This essay examines graphic, textual, and material evidence concerning the use of chairs by European colonists in South and Southeast Asia and by Japanese colonists in Taiwan. It focuses particularly on informal furniture made from lightweight tropical fibers such as rattan. The significance of chair sitting and the ways that chairs were used in these different contexts reveal contrasting colonial sensibilities — that is, bodily awarenesses and experiences of the colonial milieu and colonial social relationships. Many Europeans in Asia adopted furniture suited to a posture of languishing that would have been socially unacceptable in the same settings in Europe but reflected the sense of tropical life as a constant physical affliction and the accompanying indifference to the presence of native servants. In Japan's case, the process of colonization was concurrent with an effort to modernize national customs in both metropole and colonies on a European model, and inexpensive upright rattan chairs played a role in this. Yet Japanese colonists in Taiwan found themselves in an unusual situation since they were by habit floor sitters, placed by colonial conquest in a dominant position among a Chinese population accustomed to sitting on chairs. This introduced a complex dynamic into the bodily negotiation of relationships between colonizers and colonized in Taiwan, in which Japanese colonists' attitudes and behaviors did not always successfully map the power relationship of metropole and colony. A coda briefly considers a third type of rattan chair and an accompanying set of sensibilities tied to circuits of deployment in the United States military empire in the Pacific after World War II.
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Jordan Sand; Tropical Furniture and Bodily Comportment in Colonial Asia. positions 1 February 2013; 21 (1): 95–132. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-1894299
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