Colonial Love Scandals: Crossracial Encounters and Inter-Asian Intimacies in British Malaya, 1890s–1930s

Friday, January 3, 2020: 1:50 PM
Gramercy (Sheraton New York)
Sandy F. Chang, University of Texas at Austin
Between the 1870s and 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese women and girls sailed across the South Seas, arriving on the shores of British Malaya. As the Chinese female population grew in the Peninsula, however, their encounters with Indian planters, European colonists, and in particular, indigenous Malays produced racial anxieties that frequently necessitated the intervention of the colonial state. This paper explores the history of these mixed-race intimacies as politically charged sites of racial knowledge production. Drawing on local petitions, legal cases, and letters penned by local religious authorities, it shows how intimate relations, particularly between Chinese women and Malay men, became an increasing source of alarm in the early-twentieth century. Such romantic, sexual, and marital unions galvanized heated debates about the jurisdictional claims over migrant women between the Chinese Protectorate, the Malay sultans, and the consular office of China. 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. 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.