In 1995, Flor Contemplacion was hanged by the government of Singapore. Accused and convicted of a double murder, Contemplacion's execution set off a storm of protest in her home country, the Philippines, and resulted in a diplomatic crisis, attempted intervention by the Philippine president, and the breaking of international contracts and agreements. Contemplacion was not a known figure, nor was her crime political. She was a low-paid, overseas domestic worker with a job in Singapore away from her own family. The victims had been a fellow overseas worker and a little boy in her care. What the death of an “ordinary” woman meant to the Pacific world was a story of very old and unresolved histories.
Those histories centered on the question of labor. The transit of peoples across the Pacific is a narrative that includes legendary feats of navigation, dark records of slavery and blackbirding, and desperate flight. The nineteenth century was profoundly marked by the oceanic circuits that brought Chinese laborers to California and Australia, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos to Hawai‘i, and Indians to Fiji to work in mines, or on railroads and plantations. The twentieth century saw Javanese slave labor populations working in gangs across Southeast Asia, and the postwar economic migration of workers into factories, sweatshops, and domestic labor jobs.