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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 and heritage.

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. * Explore History: Objects from Asia is made possible thanks to the support of the Presidential Mini-Grant for Diversity Initiatives. 

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!


Do you have an object that should be a part of this exhibition? Please see the Explore History Call for Proposals and Preliminary Submission Form for details about how to make your contribution!

Object for the Month of December 2015 
Grandmother's Indian Masala Brick

dec photo

Installation Photo by Zifei Wu

My Grandmother’s most prized possession was her masala brick, an Indian kitchen tool to grind and blend spices and herbs. In Guyana, the masala brick is also known as lorha and sil. This masala brick originated from my great-great grandmother, Sukia Dalchand, whose family was from Madras and Goa in India. It was handed down to my grandmother on her wedding day as a family heirloom. One of seven siblings, her parents were indentured Indian workers. On her migration from India to Guyana, my great-great grandmother brought her family’s masala brick with her. To her it was like gold!

I came to the United States in 1976 with my Grandmother, who stood all of five feet, one inch tall and who refused to leave Guyana without her masala brick. It was handed down to her like a cherished family jewel. My grandmother balanced the 30 pound masala brick on her head to carry it onto and off the airplane, and it had to be within her eyesight at all times during our journey to the U.S. I imagine it created a scene at JFK airport when we arrived! When I was just three years old, my grandmother began to teach me how to cook and use this masala brick the way she was taught by her mother. To prepare Guyanese curry, the first step is to use the masala brick to grind the spices into a powder that is then mixed into a paste and sautéed with other herbs.

Once or twice a year I put away all of my modern kitchen machinery and cook and prepare with the masala brick the way my grandmother taught me. As the fifth generation to possess this family heirloom, I’m teaching the younger generation in my family to cook the way our ancestors did. This masala brick is an important part of our family history and a way to keep our traditions alive.

Shakeera Thomas (Chapter Assistant of United University Professions, Stony Brook University)

Object for the Month of November 2015 
Amazing World of Rice

nov photo

Installation Photo by Zifei Wu

I grew up on jok (rice porridge), khao tom (rice soup), khao pad (fried rice) and a number of other Thai dishes that all begin with jasmine rice or, in Thai, khao hom mali, which translated literally means “rice with the fragrance of jasmine.” To eat, gin khao, means literally “to eat rice.”

Jasmine rice is a major export of Thailand. One of the most popular brands of rice is the Elephant Brand. Elephants stand for good luck in Thailand but only if the trunk is raised. (During exam time, students will place lucky elephant figurines at their school’s spirit house shrine to ensure that they will pass.) I have a few lucky elephant figurines in my collection and my surname means white elephant.

According to recent research, rice was first cultivated 8,200-13,500 years ago in the Pearl River valley region of China. Today Asia (counting Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar, Korea, Pakistan, Philippines, and Vietnam as well as Thailand) supplies 87% of the rice in the world while the U.S. provides about 12%. Rice was introduced to the Americas through European colonization and the six-largest rice producing states in the United States are Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. Rice is the third highest produced agricultural commodity in the world after sugarcane and maize. There are 40,000 different varieties of rice worldwide. Technology has helped to improve rice production, but as a result of the cost of this technology many low-income farmers are unable to compete, thus losing their land and becoming tenants.

Chanika Svetvilas (Program Associate of Cultural Programs, Charles B. Wang Center)

Object for the Month of October 2015 
Targeting New Japanese Consumers: Modern, Western Imagery in Pre-war Beer Posters

oct photo

Installation Photo by Zifei Wu

Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, Japan’s leading brewers created a vast array of colorful leaflets, flyers, handbills, and especially full-color posters as advertisements. These posters were commissioned as original paintings, and many featured beautiful women (reijin or bijin) dressed in gorgeous kimono or, alternatively, in the latest Western hairstyles and fashions.

The Dai Nippon, Kirin, and Asahi brewing companies commissioned many posters from leading advertising firms, whose reps came to pitch designs directly to senior managers. Brewery firms expected to see models with particular appearances, and they would even request the work of specific painters. They also ordered modern printing techniques such as plate-making (seihanga) and lithography (sekiban), both of which grew very popular during this era.

Many of the artists who created these posters are anonymous because they either did not sign their work, or only very faint outlines of their signatures have survived. Portrait rights and copyrights were not observed during the early decades of the Showa age (1925-1989), especially internationally. Japanese artists typically copied Western ads and simply inserted new faces, making their works more modified copies than original works.

Many of these posters depicted scenes of beer being enjoyed in trendy cafes by so-called modern girls (moga), as well in cabarets and nightclubs by women wearing sequined, and even backless dresses. A third major trend in poster ads simply featured bottles of beer next to modern Western technologies and entertainments, including racehorses, sailboats, airplanes and dancers. Western commodities like beer, soda, and biscuits were thus associated with elite, new culture, especially by those still aspiring to afford them. Prewar Japanese consumers could not possibly have failed to notice the equation of beer with the themes of freedom and modern living.

Jeffrey W. Alexander, Author of Brewed in Japan: The Evolution of the Japanese Beer Industry

Object for the Month of September 2015 
Tiger Balm: The Legendary Pain Reliever from Singapore

sept photo

Installation Photo by Zifei Wu

Growing up in Singapore, when I suffered from a cold, a mosquito bite, or stomach flu, my parents would bring out this special jar and apply the ointment on my chest, stomach or wherever the pain or irritation was.

As a child, I always thought that the jar contained tiger oil, despite the noticeable herbal fragrance. The image of the leaping tiger on the jar always made me feel like I would spring back to health and regain my strength after applying the ointment.

As I grew up, I learned that a Chinese herbalist in Burma created the ointment, Tiger Balm, in the 1870s based on a secret formula from ancient China. In the 1920s, his sons, the Aw brothers successfully established a market for Tiger Balm in East and Southeast Asia after starting their company in Singapore.

Today, Tiger Balm is distributed worldwide in major drugstores or supermarkets across the globe. If I had to find a comparable item to Tiger Balm in the US, it would ​have to be ​​​Vicks VapoRub; but ​that​ would not be a fair comparison because Tiger Balm is the Legendary Pain Reliever from Asia that works miracles. Try it! I dare you. RAWR!

E.K. TAN, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, SBU

Object for the Month of May 2015 
Coffee Break: Cezve from Turkey

May Photo

Installation Photo by Zifei Wu

Turkish coffee or, Türk kahvesi' (TURK' KAH'-vay-see), occupies an important place in the country’s social culture. Coffee is enjoyed as an afternoon break and opportunity for visits with friends, neighbors and family. In smaller, rural villages the coffee house is filled with locals (mostly men) passing the day nursing countless cups of coffee, smoking cigarettes and sharing village gossip.

This cezve (jez-VEY') is a small, long-handled pot used to brew traditional Turkish coffee. Finely ground dark roast coffee beans, similar in texture to Italian espresso, are boiled directly with water and the desired amount of sugar until the coffee is thick and syrupy. The viscose, potent result, always individually prepared, is then poured into tiny cups, grounds included, and sipped slowly, generally alongside a glass of water. Turkish coffee drinkers imbibe thoughtfully, mindful of the thick, bitter coffee paste settled in the bottom of the cup.

Some still practice the ancient tradition of fortune telling after finishing a demitasse of Turkish coffee; similar to the practice of “reading” tea leaves, the demitasse is inverted onto the saucer, rotated clockwise and the resulting pattern of coffee grinds interpreted to predict one’s future.

Drake Page, The DP Chutney Collective

Object for the Month of April 2015 
Are Your Clothes Made In Bangladesh?

April Photo

Installation Photo by Zifei Wu

Have you ever checked out the label on that H&M shirt you're wearing or on your favorite pair of jeans? It may not be surprising for you to see "made in Bangladesh" written across the tags.

Bangladesh, located in the South Asian subcontinent, was the focus of much social discourse following the collapse of a factory building in April 2013 that took the lives of more than 1,100 garment workers. The incident, known as the Rana Plaza disaster, highlighted the dark side of Bangladesh's Ready-Made Garment (RMG) industry. That industry is centered in the capital city of Dhaka, while many other RMG factories are located in underdeveloped suburbs.

Since the government of Bangladesh shifted the country away from its reliance on agriculture 30 years ago, garment exports have risen from $6.4 million U.S. to a whopping $21.5 billion, thus becoming Bangladesh's main source of foreign exchange. Many observers proclaim this development to be a boom for Bangladesh due to the resulting rise in employment and global competitiveness. However, incidents like the Rana Plaza disaster focus attention on the urgent need for improvement in the RMG industry's deplorable work conditions.

There are two serious problem areas in Bangladesh’s RMG industry: (1) Bangladeshi exporters do not enforce international labor laws strictly; and (2) the industry is allowed to exploit Bangladeshi women due to the society’s deeply ingrained gender inequality and strong patriarchal values. The Bangladeshi RMG industry employs more than 3.6 million people, and of that figure 2.8 million people are women with little to no formal education. The majority of these women are illiterate.

Bangladesh’s RMG industry employs the highest proportion of women of any in the world, and has been under constant pressure to adopt international labor standards. Bangladeshi workers in the RMG industry suffer from a lack of job security, little to no formal protection from discriminatory hiring procedures, inconsistent payment, lack of a minimum wage and no opportunity to join labor unions. RMG industry employees are forced to work 10 hours a day, six days a week. Unregulated child labor is also a serious problem.

Companies like H&M and Primark in are the key beneficiaries of Bangladesh’s low labor costs. The European companies also benefit from an efficient global transportation system. The trend in the global garment industry now is "Fast Fashion": clothing that is made inexpensively and quickly, while still maintaining high quality standards. But the rush towards "Fast Fashion" places even greater pressure on the RMG workers in Bangladesh.

As a result of the Rana Plaza disaster, unions and industry came together to establish the Bangladesh Safety Accord. However, with demeaning and dangerous labor conditions persisting in the country, corporate social responsibility is a topic that gets more urgent every day.

Tabashshum Islam, SBU Student

Object for the Month of March 2015 
Haft Seen: Iranian New Year Table Setting

mar photo

Installation Photo by Zifei Wu

Haft Seen (Persian translation of ‘Seven S’) is the traditional Iranian table setting that includes at least seven items that start with ‘S’ in Persian. The Persian New Year coincides with the Spring equinox, which is what Haft Seen celebrates. Families gather around the Haft Seen at the moment of the Spring equinox and celebrate the transition from winter to spring and the coming of the New Year.

Persian New Year reminds me of the colorful Haft Seen table and crowded shopping centers where people buy new clothes. It also brings to mind memories of wheat germinated by my mom, and the sound of new bank notes left inside the Quran by my father.

On New Year’s Day, I love using watercolors to color boiled eggs for Haft Seen with my sisters. I love the smell of Sabzi Polo Maahi (herbed rice with fish) from the kitchen. I love listening to my mom saying prayers of thanks for all the blessings God has given us. I love the moment my father opens the Quran and my siblings and I each take a bank note for good fortune. I love sitting with my family around the Haft Seen table, which is covered with seven items symbolizing rebirth (sabzeh, wheat sprouts), love (senjed, dried wild olive fruit), health (seeb, apple), medicine (seer, garlic), patience (serkeh, vinegar), the color of sunrise (somaq, sumac Fruit), and affluence (samanu, sweet pudding made from wheat.) In addition, Haft Seen includes other items symbolizing fertility (painted eggs), light and self-reflection (mirror), life (gold fish), wealth and prosperity (coins), prayers (the Quran) and the sweetness of life (pastries).

Saal Tahvil, the start of the New Year, is such a joyful moment. Everyone wears new clothes and sits around the Haft Seen anxiously waiting for the countdown to the No-Rooz (New Year.) For 3,000 years Iranian people have been celebrating No-Rooz in their own unique way. At the turn of the year, everyone wishes each other happy New Year by hugging and kissing. Being surrounded with family and sitting by the beautiful Haft Seen, we are all happy that the past year is gone and we are filled with hope for a better and prosperous year ahead.

Vahideh Rasekhi, Ph.D. Candidate from the Department of Linguistics.

Object for the Month of February 2015 
Prayer Rug from Pakistan

feb photo

Installation Photo by Zifei Wu

A prayer rug (janamaz in Urdu) is a fabric used by Muslims during their times of prayer. The act of Muslim prayer includes several different body positions, such as prostration, sitting on the ground and standing. It is necessary for the prayer to be performed on a clean and pure surface. The prayer rug serves as a clean surface between the worshipper and the ground.

Prayer rugs are an essential item found in the home of every Pakistani Muslim. Each member of the family has his or her own prayer rug which he or she keeps in a clean location. It is traditional for a Pakistani mother to give her daughter a prayer rug on her wedding day. This gift symbolizes the significance of the daughter's starting her new life with a new family. The prayer rug that is given on the wedding day is usually of better quality than an average prayer rug, and the wedding gift prayer rug is also made of a brighter color to represent the vibrant, joyous occasion.

The prayer rug on display was given to me by my grandmother who lived in Pakistan. It has been a way for me to stay connected to my roots and to my grandmother who recently passed away. This prayer rug started as just that, a prayer rug, but over time it has become a cherished memory of my grandmother. Everytime I use this prayer rug, I am reminded of my grandmother’s beautiful spirit. Prayer rugs are usually passed down from generation to generation. Some museums hold prayer rugs that date back to the late 16th century. The decorative pattern, material, dyes and colors used in Muslim prayer rugs vary greatly depending on the region they come from. The design of the rug usually incorporates Islamic art, symbols and architecture, such as the Kaaba, a minaret, or the dome of a mosque. The design of the rug represents the richness of Islamic history, the value of the prayer rug, and the act of prayer itself.

Zara Sayeed, SBU Student


Past Explore History: Objects from Asia Exhibitions

Please visit here to view the past programs.

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Charles B. Wang Center

Stony Brook University
100 Nicolls Road
Stony Brook, NY 11794-4040

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