Professor Diana Kim, Assistant Professor and core faculty member in the Asian Studies Program recently published her first book titled Empires of Vice: The Rise of Opium Prohibition Across Southeast Asia (Princeton University Press, 2020). Professor Kim’s research and teaching focuses on the transnational politics and history of markets across Southeast and East Asia, with particular interest in the regulation of vice, illicit economies, theories of crime and disorder, state formation, and legacies of Empires and colonialism.
Shortly after her book debuted, the Asian Studies Program interviewed Professor Kim about her book and its contributions to the field of Asian Studies.
Q: Your book, Empires of Vice: The Rise of Opium Prohibition across Southeast Asia, takes a systemic look at the administration of Southeast Asian colonial states. Can you offer a bit of background as to the role that opium played in the colonial governance of Southeast Asian states?
Opium was once a significant source of revenue for European rulers across Southeast Asia, accounting for 50% of local taxes during peak years of the 19th century. So-called “vice taxes” were levied on the drug’s popular consumption, and served both as a fiscal bedrock and vexed source of political authority for colonial states. The economic life of opium was embedded in just about every aspect of colonial rule, from paying the electricity bill for Singapore’s Horsburgh Lighthouse to securing productive laborers on the silver mines of Burma, the pepper and gambier plantations across the Malay Peninsula, and the tobacco estates of Sumatra. In Vietnam, the French referred to opium as one of the “beasts of burden” that sustained the colony’s budget and relied on this largesse to entice private investment in the colony and finance public works.
Q: The main focus of your book centers on the massive policy reversal that was the colonial prohibition of opium. Can you describe the significance of this policy shift?
Between the 1890s and 1940s, the European colonial states begin to officially redefine and narrow the boundaries of legitimate commercial activity relating to opium. Once permissible habits of opium-smoking were restricted; many legal opium shops shut down, and stern punishments were meted out to violators of new anti-opium policies and laws. This was a remarkably radical episode of colonial state transformation, which involved reversing the very economic foundations of colonial governance and official justifications for rule over others. Yet, it is also both a forgotten and often misunderstood change, not least because today, given what we know about the dangers of drug trafficking and opiate addiction, banning opium seems like such an obvious thing to have happened. Empires of Vice demonstrates the opposite. It draws on 22 months of original archival research in repositories across Southeast Asia and Europe to reconstruct the surprisingly difficult processes through which colonial states moved away from opium, and gives novel insight into the bureaucratic struggles, internal crises of confidence, institutional experiments and shadowy compromises that paved the way toward opium prohibition.
Q: How does your research contribute to the field of colonial history in Southeast Asia and what are some of the longstanding implications for understanding Southeast Asia today?
Usually, when we think about the history of opium in Asia, our focus lies predominantly on China and British India, especially their trade relations and the great Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860). By contrast, my book sheds light on the distinctive historical experience of Southeast Asia, anchored in the complexity of vice taxes upon opium consumption and reliance on opium revenue under 19th and 20th century European rule. More broadly, it argues that the lasting legacies of these colonial era arrangements help explain why Southeast Asian states today have some of the world’s harshest drug laws, spectacular “wars on drugs” as well as why vast areas of illicit poppy cultivation prevail across the region.
To learn more about Professor Kim’s book, join us on Wednesday, March 18 from 4:00-7:00PM in the Mortara Center for International Studies, as we celebrate her book launch. Please click here to RSVP.