George West Philleo’s photo collection documents several scenes that took place in Burma, China, and Pengang between 1917 and 1924. This picture shows British colonial officers playing tennis with their families in a tropical setting with Burmese helpers. In this essay, I will explore the historical significance of this shot for Burma, its significance to the photographer and the community, and the effects of colonialism on the area.
Burma was under British colonial rule from 1824 to 1948. The British colonial officials in Burma formed a small, elite community that dominated the economic and social life of the country. The British introduced Western sports, such as tennis, as a means of maintaining their cultural dominance over the Burmese. Tennis became a popular sport among the British colonial officials, who constructed tennis courts in their clubs and homes. Britain, however, was not the only outside influence that a nation placed on Burma. During the early 1920s, Burma’s society was influenced by Chinese culture, which was brought in by Chinese merchants and migrants who had settled in the region. This was evident in the country’s architecture, language, cuisine, and religious practices. Many Burmese people had adopted Chinese customs and traditions, leading to a cultural fusion between the two countries. Moreover, China had become an important economic partner for Burma, with Chinese businesses investing in the country’s natural resources such as timber, minerals, and jade. However, China’s influence also came with political and social pressures, with Chinese warlords and secret societies seeking to expand their influence in Burma. This led to tensions between the two countries, with the Burmese government enacting policies to restrict the activities of Chinese secret societies in the country. The complex relationship between Burma and China during the early 1920s had a significant impact on the country’s political and cultural landscape, shaping its identity as a nation in the region.
As of 2021, Burma (now known as Myanmar) is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The country joined ASEAN in 1997, but its membership has been controversial due to the military regime’s history of human rights abuses and political repression. In recent years, the military junta has regained control of the government in a coup, and the country has seen widespread protests and violence. ASEAN has been criticized for its response to the crisis in Myanmar, with some arguing that the organization has not done enough to address the situation.
The image of tennis being played in Burma captures the British colonial officials engaging in their leisure activities, showcasing their wealth and status. The Burmese attendants in the background serve to highlight the power dynamics of the colonial relationship. The British officials are portrayed as relaxed and carefree, enjoying their game in the midst of a tropical paradise, while the Burmese attendants are depicted as subservient and passive.
The tennis court itself represents the imposition of Western culture on Burma. The court is a symbol of the British desire to create a miniature England in Burma, complete with its sports, clubs, and institutions. The use of a tennis court in this image speaks to the larger project of colonialism, which sought to impose Western values and practices on the colonized peoples.
The image also reveals the photographer’s perspective on colonialism. George West Philleo was an American photographer who worked in Burma during the 1920s. His photographs offer a glimpse into the lives of British colonial officials and their families. The photographs are carefully staged and composed, presenting a sanitized and idealized image of colonial life. The photographer’s perspective on colonialism is evident in his choice of subject matter, composition, and framing.
The photograph also has a meaning for the local people in Burma. This image of British colonial officials playing tennis in Burma would have been seen as a symbol of their power and dominance. The tennis court, a symbol of Western culture, would have been a stark reminder of the cultural imposition of the colonizers on the colonized. All other pictures in this collection have the same agenda behind them, giving a filtered look at the reality of the people and lifestyles in Burma, China, and Penang.
The photograph album by George West Philleo captures a moment in the history of Burma that speaks to the larger project of colonialism. The image of tennis being played in Burma reveals the power dynamics of the colonial relationship, the photographer’s perspective on colonialism, and the impact of Western culture on Burma. This photograph album is a visual record of colonialism in these three Asian countries, offering insight into the complex social and cultural dynamics of the time between 1917 and 1924.
“Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/association-southeast-asian-nations-asean.
“A Brief History of Burma-China Relations.” The Diplomat, 24 Feb. 2021, thediplomat.com/2021/02/a-brief-history-of-burma-china-relations/.
Kyaw, Yin. “The British Colonial Impact on Burma.” Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 1, no. 1, 2005, pp. 51-60. Questia, doi: 10.11648/j.ss.20130101.18.
Philleo, George West. Four photograph albums by George West Philleo, 1917-1924. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, 2009. Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?id=j8M0DwAAQBAJ.