Migrant Women and the Chinese Protectorate: Gender, Labor, and the Politics of Border Control in British Malaya, 1877–1939

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM
Columbia 5 (Washington Hilton)
Sandy Chang, University of Texas at Austin
Between 1880 and 1940, more than a million Chinese female migrants sailed across the South China Sea and arrived on the shores of British Malaya. They travelled as wives, domestic servants, and sex workers despite multiple legal barriers tightly controlling Asian labor mobility into the British Empire. This paper explores the historical relationship between the intensification of female inter-Asian mobility and the emergence of modern migration control. Recent literature has examined colonial port cities as nodes of mobility, commerce, and communication, emphasizing its cosmopolitanism and interconnectedness. These ports, however, were also emergent sites of experimentation in border control. Chinese female migrants were screened and vetted on the basis of their race, class, sexuality, and the types of labor they performed in relation to the heteronormative household. Drawing on Chinese Protectorate and colonial law records, oral interviews, government proceedings, and League of Nations documents, this paper attends to colonial anxieties surrounding labor and bodies, borders and citizenship during the era of the “Asian mobility revolution.” It argues that colonial projects aimed at selectively encouraging the migration and settlement of Chinese women and children were tied to broader concerns regarding political economy, labor stability, sex trafficking, and imperial citizenship.

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