Arts and Culture
In SE Asian capitals, zoos play an important role as green spaces in densely populated city centers. They are among the few convenient inexpensive places where residents can relax with their families in a park setting. Several zoos were built during colonial times, others were established just after independence, yet the public zoo is a European construct framing SE Asian peoples’ relationships with their own indigenous wildlife, much of it endangered. SE Asian zoos, with the exception of Singapore, lack sufficient funds, and yet are very popular with the local public, especially the long-lived animals such as elephants, and interactive animals such as monkeys. However, it is the tiger that is most emblematic of the SE Asian jungles from which it has almost disappeared.
Although wild animals are frequently represented in traditional SE Asian literature, zoo animals rarely appear modern fiction. The zoo tiger, however, is the focus of two recent stories. Canadian Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Singaporean Phillip Jeyranatyam’s Painting the Tiger. The two writers describe the behavior of people and animals when they encounter each other at the zoo, now the intersection of entertainment, habitat conservation, education, relaxation, animal rights, captive breeding programs, and city center development. This paper looks at the contrasting views between European visitors and local residents at the zoos in Bangkok, Saigon, Manila, and Yangon, and how the two literary works coincide with my own fieldwork in these places.