Colonial Figures: Memories of Street Traders in the Colonial and Early Post-colonial Periods

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Sheri Lynn Gibbings
Fridus Steijlen


This article explores post-colonial memories about street traders among individuals who lived in the former colony of the Dutch East Indies. It argues that these narratives romanticize the relationship between Europeans and indigenous peoples. Street vendors are also used to differentiate between periods within colonial and post-colonial history. The nostalgic representation of interracial contact between Europeans and traders is contrasted with representations of other figures such as the Japanese and the nationalist. A recurring feature of these representations is the ability of Europeans to speak with street traders and imagine what they wanted and needed. The traders are remembered as a social type that transgressed politics and represented the neutrality of the economic sphere as a place for shared communication. The article concludes that the figure of the street vendor contributes to the nostalgic reinvention of the colony but is also used in narratives to differentiate between and mark changes across the colonial and post-colonial periods.

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Author Biographies

Sheri Lynn Gibbings, Department of Global Studies Wilfrid Laurier University

Dr Sheri Gibbings is Assistant Professor at the Department of Global Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario Canada. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist specialized in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Her ethnographic research in Indonesia has focused on the social and cultural effects of democratic change on the urban underclass in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In particular, her research explores democratic change from the perspective of street vendors, government officials, and NGOs entangled in battles over public space.

Fridus Steijlen, KITLV/ Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies

Dr Fridus Steijlen is researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden, the Netherlands. He is anthropologist and specialist on oral history. His main topics are ethnicity, postcolonial migration, identity politics and social movements. He is also involved in an audiovisual project recording daily life in contemporary Indonesia. See also:


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