Women Against the Flow

loading Chinese women working in a tin mine.

Chinese women in Penang – be they Straits-born or newly immigrated – fought for equality during an era dominated by men.

Women in colonial Malaya lived under unquestionable patriarchy – inequality was prevalent, and very few women were fortunate enough to make a difference in society, let alone the world.

To make ends meet, most worked in tin mines, rubber estates, oil palm plantations, and as domestic helpers, prostitutes or dancers at nightclubs.1 Gender roles limited these women to the household; society made it clear that there was no place for women in fields dominated by men, such as business, education and politics.

Ong Dong Shu.

Advocating Education

Colonial-era Penang was home to many a brilliant, entrepreneurial woman.

Chen Xiu Yi, a Hokkien born in Bukit Mertajam, for example, had married Zhang Ren Yuan in the late 1910s. Zhang had migrated from China to Deli then to Bukit Mertajam where he started a planting business.2 Chen assisted her husband in this endeavour and made a huge fortune. With the wealth, she donated heavily to the construction of Methodist churches and schools in Penang. In 1937, for instance, she contributed $2,000 to the erection of the Chinese Methodist Church at Madras Lane.3

Some women worked strongly for the education of girls. Women like Tan Say Seang single-handedly founded the Penang Girls’ School in 1913.4 She used part of her residence situated at Penang Road as classrooms5 and gave all her students (about 100 of them) full tuition waivers. Tan was the wife of a rich towkay, Lim Leng Cheak, who was involved in various businesses such as shipping, trading, farming, milling and planting.6

Lei Jin Lan was another who contributed towards education in the 1900s-1930s. She was celebrated for her speeches in schools and communities in Penang.7 Lei preached gender equality and for women to become financially independent, dedicating her time as a teacher in Mu Zhen Girls’ School at Jelutong. This dedication wore her out, causing her death.

Ong Dong Shu was the first principal of Phor Tay School High School. A native of Fujian Province, Ong was a pioneering female figure in Buddhism in Penang; she had taught in Makassar (Indonesia) and Yangon (Myanmar) – where she was active in the Chinese Buddhism Association under Master Ci Hang – before coming to Penang prior to the Second World War. She taught Chinese at the Fukien Girls’ School (now Penang Chinese Girls’ High School). She also set up a school providing free education to children deprived of education under Phor Tay School. With the help of philanthropist Aw Boon Haw, Phor Tay was rebuilt after the war with Ong as the first principal. She stepped down only in 1958 for health reasons.8

Tan Say Seang and family.

War-time Patriots

During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937- 1945); Chinese women in Malaya also played a prominent role. There were 18 women’s associations on the peninsula which were active in fundraising for the war, with at least four located in Penang. Realising that some women weren’t politically conscious because they could not read, the Penang Women Mutual Aid Association arranged classes for illiterate female labourers to teach them about current issues and the importance of defending one’s motherland.9

Popular ways of fundraising included selling handmade paper flowers, and organising musicals and funfairs in schools. Since the flowers were made for fundraising, they were pricey: a Grade A flower would cost 15 Yuan. Students from Chinese girls’ schools sold flowers to the public, but risked being seen as “wild” and leaving a bad impression while doing so.10 This did not stop them.

The Dancers’ Association had three aims: their members raised funds for the war, advocated and accelerated women’s emancipation, and improved the welfare of dancers. They sold flowers and organised musicals, raising 5,000-6,000 Straits dollars. Many of them even gave up portions – if not all – of their wages to the war. Sadly, these dancers could never free themselves from ostracism because no matter how much they contributed, in the eyes of society, they would always be inferior because of their “lowly” jobs; their heroism and selflessness were generally left unknown.11

Nancy Yeap (seated third from the right) together with members of the municipal council.

The Fight for Equality

Women were often negatively portrayed in the mass media. Take the Penang Sin Poe, Penang’s oldest Chinese newspaper, as example: whenever women were mentioned, it usually involved quarrels in brothels, murders or the occasional case of a mistress running away with someone’s husband.12 In Chinese biographical dictionaries like the Nanyang Mingren Jizhuan, which list influential personalities, only 0.82% are found to be female.

Women fought hard to have their voices heard; in the 1920s those who openly challenged society’s perception of women were intellectuals like Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang.13

Tan Say Seang.

One woman stood out: Nancy Yeap, granddaughter of millionaire banker Yeap Chor Ee. With a law degree from University College, London, she became the second woman lawyer in Penang14, eventually venturing into politics. Nancy was elected municipal councillor in Penang, representing the Radical Party in the Kelawei Ward, and she sat on the council from 1951 to 1954.15 She was only 25 when elected, young and ambitious. (Note that in 1951 there were two women candidates running for municipal councillor).

Nancy urged women to not vote according to their husbands’ wishes, even appealing to them to “come forward, exercise this right (suffrage) and show your appreciation of it”.16 Her strong will made her a pioneer and a role model. She could have chosen to live off her family’s riches but instead she became a social justice warrior and fought for the greater good.

All these women made a deep impact on their times and on their societies.

1 Fan Ruo Lan 范若兰, Immigration, Gender and Overseas Chinese Society: Studies on the Chinese Women in Malaya (1929-1941) 中国华侨出版, 2005, p.91, 174.
2 Nanyang Minren Jizhuan 南洋名人集传, volume 4, p.223.
3 Ibid, p. 223.
4 Ibid, volume 5, p.340; Teoh Shiaw Kuan, “槟榔 屿早期之华文女学Binglang Yu Zao Qi Zhi Hua Wen Nu Xue” in 槟榔屿旧闻Binglang Yu Jiu Wen (Malaixiya Jiaying Shu Hui Lian He Hui Cong Shu 马来西亚嘉应属会联合会丛书), pp.266-267.
5 The school was closed in 1915. Ibid p.266.
6 Wu Xiao An, “Lim Leng Cheak”, in Biographical dictionary of mercantile personalities of Penang, ed. Loh Wei Leng et al. (Penang,: Think City ; Kuala Lumpur: MBRS, 2013), p.120.
7 Ibid, volume 4, p. 13.
8 Phor Tay High School official website.
9 Fan Ruo Lan 范若兰, Immigration, Gender and Overseas Chinese Society: Studies on the Chinese Women in Malaya (1929-1941), p. 277.
10 Ibid, p. 313.
11 Ibid, p. 279.
12 Penang Sin Poe槟城新报, 11th of August 1900.
13 Fan Ruo Lan 范若兰, Immigration, Gender and Overseas Chinese Society: Studies on the Chinese Women in Malaya (1929-1941), pp. 258-259.
14 The Singapore Free Press, 8th September 1951, p. 5.
15 The Singapore Times, 3rd June 1955, p. 4.
16 Ibid, p. 5.

Nicole Phung Weng Kay is a proud feminist and was an intern in the History and Heritage Studies Department, Penang Institute.

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