For just over a century, the kingdom of Sarawak on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo was ruled by a family of Englishmen. The “White Rajahs,” as the Brooke family were known, thrived in the overlapping and patchy maritime world dominated by indigenous rulers (such as the sultan of Brunei), local strongmen, and British imperialists. The Brookes of Sarawak, who surrendered their domain to the United Kingdom in 1946, stand as a testament to the fluid nature of power and identity in Asia, a region still riven by territorial disputes and fettered to history.
The Asia that has dominated headlines, primarily economic ones, for the past 30 years and more is largely the Asia of Japan, China, and Korea. The emergence of Japan into economic superstardom in the 1960s and 1970s fueled a generation of development throughout Asia. For the past 15 years, the story has been overwhelmingly about China. For many observers, business and trade spell the totality of their interest. In recent years, the rapid growth of China’s military might has added a different angle, one far more menacing to the simpler narrative of an Asia smoothly modernizing and integrating into global trade and political networks. With Asia’s diversity and vibrancy, moreover, there is always yet another story, another interest to absorb the attention: the surreal totalitarianism of North Korea, the kaleidoscopic anarchy of India, or the enduring appeal of Japanese aesthetics.