Is the world becoming a homogenous cultural soup? One young Australian writer sought the answers in Asia and Africa. What he found was far stranger - a series of possible hybrid futures emerging, built on global and the local. From punk rock to scammer flicks, hardcore gamers to gay power, find out what the developing world has borrowed and adapted.
Fuelled by curiosity and wanderlust, reporter Doug Hendrie travelled to the edges of our world to find the most unexpected – and bizarre – examples of cultural mash-ups, from the StarCraft videogame superstars of South Korea to the Clash-loving punks of Indonesia. A whirlwind world tour through surprising subcultures told with subtle humour, AmalgaNations picks up where Louis Theroux leaves off.
Meet the South Korean professional videogamers who devote their lives to perfecting an old American game
Marvel at the Philippines - at once a devout nation, and yet hugely tolerant of gay culture
Follow Ghana's savvy street filmmakers through a world of scams, soft porn and melodrama
Discover the hardcore punks of Indonesia who rebelled against a regime far more totalitarian than Thatcher's ever was
‘We’re used to carting our travel discoveries home, but as Doug Hendrie proves it’s a two-way trade. Particularly when high tech, sex and style make the most unexpected converts’
‘From Ghana’s sorcery, scams and soft- porn film industry to gay power in the Philippines ... Welcome to Doug Hendrie’s world tour of rebirthed cultures’
‘Travelling isn’t just about where you go but what you do when you get there: where you look, what you see, who you meet and the questions you ask. Hendrie gets all this right and more in a book which doesn’t just take us places but into what feels like the future - a future that is here, now’
'AmalgaNations grows out of an Australian cultural melting pot and goes out to explore the ways in which once defined cultures elsewhere are now engaged in what in the music business is known as sampling, mash-ups, riffing off their own themes and recreating themselves in new and still evolving forms. Technology, enhanced communications and inventiveness each play in, and are played with, by the characters who inhabit Doug Hendrie’s engagingly written book. Hendrie challenges stereotypes, celebrates differences and shows that, at base, what makes us all human is our ability to creatively adapt to and engage with our increasingly interconnected world'
‘Doug Hendrie’s personal and insightful account of the connections between the West and other cultures exposes hidden truths about our global village’
SKIPPING BORDERS: CULTURES ON THE MOVE
One Saturday morning, I sat at an Ethiopian cafe in Footscray, sipping honeyed coffee. I watched seven-foot-tall South Sudanese men, huge grins atop beanpole bodies, deftly picking their way past their five-foot-five Vietnamese neighbours. And I wondered: when, in all of recorded history, would these two peoples have previously come into prolonged contact? Most likely never. What an extraordinary thing it is, I thought, to be mobile on this modern scale, to dislodge yourself from your ancestral home – driven by war, poverty or possibility.
Footscray, a gritty inner-western suburb of Melbourne, has become home to each major wave of migrants to Australia since my country began its European incarnation as an improbable prison colony. Footscray hosted poor Irish factory- and dockworkers in the 19th century, Greeks and Italians post-WWII as white Australia liberalised its white-only entry policies in a bid for scarce labour, and then, as the 20th century rolled on, came the Vietnamese and Cambodians, fleeing war in South-East Asia. In the 1990s, they were joined by economic migrants from China, refugees from the former Yugoslavia, and then, most recently, by Ethiopians, South Sudanese, Somalis and Eritreans, fleeing war or hunger or the collapse of their state. International students by their thousands have settled here, too, coming from South-East Asia, from Singapore, China and India, taking advantage of cheap rent. Now, Footscray is among the most multicultural suburbs in Australia; almost half of its residents speak a language other than English at home. But at school, the children of migrants speak English, and so become hybrid – people of two places, of their parents’ home and theirs. This process has fascinated me for years – how the children of migrants become locals, and how locals, in turn, sponge up new cultures, little by little. It happened to me. My own grandparents – Scots, English, Dutch – all fled British Malaya when the Japanese came in WWII, and ended up in Australia.
I’ve long felt this form of globalisation – the mixing of cultures previously held apart by geography, history, or hostility – is improving the world, little by little.
What led to this book was a chance encounter. Footscray was buzzing, blooming, with hairdressers specialising in African braiding, pho noodle shops thronging the main drag and stores selling the trademark baggy bling clothing of hip-hop, the latest African- American musical form to go global, following jazz, blues and rock. I finished my coffee and, on a whim, entered a hip-hop store named Emete JD, all high ceilings, branded puffy jackets and faux gold chains. The Ethiopian owner, JD, approached. Could he help me? I told him I was curious. How did his shop come to be? And why was it that hip-hop was becoming popular amongst African- Australians?
JD looked surprised. But then he smiled and told me his story. When he first arrived in Footscray with his parents in 1996, there were a grand total of six other Africans in the area and he soon knew them all. The community was too small. How could JD make himself a new identity? What other models were there? The obvious option was hip-hop, African-American urban life turned into a full-blown culture – music, dress, dance, art, all drawn from the stifling ghettos of New York’s Bronx in the 70s. What better way for an African newly conscious of his difference to adapt to a white-majority country?
‘Hip-hop was a black thing. You couldn’t buy the clothes here, you’d have to buy them from overseas,’ JD said. ‘The police used to stop us on every corner because of our baggy jeans. But it was just how we dressed.’ In high school, the white boys were scared of the African kids. The small group of second-generation Africans stuck together. They cultivated their hip-hop look and a devil-may-care attitude to keep them safe. ‘Back then whites didn’t hang with Africans,’ JD said. The book learning and racial politics of school weren’t for him. He left and began working. At a meat-processing plant, he deboned chickens and carved up sides of beef, working long hours. Hip-hop had given him an identity, but it had also given him an idea. The culture was taking off everywhere, from Africa to Australia, but buying gear was hard. In 2007, he had enough money to open Emete JD.
‘You know, when I came here, I couldn’t find home,’ he said. ‘So I created it.’ When he finished his story, JD cocked his head and said, ‘Come with me, meet my friend, an African rapper.’ And I went along, feeling deliciously out of place in a city I thought I knew well. His friend, who performs under the name African Third Life, sat at a cafe table, rhyming quietly to the music in his head. Why, I asked him, had hip-hop become big for African migrants? He told me this:
‘Hip-hop is much bigger in Africa than it is in the USA. Music in Africa is for breakfast, lunch, dinner. The blues came from Africans in slavery [in the US], rap from Jamaica, and they were African slaves too.’
Later, I looked it up. He was right. Across swathes of black Africa, hip-hop is king. How extraordinary: a musical form that began with the rhymes of West African bards, that travelled on slave boats to the Americas and there, in plantations, was kept alive; music that, after centuries, would eventually become part of dancehall culture in Jamaica – and then erupt into hip-hop in New York City, and from there, leap back to Africa to become street music, proud music, protest music, slumland and clubland music. And now, a new iteration: African-Australian rap, joining the white Aussie skip-hop scene. There are dozens of artists in Melbourne alone, I found, artists such as South Sudanese–born rapper Mxc Wol; Namibian- Australian 1/6; ex-street kid Macc Too, a young Rwandan woman; and the mainstream duo Diafrix, who hail from Eritrea and the Comoros Islands – artists who make songs with powerful messages, a stark contrast to the dominant American strain of gangsta rap.
My encounters left me energised and surprised. If these mixtures, these borrowings, these adaptations were happening in the small part of the world I see on a daily basis, what might be happening elsewhere? I’m curious by nature – fascinated by how people live their lives, by how people make their own meaning. Why not go and see for myself how the world was changing? It could be that I’d sense a bland sameness: airports, hotels, malls, Hollywood blockbusters, generic pop, jeans, aspiration to wealth and Westernness. But it could be something else, like the African-Australian hip-hop scene I’d found. I had an inkling that people like JD might point to the future, people who make their own paths through race and stereotypes, through a maze of languages and cultures. JD was not a passive recipient of Western culture – he was active, a co-creator. I’d heard of a few other emergent cultures like JD’s: the dapper Savile Row–inspired Congolese dandies, the Nigerian mega churches promising riches from Jesus, and Myanmar’s punk rock rebels. But I suspected that there must be thousands like them, unseen neocultures forming whole new ways of being. The West would rarely notice them, I figured, as they happen far away, and have not yet gone global themselves. And yet, if African-Australian hip-hop was a guide, Western culture had been instrumental in the birth of these new hybrids. And these emergent bubbles might point to our collective future, to the human ability to actively remake our own cultures in each new generation, to mould old practices and make new meaning out of the stuff available: local, regional or international.
When we travel, it is to experience difference. Why else would we make the effort of leaving home? Our reasons for journeying may be as simple as new scenery – to see a glacier for the first time, to climb a mountain, to be immersed in rainforest. But we often travel to seek out differences in people – to witness how cultures have created differing societies. And that, conventional wisdom has it, is getting harder and harder. But as I looked for new hybrid cultures to experience, I found this piece of accepted wisdom is simply not true. Western travellers like me often fret about our disproportionate cultural influence – our ability to corrupt the ‘authentic’ and replace it with a bad imitation of our own culture. And it is true that cultural globalisation has been an enormously disruptive force in the lives of billions. But I knew there was another side to globalisation. I’d seen the alternative with my own eyes in my own city – the formation of a new cultural amalgam.
Some months after discovering African-Australian rap, I decided to set out to experience four very different amalgam cultures in depth. I had no organisation behind me, and yet, in each of the four countries I visited, I was welcomed – by gays and lesbians in the very Catholic Philippines, by hardcore anarcho-punks in Indonesia, by populist street-filmmakers in Ghana, by professional video-gamers in South Korea – and allowed a glimpse of their lives. In each country, I chose one piece of emergent culture and spent a month immersed, trying to make sense of how cultural globalisation works in practice. Culture, I found, is kept alive through constant effort. We blow life into the practices we find meaningful, and in turn, they sustain us. In my travels, I found that the globalisation of culture had not killed off the local. Rather than a bland sea of Western cultural domination, I found people adapting, repurposing, mimicking, resisting, and producing their own culture drawn from local influences and from the world – Western, yes, but also Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, from their neighbours or from further afield.
Each of the hundreds of people I met were hybrid creatures, inflected by born culture and imported culture, religion of birth or acquired, and everyone was hard at work, creating new cultures from what was available to them. The nineteenth century mythology of the nation-state was premised on unity – on what we had in common with strangers in our geographical area. But the globalisation of culture has turned the idea of the unified nation-state on its head. Now, we are all beginning to blur.
Contact me below and I’ll add you to my mailing list to notify you of fresh content.
Review the book at Goodreads.
Feb 1st in Australia
April 7th in the UK
Published by Hardie Grant