Department of History
University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point
A City and Its People in the Colonial Margins: Chiang Mai between Empire and Nation
History is alive—and contested—in Southeast Asian cities. Diverse groups with various degrees of access to power and resources, or different claims to state authority or local identity, often debate how the past should be remembered, both in print and in the urban fabric of the city. In Chiang Mai, several interpretations of the city’s present and its past have converged in efforts to reshape the city center and its meanings in post-coup Thailand. In this lecture, I evaluate the possibilities for the urban center of the city as several projects aim to control and conserve the area in the wake of national and regional economic changes, particularly a turn towards greater centralization of power and resources, and the rise of outside investment and Chinese tourism in the city. One response to these rapid changes has been a campaign for World Heritage status for the city, which was placed on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites in 2015. Other responses highlight the contested history behind this push to preserve and promote the heritage of the city: There are the long-simmering plans to renovate an old prison into a historical park, and a program of temple restoration, linked to both the former king and a charismatic monk, which has made both religious and historical claims on the city’s center. Taken together, these overlapping projects show the challenges of dealing with complex pasts and multiple stakeholders in building an urban future for the Southeast Asian city.