Weaving through the many coloured lights of Baccarat, Blackjack, three-card Poker, roulette, slots and video poker patronised by solitary gamers, both young and older, onward to the labyrinthian corridors of the opulent Venetian, the sobriety of Asia scholars—European, Asian, American and African—welcomes you. The surreal landscape of casinos, connections and contestations was a reality experienced at the 8th International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS 8) held at The Venetian, Macau, from 24-27 June 2013.
Casinos were also savoured for intellectual gratification given the double panel ICAS 8 sessions on ‘Casino and development in Asia’ encompassing areas of study such as casino growth in fuelling the economies of Macau, Singapore and the borderlands of Myanmar and Laos (e.g. greater Mekong sub-region), political economy that entails legalisation processes and regulatory mechanisms to moderate (not curb) criminal activity and the involvement of state and non-state actors as key stakeholders in this encroaching casino economy that opens up spaces for the consideration of theological ethics (http://icassecretariat.org/files/ICAS8_Day-3_2606213.pdf).
More dazzling than the seductive lights of gaming stands were the huge resources, mobilised biennially to engender connections between the East and West that in 2013, find concrete expression in the choice of conference venue. Macau is presently a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China since its handover to China in 1999 by the Portuguese (who colonised the trading port since the 16th century), hence marking Macau as the last European territory in Asia. The trade of ideas and best practices notably in developing and sustaining Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, East Asian Studies in every continent, is well complemented by the daily complimentary tours of the historical heart of Macau, as a UNESCO World Heritage site, for ICAS 8 participants. The ‘cultural hybridity’ between the Western and Chinese civilisations that mark the streetscapes of historical Macau is echoed in the fertile research collaborations among Asia scholars globally.
Contestations make visible not only the gaps between intent and reality of making connections but also the sincerity in overcoming these gaps. Firstly, the strong presence of gender and queer studies, particularly, the multiple panels of ‘Embodying masculinities and physical appearance in everyday spaces of work, home, consumption, and leisure across Asia’, sponsored by one of the ICAS 8 partners, the International Institute for Asian Studies, the Netherlands, opened up discursive spaces for Asian Studies that go beyond the traditional privileging of Asia’s political economy. Secondly, the dominance of East Asian Studies, undoubtedly spurred by the choice of conference venue, made apparent, the diverse and diasporic experiences of becoming Chinese in Asia which resonated with my personal experience as a Chinese-Catholic minority in a Malay-Muslim-majority Malaysia, my ‘home’ country. Finally, the claims of agency in recuperating the ‘Asianness’ of Asian Studies and power that are embroiled in questions of funding, competitive advantage of undergraduate and postgraduate Asian Studies programmes at institutions of higher learning in the West and East, are lasting reminders, beyond casinos and connections, of the non-level playing field among stakeholders of Asian Studies.