talk | 13 October 2012

In and out of Walung: The History of a Himalayan Pathway in Eastern Nepal

Talk as part of the panel “Neverlands of Becoming: Fortune, Enterprise, and Refuge in the Frontiers” at the 3rd Conference of the Asian Borderland Research Network, 11–13 October, Singapore.


Walung is a Himalayan village in eastern Nepal close to the Tibetan border. It served as a trading hub on one of the most important trade routes in the eastern Himalayas. Walung used to be a wealthy place whose Tibetan-speaking elite managed to keep considerable autonomy vis-a-vis Nepal and Tibet.

Based on a series of biographical interviews with members of the Walung community, my aim is to situate the Himalayan experience in the context of the global history of the 20th century. After the integration of Tibet into the PRC in the 1950s, a brief decade of prosperity began. It ended abruptly with the closure of the Tibetan border in the early 1960s and the arrival of the CIA-sponsored Tibetan Khampa guerrillas in the region. Most Walung trader families left. Yet, whether in or our of Walung, their lives remained entangled with the history of the place in one or another way.

Neverlands of Becoming – Fortune, Enterprise, and Refuge in the Frontiers

Panel/Play by Zhang Juan, Liang Yongjia, Johan Lindquist & Martin Saxer

J. M. Barrie’s classic tale of Neverland describes the adventures of those who set out to pursue dreams of freedom, youth and prosperity “beyond the Mainland”. Its characters include an anarchist hero, fiery fairies, lost boys who “fell out of prams” in mother nation-state’s heartland, and fortune seeking pirates. All strive to become what they are not.

This is, of course, a paradox. Neverland is not a place of becoming. It is described as a place of being, a place where time freezes and nobody grows up. Becoming, thus, is the perspective of outsiders, and this is precisely how we use the Neverland theme – as a means to examine the neverlandish but very real quests of those who settle in the borderlands in order to become, and of those who have left but still belong and long. Neverland is where dreams of becoming someone else come alive.

We employ the paradox of Neverlands to weave together the tales of three very different groups of people: Han Chinese migrated to the Sino-Vietnamese border to become frontier entrepreneurs, Chinese Indonesian who settled in Yunnan to become better revolutionaries, and cosmopolitan traders in northern Nepal who left their native village yet still belong to the place their fortunes originated.