In 1911, at the age of thirty-four, Hesse traveled across South-East Asia and India. While this may have been some typical act of European bourgeois fascination or rite-of-passage in the Orient, these travels had special resonance for him, as his grandparents had served on a Protest Mission earlier in the previous century, his mother having been born there in 1842. The musings, recollections, and essays of his travels have the shared characteristic of needing to find a penetrating and sympathetic insight, although lapses were inevitable.
As someone in almost perpetual transit, Hesse alighted upon the way in which the towns, ports, and cities he visited were diverse, always in flux, and a confluence of influences that belied strict generalization. In one of his travelogues he observes the wayward course of cultural authorship in the manufacture of textiles. In this quotation he is writing from Singapore, a nexus of many cultures, and an early example of what we today call a multicultural nation. He sees beautiful, dark, noble-looking people in the very same screaming, bright, relentlessly motley costumes, much like local masked balls given by young, spirited shop assistants—true caricatures of local costume! The smart merchants from our West have made Indian silks and linens dispensable by dyeing cotton and printing calico much brighter, more Indian, more gay, wilder, more pungent [giftiger], than had before been seen in Asia, and the good Indians together with the Malaysians become welcome customers and carry on their bronzed hips the cheap, lurid [farbengrellen] fabrics from Europe. Ten of these Indian figures are enough to make a populous street stir with color, in one go turning it into an inauthentic “Orient”.