: a fascinating “archive” of thinking and writing. Composed of seven chapters encompassing some thirty articles that van der Velde wrote and published over time, it starts with “Deshima, mon Amour,” which aptly captures a certain feeling that seems to cling to many of his passion projects. Because there can be no mistake, there is undeniable passion to each of them.

Deshima was an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki where the Dutch were forced to relocate to when their factory in Hirado closed in 1641. Originally intended for the Portuguese, the island speaks of 17th-century (Dutch) colonial history, but it also tells an intricate history of the changing political landscape at the time. It is particularly fitting for van der Velde to start here, as Deshima’s history provides an intriguing template for a particular way of studying Asia in which encounters between East and West take center stage. He himself navigates this history through the extensive “Marginalia of the Deshima Diaries” and the development of rangaku or “Dutch learning” before turning to the “Japanese” diary of Jan van der Cruisse, a man who hailed from the same province in the Netherlands as van der Velde himself does.

It is a shame that the book makes not more of the notion of encounter in its title because, in essence, this is what continues to resonate most in the chapters that follow. From Japan the Parade moves on to colonial and imperial wars in Taiwan, a history itself characterized by inter-Asian strife, colonial mishaps, and conquests. While the history of Dutch colonial presence in Taiwan and Japan is intimately connected with its dealings with China and the wider region, it also provides van der Velde with a shortcut into the development of colonial (geographical) history writing itself. The city of Leiden itself played a leading role in this, and one could even argue that the establishment of IIAS is an outcome of this.

In a particularly interesting chapter, van der Velde asks: who is afraid of the historical biography? He himself certainly isn’t. After an insightful analysis of the work of Indonesia and Africa specialist P.J. Veth (1814-1895), he turns to one of his own passion projects: the travel writing of the fascinating person of Jacob Haafner. Originally published in Dutch in 2008, more recently an English version of van der Velde’s biography of Haafner was published as Life Under the Palms: The Sublime World of the Anti-colonialist (2020). Then turning to painter Willem Imandt, who worked in Indonesia, isn’t necessarily the big step it suggests, considering van der Velde’s own extensive art collection with a particular interest in work that reflects “Western” encounters and observations in Asia. It all seems to paint a particular image, one in which worlds come together, collide, participate, integrate, and occasionally also disassociate. The stunning cover by Koen Vermeule illustrates this even more with a depiction of a variety of characters navigating a bridge and, as such, crossing boundaries.

For historians, the first three chapters will be the most interesting since these provide a fascinating and comprehensive overview of van der Velde’s writing over time. Yet those familiar with IIAS, ICAS, and its many related activities around the world will find much to gain from subsequent chapters as well. In the fourth chapter, contemporary Asian-European encounters and perspectives take center stage. This includes the history of the establishment of ASEM: the Asia-Europe Meeting, a unique interregional forum comprising six members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with China, Japan, South Korea, and the fifteen members of the EU. The discussion of its impact continues by means of an analysis of multi-regionalism and multilateralism with respect to relations between Asia and Europe and its impact globally. The book concludes with a vision for Asian Studies for the 21st century and a possible reorientation on the basis of experiences with ICAS and its related book prize.

In 2024, ICAS 13 will be held in the bustling Indonesian city of Surabaya. It will be the first in-person ICAS since the pandemic, as the one that was intended to be held in Kyoto (ICAS 12) had to be conducted online in 2021. Since ICAS 11 took place in Leiden, it also marks the conference’s return to Asia. Following its slogan of “Crossways of Knowledge,” ICAS 13 will likely again take the form of an encounter in which scholars working on Asia meet, discuss, and shape plans for the future. With The Asia Studies Parade, Paul van der Velde has crafted an important volume that not only provides the necessary background to the development of Asian Studies and the role ICAS has played in this, but also a template for its future (thinking).