When did modernity begin?
Was it when European explorers traversed the globe and brought home their varied discoveries? These deracinated curiosities were labeled, catalogued and organized into a system of knowledge that transformed static and closed societies.
Or was it much earlier, when the traders of the world tarried in the ports of Southeast Asia, bringing to its people goods and ideas from everywhere, which were then adapted to fit local needs?1
Consider the parallels between Europe in the age of discovery and pre-colonial Southeast Asia.
In elegant Parisian cafes the smart set drank coffee from Turkey without a thought to its origin. Similarly, society women in London spoke of madras, gingham and chintz to demonstrate knowledge not of Indian textiles but of current fashion.
In Malacca and Makassar, foreign goods, such as cowrie shells or clocks, had long brought prestige to their owners, who used them according to their requirements.
European clocks, for example, were coveted and sometimes used to tell time, but they had limited applications in a society where time-conscious locals already had their own astrological methods to determine auspicious moments for certain activities.
But it was in its warm embrace of newness in clothing that Southeast Asia most showed its modern bona fides. After all, what could be more modern than fashion?
Pre-colonial fashionistas waited eagerly for the latest shipment of ikats, brocades and silks from all over the world. Similarly, local dandies were quick to emulate the fashions of societies they admired. To cite but one example, following a visit to his court by Persian envoys, the ruler of Ayutthaya adopted Persian headdress.
In other ways, pre-colonial Southeast Asia was almost post-modern.
Traders had long made homes for themselves in the port cities of Southeast Asia—we know of settlements of Arab, Tamil and Portuguese traders, to name just a few.
These itinerant trading populations coexisted harmoniously with the locals, free from the threat of violence that plagued them in less open societies elsewhere.
In this multi-culti environment, not unlike New York or London today, it was only natural that ideas were exchanged. Unlike imperial China or Tokugawa Japan, the notion that a society had to be economically and culturally self-sufficient never held much sway in Southeast Asia.
Foreign ideas were considered on local terms—not forced upon a populace as a result of foreign invasion– and any changes they might bring about were locally dictated.
Thus, the Sanskritized court culture of India and the Islam of the Arab traders were transformed and absorbed into local culture in a very different form and shape from their cultures of origin.
A cosmopolitan spirit infused all levels of society, not just the ruling elites.
Far away from the royal courts, the Bataks of Sumatra absorbed cultural influences from those they traded with (the Bataks pretty much had a lock on the global supply of camphor), for example, casting their tribal jewelry with the five sacred Hindu metals. Royal elites in Sukhothai in Thailand went a step further, bringing imported high culture down to the level of the masses.
What could be more modern than that?
The story we are told about modernization typically starts with traditional societies in the Dark Ages forcefully coming into contact with an enlightened modern world, leading in turn to a rupture with the past.
Giving lie to this narrative is the historical evidence in Southeast Asia, which tells of a dynamic world that was never moribund or inward-looking and that was modern before the word even existed.