EATS Board Member, 2012-2018
I remember a quote given by the prominent American historian Dexter Perkins that ‘history is a kind of introduction to more interesting people than we can possibly meet in our restricted lives; let us not neglect the opportunity’. This ‘opportunity’ was given to me when I become a student of Taiwan Studies at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
With an anthropological-focused background from Southampton University I was keen to understand how landscape was shaped by the footprints of those left behind by others. I was passionate to observe heritage, in the form of archaeological sites, museums, architecture, books and journals, that allowed me to interpret the multi-faceted dimensions of past.
In Taiwan I wanted to uncover the role of the British community that had resided in Taiwan from the opening of the treaty ports in 1858. This led to the completion of a book that discussed the social history of a British merchant that sojourned in Taiwan during a period of immense social, economic, and political change.
The immersion in historical documentation has led to my current position at the Centre of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the University of London, where, at present, I am working on a number of projects related to my field of study. The most prominent of these is the collection and cataloguing of British missionary archives during the latter parts of the 19th century. The first of these collections is due for publication by the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in 2013 and documents the arrival of the Presbyterian Mission. The second volume due to begin in September 2013 shall uncover the establishment of schools and hospitals on the island and the role of women in Taiwan mission history.
I am also engaged in a collaborative project between Professor Hu Chia-yu, at the Department of Anthropology at National Taiwan University and the British Museum on a catalogue of the three-hundred or so items held in the Museum’s collections that document the history of the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples. The catalogue is scheduled for publication in 2014 and will hopefully follow with an exhibition of the items held at the British Museum and from the collection of artefacts housed at National Taiwan University.
My passion for heritage does not stop there for in 2009 until present I have also been engaged on a project with ECAI (Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative) at the University of California Berkeley. The basis of this is to necrogeographically map foreign cemeteries in Taiwan (necrogeography refers to a term that was designed to describe the spatial and cultural dimensions of mortuary landscapes). My undergoing project will give an account of the activities of Euro-American merchants living on the treaty ports of the Qing dynasty coastal trade. Hopefully, once completed, the project will not only provide a digital tool for genealogical research but also provide spatial metadata analysis of birth, gender, age, migration, occupation, social status, religion and cause of death. Collectively, they can add to a constructed heritage, such as architecture, by outlining the lives of those particular people.
For me, the appeal in studying Taiwan social history is that it often draws from a wide range of disciplines and is not regimented simply on theory or empirical study. Instead it is a discipline that amalgamates both and allows one to draw a conclusion from seemingly unrelated discourses. Taiwan social history evokes specific affection and my research reflects such interests.
In an age where people worry about their future employment opportunities, Bill Muse once wrote that a ‘secure[d] profession for young people is history teacher, because in the future, there will be so much more of it to teach’. I hope to attain this greatest opportunity.
Dr Niki J.P. Alsford, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences. Also, Research Associate, Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, the University of London.