A Game of Tug of War
By: Luca Gorla
Original title: Burma, Penang, and China in the 1920s: four photograph albums
Location: Burma, Penang, and China
Photographer: Philleo, George West
Source for your image: http://libraries.colorado.edu/record=b12780537~S3
In the early 1900s, a picture was captured in today’s Penang, Malaysia, revealing the presence of colonialism. European individuals, easily identified by their unique apparel, are seen, indicating the colonial activity within the area. During this period, tug of war was frequently practiced in Burma, China, and Penang, and its connection to colonialism is undeniable. Sports and recreation were often employed by colonial officials and foreign missionaries to popularize Western values and culture, with tug of war being a popular choice.
Amid the British rule of Burma, they keenly instilled the idea of athletic activities as a means of enhancing the natives’ health and principles. The game of tug of war was a particularly applicable strategy for cultivating collaboration and harmony among Burmese juveniles. Consequently, various schools and tertiary institutions integrated this sport into their programs. Among Chinese youth, foreign teachers and missionaries saw tug of war as a means of imposing discipline and order in accordance with Western-style physical education and modernization. Chinese intellectuals also used this sport as a platform to showcase China’s strength and national pride against the backdrop of foreign influence. Notably, tug of war was a sport brought into China by foreign missionaries and teachers. Established in 1903, the Chinese Recreation Club in Penang became a hub of social and cultural activity for the local Malaysian community, who viewed tug of war as a means to maintain their cultural heritage in light of British colonial domination. Among the various sports played by its members, tug of war was one of the most popular. In the 1920s, photographs captured the image of tug of war being played in Burma, Malaysia, or China, which may have been influenced by European colonial powers. We can see this through the presence of Europeans in the picture, whether they were observers or involved in the game itself, which indicates their involvement in the sport’s organization and marketing in these areas.
The countries and regions colonized by European powers were subject to notable political and cultural changes during the colonial period. Westernization was a common attempt at influencing the people, involving the dissemination of Western customs, social standards, and political ideals. In various colonies, Westernization and cultural assimilation were encouraged by European colonial powers through sports and recreational activities. The spreading of cricket, football, and rugby, among others, was promoted by the British colonizers, particularly in the Caribbean, Africa, and India as an effort to implant Western values and cultivate British identity for the native population. The Paris Olympics of 1924 showcased tug of war as a demonstration sport, possibly indicating a rise in European culture and athletics influencing Asia. Capturing a unique slice of local culture and traditions could have been on the photographer’s agenda with an interest in documenting the social and cultural practices of the people. During the 1920s, Tug of War was a globally popular sport, and perhaps photographing it could have been viewed as a means to capture an unconventional or customary facet of the community’s life. The photographer’s interest in capturing popular images for Western audiences could be the third reason for choosing Tug of War as a subject. With its familiarity among many viewers, pictures of this sport could potentially appeal to a broad audience and pique curiosity about the photographer’s portfolio. Colonialism’s influence on the communities may have incited the photographer’s interest in documenting the tug of war sport of the era. The game was often endorsed by foreign missionaries or colonial administrators, making it a significant subject to snap.
The meanings and interpretations of tug of war could vary based on the social, cultural, and historical context of the time for the local people and the place in question. Tug of War could have served as a conduit for the promotion of physical fitness, teamwork, and cultural unity, among various other benefits, on one hand. It was a popular sport played during festivals or cultural events, and for many, it symbolized the preservation and celebration of traditional values and practices. The sport of Tug of War could also have represented colonialism and outside influence, as it was frequently brought in and endorsed by those from foreign lands like colonial officials and missionaries. Participating in the sport could have been viewed as embracing Western customs and beliefs, potentially to the detriment of local traditions, as noted previously. In the 1920s, Burma, China, and Malaysia witnessed an impactful event, the game of tug of war. This game holds immense historical significance as it illustrates how colonialism and outside influences shaped the traditions and cultures of local communities.
Western sports and games were brought into non-Western societies during colonialism as a form of cultural imperialism. The idea here was to promote Western values and practices as superior to local ones. Colonial officials, foreign missionaries, and educators often facilitated this cultural transfer via sports and games to promote modernization and Western-style physical education. The desire to assert colonial influence and the search for national pride were two of the broader social and political issues that the promotion of tug of war was tied to. Additionally, there was a perceived need for discipline and order in society at the time. A reflection of cultural, social, and political changes during that time, the tug of war image in Burma, China, and Malaysia during the 1920s represents the tangled and contested connection between the colonizing and those colonized.
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