1421 and All That
by Geoff Wade
The debate in Singapore between economic benefit and the social desirability of particular policies has in recent months been monopolized by the casino issue. However, another pressing area where the debate could profitably be shifted is the "1421" Exhibition now being marketed as part of the Singapore Tourism Board's (STB) Zheng He celebration activities.
This year marks the 600th anniversary of the first voyage of the Ming navigator Zheng He to Southeast Asia and beyond, and various groups and government agencies around the region are taking advantage of this anniversary to promote diverse tourism and other agenda. The STB is, not unnaturally, also using this opportunity to promote tourism to Singapore from both China and the ASEAN states through a range of activities detailed more fully on their website. (http://www.visitsingapore-zhenghe.com/index.php <http://www.visitsingapore-zhenghe.com/index.php> )
Many of the activities planned are educational and will prove attractive to both Singaporeans and tourists. The National Library is sponsoring an exhibition on Zheng He and maritime Asia to mark the opening of its new building in Victoria Street; there will be a "Zheng He Village" featuring regional "ports of call" at Marina Promenade; other events are being organised in Labrador Park; a Zheng He musical is being staged, and a performance of "Zheng He, Admiral of the Seven Seas" will grace the Arts Festival. The Huayinet Committee will also convene an academic conference in August which will incorporate various aspects of Zheng He studies. These activities will undoubtedly be well-attended and will likely fulfil the organisers' hopes of attracting tourists, particularly those from the PRC, and of pleasing the citizens of the Republic.
There remains, however, a troubling element to the arrangements. As an integral aspect of the celebrations, the STB has invited Mr Gavin Menzies to come to Singapore with his researchers to mount an exhibition on his book "1421: The Year China Discovered the World" (or, as published in the United States "1421: the Year China Discovered America"). For those not au fait with Mr Menzies' work, it might be noted in passing that the book claims that during one of the Zheng He voyages beginning in 1421, various sub-fleets circumnavigated Australia, reached the Americas, sailed around Greenland and generally mapped the world. That there is not one single piece of recognised evidence to support these claims seems to have made no difference to the author or his supporters. Mr Menzies is seen by some as mildly eccentric and by others as a dangerous charlatan. He has a powerful marketing machine behind him which is continually producing new "evidence" to keep sales of the book (as well as paintings and now tours of Southeast Asia, for which see Menzies' website) booming. He remains, like Erich von Daniken, author of the infamous Chariots of the Gods, surrounded by a group of avid acolytes, but lacking all academic respectability. He was, for a time, popular in China, but his subsequent dismissal of Chinese historians as being ignorant of their own past has left him without any real support in the PRC. He has thus shifted his attention to Southeast Asia, where there is a ready audience for stories of great exploits by the Ming admiral, factual or otherwise.
It is thus that the "1421 Exhibition" has come to Singapore. The exhibition was arranged, and is being marketed, by the Singapore Tourism Board, but the practical arrangements have been subcontracted to Pico Art International, a Singapore company.
What will the exhibition contain? Apart from the claims detailed in the book -- that "Zheng He discovered America and circumnavigated the world nearly a century ahead of the Europeans" -- Mr. Menzies' website promises that even more dramatic "evidence" for his thesis, including the exposť of a Ming naval base in the Americas, will be revealed. Those who have been watching the Menzies' bandwagon over the years will recognise the modus operandi. In 2002, when he rented a room in the Royal Geographical Society in London to publicize his then forthcoming book, Mr Menzies claimed the existence of Ming shipwrecks in the Bimini islands. They were later shown to be sand dunes. Subsequently, he asserted the existence of remnants of a Ming fleet off New Zealand, driven into a cliff by a comet-generated tsunami! The "evidence" for this was all shown to be unfailingly natural. The most recent Menzies' claims about a Ming naval base on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, are upset somewhat by the fact that even the discoverer of the site, Mr. Paul Chiasson, agrees that there is no evidence to indicate any cultural affiliation of the site, and -- given its location quite some distance inland -- denies that it is a naval base of any form. But the wild claims do not cease, because they are the grist which drives the commercial sales of Menzies Inc.
But why should one adopt a negative attitude towards such a commercial venture? Where lies the problem with providing an eccentric with a venue to put forward his highly speculative claims and to make a few dollars in the process? The problem lies precisely in the fact that Mr Menzies and his backers are portraying his increasingly wild claims -- which are, it must be underlined, entirely dismissed by the academic world -- as fact and as history. And those who will walk the Singapore exhibition -- the Singaporean children, the regional visitors, and the merely interested person-in-the-street -- will be told that these speculations are indeed an integral part of our common pasts. This Exhibition is in fact being marketed to Singaporeans and regional visitors as must-see revisionist history.
A recent Reuters article on the upcoming exhibition highlighted the nub of the problem when it noted that Singapore, through this "three-month exhibition beginning in June," will be providing Mr. Menzies' theory with "a new sheen of respectability." Is this promotion something in which a body so closely connected with the Singapore government should be engaged? STB claims that it is only marketing, but not endorsing, the product. But when it markets and issues press releases on the exhibition's behalf, and features it on its website, is this any different from endorsement? That public monies should be spent and that a government-linked agency should be party to an exhibition which intentionally deceives and, more importantly, distorts the Asian past in the quest for commercial gain, suggests a disservice to the many thousands of visitors who are being targeted to attend this Exhibition.
What should be done? Too much money and time have been spent on the project to expect that it be cancelled. However, some means is required to save Singapore from international embarrassment. The STB could categorically state in prominent notices and on tickets that it does not endorse the exhibition, and that the contents are highly speculative and not supported by orthodox historians.
Given that the public are protected by legislation from false and misleading advertising claims in the commercial realm, should they not be protected from the marketing of fictitious history?
When faced with criticism over the content, the organisers have claimed that visitors will be able to make up their own minds about Mr. Menzies' claims in the 1421 Exhibition. But when it is solely the theories of Mr. Menzies on display, on what basis are adults, much less youth, to assess the truth of the product? Singapore's citizens and its visitors deserve better than this.
Details of the 1421 Exhibition can be seen at: http://www.1421exhibition.com/
Geoff Wade is a Senior Research Fellow in the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. The views expressed above are personal opinions.