Comment: Bengal Lounge: A legacy we can live without

The recent announcement that the venerable Bengal Lounge in Victoria’s landmark Empress Hotel will soon be shuttered has provoked a vociferous outcry among some people.

From our perspective, however, the decision to close this storied institution is welcome and perhaps overdue. The Empress’s owners might have decided to close the Bengal Lounge for purely commercial reasons, but we see the change as another sign that Victoria is moving toward a future more cognizant of its remarkable culture and history but without the cloying nostalgia for a romanticized past.

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The controversy sparked by the lounge’s closing is no doubt partly due to its emotional and symbolic associations. Patrons might recall evenings of good cheer and camaraderie in the lounge’s ornate, wood-panelled interior.

Yet the regressive symbolism of the lounge is a disquieting throwback to an era when South Asians were subjected to the harsh imperial rule of the British Raj even as they were paradoxically promised the benefits of “enlightened” liberal democracy. The Bengal Lounge nostalgically commemorates this era with kitsch frescoes of decorated elephants ferrying their Mughal mahouts, Indian sepoys bearing colonial uniforms and insignia, colonial-era punkah fans and a tattered tiger skin — stereotypical icons and images far removed from the rugged shores of the Pacific Northwest.

The Orientalist fantasy of an empire upon which the sun never sets evoked in the clichéd imagery of the Bengal Lounge might remind us, in another way, of the colonial links between Canada, India and other spaces and peoples subjected to Pax Brittanica. These historical links underline one of the positive, if unintended, consequences of imperialism: It enabled a new cosmopolitan outlook that recognized (even if it did not always embrace) cultural diversity and accelerated cross-cultural exchange.

It would be an oversight, however, to forget the callousness of colonialism and its lingering effects: economic inequality, uncompensated labour and resource extraction, territorial appropriation and dispossession, human immiseration and violence, and the ensuing political instability whose repercussions appear across swaths of the former empire and make news headlines almost daily.

While some might view the symbolism of the lounge with wistful longing for a simpler era characterized by a predictable order and clear hierarchy, for others, including us, it recalls a darker legacy of political domination and cultural destruction.

Indeed, the history of colonialism so blithely referenced by the lounge has yet to be fully redressed. The economic hardships and underdevelopment faced by those living on the First Nations reserves distributed around Greater Victoria testify to the persistent and brutal legacy of dispossession. This is an inheritance we cannot rightfully forget, but must reckon with and work to repair.

There are undoubtedly those who will lament that the loss of the lounge marks the passing of an august local institution. Some legacies, however, should be left to fade. Victoria, as represented by the lounge, is saturated with nostalgia for the bygone colonial era — our newspaper of record is the Times Colonist, our most prominent edifice is the Empress itself, and our city’s very name conjures the pageant of royalty that still holds emotional appeal for many.

But we might be better advised to create new institutions and symbols that help us move beyond nostalgia for the past without forgetting the enduring consequences of history.

Whatever takes the place of the Bengal Lounge will, we hope, recognize cultural traditions and history closer to home, such as those of the Coast Salish people who once inhabited the shores adjacent to the Empress Hotel and whose descendants are a vital and precious constituency in Victoria’s current cultural matrix.

An interpretive centre organized in conjunction with the University of Victoria or the Royal B.C. Museum could serve as an educational and retail space to showcase First Peoples culture and arts, and would surely find enthusiastic appeal among tourists, visitors and residents. It might also serve as a small step toward acknowledging and redressing the legacy of colonialism in this unique corner of the world — a legacy that continues to inflect some of our most cherished institutions.

Daromir Rudnyckyj is an associate professor of anthropology and Lincoln Z. Shlensky is an associate professor of English. They both teach at the University of Victoria and conduct research on colonialism and its legacies.

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