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Chinese and Indian (Tamil) Women in the Colonial Reports

and secret societies, the British had a difficult time inhibiting their autonomy.76 One of the activities of the secret societies was the importation of women and children for purposes of prostitution. According to the reports, by 1921, the protectorate system in the FMS could not curtail the traffic in women and children coming from Siam into Kedah and from Singapore into Johor.77

Annual labour reports began to be compiled after the establishment of rubber plantations.78 Under the Labour Codes enacted in 1923 in the FMS, the Labour Department effectively controlled all labour employment and the Controller of Labour was responsible for keeping records in accordance with the codes. His position was to ensure that both employers and labourers followed the codes. The reports were mainly concerned with Indian labour as Indian workers serviced the rubber export industry, however, there were small sections relating to the Chinese in the UMS where there were no Chinese protectorates established. There were also small sections relating to Netherlands Indies labour and to Malay labour.79 The reports also included recent legislation regarding amendments to the labour laws and codes, as well as staff administration.80

76 There are numerous examples in the Chinese Secretariat reports where the Chinese resist colonial intervention. For further references see Purcell, The Chinese in Malaya. Blythe, The Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya.

77 Secretary to the Advisors' Office, "Correspondence to the High Commissioner's Office on the Subject of the Importation of Prostitutes into the Federated Malay States via Siam and Kedah."

78 For further information on the development of rubber in colonial Malaya see Drabble, Rubber in Malaya 1876 -1922. Colin Barlow, The Natural Rubber Industry: Its Development, Technology and Economy in Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1978).

79 As noted earlier, the Malay labour sector included the same paragraph year after year. Netherlands Indies labour was also compiled into a small paragraph but included more details on labour than the Malay section. For a report on Netherlands Indies labour including indentured contracts during the 1920s and 1930s see Colonial Office, "Coolie Labour in the Netherlands East Indies, Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlement," (London: 1930).

80 For examples see Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1916," (Kuala Lumpur: 1917); Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay States:

Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1919," (Kuala Lumpur: 1920); Controller of Labour,

"Federated Malay States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1923," (Kuala Lumpur:

1924); Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1925," (Kuala Lumpur: 1926); Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1927."; Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1928," (Kuala Lumpur: 1929); Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay

In both the Labour and the Chinese Secretariat Reports, there was very little representation of women workers. The Labour reports were mainly concerned with Indian women’s status as secondary workers and the health of Indian mothers and children. Most of the references to women in the Chinese Secretariat (Protectorate) Reports were references to prostitutes, domestic workers, motherhood and pregnancy.

The welfare of women and children was especially significant in both the Labour Reports and the Chinese Secretariat Reports but for different reasons. In the Labour Reports

‘welfare’ was mainly associated with the health of the workers and the reproduction of the plantation workforce, whereas references to the welfare of women and children in the Chinese Secretariat Reports were for the most part related to the protection and the control of the Chinese community, especially the ‘unprotected’ women and children. As one Protector emphasised, ‘quite apart from labour protection there is all the work connected with the protection of women and girls and the control of bad characters.’81

Women and the Chinese Secretariat Reports

According to the Chinese Secretariat Reports, the Chinese male labour force made up the bulk of workers in the tin mining industry. Women’s work in the mining industry and on the gambier and pepper estates was not represented in the same way as men’s work.

There was an almost complete separation between workers (who were assumed to be male workers even though many women were employed) and women. Until the 1930s, the first part of the reports covered labour contracts, trade guilds, boarding houses, Lock Hospitals (for patients with infectious diseases), lists of workers admitted to the General

States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1932," (Kuala Lumpur: 1933); Deputy Controller of Labour, "Annual Report on Chinese Labour in Selangor and Pahang for the Year 1934,"

(Kuala Lumpur: 1935); Hose E (Acting) Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1914," (Kuala Lumpur: 1915); H T W. Oswell, "Notes by the Controller of Labour, Johore. Work and Wages," (Johore: 1927); Stark W J K (Acting) Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1930," (Kuala Lumpur: 1931).

81 Secretary to the Advisors' Office, "Correspondence to the High Commissioner's Office on the Subject of the Importation of Prostitutes into the Federated Malay States via Siam and Kedah."

and the Lock Hospitals, and the cost of operating the hospitals, against the revenue collected from taxes.82 The next section provided lists of the registered Chinese societies, the names of the secret societies outlawed, and the names of individuals expelled from the colony. This was followed by the names of Chinese men who leased the opium and gambling houses and the revenue collected from these outlets.83 The labour section was largely concerned with male workers, Chinese businessmen and secret societies.

Whenever women were mentioned in this part of the reports it was usually in connection with women’s victimisation in the context of secret societies. This is illustrated in the following excerpt:

The Wa Kee Society − popularly known as the Broken Coffin Society – controls the traffic in women and girls for immoral purposes and as such is a serious menace to the community, it has its branches in every little out of the way place in the Peninsula and its agents are extremely astute in disposing of women over whom they obtain almost inexplicable control.84

In this component of the reports the only women mentioned are dulang panners who worked outside the mine and they were referred to only in relation to the sexual division of labour, whereby men worked underground and women worked outside the mine in the low-paid-unskilled section of the tin mining industry. The section, ‘The Protection of Women and Girls’, was largely related to documenting issues connected with the surveillance of women in respect to their exploitation by the secret societies.

Chinese Women and Tin Mining

Before the British companies introduced new mining machinery, women miners did all kinds of labouring. According to Lai, they worked in the processing sheds, shovelled tin ore and pushed rail cars. While these women were rarely mentioned in the reports, there

82 Patients suffering with infectious diseases, such as venereal disease, were admitted to Lock Hospitals.

83 Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Protectorate, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan for the Year 1912," (Kuala Lumpur: Chinese Secretariat, 1913), 4.

84 Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Protectorate, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan for the Year 1907," (Kuala Lumpur: Chinese Secretariat, 1908).

are photographs in an early mining report showing Chinese women working as both dulang panners and labourers.85 This was largely because the Chinese system of alluvial tin mining required very little technology and the work was not strictly divided into male and female domains. At that time, most tin mining involved working on the surface. After the introduction of British mine dredging equipment, most of the mining was done underground with machinery. In this system, the mine owner employed limited numbers of skilled workers and divided mining work into men and women’s work. This coincided with the introduction of new labour laws, which prohibited women miners from working underground or using machinery.86 The sexual division of labour became more pronounced and representations of women as dulang panners increased.87 Dulang passes were first issued by the government in 1907, and by 1910 it became apparent that the government was keen to establish a sexual division of labour by giving the passes to women and not men. Ridges, the Protector of Chinese, reported that: ‘the government in giving the weaker sex preference over the male sex with dulang passes has made no mistake’.88 After this, dulang panning was represented in increasingly feminised ways.

Ridges noted: ‘there is no more pleasing sight in the Federated Malay States than to see a Chinese woman washing for tin ore in a stream waist deep in water with a small child strapped to her back’.89

According to the majority of reports, Chinese women were more concentrated in the tin mining industry than other ethnic groups, although an occasional report referred to other ethnic groups. According to one report on new mining techniques introduced by the British:

When the mine was visited in July 1898, the plan of working was as [sic] followed.

During the night, the jet (a two inch one) was used in cutting down the earth, which

85 Wray Jun, "Some Account of the Tin Mines and the Mining Industries of Perak."

86 New labour laws were introduced under the Labour Enactment, 1904, no 2 (Chinese Mining). Wong Lin Ken, The Malayan Tin Industry to 1914, 183-4.

87 Ingham J (Acting) Secretary for Chinese Affairs, "Annual Report of the Secretary for Chinese Affairs, Straits Settlement, for the Year 1924," (Singapore: Chinese Affairs, 1925).

88 British Malaya Colonial Office, Government Gazette (Kuala Lumpur: Colonial Office, 1910).

89 Ibid.

was from nine to six feet in depth. Twelve Chinamen were employed at this night work. The gravel and earth was partly washed into the rock cut and the rest is left to be dealt with in daytime. In the morning a gang of forty Malay and Kling women go into the rock cut with ‘dulangs’ and scoop up the sand and earth in it, washing it off in the stream itself this goes on for eight hours on ordinary days and for twelve hours occasionally. For this eight hours’ work the women are paid 40 cents, and for twelve hours 60 cents.90

It appears that Malay and Indian women worked in the British tin mines because the British employed whichever workers they could find to work the Europeans’ mines since, in general, Chinese women workers preferred to work in Chinese-operated mines.91

Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, Chinese women continued to be represented as low-paid dulang panners only. As one colonial officer noted in 1943, ‘dulang washers are a fairly common sight in Malaya, the work is done by Chinese women, usually Hakkas, the women are bent over for hours in the heat of the sun, often immersed to the knees in water’.92 The recording of women’s work in the Chinese Secretariat Reports only focused on highlighting the sexual division of labour. Women who worked outside dulang panning in small open-cut mines under Chinese control were ignored. Yet up until the 1920s, these same Chinese mines produced the largest amount of tin for export.93

Mui Tsai Domestic Service Becomes Problematic

Domestic work was also invisible in the Chinese Secretariat Reports. The demand for domestic workers to service middle-class Chinese families, the brothels and boarding houses was largely met through the mui tsai (adopted daughter) system. Under it, young girls were brought from the poorer areas of China to Malaya. Most were sold by their

90 Wray Jun, "Some Account of the Tin Mines and the Mining Industries of Perak," 83.

91 Lai Ah Eng, Peasants, Proletarians and Prostitutes (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986).

92 J Orde Browne, Labour Conditions in Ceylon, Mauritius, and Malaya, 1942, 111.

93 Jomo K S, A Question of Class: Capital, the State, and Uneven Development in Malaya.

parents and adopted by wealthy Chinese families to work as domestic help.94 According to the Chinese Protector, there were estimated to be between 7,000 and 10,000 girls working as mui tsai in 1922 in Singapore and there were several thousand more in the FMS. In the same year it was estimated that between sixty to seventy girls per month were arriving in the colony to work as mui tsai.95 As Lai has noted, the numbers of mui tsai grew due to the numbers of Chinese settling permanently in Malaya and the increase in the numbers of Chinese families as opposed to single Chinese male workers.96 Young girls were also brought into Malaya as concubines for wealthy men. Keed pointed out that both her (wealthy) grandfathers were in their early forties when they returned to China and married fourteen and fifteen year olds.97

Even though systems of surveillance were put in place to control under-age girls entering the colony to work as prostitutes, child domestic servants went unnoticed in the reports unless specific cases of child abuse were brought to the Controller’s attention. There were intermittent references in the Chinese Secretariat Reports when ‘several cases of the ill-treatment of slave girls (nominally servants) were dealt with and measures taken for the protection of the children’.98Unlike prostitution, the government showed no real interest in passing laws to protect these children until later in the colonial period. The exploitative conditions of the mui tsai were of little concern to the colonial government until Christian groups put pressure on the government to take action.99 However it was not until the European White Slave Act was put in place to regulate and control the employment of

94 W W Wood Report, Mui Tsai in Hong Kong and Malaya, Report of Commission, Colonial Office, 125, London: HMSO, 1937 as cited in Lai Ah Eng, Peasants, Proletarians and Prostitutes, 49.

95 These figures are quoted in Ibid., 46.

96 Ibid.

97 Wong Moh Keed, ed., My Heart with Smiles: The Love Letters of Siew Fung Fong and Wan Kwai Pik (1920-1941) (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1988). For further reference to Chinese concubinage in Southeast Asia during this period see Sue Gronewold, Beautiful Merchandise (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1985). Maria Jaschok, Concubines and Bondservants: The Social History of a Chinese Custom (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1988).

98 For example see Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Protectorate, Selangor for the Year 1924," (Kuala Lumpur: Chinese Protectorate, 1925); Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Secretariat, Selangor for the Year 1925," (Kuala Lumpur: Chinese Protectorate, 1926).

99 Lai Ah Eng, Peasants, Proletarians and Prostitutes, 49.

female domestic servants in 1921 that the government changed its attitude towards the mui tsai. By the mid-1920s, the Domestic Servants Bill was passed to deal with the ill treatment of young servants.100 Under this legislation a minimum age for children to start work was set and anyone found with a child under the age of ten performing domestic work was liable to a fine.101 According to Lai, the fines were ineffective because it was impossible to prove the age or the circumstances of the acquisition of the mui tsai.102 Further, the system was difficult to police as the girls were isolated in households.

Nevertheless, the Chinese Protector removed under-age children from brothels as well as from the homes of the Chinese middle classes whenever cases of abuse were found.103 However this form of child labour was rarely viewed as labour in the same manner as plantation or mining labour because the children were not paid wages. The rules and regulations set out under the White Slave Act were largely in relation to the protection of women and girls against ill treatment and slavery rather than the protection of exploited workers. According to the Chinese Protectorate, the inspection of women and girls was not directed against the mui tsai system.104

The section on the Federal Home (a refuge for women and girls rescued or abandoned), which came under the ‘Protection of Women and Girls’ in all the Chinese Secretariat Reports between the years 1898 to 1935, lists the numbers of girls admitted and their discharge dates.105 Special note was also made of those adopted and those who married

100 Federated Malay States Chief Secretary, "Enactment to Amend the Women and Girls Protection Enactment 1924," (Kuala Lumpur: Secretariat Selangor, 1925).

101 Ibid.

102 Lai Ah Eng, Peasants, Proletarians and Prostitutes, 50-1.

103 For examples see Jordan A B Protector of Chinese Selangor and Pahang, "Annual Report of the Chinese Protectorate, Selangor for the Year 1932," (Kuala Lumpur: Chinese Protectorate, 1933); Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Protectorate, Selangor for the Year 1924."; Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Secretariat, Selangor for the Year 1925."; Protector of Chinese,

"Annual Report on the Chinese Protectorate, Selangor for the Year 1933," (Kuala Lumpur: Chinese Protectorate, 1934); Sykes. G P Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Protectorate, Selangor for the Year 1934," (Kuala Lumpur: Chinese Protectorate, 1935).

104 "Labour Conditions in British Malaya," 53.

105 The Protection of Women and Girls Enactment was legislated in 1902. Amended in 1914 and again in 1926. Secretary to the Resident General, "Letter to Office of Secretary for Chinese Affairs with Copy of a Memorandum by the State Surgeon on the Subject of the Medical Inspection of Brothels:," (Selangor:

during the year. The numbers of young Chinese girls rescued from unscrupulous employers were also listed.106 This was particularly the case when the offences were committed under the leadership of the Chinese secret societies.107 In some reports, the section related to secret societies, brothels, prostitutes, and the rescue of underage girls was larger than the labour sections. This is an indication of the scope of the British government’s attempts at surveillance and control over the Chinese secret societies who were responsible for the importation of women and girls. While the policing of those societies and the rescue of abused children was important from the girl’s perspective, it was not so much the concern for the children or the children’s working conditions that prompted the colonial government to act. If they were concerned solely with the mui tsai’s predicament, the government would have outlawed the buying of children to work as domestic servants earlier than they did. In summary, the sections that related to women and girls in the reports were not concerned with labour or focusing on the working conditions of children, but were about containing the secret societies. As one colonial officer stressed, the government had to find ways to stop the secret societies from lucrative pursuits such as selling children.108

Indian Women: Workers, Wives and Mothers

Indian (Tamil) migrant workers were discussed in more detail in the Labour Reports than the Chinese migrant workers in the Chinese Secretariat Reports because the Indian workforce was employed as indentured labour until well after Chinese indentured labour

1902). Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Secretariat, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan for the Year 1915," (Kuala Lumpur: Chinese Secretariat, 1916); Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Secretariat, Selangor for the Year 1925."

106 In the appendix of these reports there was a page titled Return D Admissions to and Discharges from the Federal Home Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Protectorate, Selangor for the Year 1934."

107 Protector of Chinese, "Annual Report on the Chinese Protectorate, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan for the Year 1912," 4-5.

108 See Commissioner of Police, "Correspondence to the Secretary to the Resident of Selangor from the Commissioner of Police, Federated Malay States," (1931). Blythe, The Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya.

was outlawed in 1914. The British colonials in Malaya, together with the Indian government, guided the immigration of Indian labour for the largely European-owned plantations. In addition, the colonial administrators, learning from the difficulties experienced with Chinese labour, were more concentrated in their efforts to keep Indian labour under control. They were not allowed to purchase land and were confined to the plantations, and like Malays, they were also confined to their specified areas of work.109 Although the Labour Codes enacted in 1923, were put in place to protect labourers as well as employers, employers benefited most because labourers under contract were not allowed to leave the plantation without the permission of the Controller of Labour, were not allowed time off (outside their days off) unless they were ill, and were severely punished for desertion. They could also be fined for misconduct which included minor misdemeanours such as ‘insolence’ or taking more food than was allowed under their rations.110

The colonial government classed Indian labour as the most important source of labour because it serviced the expanding rubber industry, the government’s public works and railway construction. The processes of recruitment and settlement of Indian labour can be divided into two phases. From 1840 to 1910, indentured labourers contracted through government agents came to Malaya on one-to three-year contracts to work on the sugar and coffee plantations in Butterworth (Penang). From 1910 to 1938, the major form of recruitment changed to the Kangany system.111 Both were forms of assisted migration and both were forms of ‘unfree’ labour (although, according to the reports, legally workers were at liberty to leave their employment at any time after giving one month’s notice).112 Alongside this migration there was also free migration, which mostly consisted

109 In the early years Indian labourers were on contract and were not allowed to purchase land. In the later years, the government introduced laws that disabled Malays from selling their lands to non-Malays. See Nonini, British Colonial Rule and the Resistance of the Malay Peasantry, 1900-1957.

110 "Labour Conditions in British Malaya."

111 Ravindra Jain, "South Indian Labour in Malaya, 1840-1920: Asylum, Stability and Involution," in Indentured Labour in the British Empire 1834-1920, ed. Kay Saunders (Manuka: Croon Helm, 1984).

112 Hose E (Acting) Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1914," 3.