Changing cultures

19th September 1997 at 01:00

CHINA SOUTH-EAST ASIA. By Katherine Prior. SCOTLAND. By Mike Hurst, Franklin Watts Pounds 9.99 each

The large-scale movements of peoples across the Earth evoke both fear ("No Irish Need Apply") and compassion (Bob Dylan's "I pity the poor immigrant"). This new series of books, suitable for key stages 2 and 3, aims to tell the complex stories of major emigrations and, in doing so, to evoke curiosity, interest and, occasionally, a note of celebration.

The books move comfortably over a large time-scale from Jason and the Argonauts to the Bengali oil-workers of contemporary Kuwait. But their main focus is on the 19th and 20th centuries, when economic and political forces became more volatile and far-reaching, and when improved transport and technology made the Earth ever smaller.

The writers and illustrators have not skirted the cruelties and indignities of the story. An account book from Barbados is quoted on the "moderate decay of our Negroes, horses and cattle". The eruption into violence of American westerners fearing the so-called "yellow peril" is commemorated with a scary drawing of anti-Chinese riots from 1880. The lesser-known "tide of turbans" was called upon to justify anti-Punjabi attacks 20 years later.

At the same time, we are told many instructive details of how the immigrants changed the cultures of the countries they came to live in, whether brought by force or by choice. Moorish influences in Spain and Portugal are shown in dark clothes for women and in scroll, leaf and cone shapes on plate decorations, as well as in the more spectacular example of the decoration of the Alhambra in Granada. The music of black America is generously celebrated.

These accounts of cultural transmission are done with some subtlety. Influences such as religion and food are given due weight. So, too, are examples of currents flowing in several directions. A picture of the young British-African composer Tunde Jegede shows him visiting The Gambia to study classical kora playing for use in his own orchestral work. It would have been even more interesting to recall that Jegede is also a fine cellist who adores Bach for his skill as an improviser.

The power of names to recall ancestral pieces is not forgotten. Callas and Dukakis have resonances for Greek-Americans which are explained here.

It is possible to criticise the books for what they miss out. The Communist revolution in China is illustrated with a poster of happy workers, with no mention of mass killings and starvation. The corruptions of Irish politics in the US, particularly in New York, Boston and Chicago, are passed over. But it is also necessary to commend the coverage of topics not usually presented to children, such as the impact of African cultures in 20th-century France, or the Hellenic influence in modern Australia. Melbourne is, after all, the third largest Greek city in the world.

Above all, through the intelligent use of archive illustration and modern photographs, the books make a strong emphasis on the enrichments brought by immigration. No one looking at the smiling, elderly, Sikh toy merchant could wish him elsewhere than the London where he now sells fun and happiness.

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