I am a critical heritage and museum studies scholar, specialising in the cultural politics and museologies in and of Asia. Trained as a geographer/anthropologist, I am interested in the cultural politics of museum and heritage-making, Indigenous museology and post-colonial studies, with a regional focus on East and Southeast Asia. My research interests can be broadly summarised as follows:
- Critical museology and heritage studies
- Asian museology and heritage
- Non-western and post-colonial museologies
- Indigenous museology and cultural heritage
- UNESCO and heritage on the maritime Silk Road
Rediscovering Linangkit: The Traditional Hand Needle-weaving of Women from Sabah, Malaysia
Funded by British Museum's Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP) Large Grant (2022 - 2024), £99,924.80 PI: Yunci Cai, Co-I: Judeth John Baptist, Prof Dr Jacqueline Pugh-Kitingan, Patricia Regis
Our project seeks to document the material knowledge system of a unique hand needle-weaving technique generally known as linangkit (Regis 1996, 2019). The linangkit technique uses a needle and threads to create a system of tiny intricately connected identical knots to form a dense fabric of colourful motifs, which are used on the costumes of several Indigenous groups in Sabah, who adopt different customary motifs, colour schemes and techniques according to their Indigenous beliefs and distinct cultural identities. The practice of linangkit is under severe threat as Indigenous peoples opt for less laborious and cheaper alternatives. With the demise of elderly womenfolk who were prolific producers of the craft, linangkit may soon be no longer practised. The project will undertake a detailed cultural mapping of linangkit to understand where and how it is currently practised. Through the object analysis of representative heirloom examples and interviews with living master craftswomen, owners and users, we seek to understand the distinct motifs, stylistic expressions, colour schemes and techniques associated with different ethnic groups, their legends, taboos and socio-cultural symbolism as well as how the linangkit craft is historically produced and transmitted as a methodology to trace its origins and evolution. The project is important as craft documentation, and for understanding the origins of linangkit and the role of material culture in identity creation. By tracing the changing values, functions and meanings of linangkit over time and space, we examine the intricate relationship between craft production and social change in Indigenous societies in Sabah.
Community-Led Cultural Documentation for Indigenous Empowerment: Documenting the Genesis Myth in the Creation Rinait (Ritual Poetry) of the Lotud Communities in Malaysian Sabah
Funded by University of Leicester’s QR Global Challenges Research Fund (Research England) (2021), £10,000, PI: Yunci Cai, Co-I: Judeth John Baptist
In April 2021, I was awarded a research grant to undertake cultural documentation of the genesis myth in the creation rinait (ritual poetry) of the Lotud communities in Malaysian Sabah in collaboration with Judeth John Baptist from Sabah Seamex Association. The Lotud mamanpang is a form of ritual poetry that not only outlines the Lotud creation myth and provides an oral record of the historical past, but also prescribes the religious formula for patterns of proper human behaviour to maintain a harmonious relationship between the human world and the spiritual realms. Numbering about 20,000 people, the Lotud Dusun is an Indigenous community who resides in the Tuaran District of Sabah, East Malaysia. The Lotud mamanpang forms the foundation of the Lotud customary law that is recognised by the Native Court of Sabah which is still practised in Sabah today. The Lotud mamanpang is expressed in the form of the rinait, which is a unique genre of poetic oral tradition made up of paired lines with identical meanings, the first in everyday language and the second in ritual language. The rinait is customarily passed down orally by Lotud ritual specialists, also known as tantagas, who would memorise the rinait as part of their strict training and recite sections of the rinait during ritual ceremonies. The rinait of the Lotud mamanpang is contained within the Sumalud healing ritual practised by the Lotud Dusun residing in Tuaran District, Sabah, East Malaysia. Our project seeks to document, transcribe, translate, analyse, and bring awareness to the Lotud mamanpang; and to research and formulate with the Lotud communities a community-led strategy to safeguard and refashion their cultural heritage for contemporary times as a means to Indigenous self-determination and empowerment. Our project outputs are available for download at: https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.c.5917808.v1
Reviving the Ancient Maritime Silk Road: The Politics of Heritage Instrumentalisation in Asia’s Port Cities under China's Belt and Road Initiative
Funded by (1) University of Leicester College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities (CSSAH) Grant Writing Fund (2019), £5,000, PI: Yunci Cai, Co-I: Prof Kenneth Dean and Prof Zheng Zhenman; (2) UCL Centre for Critical Heritage Studies Small Grants Scheme (2017), £2,460, PI: Yunci Cai
My research explores the political, economic, social, and cultural dynamics surrounding the process of heritage instrumentalisation, based on a multi-sited ethnographic study of a selection of Asian port cities along the historic maritime Silk Road, namely Quanzhou in China, Melaka in Malaysia as well as Palembang and Semarang in Indonesia. Drawing on the politics of heritage instrumentalisation as a conceptual framework, it examines how different stakeholders at these port cities strategically mobilise their maritime history and heritage, especially the narrative of the historic maritime Silk Road, to further their respective agendas, and the results of this instrumentalisation. Theoretically, it makes an original contribution to critical heritage studies by going beyond the notion of heritage instrumentalisation to examine the power politics of this instrumentalisation. Empirically, it seeks to inform policy-making relating to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the world’s most ambitious multilateral development strategy in recent times. In 2019, I was awarded a networking grant of £5,000 to conduct a workshop in Xiamen and Quanzhou with Xiamen University (China) and Quanzhou Maritime Museum (China). I was also awarded a small grant of £2,460 by UCL Centre for Critical Heritage Studies to undertake exploratory fieldwork in China, Malaysia and Indonesia in 2017.
Staging Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Malaysia: Instrumentalisation, Brokerage, Representation
Fully funded by UCL Overseas Research Scholarship and UCL Graduate Research Scholarship (2013 - 2016)
My PhD research examines the politics of heritage-making in Malaysia, focusing on the development of indigenous cultural villages, which have become increasingly prevalent in both West and East Malaysia. Based on ethnographic field research at four case study cultural villages – the Mah Meri Cultural Village and Orang Seletar Cultural Centre in Peninsular Malaysia, and the Monsopiad Cultural Village and Linangkit Cultural Village in East Malaysia, it explores the political, economic, and social dynamics surrounding the process of heritage-making at these four indigenous cultural villages, and considers the outcomes of the instrumentalisation. Drawing on the politics of instrumentalisation as a conceptual framework and expanding it to incorporate other dynamics relating to brokerage, staging and representation, it demonstrates how these indigenous cultural villages are beset with issues of brokerage, tensions over the representation of cultural heritage, and conflicting motivations over the instrumentalisation of the cultural heritage, in which politics of brokerage and representation dominated, reproducing structural inequalities that reinforce the dependency of indigenous communities on external and internal brokers rather build capacity for self-determination and empowerment. The cynical interpretation that indigenous cultural practices have been instrumentalised to serve certain economic, political, and social agendas is then complicated through an exploration of several counter-narratives and anti-discourses, particularly how cultural practices have also been performed for ritual efficacy and for more altruistic interests of indigenous people. My research makes an original contribution to indigenous museology by challenging the simplistic conceptualisation of indigenous communities as harmonious and unified wholes, and opens up the complexities for adopting the ‘culture for development’ as a developmental strategy, such that the opportunities for self-representation and self-determination can become dominated by the politics of brokerage, which can in turn facilitate or compromise their intended outcomes. My research is published in Staging Indigenous Heritage: Instrumentalisation, Brokerage and Representation in Malaysia (Routledge 2020).
Cai, Yunci (2020) Staging Indigenous Heritage: Instrumentalisation, Brokerage and Representation in Malaysia. Routledge Series in Culture and Development. London and New York: Routledge. [Publisher's Website] [Available here]
- Reviewed in Museum Management and Curatorship (2021), Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (2021), International Journal of Asian Studies (2021), Museum Worlds: Advances in Research (2021).
Cai, Yunci (ed.) (Forthcoming) The Museum in Asia. Leicester Readers in Museum Studies. London and New York: Routledge.
Cai, Yunci (2022) Indigenous Interpretations and Engagement of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Peninsular Malaysia. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. https://doi.org/10.1111/sjtg.12437
Cai, Yunci (2020) What is in a Museum Definition? Reflections on the ICOM’s New Museum Definition. Museological Review, 24: 7. https://hdl.handle.net/2381/13285976.v1
Cai, Yunci and John Baptist, Judeth (2016) Cleansing the Sacred Mountain in the Aftermath of the 2015 Mount Kinabalu Earthquake. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 89(1): 61 – 78. doi:10.1353/ras.2016.0013. [Available here]
Cai, Yunci (2013) The Art of Museum Diplomacy: The Singapore-France Cultural Collaboration in Perspective. The International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 26(2): 127 - 144. doi:10.1007/s10767-012-9122-7. [Available here]
Cai, Yunci (2009) Museums as Temples of Cultures or Palaces of Entertainment: A Study of New Museums in Singapore. The International Journal of Inclusive Museum, 3(1): 73 - 85. doi:10.18848/1835-2014/CGP/v01i04/44531. [Available here]
Cai, Yunci (Forthcoming) “Introduction: A Manifesto for Museums in Asia” in The Museum in Asia, Cai, Yunci (ed.) London and New York: Routledge.
Cai, Yunci (Forthcoming) “Capacity-building as a Modern Civilising Mission: The Case of the Mah Meri Cultural Village in Malaysia” in The Museum in Asia, Cai, Yunci (ed.) London and New York: Routledge.
Cai, Yunci (Forthcoming) “Rethinking Heritage Diplomacy on the Maritime Silk Road” in The Museum in Asia, Cai, Yunci (ed.) London and New York: Routledge.
Cai, Yunci (Forthcoming) “Teaching Rapid Response Collecting for the Covid-19 Pandemic and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement: Reflections from Leicester’s Museum Studies Programme” in Museum Interpretation in Times of Disaster: Museum Education, Exhibition and Public Programs in the New Normal. Labrador, A.M.T. and Beso, H. (eds.) Manila: National Museum of the Philippines.
Cai, Yunci. (2022) “Museum Politics on the Maritime Silk Road” in Roads, Winds, Spices in the Western Indian Ocean: The Memory and Geopolitics of Maritime Heritage, Pandey, P. and Mahawar, N.K. eds. pp. 144 - 162. New Delhi: Macmillan Publishers India Private Limited and Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). [Available here]
Cai, Yunci (2019) “Connecting Emotions Through Wells’: Heritage Instrumentalisation, Civic Activism and Urban Sustainability in Quanzhou, China” in Post-Politics and Civil Society in Asian Cities: Spaces of Depoliticization, Lam-Knott, Sonia, Connolly, Creighton and Ho, Kong Chong eds. pp. 106 - 120. London and New York: Routledge.
Cai, Yunci (2018) “Between Tradition and Modernity: The Ritual Politics of Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Urbanizing Sabah, East Malaysia” in Routledge Handbook of Urbanization in Southeast Asia, Rita Padawangi ed. pp. 179 - 190. London and New York: Routledge. [Available here]
Cai Yunci (2017) “Performing Cultures, Negotiating Identities: The Cultural Politics of Indigenous Cultural Villages in West Malaysia” in Citizens, Civil Society and Heritage-Making in Asia, Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, Yew-Foong Hui and Philippe Peycam eds. pp. 114 – 136. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies – Yusof Ishak Institute. [Available here]
Cai, Yunci (2009) “Law and Singapore’s Built Heritage” in Essays in Singapore’s Legal History: In Memory of Professor Geoffrey Wilson Bartholomew, Tan, Kevin Y. L and Hor, Michael eds. pp. 87 – 125. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic.
Cai, Yunci, John Baptist, Judeth Pugh-Kitingan, Jacqueline and Hussin, Hanafi (2022). The Lotud Mamanpang (Creation Myth) in the Sumalud Healing Ritual of the Lotud Dusun Community, Tuaran District, Sabah, East Malaysia. Cultural Documentation Report, DOI: 10.25392/LEICESTER.DATA.19576009
- Malay translation by Judeth John Baptist and Hanafi Hussin, DOI: 10.25392/LEICESTER.DATA.19590715
Cai, Yunci, John Baptist, Judeth, Pugh-Kitingan, Jacqueline and Hussin, Hanafi (2022). The Ritual Poetry of Lotud Mamanpang (Creation Myth) in the Sumalud Healing Ritual of the Lotud Dusun Community, Tuaran District, Sabah, East Malaysia. Cultural Documentation Report, DOI: 10.25392/LEICESTER.DATA.19576051
Cai, Yunci, Thornton, Sara, Ang, Roslynn, Chua, Liana, Page, Susan and Upton, Caroline (2022). The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Environmental and Heritage Conservation. Workshop Report, DOI: https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.19430453.v1
- Indonesian translation by Adventa Alma, DOI: https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.19452638.v1
- Malay translation by Judeth John Baptist, DOI: https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.19448402.v1
Cai Yunci (2022) Review of Heritage and Religion in East Asia. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 28(6): 778 - 780. https://doi.org/10.1080/13527258.2022.2064898
Cai, Yunci (2021) Review of Heritage Politics in China: The Power of the Past. The International Journal of Asian Studies, pp. 1 – 4. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1479591421000358
Cai, Yunci (2017) Review of UNESCO in Southeast Asia: World Heritage Sites in Comparative Perspectives. ASEASUK News, 61: 14 – 16. [Available here]
Cai, Yunci (2015) Review of Museum of Our Own: In Search of Local Museology for Asia. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, 25(2): 1 – 6. https://doi.org/10.5334/pia.481
Cai, Yunci (2016) Mohlukas: A Housewarming Ceremony at the Linangkit Cultural Village. Sabah Malaysian Borneo, March 2016, 180: 10 – 13. Malaysia: Sabah Tourism. [Available here]
Cai, Yunci (2009) Living Landscapes: Breathing New Life into Singapore’s Community Heritage Institutions. BeMuse, 3(2): 76 – 79. Singapore: National Heritage Board. [Available here]
Cai, Yunci (2008) In the Land of the Ascending Dragon. BeMuse, 3(1): 68 – 75. Singapore: National Heritage Board. [Available here]
Cultural Documentation Projects
Cai, Yunci, John Baptist, Judeth, Kitingan-Pugh, Jacqueline and and Hussin, Hanafi (2022) Documenting the Lotud Mamanpang (Creation Myth) in the Sumalud Healing Ritual of the Lotud Dusun Community, Tuaran District, Sabah, East Malaysia. Archival Collection, DOI: https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.c.5917808.v1
Video Collection, DOI: https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.19514230
Image Collection, DOI: https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.19430366