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11.00  Preserving Difficult Heritage in a Neoliberal Context in Asia

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11:00, Saturday 4 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

After the First International Leprosy Conference in Berlin in 1897, many leprosy settlements in Asia were established by colonialists for medical quarantine purposes. Due to prevailing segregation laws, leprosy settlements were built in remote locations or on isolated islands for collective management and control during the colonial and postwar years. Even after the disease was proved to be curable and not contagious in the 1980s, lepers and their physical deformities are still treated as fearful objects in society. Consequently, their history were ignored and marginalized at the national and local levels. 

In the last several decades, leprosy settlements and their physical environment, the lepers themselves and their families have transformed due to several internal and external factors. The aging of lepers and the decrease of the leper population in recent years have especially prompted significant chances in the settlements. However, places like leprosy settlements were never a priority in historic preservation due to their lesser architectural value and subordinate historical importance in nation building. Furthermore, they reflect “the destructive and cruel side of history” and are considered “difficult heritage,” which is awkward for public reconciliation with a positive, self-affirming contemporary identity. 

The preservation of leprosy settlements, unlike other “difficult heritage,” such as massacre and genocide sites, remains an extreme case, since these settlements are active sites in which lepers and their families still live. In addition to their vernacular architecture and surroundings, the preservation of leprosy settlements is involved with human rights, social stigma, and post-colonial reconciliation. Compounding the existing stigma are the varied and controversial results from the preservation and revitalization of leprosy settlements. Settlements located on remote islands were encouraged by their governments to be developed into tourist destinations through utilizing their existing cultural and social resources, such as the Culion Leper Colony in the Philippines and the Sorok Leprosy Colony in South Korea. On the contrary, settlements on the edge of city centres were compromised to encourage urban growth, such as the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium in Malaysia and the Losheng Sanatorium in Taiwan. Due to their shared colonial past and collective identity that transcend political boundaries in a colonial and postcolonial context, a call for a transnational UNESCO World Heritage Sites nomination was initiated by NGOs in collaboration with local communities in these four leprosy settlements, among others, in 2009. This transnational movement revealed dilemmas in preserving leprosy settlements under the influence of neoliberalism. 

This research mainly focuses on two issues: While the shift of economic control from the public sector to the private sector under the influence of neoliberalism generated social injustice and market-based economy, the force to cultivate the partnership between the public and private sectors envisions a benefit-driven development in either heritage tourism or urban land development of leprosy settlements. The aggression of the market economy exerts the demand to balance the economic benefits and socio-cultural cost at both the international and national levels. How did the private and public partnership of economic development foster cultural consumption of the painful past and pose a possible threat to leprosy settlements? 

The recent collective disappointment with the governments triggered the awareness of the intricate value of the painful past and the initiatives of re-evaluating the long-ignored and marginalized history. Given the different social, cultural, and political aspects of each leprosy settlement, different forces in contemporary events led to revisiting a forgotten history. How did the movement encourage social coherence or exert community conflict at the local level?

Shu-yi Wang


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