Citizens, Civil Society and the Cultural Politics of Heritage-Making in East and Southeast Asia

Taipei, 11-13 December 2014. In this conference I will present a keynote titled “Heritage Sites and Citizens Rights – The Case of China.”


The square between Drum and Bell Towers, in Beijing, is used by local inhabitants for nightly dancing. Adjacent bars cater to a mixed clientele of young urbanites, foreign students and tourists. The square is now under reconstruction, according to the inhabitants, to make way for the appearance of an authentic “hutong,” a case reminiscent of Meishi Street, south of Tiananmen, where old hutongs were demolished and the space mutated to a Qing Dynasty-like shopping street, complete with global brands such as Uniqlo and Starbucks. Elsewhere in the country, we see foreign heritage sites, such as the Eiffel Tower and the old centre of Amsterdam, being rebuilt as real estate projects, hoping to attract the new middle class but often ending up as empty ghost towns devoid of life. Something strange is going on in China, in the field of heritage sites. On the one hand, we see potential heritage sites thus demolished to recreate a heritage façade. Whereas in Europe the protection and reconstruction of cultural heritage tries to maintain and keep intact as much of the ‘original’ as possible, in China the old is often replaced by the new that mimics the old. On the other hand, but in a similar vein, global cultural heritage sites are being reconstructed in China.

Amidst such strangeness, we witness, nonetheless, an uncannily familiar  triangulation between state policies, global capitalism and real estate speculation – uncanny in the ways such triangulation ignores, silences or totally fails to register the rights and the voices of citizens. The case of at least some heritage sites in China urge us to rethink their connections with citizens’ rights. In my talk I aim to disentangle the forces that produce heritage sites in China, point at their multiple alignments to interests that may be in tension with those of the people who actually inhabit or are attracted to inhabit these sites. By analysing specific instances, I hope to reconfigure the politics of hertigization, to propose a critical reassessment of the criteria based on which heritage sites are selected, constructed, and imagined, and to argue for the urgency of a more open definition, in which heritage becomes a productive and inclusive field of contestation.

More on the conference:
Other Keynote speakers

Professor Laurajane Smith, Australian National University
Professor Wan-Yao Chou, National Taiwan University


Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
International Institute for Asian Studies, the Netherlands

Since David Lowenthal first noted the acute ascendancy of heritage as a discourse and, indeed, likened it to religion, the cult of heritage has spread beyond the Euro-American world to win adherents in the further reaches of Asia. This is in no small way due to the rise of the modern nation-state, and the formulation of heritage as a given, constitutive part of nations. However, what constitutes heritage is never a given, and it is commonly “made” through a process embedded in an evolving cultural politics involving actors such as the state, local communities and civil society organizations, and international institutions or activists. While these actors are not always distinct, a series of three conferences have been planned to highlight the role of each in turn without neglecting their inter-relationships. The first conference has taken place in Singapore in January 2014, focusing on the role of the state. The second conference in the series, to be held in Taiwan in December 2014, focuses on the role of citizens, local communities and civil society organizations in heritage-making. The third conference will take place in the Netherlands in 2015, and will focus on international organizations and activists.

In considering the role of local communities and civil society organizations in heritage-making, the second conference will dwell on the figure of the citizen, broadly understood. What are the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of a citizen, and how does this relate to the modern nation-state and the notion of heritage, particularly in the contemporary environment where the role of the state and that of citizens are being reconfigured to serve a neo-liberal agenda? How does citizens’ involvement in heritage-making contribute to the civility of a shared societal life, and indeed, in some countries, to the sense of nationhood and civilization? In other words, what are the dynamics involved when local communities, as citizens, not just in the narrow legal-constitutional sense (with the propensity this restrained status has to turn citizens into citizen- consumers), but more broadly speaking in the socio-political sense, engage in the definition of their heritage-scape through a common civil space where multiple interests and agendas vie for resources and meanings? In raising these questions, the conference explores how processes of heritage-making, as part of the everyday cultural practices through which cultural citizenship is asserted and discursively constituted, challenges the dominance of the state in defining its citizens.

At the same time, the word “citizen” is also a historical referent for “city inhabitants”. Indeed, much of the dynamics of citizenship is embedded in the social effervescence that cities evoke. Cities, where traces of the past, present and future are enfolded in the built environment, become spaces where the memories and aspirations of large populations of inhabitants are constantly negotiated. Without losing sight of the larger contexts in which cities are organically embedded, this conference has a special – but not exclusive – interest in the role of cities and their inhabitants as well as concerned civil society organizations in heritage-making. As cities evolve at a breakneck speed in the twenty-first century, where new iconic buildings continue to rise on the ruins of the past, how do cities maintain their historical character and socio-cultural fabric, or does it matter at all? What is the impact of such changes on city inhabitants, and how do they organize themselves to retain the meaning of shared spaces through the idiom of heritage? Finally, given the connectivity of cities and their influence on the global stage, what are the strategies that cities and their local communities employ to inscribe their heritage-scape, not only as part of national heritage, but also as part of world heritage?

With these issues in mind, we invite papers looking into the following themes:

  • Representing the local in global cities
  • Memories and aspirations in global cities
  • Built heritage, ruins, and their social lives
  • Contending with gentrification
  • The social landscape as heritage
  • Conflicts and resolutions of heritage-making
  • Cultural activism and vernacular heritage
  • Local identities and linguistic heritage
  • Citizens, civil society and national as well as local heritage-making
  • Local communities and the heritage-scape
  • Civil society involvement in heritage-management
  • Prospects of social innovation in heritage-management


  • Professor Michael Hsiao, Distinguished Research Fellow and Director, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan
  • Dr Hui Yew-Foong, Senior Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
  • Dr Philippe Peycam, Director, International Institute for Asian Studies, The Netherlands

Local organizing institutions 

  • Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, National Taiwan University
  • Center for Traditional Arts and Graduate Institute of Architecture and Cultural Heritage, Taipei National University of the Arts
  • Department of Cultural and Creative Industries Management, National Taipei University of Education