Issue 002  |  Spring 2021 | Essay


Seedy Space Ports and Colony Planets 



Asian Conical Hats in Cinematic Dystopias
by Astria Suparak







They populate the black market in
Blade Runner (1982).


On the territory of the yakuza in
Ghost in the Shell (2017).


They can be spotted in the prison-city of Escape from LA (1996).



In the underground tunnels harboring rat-eating outlaws in Demolition Man (1993).





They’re toiling in a hardscrabble village floating in Waterworld (1995).



They’re hawking goods on the lawless streets of Alita: Battle Angel (2019).





In a destitute mining town suffering through an epidemic in Firefly (2002).



Guarding a tropical gambling den in
Solo: a Star Wars Story (2018)





And they drift by in “The Colony” of Total Recall (2012 reboot). (Yes, Britain will continue to be a colonizer in the future.)




Within the realm of science fiction futures, anonymous pedestrians in Asian conical hats scurry by in the background, while white main characters remain in focus.

The streamlined, waterproof headgear—known variously in English as a rice hat, a bamboo hat, or a “coolie hat” (we’ll return to that last one later)—would indeed be practical in the perpetual rain of many dystopias. Except central characters are persistently hatless, while silent extras are outfitted in this tropical head covering regardless of weather conditions or time of day, even when indoors.

Conical hats are used by white filmmakers, television showrunners, and their costume designers as a shortcut to signify not only an Asian or Asian-influenced population, but also an overpopulated, impoverished, immoral, diseased, and expendable one. Such economy in one object (read: racist trope)! A wet climate further steeps these locations—constructed to read as Chinatowns, Southeast Asian slums, or some other “seedy” area—in foulness.

Lazily applied by white filmmakers, the traditional headpieces are ubiquitously used to depict an alarmingly Asian future.

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Over fifty variations of conical hats exist throughout East, Southeast, and South Asia, with a few similarities influenced by centuries of trading. They are most often made from dried leaves or stalks from local plants (such as palm, rice, bamboo, sedge, rush, cane, or nito) that are woven or sewn together, then stitched to a bamboo wood frame and waterproofed (with lacquer in Japan, turpentine in Vietnam, and resin in the Philippines). There are many shapes and sizes, and more complex designs are taller and have an inner band that floats the hat from the wearer’s head, creating space for air circulation to keep the head cool (like the Thai ngob, Filipino salakot, or Japanese sandogasa).

Conical hat variants have been worn by the working class, soldiers, entertainers, nobility, and royalty. Plain styles are used as protection from the sun and rain by farmers and fishermen across Asia, by vendors in the floating markets of Bangkok, and by street cleaners in urban China. In feudal Japan, samurai and foot soldiers sported a more rugged jingasa(sometimes made from hardwood, leather, or metal), and present-day traveling Buddhist monks don a gently domed takuhatsugasa.

Some hats include sutras or poetry written on the outside (Japanese ajirogasa) or hidden between layers and only visible when held up to a light (nón bài thơ from Huế, Vietnam). Others are customized with embroidery, painting, or batik designs (like many Indonesian caping). Colorfully decorated, broad-brimmed jaapi are used for festivities and ceremonies in Assam, India; narrow belo are gifted to women in Laya, Bhutan; and elaborate salakot were treated as heirloom objects and status symbols in the Philippines. Ornamented differently by ethnic groups, the salakot usually has a spiked or knobbed finial and can feature tassels, feather plumes, horsehair, beads, metal, and pockets in the lining for storing valuables.







1. José Honorato Lozano, Mercaders Ilocanos (Ilocano Merchants), 1847, from Vistas de las islas Filipinas y trajes de sus habitantes, via Biblioteca Digital Hispánica.
2. Various Philippine animals and plants, detail from Carta Hydrographica y Chorographica de las Islas Filipinas (1734) by Pedro Murillo Velarde, Nicolás de la Cruz Bagay, Francisco Suarez, via Wikimedia Commons.
3. Salakots and women's hats, from The Inhabitants of the Philippines (1900) by Frederic H. Sawyer, via Wikimedia Commons.
4. French soldiers in Indochina circa 1861, from the French publication L’Illustration, via militarysunhelmets.com.
5. Working-class Tagalog attire from the Spanish colonial era, with barong tagalog, esclavina (rain capes), and salakot, from Aventures d'un Gentilhomme Breton aux iles Philippines by Paul de la Gironiere (1855) by Paul de la Gironiere, via Wikimedia Commons.
6. Philippoteaux (artist) and Pierre (engraver), Oceanie: Habitants de Manille, Malais de I'lle Luçon, 1859, published by Dufour, Mulat, and Boulanger, via correosfilipinas-blog.tumblr.com.
7. Trage de Diario Sargento 2º de Gala, from Album de la Infanteria Española: desde sus primitivos tiempos hasta el día (1861) by Serafín María de Sotto, 3rd Count of Clonard, via Wikimedia Commons.
8. Filipino salakot made of tortoiseshell, made before 1899, courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
9. Tinggian rain cape (plaited straw) from the Philippines. Photo by Dean C. Worcester, from The National Geographic Magazine, 27 November 1913.
10. Sandatahan with crossbow, northern Luzon, 1898, via 1898miniaturas.com.
11. A British soldier picks a sun helmet from a pile left behind by Italian troops in the Western desert. June 1941. Crown Copyright provisions, via Wikimedia Commons.
12. Late-nineteenth century salakot from the Philippines, via militarysunhelmets.com.
13. On the Aerodrome at Amman. Col. Laurence [T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia], Sir Herbert Samuel, Amir Abdullah, April 1921. Photograph by unnamed American Colony Jerusalem Photo Dept., from American Colony Jerusalem Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.



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The ancient Asian technology of the conical Asian hat was so effective and advantageous that white colonizers took one of its many permutations (the salakot, which roughly translates from Tagalog to “native helmet”) and mass-produced a version for their militaries.

In 1521, Hara Humamay (later named Queen Juana of Cebu) was described by a Venetian scholar on expedition with Ferdinand Magellan as wearing “a large hat of palm leaves in the manner of a parasol, with a crown about it of the same leaves, like the tiara of the pope; and she never goes any place without such one.”1 During the ensuing colonial period in the Philippines, Filipinos and Spaniards serving in the Spanish army used the native headwear, with its embedded ventilation, as sun hats. The traditional Philippine helmet was covered in cloth by Spanish troops and gradually adapted to the shape of the flat-brimmed morrión (popularly associated with conquistadors).

By the 1860s and ’70s, French colonial troops in Indochina had copied the lightweight hat design; their mimicry was then repeated by invading British and Dutch armies in nearby regions. This derivative of the salakot, now known as a “pith helmet” or “safari hat,” became standard issue for those troops. The design was also co-opted by Italian and imperial Portuguese and German armies occupying territories with hot climates, including parts of Africa and Southeast, South, and West Asia (commonly referred to as the Middle East). The pith helmet also became army-issued gear at the end of the century for North American troops in what is now the southwestern United States and the Canadian Northwest Territories.

After World War II, the Southeast Asian-rooted headdress was in turn adopted by the Việt Minh from their former French colonizer. It is still used today by police and military units, regimental bands, mail carriers, and travelers in parts of North America, Britain, West Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. So prolifically deployed by every white colonial power, the Asian-descended pith helmet became a symbol of colonialism itself.


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There are dozens and dozens of variations of the Asian traditional headdresses, and white filmmakers will use any one of them to paint the population as meek, subdued, powerless—and, well, colonized. Quiet Asians who should keep their heads down and just stay out of the way. Meaning: stay out of the center of the frame, out of the focus of the lens. We’re not even supposed to notice the Asianified people. The head coverings are used to not simply obscure the face but to anonymize the whole body—an undifferentiated mass of generic Asianness, whether the background actors are actually Asian or not. If someone’s going to rise up against the oppressors of this apocalypse, it’s not going to be someone in a nón lá!

The distinctive, pointed hat known as a nón lá in Vietnam and a dǒulì in China is sometimes referred to as a “coolie hat” by non-Asians—a vexing term whose first known use was in 1924. This was after the British and American governments officially ended the century-long deadly and exploitative system of “coolie trading.”And it was during the United States’ ban on immigrants from Asia, a period which, in addition to the severe race- and ethnicity-based restrictions that preceded and followed, lasted a hundred years. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Supreme Court and lawmakers on the floor of the Senate called Chinese people a “degraded and inferior race,” “rats,” and “swine,”3 and newspapers and magazines published cartoons and editorials depicting Asian immigrants as diseased and barbaric—not dissimilar to the way white sci-fi wields the Asian conical hat.4 Decades of coordinated official and unofficial campaigns stoked racism, violence, and lynchings targeting East and South Asians at the turn of the previous century, which is disturbingly echoed today by escalating, deadly violence amid the  global pandemic. The term “coolie” is now commonly considered a racial slur toward Asian people and is prohibited in South Africa as hate speech.5

In spite of their wide-ranging uses, regional variations, and significations across Asia, conical hats are used by white filmmakers and production designers as just another trope to flatten us into a monolith, into a fungible idea of “Asian” barely worthy of a name or a speaking role. Asian conical hats are intentionally selected over the hat’s white derivative, the pith helmet. This racialized costuming choice is one more way the “coolie” archetype endures. Even in their wildest visions of the future, Asians remain figures of subjugation. The implications can be seen all around us. Amid racial capitalism, it’s easy to buy a “coolie hat” to complete your Halloween costume—or your dystopian film.




Screen shot from Party Time’s website (taken February 17, 2021). The description says, “Give your Halloween costume a traditional exotic Chinese look with this Coolie Hat!”


Thank you to Bùi Kim Đĩnh, Kimberley Acebo Arteche, and Brett Kashmere.

This visual essay was commissioned by Seen and is one part of Astria Suparak’s ongoing research project, Asian Futures, Without Asians.

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Astria Suparak’s cross-disciplinary practice often addresses urgent political issues and has been widely acclaimed for high level concepts made accessible through a popular culture lens, such as a series of projects and events at the intersection of sports, politics, and art; and an oral history and map of the global impact of the punk feminist movement, Riot Grrrl. She has curated exhibitions and screenings for arts institutions, festivals, and unconventional spaces like roller-skating rinks.





Blade Runner (1982)


Demolition Man (1993)


Escape from LA (1996)





Alita: Battle Angel (2019)





Footnotes

1 Antonio Pigafetta and Theodore J. Cachey, The First Voyage around the World (1519-1522): An Account of Magellan’s Expedition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).


2 Beginning in the 1820s, the British began using Chinese and Indian indentured laborers to replace the “free” labor of enslaved Africans in grueling and deadly industries, such as mining, railway construction, and cotton and sugar production. Coolie labor was marketed as morally better than slavery, as it was under contract, paid, and ostensibly voluntary and temporary, with laborers assured that they would regain freedom after years-long terms of service. Yet in reality, it was another system based on exploitation, brutality, white supremacy, and racist hierarchy. Laborers were routinely deceived into signing contracts based on misleading promises, and some were kidnapped and sold into the trade. Workers had to pay off the debt of their own transportation—during which Indian women were often raped—and they were manipulated to remain indentured well beyond contract terms. French colonies systematically overworked Indian miners to death. Asian laborers’ freedoms, including where they could live and whom they could marry, were severely limited by colonial legislation. The indentureship of Asian migrants was a white British, European, and American illusion of “free labor.”

The 1879 Constitution of the State of California declared that "Asiatic coolieism is a form of human slavery, and is forever prohibited in this State, and all contracts for coolie labour shall be void.” The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed three years later. The British government officially ended the coolie trade in 1916.

3 The People v. George W. Hall, Supreme Court of California (1854).

4 Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (Delran: Simon and Schuster, 2015).

5 By the eighteenth century, the word “coolie” was used to describe overseas Asian workers. Originating in South Asia in the seventeenth century, the term originally meant “day laborer.” The Chinese photo-semantic matching 苦力 translates to “bitter strength” and is generally understood as “hard labor.”