Within the realm of science fiction futures, anonymous pedestrians in Asian conical hats scurry by in the background, while white main characters remain in focus. The streamlined, waterproof headgear—known variously in English as a rice hat, a bamboo hat, or a “coolie hat” (we’ll return to that last one later)—would indeed be practical in the perpetual rain of many dystopias. Except central characters are persistently hatless, while silent extras are outfitted in this tropical head covering regardless of weather conditions or time of day, even when indoors.
Conical hats are used by white filmmakers, television showrunners, and their costume designers as a shortcut to signify not only an Asian or Asian-influenced population, but also an overpopulated, impoverished, immoral, diseased, and expendable one. Such economy in one object (read: racist trope)! A wet climate further steeps these locations—constructed to read as Chinatowns, Southeast Asian slums, or some other “seedy” area—in foulness.
Lazily applied by white filmmakers, the traditional headpieces are ubiquitously used to depict an alarmingly Asian future.
Over fifty variations of conical hats exist throughout East, Southeast, and South Asia, with a few similarities influenced by centuries of trading. They are most often made from dried leaves or stalks from local plants (such as palm, rice, bamboo, sedge, rush, cane, or nito) that are woven or sewn together, then stitched to a bamboo wood frame and waterproofed (with lacquer in Japan, turpentine in Vietnam, and resin in the Philippines). There are many shapes and sizes, and more complex designs are taller and have an inner band that floats the hat from the wearer’s head, creating space for air circulation to keep the head cool (like the Thai ngob, Filipino salakot, or Japanese sandogasa).
Conical hat variants have been worn by the working class, soldiers, entertainers, nobility, and royalty. Plain styles are used as protection from the sun and rain by farmers and fishermen across Asia, by vendors in the floating markets of Bangkok, and by street cleaners in urban China. In feudal Japan, samurai and foot soldiers sported a more rugged jingasa (sometimes made from hardwood, leather, or metal), and present-day traveling Buddhist monks don a gently domed takuhatsugasa.
Some hats include sutras or poetry written on the outside (Japanese ajirogasa) or hidden between layers and only visible when held up to a light (nón bài thơ from Huế, Vietnam). Others are customized with embroidery, painting, or batik designs (like many Indonesian caping). Colorfully decorated, broad-brimmed jaapi are used for festivities and ceremonies in Assam, India; narrow belo are gifted to women in Laya, Bhutan; and elaborate salakot were treated as heirloom objects and status symbols in the Philippines. Ornamented differently by ethnic groups, the salakot usually has a spiked or knobbed finial and can feature tassels, feather plumes, horsehair, beads, metal, and pockets in the lining for storing valuables.