You may have imagined that Great Britain’s colonial empire vanished around the time the last British Raj drank his final cup of Darjeeling in the foothills of Chandrapore; a sweet breeze gently soothing his perspiring brow as his loyal bearer fanned him and he reflected nostalgically on Britain’s final days of empire (acknowledgements here to E.M. Forster).
Well, you would only be partly correct.
For some reason the British flag is once again flying in Asia. Pretty much everywhere in Asia –– not least in shopping malls in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I first became aware of this new ubiquitousness of the Union Jack in April last year, while riding a bus in northern Taipei. This particular bus had the British flag painted on its sides. It was not there to advertise the British Council or the Rolling Stones upcoming world tour. It was just there for decoration. Why, of all the worlds flags, the Union Jack?
Once it had come to my notice I realized that the Union Jack flag was everywhere.
Since April last year I have been to Hong Kong, Macau, all over Taiwan and to many towns and cities in Thailand. In all these places one only has to walk into any shopping mall, local market or stroll down a busy street, and the British flag will be seen on a T-shirt, handbag, pair of socks, shoes, umbrella, you name it.
Only last week I visited a Hmong hill tribe village located in a remote part of the jungle covered by the mountains of Doi Suthep, not far from where I live in northern Thailand, and yes, there was the good old Union Jack, plastered over a young Hmong gentleman’s holdall.
At a Jan. 25 lecture with my postgraduate Certificate in Education students at Harrow International School in Bangkok, I raised this very topic –– my theme being how countries are, today, brands and the consequences of this for international schools and their teachers.
One of my students, who teaches in Hong Kong, had also noticed this phenomena and revealed he has bets with his partner as to how many flags of different nationalities they can spot being worn as fashionable attire in the shopping malls of Hong Kong –– invariably the British flag wins, and by a significant margin.
After that lecture two other students turned up the next day with a gift for me. A gem covered, garish and glitzy phone case –– with, of course, the image of the Union Jack on it. A simple mobile phone holder with the British flag plastered over it. Even more pertinently, not only did the students see a lot of British flags during their night out in Bangkok, they stopped and asked one guy wearing a Union Jack T-shirt why he was wearing it.
“Because it looks cool,” he said.
Where was this guy from? Cameroon. That was a French colony.
Of course, this could be put down to fashion, a passing fad maybe. But that does not explain “why” the British flag? Why should it be “cool” to wear the Union Jack across your chest and back and not the Stars and Stripes, the French Tricolor or one’s own national flag?
Whatever the precise forces directing this phenomenon, its important to recognize the way in which the flag, indeed all flags of all nations, become symbolic of a country’s culture and identity. Identifying with one’s national flag is a potent reinforcement of national identity, and, de facto, personal identity.
There is, to borrow French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s term, much “cultural capital” invested in these potent, powerful signifiers.
The age of globalization brings with it another interesting issue and that is how national symbols, such as the Union Jack, become taken up by those who would otherwise have little or no personal association with them.
The Thai, Chinese, Cameroon, Singaporean, Taiwanese each sense, and can personally relate to something in, the UK flag which maybe the British themselves have overlooked. They see it as “cool,” and a valued symbol, something they desire to be personally associated with.
Today, wearing the British flag raises a person’s own cultural capital and in a way no other national flag quite does.
This is “soft power” at work, though I do wonder whether the British government appreciate it.
So, from Taiwan to Thailand to Hong Kong to the remote jungles of Southeast Asia, the Union Jack flies once again. If Queen Victoria came back today she would imagine her empire had never gone away.
Stephen Whitehead is visiting professor of gender studies at Shih Hsin University in Taipei and Keele University in the UK. He lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand.