Neverlands of Becoming

13 October 2012 
Connections, Corridors, and Communities 
Asian Borderlands Research Network conference 


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.

Panel contributions

Liang Yongjia traces the story of ethnic Chinese who escaped the Indonesian ethnic riots of the 1960s and – instead of returning to their natal place on China’s southeast coast âwere relocated by the new communist authorities to the ethnically diverse southwest frontier. In a land of total strangeness, they struggled to become what they were expected to state-farm workers, suspect returnees, communist revolutionaries, loyal subjects and an ethnic majority.

Chinese vassel leaving Indonesia for home

Chinese vassel leaving Indonesia for home

Martin Saxer examines the history of Walung, a border village along an important erstwhile trade route in the eastern Himalayas. Walung used to be a prosperous place whose Tibetan-speaking trader elite managed to keep considerable autonomy vis-a-vis Nepal and Tibet. With the integration of Tibet into the PRC, the closure of the Tibetan border in the early 1960s, and the arrival of the CIA-sponsored Tibetan Khampa guerrillas in the region, most of the wealthy trader families left. Although many of them have never returned, their link to Walung shape their lives and careers.

Zhang Juan describes the transformative journeys of Han Chinese traders who came to Hekou, a small border town at the China-Vietnam frontier, in the past tow decades, after the brutal Sino-Vietnamese border war had finally drawn to a closure and both China’s and Vietnam’s turn to a market economy. In urban China, these traders were typically regarded as “backward”; yet at the border many were able to “change” and become admired and successful entrepreneurs. However, the spirit of entrepreneurialism in the borderlands demands continuous improvement, becoming modern enterprising citizens means always moving forward.

Johan Lindquist acts as choir and weaves the stories togeher.