Across the South Seas: Gender, Intimacy, and Chinese Migrants in British Malaya, 1870s-1930s


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




“Across the South Seas” explores the migration of Chinese women who embarked on border-crossing journeys, arriving in British Malaya as wives, domestic servants, and prostitutes. Between the 1870s and 1930s, hundreds of thousands of women traveled to the Peninsula at a time when modern migration control first emerged as a system of racial exclusion, curtailing Asian mobility into white settler colonies and nation-states. In colonial Malaya, however, Chinese women encountered a different set of racial, gender, and sexual politics at the border and beyond. Based on facilitation rather than exclusion, colonial immigration policies selectively encouraged Chinese female settlement across the Peninsula. Weaving together histories of colonial sexual economy, Chinese migration, and the globalization of border control, this study foregrounds the role of itinerant women during Asia’s mobility revolution. It argues that Chinese women’s intimate labor ultimately served as a crucial linchpin that sustained the Chinese overseas community in colonial Southeast Asia.