Spotting Tourists in Colonial Burma

To mark my immanent trip to Burma, I thought I’d write a quick post about the history of colonial tourists.

By the twentieth century, British tourists were common in the colony. It was one stop on the established route followed by holiday-makers visiting British India. For colonial officials, these globe-trotters were easy targets for ridicule. Long-serving colonial official Cecil Lowis’s 1913 novel Fascination described the fear experienced by his fictional protagonist, Assistant Commissioner Chepstow, when he sees an ‘alarming group’ of tourists arrive in his district, beneath a ‘carpet of white umbrellas’. He could immediately tell that they were tourists from their clothes.

A man with a grey moustache and baggy eyes straddled knickerbockered legs at the foot of the stairs; I noticed three ladies with blue veils and spectacles to match, also a girl in unmistakable Bond Street khaki.

The phrase ‘Bond Street khaki’ captures the young female tourist’s imperfect mimicry of British colonial sartorial codes. This khaki was too fashionable. Khaki should be practical. The local British police man furnished Chepstowe with further details.

The one in knickerbockers is a Radical M.P. They say he came out anti-opium but was converted at the Ruby Mines. Spats! Did you see, by any chance? Spats! He says they keep the dust out!

His view of the M.P.’s choice of footwear echoed his view on the parliamentarian’s stance against the selling of opium: they were both superficial decisions, based on fashion rather than experience. But it is not only clothing that gave tourists away. There was also the ubiquitous guide book.

The three of them were dawdling in front of a pagoda… Miss Cavisham’s [one of the tourists] arm was up, as though to point to some taking feature, and I as good as got a glimpse of the redoubtable red guide book.

No doubt the Lonely Planet fills this role today. The scene caused Chepstowe to wonder how he appeared when he went on his holidays.

Should we three have looked anything like that, I wondered… had our designs on the cities of India ever bourne fruit, and culminated in a ‘doing’ of, say, the Taj?

His use of ironical quotation marks around ‘doing’ implies a criticism of the touristic tendency to reduce places to items to be ticked off an itinerary. Evidently, Chepstowe finds the thought of moving from stalwart colonial official to globe-trotting tourist embarrassing.

Tourist Guide and Shopping List: Where to Go, What to See, and Where to Shop in Calcutta and Burma (1920)
Tourist Guide and Shopping List: Where to Go, What to See, and Where to Shop in Calcutta and Burma (1920)

In Lowis’s novel, pointing out the naivety of tourists serves to demonstrate how embedded British colonial officials were in the county by contrast. So doing, it naturalizes the imperial presence and reinforces the image of these officials as guardians of the colonized peoples, whom they understand better than others. Certainly better than Radical M.P.s. Much like his use of smell in the novel, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, these descriptions of British tourists subtly contribute to a wider justification of colonial rule.

So, if you’re in Yangon over the coming weeks and you spot someone dressed in knickerbockers and sporting spats, please come over and say hello.

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