Love, Loss, and Inter-Asian Intimacies in Colonial Malaya, 1900s-1930s

Love, Loss, and Inter-Asian Intimacies in Colonial Malaya, 1900s-1930s

Sandy F. ChangAssistant Professor in Modern Asian History, University of Florida

This paper explores the formation of inter-Asian intimacies between Chinese women and Indian or Malay men as politically charged sites of racial knowledge production at the turn of the twentieth century in British Malaya. During this era, such romantic liaisons became an increasing source of alarm at the local and state levels, at times resulting in the contest and collusion between Chinese patriarchal power and the colonial state to restore Chinese women to their “proper” homes. Drawing on local petitions, legal cases, and letters penned by local religious authorities, it examines what bitter courtroom battles and public pronouncements of love can tell historians about the making of communal identities in Malaya during a period of mass mobility. Such romantic, sexual, and marital unions galvanized heated debates about the jurisdictional claims over migrant women between the families involved, religious authorities, Malay rulers, and the colonial state. Moreover, they raised crucial questions regarding what it meant to be “Chinese” in colonial Southeast Asia during an era of mass migration. While colonial immigration laws aimed to construct distinct socio-legal categories, such as “alien” or “indigene,” this paper argues that when Chinese women formed intimate ties with Malay or Indian men, converted to Islam, or donned indigenous dress, they often ceased to be classified as Chinese. In a highly transient world, Chinese women sought legal and social avenues to affirm their inter-Asian romances, and in doing so, they often challenged the patriarchal authority of both their families and the colonial state. By foregrounding inter-Asian migrant intimacies, this paper illuminates the gendered fault lines in colonial racial categories. Deciding who was “Chinese” was never clear-cut or a self-evident empirical fact in colonial Southeast Asia, and indeed, across the British Empire.

Sandy F. Chang is an Assistant Professor in Modern Asian history at the University of Florida. She specializes in migration, gender, and sexuality in colonial Southeast Asia and the British Empire. Her book manuscript, Across the South Seas, traces the border-crossing journeys of over a million Chinese women to British Malaya through the lens of gender and intimacy. This research has received support from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Her article, “Intimate Itinerancy: Sex, Work, and Chinese Women in Colonial Malaya’s Brothel Economy” in the Journal of Women’s History received the 2021 Berkshire Conference Article Prize and the Nupur Chaudhuri Article Award from the Coordinating Council of Women in History. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2023
12:00 Noon

Room 203, Luce Hall
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