The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Picture postcards and the true collector

Joel Montague is a collector, and I mean a true collector.

Sure he has between 1,600 and 1,700 picture postcards of Cambodia from the French colonial era as well as the world’s largest collection of hand-painted Cambodian shop-signs, but you really know he’s a collector when he talks about and holds one of his postcards.

“It’s a little window on the world that people have ignored,” Joel, 77, tells me. Through his postcards, he reimagines how the French imagined Cambodia and traces the evolution of these projections.

The German cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote of a true collector that as he holds his objects in his hands, “he seems to be seeing through them into their past as though inspired.” And Joel certainly sees into every postcard its distant past, imagining the sender, receiver, photographer and subject.

Joel is trying to renew interest into the French colonial era, telling me that too many historians have ignored the French influence in Cambodia. Benjamin writes that “to renew the old world—that is the collector’s deepest desire,” and though Joel is not nostalgic for colonialism, he is giving rebirth to these postcards, giving them another chance to tell a story.

Benjamin calls collectors the “physiognomists of the world of objects”—but a postcard collector is literally a physiognomist, interpreting the personalities and prejudices through the faces of others.

The Benjamin piece I’ve been quoting from is about his library and his enthusiasm for old books, and I can have those bibliophilic leanings as well. I suspect the first place where I’ll get to reunite my books from college, Portland and Asia will be the first place that will feel like Home and not some temporary dwelling. But I’m no “genuine collector”, in fact, I’d never met someone before Joel who was. For me, books are akin to souvenirs, but for Joel, I think, postcards are something more.

“Not that they [the objects] come alive in him; it is he who lives in them,” Benjamin wrote about collectors.

Read about Montague’s postcards here

Dispatch from Xinjiang: History in Hotan

Norlan, my volunteer Uighur guide in Hotan, has read carefully every piece of tourist information about the Xinjiang. He has underlined, circled, and annotated passages on nearly every page of his numerous pamphlets and guides. He even has an old, well-worn copy of a book illegal in China—The Lonely Planet.

At the bus station in Hotan, he reads to me from his LP, “It’s fairly certain that the Tang dynasty never had absolute control” and then he skips to “In 1911, Xinjiang came under the rule of a succession of warlords over whom the Nationalist Party had very little control.”

Earlier in the day, he had told me that in school he never learned any Uighur history, just the history of the Communist Party like everyone else in China. Norlan had only vague ideas of Uighurs fighting in the “1930s or 40s” for independence which he learned from relatives old enough to have fought against the Chinese. It was only after he learned English and read the Lonely Planet that he discovered a longer account of Uighur history—nearly two pages.

Besides being naturally curious and exceptionally bright, Norlan got lucky. China’s imposes a sanitized history of long-standing control to justify its rule of Xinjiang.  I don’t think most Uighurs buy into this narrative, but with China’s regime of information censorship, no competing accounts of history can readily emerge—leaving Norlan to accidentally uncover it in an illicit tourist guide. Without the ability to form any sort of civil society and without a believable history, it’s no wonder many Uighurs feel dispossessed.

Right before I got on the bus, he looked right at me, tapped his finger to his Lonely Planet, and said, “This is real history.”