Sandy F. Chang
- Assistant Professor
- University of Florida
Across the South Seas: Gender, Intimacy, and Chinese Migrants in British Malaya, 1870s-1930s
“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.
Across the South Seas: Gender, Intimacy, and Chinese Migration to British Malaya, 1877-1940
Between the 1850s and 1930s, nineteen million people from coastal China journeyed across the South Seas, onboard junks and steamships, to Southeast Asia. This exodus, unprecedented in Chinese history, was part of the first wave of “Asia’s mobility revolution.” As the story is usually told, migration was a predominantly masculine enterprise. However, contrary to popular and scholarly assumptions, over one million women and girls travelled from China to British Malaya for marriage, domestic labor, and sex work during this era. Their stories, rendered legible in fragments across disparate archives, point to the limits and possibilities of a radical reimagination of the global history of Chinese migration. Across the South Seas undertakes this project of excavation and re-telling, chronicling Chinese women’s border-crossing journeys to colonial Malaya through the lens of gender, intimacy, and migration governance. It argues that Chinese women’s inter-Asian mobility was deeply consequential: it laid the foundations of early border control practices and left an indelible mark on Malaya’s social landscape. These women’s movement across maritime, national, and colonial borders transformed traditional households, intimate relations, and labor practices – and most crucially, redefined the boundaries around “Chinese-ness” as a racial, cultural, and national category.