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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Tapp, Nicholas (Nick) (1952–2015)

by Andrew Walker

Nicholas (Nick) Tapp was my colleague at the ANU between 2000 and 2010, joining us after working in Hong Kong and Edinburgh. In the very first seminar he gave at ANU, as part of the recruitment process, he highlighted the two different meanings of the word ‘consumption’: the act of using up a resource; and a wasting disease.

Twenty years later, I am not sure why this particular seminar fragment has stuck with me, but I think it is because it was so quintessentially Tapp. Nick was predictably unpredictable in putting forward ideas and propositions that I found both stimulating and perplexing.

Nick was a perfect recruit to the ANU southeast Asian studies cohort. Perfect, because he didn’t quite fit. Like the person he replaced in the Department of Anthropology (the equally unorthodox Gehan Wijeyewardene), Nick viewed the region from its margin. His career-spanning scholarship of the Hmong challenged conventional state-based classifications and pulled southeast Asian scholarship northward, deep into China, and upward, away from the valleys and into the mountains. This reorientation (perhaps even disorientation) was, indeed, the spirit of the Thai-Yunnan Project that Gehan had established and which Nick was committed to continuing.

The Thai-Yunnan Project had, under Gehan’s enthusiastic editorship, published a long series of newsletters (28 in all) between 1988 and 1995. When Nick joined the ANU, he worked to revive this important lineage of scholarship on the Asian borderlands. The result was the Thai-Yunnan Project Bulletin, which appeared from 2001 and 2005. Nick also edited a valuable digest of articles from the newsletters, which appeared as The Tai World in 2001. During this period, and afterwards, Nick worked hard to establish a new network of Thai-Yunnan scholars, drawing in collaborators (including a number of his PhD students) from Chiang Mai and Yunnan.

By 2005, both Nick and I were struggling to keep the newsletter going. We experimented with a number of alternative formats, including an email-based bulletin board. One idea that emerged out of these explorations was to set up a blog (then, an academic novelty). The result was New Mandala, which started in 2006 and runs to this day, providing ‘new perspectives on Southeast Asia’. Short-piece blogging was not Nick’s cup of tea—his preference was for carefully constructed and carefully thought-out articles—and establishing New Mandala was a project I pursued with another ANU colleague, Nicholas Farrelly. But in the early 2000s, Nick Tapp played a crucial role in preserving the ANU lineage of disruptive commentary on Southeast Asia from a distinctly ‘off-centre’ perspective.

Nick’s legacy is a wonderful body of scholarship on the Hmong. Jean Michaud has described Nick as ‘the face of Hmong studies, a prolific intellectual standing at the forefront of the field’. Nick completed his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, under the supervision of Andrew Turton, a leading anthropologist of Thailand. Like Turton (and Gehan Wijeyewardene), Nick worked in the north of Thailand, conducting his research in a Hmong village in Chiang Mai province. The book that resulted from his PhD research, Sovereignty and Rebellion: The White Hmong of Northern Thailand, is the most important study of the Hmong in Thailand, drawing on Nick’s undergraduate background in literary studies to provide a rich textual reading of Hmong identity and its persistence in the face of unsympathetic majority populations.

For the rest of his career, Nick expanded his focus on the Hmong, producing a series of studies on the Hmong in China and the international Hmong diaspora. According to Michaud, ‘Nick was instrumental in instilling new life in the field of Hmong studies in China’. A feature of his work, and his philosophy, was his long collaboration with Hmong scholars, especially Gary Yia Lee from the University of Sydney. Nick’s final published paper was ‘Of grasshoppers, caterpillars, and beans: A historical perspective on Hmong messianism’, the title itself an excellent illustration of Nick’s quirky and unorthodox mind and his deep engagement with Hmong world views.

Nick was a passionate supervisor of PhD students. For those of them who also worked with me there was a striking contrast in our styles. For me, a brief 30-minute or so update on progress, some feedback on written material and suggestions for additional reading was usually sufficient. But for Nick, PhD supervision involved long, two- or three-hour sessions of deep discussion, often about theory seemingly well removed from the student’s primary focus. Nick took students well out of their comfort zone, creatively disorienting them and leading them in directions previously unexplored. Nick was a scholar’s scholar and he treated his PhD students with great respect, engaging with them as equals on his ambitious intellectual journey.

Nick left ANU in 2010 and moved to East China Normal University in Shanghai to establish an Institute of Anthropology. This was an exciting move for Nick, strengthening his connections with the Chinese scholarly community, introducing him to new cohorts of students and providing a base for new research projects. Tragically, this new phase in his career was cut short when he died of cancer in 2015. Nick had much more to offer, but we can take some reassurance from the fact that his scholarly legacy lives on among his students and colleagues, all of whom were nudged by Nick, in his droll and gentle manner, to bring new perspectives to their own pursuits.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Andrew Walker, 'Tapp, Nicholas (Nick) (1952–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/tapp-nicholas-nick-32985/text41104, accessed 29 January 2023.

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