Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 36, September 2014

The Burden of Proof:
Gender, Cultural Authenticity and Overseas
Chinese Women's Education in Diaspora

Karen M. Teoh

  1. The figure of woman as a contested symbol of national modernity at the turn of the twentieth century is by now commonplace. At once embodiments of the nation’s modernising potential and bearers of cultural and moral values, women were simultaneously centred and marginalised by nation- or state-building projects around the world, from Asia to the Americas, from imperial Britain to its many colonies. The struggle for female emancipation during this period did not occur in a vacuum; rather, it was shaped and often subsumed by the hegemonic demands of the nation-state.
  2. Lying beyond national boundaries, however, are unanswered questions about how developments in notions of femininity and modernity resonated in communities living in international or transnational situations—such as the case of the sizeable ethnic Chinese population in colonial Malaya and Singapore.[1] How are we to understand the identity formations of women who, often despite never having lived in China, may have identified—ethnically, culturally and/or politically—with that nation, but whose lives and experiences were largely defined by diasporic experiences? Given that these women were exposed to multiple and competing visions of modernity—visions proffered by the British empire, the Chinese nation and nascent Southeast Asian independence movements—how did they negotiate these options? Was there anything unique about the tension between tradition and modernisation, a feature of the nation-building project that was now manifesting in diaspora?[2]
  3. Building on recent scholarship on the relationship between gendered and national modernities, in this article I expand into transnational spaces, looking at how national and imperial priorities interacted to produce particular expectations of women living in diaspora, and how overseas Chinese women responded to their own and others’ ideas of feminine national belonging.[3] Until recently, overseas Chinese women have been selectively absent from the official national narratives of late-colonial Malaysia and Singapore, appearing only in limited and specific types of roles. In most accounts, they are either domestic and subjugated by patriarchy—amahs, bondmaids, prostitutes, the sequestered wives of Chinese merchants—or, at the other end of the spectrum, exceptional in their level of educational attainment, political activism, and social impact, albeit usually as the wives or daughters of prominent local Chinese men.[4] As scholars work to excavate the stories of women in a more diverse set of socio-economic, political and personal roles, one category of everyday female activity stands out as a rich field to mine: female education. Schools for girls, run by and for women, have been in continuous operation in Malaysia and Singapore since the mid-nineteenth century. Founded by a range of groups, from Catholic nuns to Protestant missionaries to Chinese nationalists, these institutions were sites of formal education, acculturation and socialisation.[5] They are ideal venues for exploring how a wider range of overseas Chinese women in these societies confronted and responded to expectations regarding their place in empire, diaspora, and nation—sometimes simultaneously.
  4. In Malaya and Singapore, the growth of formal female education and the tensions that developed between the two main types of institutions—English-medium and Chinese-medium—led to an intra-ethnic schism among the Chinese community that held equally true for women and men. Compounding the ‘classic’ problem of tradition versus modernity, the politics of cultural belonging dominated debates over political identification and paths to modernisation in relation to modern femininity. The context of empire and diaspora gave rise to a strong discursive emphasis on the importance of cultural authenticity, over and above tropes of female virtue, or good wives and mothers—interestingly, themes that featured more prominently under state control in post-independence Malaya and Singapore. This phenomenon indicates that it was not only the nation-state and its priorities that had a powerful tendency to submerge issues of female emancipation and solidarity. In empire and diaspora, the question of who represented ‘true’ overseas Chinese womanhood and cultural status often eclipsed questions and fears about the emancipatory or modernising effects of female education.

    Historical context: female education and the overseas Chinese
  5. Chinese migration to Malaya and Singapore took place as far back as the tenth century, and European colonialists and missionaries were a presence since at least the fifteenth century.[6] However, institutions that were aimed at the formal training and socialisation of local peoples, including the ethnic Chinese, did not take root until the nineteenth century. European and American missionaries, as well as British administrators, founded English-medium schools in which the language of instruction was English and the curricular content was European. These institutions aimed to spread the ideals of Christianity, Euro-American civilisation and, in some cases, European empire. Local Chinese communities, on the other hand, founded Chinese-medium schools where the language of instruction and curricular content were Chinese. These institutions were styled after new educational models in post-1911 Republican China, emphasising, notions of nationality and citizenship, and 'modern' or western-style learning (for example, individual subjects such as mathematics, geography, and languages, as opposed to memorisation of traditional Confucian classics).[7]
  6. Formal female education arrived relatively late, established by missionaries with occasional support by British colonials from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and by the local Chinese from the turn of the twentieth century onwards. These efforts did not have an easy beginning for missionaries, colonialists and Chinese community leaders alike. Problems ranged from difficulty in recruiting students and working against norms that did not prioritise girls’ schooling, to financial shortages and logistical problems such as obtaining sufficient staff, resources and even buildings in which to conduct operations. For the local Chinese, there was the additional issue of low numbers of girls and women to begin with. Until the 1920s, women were a tiny fraction of the overseas Chinese population in Malaya and Singapore. In Malaya, for example, from 1881 to 1890 and 1891 to 1900, Chinese female immigrants were only 3.4 percent and 5.2 percent respectively of the overall number of immigrants.[8] The female-to-male ratio among the Chinese population was approximately 1:5 in 1911, 1:2 in 1931 and just under 1:1 in 1957.[9]
  7. Yet by the mid-twentieth century, female education had acquired significant momentum, among the general population in general and the ethnic Chinese in particular. By 1941, ethnic Chinese girls and women dominated the ranks of students and teachers in many English- and Chinese-medium schools.[10] Equipped with formal education, young Chinese women had the option of paid and socially respectable work outside the home. Through organised extra-curricular activities such as sports, performing arts, student government and alumni associations, female graduates encountered new avenues for intellectual and personal expression. As tensions of European empire and Asian nationalisms seeped into classrooms, these students gained awareness of opportunities for participation in transnational political movements—movements that were built on connections and networks that made reference to, but also transcended, national boundaries such as overseas Chinese nationalism. Demographics could only be a partial explanation for this phenomenon; while the overseas Chinese were about two-thirds of the population in Singapore, they were one-third of the population in Malaya.[11] The cultural importance of vernacular Chinese schools, of formal education as a route for social mobility, and of changing attitudes towards gender roles were also contributing elements.
  8. The politics of Chinese-medium education among overseas Chinese communities may well have been the most influential factor in the equation. From the late nineteenth into the early twentieth century, as China’s social and political landscape shifted with the tumultuous changes of the late Qing dynasty and early Republic, reformers, revolutionaries and other political-intellectual figures called for modernising change in order to strengthen their nation. After more than half a century of military defeat and economic subjugation by western powers, they argued, China needed to change many, if not all, aspects of its major institutions—from government to the military to its education system. New, ‘scientific’ schooling, which would include the study of western languages, science, mathematics and political theory, as opposed to the traditional book-learning of the Confucian canon, was one of the ways in which a new generation of Chinese innovators, leaders and citizens would be trained to participate in nation building. The education of girls and women was an integral part of this reform, with the Qing dynasty promulgating the first official regulations for female education in 1907,[12] and May Fourth activists calling for the radical expansion of women’s opportunities and rights in the 1910s and 1920s. Although reformers had varying opinions about how, and to what extent, female education should take place, most agreed that modernisation of the nation necessitated modernisation of women. For the more conservative male reformist factions, this was primarily so that women could form a corps of ‘good wives and wise mothers,’ and contribute by nurturing a progressive national populace and society (and not necessarily cast aside their traditional gender roles at will—a limitation that would give rise to conflict later on, as is discussed below).
  9. Another facet of burgeoning Chinese nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century was a renewed and positive interest in China’s overseas population.[13] Reformers and revolutionaries such as Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen began to court the political and financial favour of their overseas brethren, and also began to spread the ideals of Chinese national rejuvenation and modernisation, especially through education. Chinese-medium schools began to appear in overseas Chinese communities from North America to the Dutch East Indies to the Straits Settlements, not only teaching Chinese language and culture, but also attempting to inculcate a sense of ethno-national loyalty that might draw this population—physically, intellectually and financially—closer to their ancestral homeland.[14] Given the heterogeneous and sometimes culturally hybrid nature of the vast overseas Chinese population, this mission did not always succeed as well as its creators had hoped. Nonetheless, significant growth in the number of Chinese-medium schools and the political tensions that they generated indicated their rising profile and influence.[15] In British Malaya and Singapore, Chinese-medium education would come to elicit restrictive and unfavourable policies from a colonial administration suspicious of Chinese nationalism, and would also eventually divide the ethnic Chinese community itself.
  10. As the history and politics of Chinese schools in Malaya and Singapore show, overseas Chinese were betwixt and between. They were perceived as neither squarely of the Chinese nation nor of the British colonies, nor of the Southeast Asian postcolonial nations that emerged after World War II. Given this interstitial position, how, then, did assumptions and agendas concerning women and the nation in China or the British empire affect the education and identity formation of educated overseas Chinese women? Early twentieth-century modernisation placed formal female education in the spotlight, and girls’ schools became symbols of progress and an arena for contestation over the role of women in empire and nation—albeit in the context of a diasporic community seeking to establish its cultural and social status as much as a sense of national belonging.[16] The pressures of western imperialism, the struggles of early Chinese nationalism, and the relative instability of overseas Chinese communities’ status in their places of settlement created a focus on ethnic authenticity and cultural conservatism as a means of asserting the political and social modernity of the overseas Chinese. At the same time, different generations and sub-groups within the overseas Chinese population would interpret this approach in very different ways. The following discussion looks at two such interpretations: one by the long resident Peranakan or Straits Chinese, and the other by the more newly arrived Chinese immigrant population. In each case, educated women were called upon to represent a specific brand of Chinese modernity, helping to prove the progressiveness of their community and hence the community’s place in whichever new polity it sought to belong.

    Gender, education and overseas Chinese modernity: two interpretations
  11. The Peranakan approached the idea of girls’ schools as an integral step in civilisational advancement for the overseas Chinese. The culturally hybrid Peranakan were also called Straits or Straits-born Chinese, as the men in this population had intermarried with indigenous Malay women in Malaya and Singapore in the early stages of their arrival, and had lived in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore for generations. At the turn of the twentieth century, the elite, English-speaking members of this community were deeply concerned about the character of their women, and worried that lack of female education would reflect poorly on their community as a whole. Conversant with but not solely grounded in Chinese, Malay or British culture, they felt that the refinement of their women was instrumental to the improvement of their social standing.
  12. Making a case for this cause in 1899, Singapore Straits Chinese community leader Lim Boon Keng warned that ‘no great progress can be made by any people if one half…is perpetually kept in a state of ignorance and degradation,’ and that keeping their women in ‘a low, ignorant and servile state’ would make the Straits Chinese ‘a low, ignorant and servile people.’[17] Another member of the Straits Chinese male elite—like Lim, English-educated and of high socio-economic status—Song Ong Siang linked female education to the status of the community as a whole:

      Are we not desirous that the Straits-born Chinese community shall be looked upon as an educated and enlightened people? Then let us look after our women, and help them all we can to be themselves more enlightened, more perfect, more noble in their thoughts and aspirations, and more fit to be the worthy mothers of the future citizens of this settlement.[18]

    Published in The Straits Chinese Magazine: A Quarterly Journal of Oriental and Occidental Culture (SCM) in 1897, Song’s essay on ‘The Position of Chinese Women,’ from which this quote is drawn, proceeded to outline in detail the problems with his generation of Peranakan women (primarily ignorance and lack of liberty), the reasons for wanting to improve their condition, and a basic plan for girls’ schooling.
  13. The Straits Chinese Magazine: A Quarterly Journal of Oriental and Occidental Culture was an ideal outlet for publicising these arguments. A nominally bilingual English and Chinese (but primarily English) periodical co-founded and edited by Lim and Song, the SCM was a major platform for circulating Straits Chinese male elite visions for cultural reform, with distributors in British Malaya, Singapore, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, Vietnam and Japan.[19] This cultural reform was oriented towards tradition and modernity simultaneously, in the sense that the movement’s leaders wished to revive certain elements of Chinese culture deemed central to their ethnic heritage (language, classical literature, Confucian values) while jettisoning perceived retrogressive tendencies in that same culture, such as superstition and the practice of folk religious rituals (elements that were typically associated with women).[20] A more enlightened and progressive female populace would help to advance this agenda, as they would not only be a credit to Peranakan socio-cultural advancement, but would also be influential in moulding new generations of Straits Chinese.
  14. This plan for female education was put into action in 1899, when Lim and Ong helped to found the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. Its curriculum included Malay and Chinese language instruction, arithmetic, geography, music and sewing.[21] Ties to the British establishment were clear from the start. The medium of instruction was English, the principals were all Englishwomen up until 1951 and the school accepted financial aid from the government from 1900 onwards, subjecting it to inspections and control by colonial educational authorities. The emphasis on the preparation of Peranakan girls for their future domestic roles was deemed necessary for getting parents to send their daughters to school in the first place. Lim argued for the necessity of educating girls in domestic skills:

      It is necessary to teach the girls such practical things as sewing, cooking and the ordinary household duties in order to convince our detractors that education does not make them less fit as housekeepers…. Usefulness before ornament is an important fact to bear in mind.[22]

    In taking this approach, the Peranakan were echoing the missionaries and British government officials who operated girls’ schools throughout Malaya and Singapore. The language of instruction, western curriculum, and focus on domesticity in these schools were largely similar, except that the mission schools would have had a more overtly religious aspect. The Singapore Chinese Girls’ School did offer Chinese language lessons, but success in this area was limited, especially when most subjects were taught in English, and most of the students came from home environments in which the most commonly used languages were English and Malay, or an informal Chinese-Malay patois.[23] A former resident in a Singaporean neighbourhood that was largely populated by Peranakan families recalls that they ‘had no use for Chinese.’[24] Together with missionary-run and government-run English-medium girls’ schools, this institution contrasted with the Chinese-medium girls’ schools that were privately organised by more recent immigrants from China. In those institutions, which are more extensively discussed below, the curriculum was less focused on the domestic arts. Furthermore, Chinese influence in the form of language of instruction, teachers and administrators, and textbooks created a strikingly different educational and cultural milieu for students.
  15. What distinguished the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and the Peranakan Chinese founders behind it was their unique positioning in the space between British colonialism and Chinese ethno-cultural nationalism. This space was hemmed in from both sides by moral and cultural expectations concerning Chinese women in particular, and leadership of the Chinese community in general. The proponents of female education in the pages of the Straits Chinese Magazine were also calling for the wholesale reform and rejuvenation of their ethnic community, which, they felt, was becoming anachronistic and degenerate. Their language echoed that of the male intellectual elite in China at the time, who were also calling for the political and social reformation of their nation in order to lift their civilisation out of oppression and disdain by the west. But given their colonial context, the Peranakan sense of affinity with or influence from western culture—indeed, of being at least partly characterised by it—went further than most cases in China.
  16. The discourse on female education and Chinese women in which these men participated brings to the surface a number of complex and contradictory impulses among the Straits Chinese community. Concerned with being and appearing civilised, constantly comparing themselves with the Europeans in whose colony and culture they were embedded, regarding their more recently arrived Chinese immigrant brethren with a combination of suspicion and respect, the Peranakan leaders, positioned as they were near the top of the socio-economic hierarchy, seem to have been caught in an uncomfortable bind. On the one hand, they wished to be seen favourably from the perspective of the British colonials, who represented western civilisation. On the other hand, they did not wish to lose their Chinese origins—in fact, they were beginning to turn to Confucian moral teaching as a means of saving what they thought were the many fallen members of their society. The question of how to ‘look after’ their women encapsulated this dilemma, and highlights one important way in which English-medium female education both reflected and generated tensions within a sub-group of the larger overseas Chinese community. Through the lens of female education and its importance to the elevation of the Peranakan, the writers of the Straits Chinese Magazine articles alternately criticised their women for their obdurate ignorance, their less enlightened peers who did not yet support girls’ schooling, and fellow ‘Orientals’ who sequestered their womenfolk—all with an admixture of exhortations to modernise and invocations to protect their cultural traditions.
  17. Examples of such articles include regular contributor Lew See Fah’s ‘Straits Chinese Mothers,’ an open letter to the women of his community. Though he was aware that illiteracy would keep most women from reading it themselves, he urged fathers and husbands to convey his message to them:

      It is not my purpose to find fault with you, the Straits Chinese grandmothers and mothers. I am conscious that you are more to be pitied than blamed…. [But] your ignorance of letters effectively prevents you from drawing upon the experience of abler and wiser counsellors on the subject of how to take proper care of your little ones. When these little folks [are ill], how helpless you are!…. You do not understand the elements of nursing…How much do [your] children lose by your not being able to take your share in lifting them on to the first rung of the educational ladder?…. Give your daughters the opportunity you have lost [and let them go to school].[25]

  18. At the same time, and as a means of moral guidance for Peranakan females, the Straits Chinese Magazine carried a running series of ‘Select Anecdotes from the Records of Famous Women.’ This column featured excerpts from the ‘Biographies of Heroic Women’ (Lienü Zhuan), a text dating back to the Han dynasty and the earliest extant didactic book on the moral behaviour of women. The collection of stories includes legends of chaste, wise and heroic women in Chinese mythology, which, according to the SCM writer, could be ‘taken advantage of by the social reformer who is working for the emancipation of the modern Chinese women from the thralldom of ignorance.’[26] Needless to say, these heroic women adhered to traditional Confucian norms in many important ways, especially in valuing the welfare of their parents and husbands, as well as their chastity, above their own lives—an attitude that modern Chinese female education was supposed to help abolish.[27]
  19. To the extent that Peranakan male elites were able to control the project of female education—they were limited by their small numbers and problems in raising funds—their attempts to assert their ethnic and cultural pride has some overlap with the concept of the ‘politics of respectability.’ In her ground-breaking work on African-American women’s determination to create a sense of bourgeois respectability in their homes and communities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham detects a cultural strategy by elite and upper-middle class black women to demonstrate their parity with white America.[28] The drawback of this strategy was that in its efforts to reform the behaviours and attitudes of their less educated, non-elite co-ethnics, the movement generated class divides between those who sought to represent their people in a cultured and elite manner, and those who rejected the effort as irrelevant to their class or disloyal to their traditional heritage. The differences in the Peranakan case are important to note: men, not women, led the drive for ‘respectability,’ and resistance of racial prejudice was not an explicit goal. Yet the overlaps are intriguing and significant. The Peranakan were the educational and socio-economic elite among the overseas Chinese at this time; their fears of lagging in civilisational advancement were spurred by concerns over racial inequalities and ethno-cultural purity (particularly with the contemporary problem of China’s national sovereignty under assault by western powers), and their fixation on negative attributes of their women as blemishes on their community led them to mount a campaign of behavioural reform.[29] Such a campaign placed the Peranakan, and others who subscribed to this outlook, in a position of tension: consciously departing from so-called traditional Chinese norms in the treatment and roles of women, yet unable or unwilling to escape the role of being representatives of Chinese culture.
  20. As with other Asian women ‘in the nation’ (in early twentieth-century China and Japan, for example), Peranakan women were tasked with shedding the negative attributes of ‘traditional’ femininity—such as ignorance and superstition—while continuing to embody the positive features of their cultural heritage—such as moral purity and domestic competence. This association between women and modernity echoes what scholars of colonial women’s history have noted in other parts of the world. For example, Partha Chatterjee has described how Hindu men in South Asia were able to resolve the conflict between modernising along western lines and preserving a sense of local ethnic tradition that was being threatened by British imperialism, by investing women with the duty of preserving their cultural heritage within the domestic sphere.[30] By doing so, men were freed to pursue the seemingly non-traditional ideals of modernisation and nationalism without risking the loss of their cultural or ethnic authenticity. Educated Peranakan women in Malaya and Singapore had to carry the burden of helping their community to prove their modernity as well as their cultural integrity in order to achieve some parity of social and cultural status with their western rulers. The difference between Peranakan women and women 'in the nation' was that their liminal position as products of migration, ethnic intermarriage, cultural assimilation and social integration with British colonialism rendered their job of asserting Chinese cultural authenticity even more complicated and ambivalent. This would be especially so when the Peranakan approach to female education and gendered modernity was placed in contrast, and sometimes in competition with, the approach adopted by more recently arrived immigrants from China.
  21. Chinese-medium girls’ schools, first founded in the 1900s in Malaya and Singapore, had a markedly different genesis, set of goals, and curricular design than their English-medium counterparts in these colonies. As China struggled to rejuvenate itself as a nation at the turn of the twentieth century after decades of defeat by western nations, reformists and revolutionaries advocated thoroughgoing social change, including the education of girls and women. This was far from an uncomplicated idea. Implementation of this change was slow, uneven and subject to wide disagreement over a range of issues, such as the impact of such education on female and public morality.[31] Nonetheless, the concept took hold in China as well as among its overseas population, and from the 1900s onwards, diasporic communities in Malaya and Singapore founded a slew of Chinese-medium girls’ schools.
  22. The first of such institutions in British Malaya was Kuen Cheng Girls' School, founded in Kuala Lumpur in 1908. The school’s founders were Wu Xuehua, a Chinese woman, Zhong Zhuojing, a Chinese male community leader and principal of a local Chinese boys’ institution, Confucian High School, and his Japanese wife Watanabe Yoshiko. Zhong became Kuen Cheng’s first principal, and Wu and Watanabe were its first teachers.[32] Interestingly, chronologies of the institution’s history in school magazines published before the 1960s describe Watanabe as merely assisting in teaching duties, but accounts from later years give her a much larger role, naming her as a co-founder of the school.[33] This discrepancy hints at a possible wariness on the part of a Chinese institution in ascribing its origins to a Japanese person, due to twentieth-century cultural and political tensions between China and Japan. It also serves as a reminder that China was nonetheless looking to Japan in the 1900s as an example of successful modernisation and educational reform, and that Chinese women had travelled to Japan during this time to further their education.[34] Conservative Chinese nationalists believed that Japan’s success was based on a gender ideology of good wives and wise mothers who supported the new national project without being overly westernised, thus offering ‘the only appropriate model of feminine modernity for China.’[35] Symbolically, the name ‘Kuen Cheng’ (kuncheng) denoted ‘perfection of femininity.’
  23. From the time of its inception, the school’s progress was steady and successful. In 1908, its first year of operation, just twenty students were enrolled in primary level classes. Between 1915 and 1940, there was sufficient demand for the school to set up the country's first kindergarten, lower and upper secondary classes, and a four-year teacher-training or 'Normal' course. By 1933, the school enrolled a total of approximately 400 students, and by 1956, approximately 3,000.[36] Kuen Cheng Girls’ School has survived into the early twenty-first century, enrolling students at both primary and secondary levels for twelve continuous years of education, and not only remains a girls-only institution at the secondary level but is also considered by the local community to be one of the premier Chinese schools in Malaysia.[37]
  24. In the early twentieth century, shifting attitudes towards female education, the newly formulated role of women in the modernising nation, and possibly a sense of competition with missionaries and British colonials sparked increasing interest in establishing Chinese girls’ schools such as Kuen Cheng. By the late 1930s, there were some fifty such schools across Malaya, with more than 10,000 Chinese female students in the urban areas of Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Melaka. By comparison, in these same areas, English girls' schools had enrolled a smaller number of Chinese female students: an estimated 6,800.[38] In structure, curriculum and staffing, these institutions followed models in Republican China. These included the number of years in each stage of schooling (primary, upper and lower secondary, and Normal or teacher training), the venues where teachers and principals of these schools obtained their own education (often in China or Japan), and the western design but Chinese cultural orientation of subjects such as history, geography and literature.[39]
  25. In the most striking departure from most local English-medium girls’ schools, Chinese girls’ schools used a non-gender specific curriculum, marginalising or even eschewing entirely the teaching of domestic science. From the 1920s on, these institutions were influenced by the New Culture movement in Republican China, in which a new emphasis on gender equality had led schools to scale back training for girls in household skills such as home economics, gardening, and handicrafts.[40] In 1953, Kuen Cheng Girls’ School in Kuala Lumpur did not include domestic science at either primary or secondary levels.[41] This was part of a deliberate shift towards being ‘modern.’ Even though there would still be implicit assumptions and expectations regarding feminine virtue, at least on the surface, these schools were training Chinese girls and women to look towards work outside the home and participation in nation building.
  26. Attending a Chinese-medium girls’ school by no means guaranteed that an overseas Chinese woman would automatically adopt the cause of Chinese nationalism and place her political loyalties in her ancestral homeland. However, it could increase the likelihood that she would learn that ‘true’ Chineseness belonged to those in possession of Chinese cultural attributes: language, historical and literary knowledge, and, ideally, a sense of ethno-national pride. From the late 1920s onwards, many Chinese schools in Malaya and Singapore became politicised, partly due to the competition between Republicans and Communists in China for the allegiances and resources of their overseas population, and partly due to increasingly strict controls by British colonials who were alarmed by the rise of Chinese nationalism. Students who attended these schools in the 1930s and 1940s, interviewed about their experiences decades later, recalled numerous occasions when conflicts between Kuomintang-affiliated ‘rightists’ and Communist-sympathetic ‘leftists’ among school faculty and staff resulted in certain individuals being forced to resign or even leave the country.[42] One teacher who had been sent by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to spread ‘progressive ideas’ among overseas Chinese youths spent nine years, from 1941–50, teaching music at Kuen Cheng Girls’ School.[43] Defying school policy and threats of suspension, she taught her students revolutionary songs such as the ‘Yan’an Anthem’ (Yan’an song), celebrating the legendary stronghold of the CCP, and gave them advice on how to re-migrate to China. Overseas Chinese schoolgirls also participated in boycotts of Japanese goods and fundraising drives for China in the Sino-Japanese War from the early 1930s onwards.
  27. Throughout this time, British colonials sought to impose tighter controls on Chinese-medium schools. Founded and operated as private entities, these institutions were not typically subject to governmental inspection and regulation. As the British passed legislation in the 1920s seeking to standardise the curriculum, introduce new rules about hiring teachers, and link much-needed government financial aid to regular inspections, many Chinese-medium institutions resisted.[44] After the end of World War II in 1945, the Communist Revolution of 1949 in China and the Malayan Emergency of 1948–60 (in which British colonials struggled to put down a largely ethnic Chinese communist guerrilla insurgency), Chinese schools came under even stricter scrutiny for their political activism. Although Chinese girls' schools were also targets of these actions, they were treated as part of a larger problem—private Chinese schools—and were seldom discussed by the British in connection with any gender-specific policy. Well into the twenty-first century, Chinese schools in Malaysia, such as Kuen Cheng, remain emblems of the local overseas Chinese community’s determination to preserve their cultural heritage, despite perceived efforts at control or suppression by state authorities, be they British imperialists or Malay nationalists.
  28. Over the decades, participation in Chinese-medium schools—deliberately or otherwise, for male and female students alike—became a political act. For overseas Chinese women, a Chinese-medium education meant immersion in a milieu where the preservation of certain cultural attributes such as language, historical or literary knowledge and a sense of investment in the future of China would give them a strong sense of identity and secure position whether in a British colony, or, should they choose to re-migrate, in their ancestral homeland. Through their gender-neutral schooling and a progressive involvement in national and transnational politics, these women were evidence of a new, modern China that could be unified, strong and equal to but distinct from its western rivals.
  29. Unfortunately, the realities of European empire, Chinese nationalism and postcolonial Southeast Asian statehood complicated and sometimes frustrated this hope. In a colonial and diasporic environment, Chinese-medium schools felt greater pressure to uphold socio-cultural traditionalism as a hallmark of Chinese nationalism, such that certain traditional gender-role expectations persisted well into the mid-twentieth century. For example, student essays in annual school magazines from Chinese-medium girls’ schools in Malaya and Singapore from the 1930s to the 1950s showed a bevy of contradicting opinions that seem to reflect increasing, not decreasing, gender role conservatism over time. Comparing a selection of student essays from the Kuen Cheng Girls’ School Lower Secondary 7th Annual Graduation Special Commemorative Magazine of 1934 and the Kuen Cheng Girls’ School 45th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine of 1953, one finds in the former a series of student essays calling for women to assert their independence by pursuing careers and rejecting arranged marriages in favour of marrying for love, whereas the latter contains essays asserting that women’s weaker physical strength and nurturing tendencies best suited them for teaching jobs.[45] These magazines also contained long lists of school regulations policing everything from a female student’s appearance (‘westernized’ things such as curled hair, make-up and jewellery were discouraged), to her tone of voice (pleasant and not too loud), to her personal hygiene (including that of her ‘sexual organs’).[46] As in the Chinese nation, contradictions between being traditional and being modern weighed heavily and sometimes confusingly on educated overseas Chinese women.
  30. These developments resonate with recent scholarship on the concept of the Modern Girl as a global phenomenon and a heuristic device for tracking linkages and local processes across geographic and political boundaries.[47] The excitement, discomfiture, and contestation for control over the image of the cosmopolitan Modern Girl or New Woman were near-worldwide motifs in the early decades of the twentieth century. At the same time, there was not a single, abstracted norm or ideal type of ‘a’ Modern Girl that was produced by western consumerism or political change and simply adapted to local conditions in Asian colonies—that is, a uni-directional trend of linear causality. Rather, global dynamics and local processes were in mutually constitutive dialogue with one another.[48] In the case of Chinese female education in British Malaya and Singapore, students and teachers in both English- and Chinese-medium schools sought to integrate and reconcile varying models of femininity, modernity, nation, empire and ethno-cultural expression. These models circulated from Republican China and Great Britain, but—through missionary, commercial and diplomatic exchanges—also from other parts of Europe and Asia (especially India and Japan), other Southeast Asian colonies (especially the Dutch East Indies) and the United States. Within Malaya and Singapore, different generations, economic classes, and socio-cultural groupings of ethnic Chinese were also in contact and conversation with other ethnicities and diasporic communities. Given the cosmopolitanism of the Straits Settlements and other areas with large concentrations of Chinese migrants, constructions of modern femininity and their relationships with colonial or national identity were diverse, complex and fluid.[49]
  31. Even as this open-endedness may have created opportunities for new and unique forms of identity to arise and exist—Peranakan culture being one such example—it also complicated the task for those who sought to assert specific and exclusive brands of ethno-cultural authenticity. This was how linguistic pluralism in education eventually led to intra-ethnic divisions in the overseas Chinese community. Tensions grew between Chinese- and English-language school graduates within the ethnic Chinese community, with each side critiquing the other for a faulty sense of politico-cultural allegiance.[50] From the Chinese-educated perspective, their English-educated counterparts were insufficiently Chinese in an ethno-cultural and hence political sense. Conversely, the latter resented the former’s reluctance to assimilate and acculturate, and hence have a better chance of socio-political security in what was effectively their new permanent home. For both English- and Chinese-educated women, the challenges of gender role expectations had not disappeared. However, they had been overtaken and compounded by the additional burden of a larger dispute in the greater community over cultural authenticity and the right to represent ‘Chineseness’ in a world increasingly dominated by western nations.[51]
  32. The growing schism between the English- and Chinese-educated was felt on all levels, including among friends and within families. An English-educated academic in Malaysia who was the only one of her siblings to be sent to an English instead of a Chinese school saw a growing divide in her family as being more than linguistic, but also cultural and political:

      Throughout my childhood, my sense of difference from my siblings was marked less by gender and more by a linguistic and cultural gap…. I learnt a different language, which took me into a different body of literature, shaping my mental landscape to think in different ways. The difference in Chinese and English school teaching was most glaring in history—I learnt about the extension of British power and civilization over an empire on which the sun did not set, my brother about how Western imperialism had tried to carve up the Chinese [like a] melon. Teachers and textbooks in the Chinese schools of the mid-1950s were heavily anti-colonial in spirit…. The English schools, even in the late 1950s, essentially imbued us with an Anglophile colonial mentality.[52]

  33. The impact of this divide was also felt on the broader socio-economic plane. Chinese school graduates did not have any local Chinese-medium college or university options, and would have to go abroad to pursue tertiary education. Both during and after the colonial period, it was also more difficult for a Chinese school graduate, male or female, to gain employment in government service and a number of other economic sectors than it was for an English-educated graduate. This institutionalised handicap for the Chinese-educated led to frustration among their ranks and a dim view of Chinese schools among some of the English-educated. According to an English-educated alumna, ‘There was a great deal of hostility towards learning English’ among some overseas Chinese. The two factions ‘just didn’t mix,’ with accusations flying back and forth of Chinese chauvinism and betrayal of one’s cultural roots.[53] Interestingly, one common criticism that was lobbed at English-educated Chinese women by Chinese-educated women was that the former were vain, more concerned with their appearances than with their intellect, and guilty of an ersatz western modernity that was in fact retrograde in its orientation towards attracting men and having a good time instead of contributing to the nation.[54] This critique echoes the Republican Chinese line on how ‘the wrong kind of “liberation” could be dangerous,’ as the ‘wrong kind’ of Modern Girl posed moral hazards to families, society and even the ‘true’ women’s emancipation.[55]
  34. Evidently, though the main contention between the two factions seemed cultural and gender-neutral in its origin, gendered expectations still found their way into the discourse, albeit in tandem with cultural critiques. Looking at the original impulses behind the cultural reform advocated by Straits Chinese male elites, one can discern a powerful intertwining of racial and gender assumptions within the movement. The renewed assertion of a ‘more pure’ Chinese identity by a culturally hybrid people living in a multi-ethnic colony implicitly involved disparaging and rejecting elements of Malay culture that were an integral part of the Straits Chinese community. These included Malay dress, food, language and women—despite the fact that the community’s roots lay in intermarriages between Chinese immigrant men and indigenous Malay women generations before. Hence, there was a ‘symbolic rejection of the mother and the Malay cultural inheritance she represented,’ to be replaced by re-adoption of the Han Chinese male cultural patrimony.[56] Conveniently, the path of this re-adoption process was smoothed by a convergence of mercantile and cultural interests from the late nineteenth century onwards, when many Straits Chinese families found it advantageous to marry their daughters to newly arrived male immigrants, thereby cementing commercial and social relationships.[57]
  35. Ironically, it would be in the postcolonial decades that the newly formed nation-states of Malaya and Singapore would place a renewed emphasis on domesticity in female education. Governments, especially in Singapore, implemented Domestic Science or Home Economics in the curriculum of girls’ schools in the late 1960s in a far more thoroughgoing manner than had been the case during the colonial period.[58] During this period, educated overseas Chinese women had to contend with a more explicit set of traditional gender role expectations as well as the longstanding challenge of proving their cultural and political belonging in an unstable, diasporic space.

  36. Ultimately, this imbrication of the political and the personal had long-lasting effects on the lives of educated overseas Chinese women. Despite the progressive and modernising rhetoric that accompanied pioneering efforts in female education, whether English or Chinese, any feminist or emancipatory discourse was always subordinated to nationalist priorities. The modernisation of women was never separate from the modernisation of the nation, or in the case of the overseas Chinese, of the diasporic community. Because women were looked upon as emblems of how progressive or civilised their communities were, the linguistic milieu in which they were educated came to be invested with heavy political and cultural meaning.
  37. The key difference for the Chinese in pre-independence Malaya and Singapore was the challenge of establishing their place in a multi-ethnic British colony, and subsequently a multi-ethnic Southeast Asian state, while contending with their history as migrants and settlers from a nation with a powerful cultural-political presence in the region. Overseas Chinese women had to negotiate how their relationship to the nation—Chinese, Malayan or Singaporean—would be developed and secured in a non-national space. In this space, neither the English- nor the Chinese-educated could lay claim to a pure sense of ‘tradition,’ given that all of them were overseas migrants and settlers, and all were seemingly complicit with or at least not actively opposed to living under western imperialism. Yet this seemed to be one of the primary criteria for asserting leadership, social status and belonging in these colonies.
  38. While national independence and the position of the ethnic Chinese community were still in flux during the colonial era, educated Chinese women were able to claim, debate, and participate in visions of citizenship, national belonging and cultural authenticity. At the same time, the politics of these very issues limited the construction of their identities and the development of gender equality in other ways. Anxiety over the traditional roles of Chinese women in home and society, and even over the propriety of their public appearance and behaviour, did not disappear. Rather, they took a backseat to fierce debates over the ethno-cultural identities that were associated with their language medium of education.
  39. Scholars have argued that in early twentieth-century China, educated women’s efforts to use nationalism as their ‘authorising discourse’ enabled new subjectivities on their part, but also ‘yoke[d] them to the demands of the larger nationalist project.’[59] In colonial Malaya and Singapore, overseas Chinese women’s participation in ethnic identity politics via formal education led to a greater degree of socio-cultural and political activity. However, these women also became embroiled in intra-ethnic disputes between cultural adaptation for the sake of demonstrating communal progressiveness, and cultural traditionalism as a means of asserting a Chinese instead of a western brand of modernity. In both cases, educated overseas Chinese women had to bear the expectations of their communities, as symbols and perpetuators of an authentic cultural identity that would secure their position simultaneously in colony, country of origin and place of permanent settlement.


    [1] On terminology: Peninsular Malaya and Singapore were loosely united under British rule from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Malaya gained national independence in 1957, was renamed Malaysia in 1963, and Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965. I use the terms ‘Chinese diaspora’ and ‘overseas Chinese’ inter-changeably; both are accepted if imperfect terms of reference for ethnic Chinese outside China. Where no Romanised transliteration of a Chinese name is given by a contemporary source, I use the hanyü pinyin system, e.g. Jingfang Girls’ School. But where transliteration was in common usage by contemporary sources, I follow the conventions of the period, e.g. Kuen Cheng, Kuomintang. ‘Medium’ with reference to the schools refers to the main language of instruction—here, either English or Mandarin Chinese.

    [2] Although this discussion addresses the comparative development of a gendered sense of cultural authenticity in nation and in diaspora, I am mindful of Tim Harper’s point that diasporic intellectual culture in colonial Singapore ‘embodie[d] both the demands of globalism and the desire for authenticity,’ and that analyses of diaspora in this multicultural milieu should consider not only individual diasporas, but also ‘how different diasporas conversed with each other.’ Tim Harper, ‘Globalism and the pursuit of authenticity: the making of a diasporic public sphere in Singapore,’ Sojourn, vol. 12, no. 2 (1997): 261–92, pp. 261–62. For an alternative angle on the fashioning of authentic moral, spiritual, cultural, and gendered identities in a different colonial context, see Prasenjit Duara’s ‘Of authenticity and woman: personal narratives of middle class women in modern China,’ in Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond, ed. Wen-Hsin Yeh, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, pp. 342–64.

    [3] In modern Chinese historical studies, influential works include Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the State, ed. Christina K. Gilmartin et al., Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994; Tani Barlow, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism, Durham: Duke University Press, 2004; Joan Judge, ‘Citizens or mothers of citizens? Gender and the meaning of modern Chinese citizenship,’ in Changing Meanings of Citizenship in Modern China, ed. Merle Goldman and Elizabeth J. Perry, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 22–43; and Joan Judge, The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

    [4] Some examples of these pioneering efforts include Ooi Keat Gin, ‘Domestic servants par excellence: the black and white amahs of Malaya and Singapore with special reference to Penang,’ in Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 65, no. 2 (1992): 69–84; Claire Chiang, ‘Female migrants in Singapore: towards a strategy of pragmatism and coping,’ in Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude and Escape, ed. Maria Jaschok and Suzanne Miers, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1994, pp. 238–63; James Francis Warren, Ah Ku and Karayuki-san: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870–1940, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 2003; and Neil Jin Keong Khor and Khoo Keat Siew, The Penang Po Leung Kuk: Chinese Women, Prostitution and a Welfare Organization, Malaysia: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2004. On family and kinship, a defining work remains Maurice Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore, London: HM Stationer’s Office, 1957. On women’s education and political connections with China, see Fan Ruolan, Yimin, Xingbie yu Huaren Shehui: Malaiya Huaren Funü Yanjiu (1929 –1941) (Immigration, Gender and Overseas Chinese Society: Studies on the Chinese Women in Malaya [1929 –1941]), Beijing: Zhonghua Huaqiao Publishing, 2005, pp. 25 –28.

    [5] Among other social institutions, schools—particularly those founded by westerners—were part of a ‘world of sociability’ in which the colonial elite and local society intermingled, where ‘strict racial hierarchies became more ambivalent.’ Harper, ‘Globalism and the pursuit of authenticity,’ p. 273.

    [6] For a recent political, social and cultural historical survey of the overseas Chinese, see Philip A. Kuhn, Chinese Among Others: Emigration in Modern Times, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

    [7] See Robert Culp, Articulating Citizenship: Civic Education and Student Politics in Southeastern China, 1912–1940, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.

    [8] Lim Joo Hock, ‘Chinese female immigration into the Straits Settlements, 1860–1991,’ in Journal of the South Seas Society, vol. 22 (1967): 58–110, p. 99.

    [9] Joyce Ee, ‘Chinese migration to Singapore, 1896–1941,’ in Journal of Southeast Asian History, vol. 2, no. 1 (1961): 33–51, p. 50.

    [10] See Karen M. Teoh, ‘Exotic flowers, modern girls, good citizens: female education and overseas Chinese identity in British Malaya and Singapore, 1900s–1950s,’ in Twentieth Century China, vol. 35, no. 2 (April 2010): 25–51.

    [11] Malayan Census figures compiled by Khoo Boo Teik, ‘Ethnic structure, governance, and inequality in the public sector: Malaysian experiences,’ in Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 20, December 2005, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, p. 4.

    Although it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the various ways in which women's social roles and actions were broadened beyond the realm of formal education, it is important to note that there were informal organisations, such as sworn sisterhoods for unmarried Chinese domestic servants, which gave women opportunities for non-family-based social interactions and commitments. For more on how these organisations formed the basis for women's activism in Singapore, see Lenore Lyons, 'Localised voices of feminism: Singapore's Association of Women for Action and Research,' in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 36 (September 2014), online:

    [12] ‘Zhouding nüzi shifan xuetang zhangcheng sanshiliu tiao’ (Thirty-six Rules and Regulations for Girls’ Normal Schools) and ‘Nüzi xiaoxue zhangcheng ershi tiao’ (Twenty Rules and Regulations for Girls’ Primary Schools) were issued by the Qing government in 1907. See Fan, Yimin, Xingbie yu Huaren Shehui, p. 114.

    [13] For more on the shift from a negative to a more positive attitude towards overseas Chinese on the part of the Chinese government, see Kuhn, ‘Maritime expansion and Chinese migration’ and ‘Revolution and “national salvation”,’ in Chinese Among Others, pp. 7–54 and 239–82; and Yen Ching-hwang, ‘Ch’ing changing images of the overseas Chinese (1644–1912),’ in Modern Asian Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (1981): 261–85.

    [14] Kuhn, Chinese Among Others, pp. 252–54.

    [15] See Kuhn, Chinese Among Others, pp. 266–68, for examples of such conflicts in response to real and perceived attempts by the Chinese state to influence its overseas populations, in part through education.

    [16] For a comparative case of the relationship between gender, imperialism and the search for ethno-national identity in Manchukuo under Japanese rule see Prasenjit Duara, ‘Embodying civilization: women and the figure of tradition within modernity,’ in Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, pp. 131–69.

    [17] Lim Boon Keng, ‘Straits Chinese reform—III: the education of children,’ in The Straits Chinese Magazine: A Quarterly Journal of Oriental and Occidental Culture (September 1899): 102–05, p. 103. Lim and Song had both been educated in English-language schools, and had obtained British scholarships to study at universities in the UK.

    [18] Song Ong Siang, ‘The position of Chinese women: a lecture delivered to the Chinese Philomathic Society and subsequently to the Chinese Christian Association, in 1896,’ in The Straits Chinese Magazine: A Quarterly Journal of Oriental and Occidental Culture (September 1897): 16–23, pp. 19–20.

    [19] Mark Ravinder Frost, ‘Emporium in imperio: Nanyang networks and the Straits Chinese in Singapore, 1819–1914,’ in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 36, no. 1 (February 2005): 29–66, p. 53.

    [20] Christine Doran, ‘The Chinese cultural reform movement in Singapore: Singaporean Chinese identities and constructions of gender,’ in Sojourn, vol. 12, no. 1 (1997): 92–107, p. 95. See also Frost, ‘Emporium in imperio,’ p. 56. For more on the Straits Chinese in other parts of the Straits Settlements, see Neil Jin Keong Khor, ‘Economic change and the emergence of the Straits-Chinese in nineteenth-century Penang,’ in Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 79, no. 291 (December 2006): 59–83.

    [21] Ooi Yu-lin, Pieces of Jade and Gold: Anecdotal History of the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, 1899–1999, Singapore: Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, 1999, p. 12.

    [22] Lim, ‘Straits Chinese reform—III,’ p. 103.

    [23] Ooi, Pieces of Jade and Gold, p. 20.

    [24] Interview with Margaret Chang, Singapore, October 2005. In my interviews with graduates of Chinese girls' schools in Malaysia and Singapore, 2005–06, some names and identifying details have been changed in the interests of confidentiality.

    [25] Lew See Fah, 'Straits Chinese mothers,' in The Straits Chinese Magazine (June 1901): 112–14, pp. 112–14. There is some speculation that the author’s name is a pseudonym, but as yet there is no concrete information about the author’s true identity.

    [26] Lin Meng Ch’in, ‘Select anecdotes from the records of famous women,’ in The Straits Chinese Magazine (December 1903): 132–42, pp. 132–33. For a detailed study of how reformers in China were using traditional women’s biographies to promote competing notions of female virtue and heroism, see Joan Judge, The Precious Raft of History: China’s Woman Question and the Politics of Time at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

    [27] For a more extensive discussion of gender, race and literature in the SCM, see Philip Holden, ‘A literary history of race: reading Singapore literature in English in an historical frame,’ in Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore, ed. Daniel P.S. Goh, Matilda Gabrielpillai, Philip Holden and Gaik Cheng Khoo, London and New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 19–35, p. 34.

    [28] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, ‘The politics of respectability,’ in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 185–230.

    [29] Part of these reform efforts included the establishment of welfare and rehabilitation organisations for indigent girls and women, such as the homes for orphans and prostitutes explored in Khor and Khoo’s The Penang Po Leung Kuk. Such efforts were not only charitable in intent and effect, but also helped to bolster the reputation and respectability of the Chinese community as a whole.

    [30] Partha Chatterjee, ‘The nationalist resolution of the women's question,’ in Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999, pp. 233–53, pp. 238–39.

    [31] See Joan Judge, ‘Talent, virtue and the nation: Chinese nationalism and female subjectivities in the early twentieth century,’ in American Historical Review, vol. 106, no. 3 (June 2001): 765–803.

    [32] Kuncheng nüxiao sishiwu zhounian jiniankan (Kuen Cheng Girls’ School 45th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine), Kuala Lumpur: n.p., 1953, p. 16.

    [33] Kuncheng nüxiao sishiwu zhounian jiniankan (Kuen Cheng Girls’ School 45th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine), compared with Kuncheng nüxiao liushi zhounian jiniankan (Kuen Cheng Girls’ School 60th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine), Kuala Lumpur: n.p., 1968) p. 11. The former simply names Watanabe as Zhong’s wife and one of the teachers, whereas the latter states that Wu and Watanabe ‘exerted the greatest effort to start’ the school.

    [34] John Cleverley, The Schooling of China: Tradition and Modernity in Chinese Education, 2nd ed., Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991, p. 40.

    [35] Judge, ‘Talent, virtue and the nation,’ p. 771.

    [36] Fan, Yimin, Xingbie yu Huaren Shehui, p. 126. Also Kuncheng nüxiao liushi zhounian jiniankan (Kuen Cheng Girls’ School 60th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine), Kuala Lumpur: n.p., 1968, p. 11.

    [37] Despite the fact that China’s ‘new woman’ movement rejected the traditional sequestering of women, girls’ schools at the secondary level—for students from age eleven or twelve onwards—were mostly gender-segregated. In Malaya and Singapore, debates over shifts to co-education did take place in Chinese newspapers, but proponents of the change were typically defeated on the grounds of immorality. This controversy was mentioned with regard to Kuen Cheng Girls’ School in ‘Benxiao jianshi’ (A Brief School History), Kuncheng nüxiao liushi zhounian jiniankan (Kuen Cheng Girls’ School 60th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine), 1968, p. 11.

    [38] Fan, Yimin, Xingbie yu Huaren Shehui, pp. 128–29.

    [39] Cleverley, The Schooling of China, p. 52. This system was identical to the one formalised in China’s National Education Plan of 1922. It was an adapted version of systems that had existed since the early twentieth century, and was based on the American-influenced Federated Education Association of China.

    [40] Culp, Articulating Citizenship, pp. 34–36. See also Paul Bailey’s discussion of ‘modernising conservatism’ in Chinese female education, in Gender and Education in China: Gender Discourses and Women’s Schooling in the Early Twentieth Century, London: Routledge, 2007.

    [41] Kuncheng nüxiao sishiwu zhounian jiniankan (Kuen Cheng Girls’ School 45th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine), 1953, p. 73.

    [42] Interview with Tang Sujuan, Guangzhou, China, March 2006.

    [43] Interview with Li Yu, Guangzhou, China, March 2006. Both Republican and Communist supporters used the term 'progressive' to characterise the positive aspects of their political agendas.

    [44] Tan Liok Ee, ‘Chinese independent schools in West Malaysia: varying responses to changing demands,’ in Changing Identities of the Southeast Asian Chinese Since World War II, ed. Jennifer W. Cushman and Wang Gungwu, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1988, pp. 354–84.

    For more on how the Malayan Communist Party recruited from Chinese middle schools and women's groups, and on women's experiences as guerilla fighters for this party, see Mahani Musa, 'Women, jungle and motherhood,' in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 36 (September 2014), online:

    [45] Kuncheng nüzhong chuzhong diqijie biye tekan (Kuen Cheng Girls’ School Lower Secondary 7th Annual Graduation Special Commemorative Magazine), Kuala Lumpur: n.p., 1934, and Kuncheng nüxiao sishiwu zhounian jiniankan (Kuen Cheng Girls’ School 45th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine), 1953, especially a piece by Liang Jingfeng, ‘Mian benjie gaoshi biye tongxue de hua’ (Encouragement for Fellow Students in the Graduating Normal Class), p. 112.

    [46] Nanyang nüzi zhongxue xiaokan (Nanyang Girls’ High School Magazine), Singapore: n.p., 1935, pp. 41, 44.

    [47] The Modern Girl around the World Research Group, Alys Eve Weinbaum, Lynn M. Thomas, Priti Ramamurthy, Uta G. Poiger, Madeleine Yue Dong, Tani E. Barlow, ‘The modern girl as heuristic device: collaboration, connective comparison, multidirectional citation,’ in The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, ed. The Modern Girl around the World Research Group, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008, pp. 1–24, pp. 2–3.

    [48] The Modern Girl around the World Research Group, ‘The modern girl as heuristic device,’ pp. 4–5.

    [49] For more on the Modern Girl in the Straits Settlements, see Su Lin Lewis, ‘Cosmopolitanism and the modern girl: a cross-cultural discourse in 1930s Penang,’ in Modern Asian Studies, vol. 43, no. 6 (2009): 1385–419.

    [50] See Lau Wai Har, ‘Bridging the gap between the two worlds: the Chinese-educated and the English-educated,’ in Our Place in Time: Exploring Heritage and Memory in Singapore, ed. Kwok Kian Woon, Kwa Chong Guan, Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh, Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1999, pp. 199–207.

    [51] This discussion posits the two categories of ‘English-educated’ and ‘Chinese-educated’ as distinct and opposing in a number of ways, while being mindful of Chua Ai Lin’s argument that such an analytical structure can ‘only make sense as a comparative binary when referring to the Chinese community,’ and not necessarily when speaking of the larger Asian Anglophone sphere in British Malaya and Singapore. Chua Ai Lin, ‘Imperial subjects, Straits citizens: Anglophone Asians and the struggle for political rights in inter-war Singapore,’ in Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore, ed. Michael D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki, Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2008, pp. 16–36, p. 36.

    [52] Tan, ‘A century of change,’ pp. 125–26.

    [53] Interview with Chen Wei, Selangor, Malaysia, February 2006.

    [54] From a fairly representative student essay by Lin Yuezhen, ‘Xiandai nüzi yingyou de renshi’ (What a Modern Girl Should Know), Kuncheng nüzhong chuzhong diqijie biye tekan (Kuen Cheng Girls’ School Lower Secondary 7 th Annual Graduation Special Commemorative Magazine), 1934, p. 8.

    [55] Madeline Y. Dong, ‘Who is afraid of the Chinese modern girl?’ in The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, ed. The Modern Girl around the World Research Group, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008, pp. 194–219, p. 198.

    [56] Doran, ‘The Chinese cultural reform movement in Singapore,’ p. 102.

    [57] Frost, ‘Emporium in imperio,’ p. 36.

    [58] See Kho Ee Moi, ‘Construction of femininity: girls' education in Singapore, 1959–2000,’ Ph.D. Dissertation, National University of Singapore, 2004.

    [59] Judge, ‘Talent, virtue and the nation,’ pp. 765–66.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 2 May 2014 0740