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What makes popular culture popular—and meaningful at a particular place and time? What makes it a significant topic for study? In what way do judgments about popular “taste” reflect issues of class, gender, age, or race? In this course, we examine the common or mass culture of Southeast Asia in its material, moral, economic, and political dimensions. We will consider old popular folk genres as well as post-1960s commercial productions including pop music, epics, dramas, dance, movies, television, videos, social media, cuisine, advertising, cartoons, commodities, public arts, photography, games, and other collective group activities.

Southeast Asia includes Muslim majority nations such as Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia; Theravada Buddhist majority nations such as Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia; Christian majority nations such as the Philippines and East Timor; and Chinese Confucian-influenced nations as diverse as Singapore and Vietnam. Ethnic minorities also abound. The region’s cultural diversity hints at historical legacies of migration, conquest, and exchanges.

Areas of Southeast Asia experienced colonial rule by Portugal, Spain, Holland, France, England, and the US. Some endured a 1940s Japanese occupation and violence during the Cold War era. Through popular culture productions, these nations’ citizens present fresh perspectives on colonialism, nationalism, globalization, and state agendas for modernization.

Students will bring their own media and country interests to the class as examples for comparative analysis. The symbolism and social meanings of Singapore cuisine, Burmese rap music, Thai vampire films, tattoos, village sports, Theravada Buddhist ecology rites, Philippine charismatic Christian radio, Malaysian Muslim fashions, Indonesian masked dances, K-pop, digital social media such as FB, and the ever-popular shadow puppet shows are all possibilities for class discussion, student research presentations, and creative essays (VP & BN)