Explore History: Objects from Asia
Discover history and culture through objects from Asia! This a corner exhibition curated
by faculty members, students, and community members to share their unique culture
Display your own cultural heritage or personal experience in this collaborative crowd-sourced
exhibition! With contributions from students, faculty, and community members, we explore
Asian histories, cultures, and experiences through everyday objects. A piece of crockery
might teach us about a region's culinary culture or about a family's (im)migration;
a cherished doll or figurine might teach us about international styles of dress or
about childhood experience; a mass-produced souvenir might teach us about a shifting
economy or a life-changing holiday.
Selected objects are on view both at the Charles B. Wang Center and website.
Please visit the Charles B. Wang Center to see the actual objects!
Coffee is to the West as tea is to the East. When one thinks of Asian culture and
its associated beverage, tea immediately comes to mind. Not many people would link
an Asian nation with coffee; yet, the second largest producer of coffee in the world
is Vietnam, with Indonesia being third. Introduced to Vietnam in 1857 during the French
colonization, coffee slowly grew to become Vietnam’s most valued exported agricultural
product, second only to rice. Exporting more than 1 million tons of coffee beans per
year, Vietnam is the number one producer of coffee in Asia. Therefore, it would come
as no surprise that there is also a thriving Vietnamese coffee culture. Walking through
the streets of Vietnam, you will see people drinking cups of coffee rather than cups
of tea. In response, coffee houses and road side stalls sprouted up to meet the increasing
demands of this thriving culture.
However, unlike in Western culture where coffee is mostly taken on-the-go, in Vietnam,
having coffee is a slow-paced affair, much like drinking tea. People sit down to enjoy
their cup of coffee rather than ordering it to go in a styrofoam cup. This leisure
to drinking coffee is also enhanced by the way Vietnamese coffee is prepared. Vietnamese
coffee is typically brewed through a small drip filter called a phin, a device that sits on top of a coffee cup with small holes on the bottom to allow
for the coffee to drip down. This method to brewing allows for the coffee to steep
in the grounds for the right amount of time despite the filter’s small volume. Meanwhile,
the cup under the filter already contains sweetened condensed milk, which is the prefered
way to drink coffee in Vietnam. The leisure pace in which to drink coffee in no way
reflects the coffee production in Vietnam. Numbers continue to grow as Vietnam’s coffee
culture continues to develop new ways to cultivate their increasing supply which in
turn feeds the growing demand, not just in Vietnam, but all over the world.
Li Shan Liang, Graphic Designer
The Chinese adore and eat moon cake delicacies. They consume them as a slice or a
small wedge of one moon cake, and they enjoy them shared with family and friends during
the important holiday they know as the Mid-Autumn Festival; Zhongquijie in Chinese. This event is one of their most important celebrations, second only to
their New Year holiday that is also known as Spring Festival. Both of these festivals
are Lunar calendar holidays.
During this festival they eat these thick dense pastries that can be filled with lotus
seed, red bean paste, red date paste, or five different nuts and seeds. Each moon
cake is wrapped in a thin crust, its center often are filled with the yolk of a salted
duck egg. The top of this delicacy can be imprinted with Chinese characters that can
say ‘longevity’ or the name of the filling. Some of these moon cakes might have a
picture of Lady Chang-e. She is the Moon Goddess of Immortality, or it might be a
rabbit; that animal is the symbol of the moon. Made and stuffed in these wooden molds,
they are shaped and banged out of them, then set on a baking sheet. Their tops are
brushed them with oil, then baked. Different regions of China do make different fillings.
Their skins or outsides are made with lard. These days they even have vegetarian ones.
This Mid-Autumn holiday festival is celebrated on its 15th day of the 8th lunar month.
It was named during the Song Dynasty, circa 420 CE. Some say these cakes were used
during the Yuan Dynasty; at that time they were used with messages smuggled in them.
Their purpose was to overthrow the country’s Mongolian rulers.
Not just limited to China, some other Asian countries use these pastries. The Vietnamese
use them often, the Chinese most often. The Chinese buy them in beautiful boxes of
four, the Vietnamese in boxes of two. People rarely make their own moon cakes. Why
do they purchase them more often, because it is complicated to do make ones own, also
very time consuming. Rare, also, is the person who carves their own moon cake mold.
Special visitors can be honored with beautiful carved ones as gifts. Many in the ones
I own were, and I have had most of them my entire adult lifetime.
The wood they are made with is heavy and dense, as are the pastries shaped in them.
Most are made with hawthorn or litchi wood, some of olive wood. We know only two cookbooks
that solely feature stories about and recipes for this pastry. One is by Alan Ooi,
the other by Ms. Choong Su Yin; and both are paperbacks. Each has about one hundred
ages, they are in Chinese and English, and they include recipes for cookies and moon
cakes made in them. They share how to make their exteriors called skins and their
The first bakery in the USA to make this Autumn holiday food was in San Francisco
and called Eastern Bakery. Nowadays, many Chinese and other Asian bakeries sell them
year-round. One finds the greatest variety of moon cakes in the Fall. Do buy and try
them sliced in small pieces as the Chinese do.
Jacqueline M. Newman, Editor of Flavor and Fortune
North Korean Comic Book: Mighty Wing!
North Korean comic books of the Mighty Wing era were produced quite explicitly to teach children the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung’s
ideology of Juche, or “self-reliance.” North Korean writers and artists, since they
must work under state supervision, are all required to apply the rules of Juche in
their work by state mandate.
Mighty Wing was published in 1994, the year Kim Il Sung’s death. At that time, the drought conditions
in North Korea were becoming common knowledge in the outside world and the DPRK was
receiving hundreds of thousands of tons of food and tens of millions of dollars in
aid. The famine in North Korea was devastating. The consistent pattern flooding and
drought caused by climate change ultimately resulted in the deaths of more than a
quarter of a million people as reported by the DPRK (some estimates say the true figure
is up to three million). By the late 1990s, only half the population had safe drinking
The allegorical story in Mighty Wing is about heroic bees surviving through cooperation and resource preservation, despite
the constant threat of outsiders. It shows that the DPRK was well aware of the necessity
for irrigation and for replenishing a depleting food supply—so much so that it became
a theme in a popular children’s comic book. Since the publication date is 1994, it
is likely that the book was produced in 1993, reflecting the concerns of the regime
just prior to Kim Il Sung’s death in July of 1994. That time period is also especially
significant, because it means that Mighty Wing was probably one of the comic books most influential on the young Kim Jong-un, Kim
Il-sung’s grandson, the current leader of the DPRK. Perhaps examining it can give
us insight into some of the ideological content of his mind.
Heinz Insu Fenkl, Associate Professor of English, State University of New York, New
Published in 1994 by Gold Star Children’s Press
Cho Pyŏng-Kwon (Story) / Im Wal-Yong (Art)
Head coverings, for both men and women, are an important part of tradition and traditional
dress for many international cultures. Among these head coverings, however, none has
been the focus of more debate in recent years than the veils and other head coverings
worn by Islamic women. Carrying with them the weight and value of social, cultural,
political, religious, and even nationalistic codes and taboos, the veil often elicits
responses of curiosity, confusion, or fear from Western, non-Muslim observers. Even
in some predominantly Muslim countries, the veil has been at the center of complex
mainstream debates. As early as the 1920s in Turkey and Egypt, for example, modernization
and advancement were associated with European values and practices, and women were
therefore encouraged to unveil as a sign of progress and "civilization." In that context,
"to veil" was perceived as implying inferiority or "otherness."
Historically, secular societies have interpreted the veil as representing confinement,
repression or exclusion. Contrary to these interpretations, however, many women now
wear the veil as a matter of choice rather than of obligation. For these women, to
wear the veil is to resist perceived Western encroachment, to express their faith,
and to participate in society and the workplace. In the United States, this very visible
symbol affirms the wearers' connections to specific communities, geography, heritages
and people, sometimes challenging our notions and perceptions of what it is to be
a diverse, inclusive society.
Lauren Kaushansky, Department of History, Professional Education Program
Stony Brook Student Aneela Ashraf with the March 2014 Objects from Asia Exhibit