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The Straits Chinese Between Empires

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Christian Jones

4. Reform and Revolution among the Straits Chinese

Texte intégral

  • 1 Rebecca Karl, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Durham: (...)
  • 2 Reforming Babas,” Straits Times, January 27, 1898.
  • 3 Tzu-hui Celina Hung, ““There Are No Chinamen in Singapore”: Creolization and Self-Fashioning of the (...)
  • 4 This is Philip Kuhn’s preferred metaphor, Kuhn, Chinese Among Others, 168-9.

1In the process of marking themselves out as a distinctive community within the colony, the Straits Chinese saw a way forward that combined ideas drawn from the West as well as preserving and reinventing aspects of their Chinese heritage that had been in decline. Like the reformers in China, the Straits Chinese made use of a ‘staging of the world’, inspired by events such as the Sino-Japanese war, the Spanish-American War and the South African War.1 One reformer gave the programme the following description: ‘(1) patriotism, (2) love of freedom, (3) desire for progress, (4) love for the Chinese people.’2 This was a ‘discursive process’ of identity making and remaking in relation to the three worlds they belonged to.3 In combination with their worries about racial inferiority, their experience of the colour bar, their growing identification with the rest of the diaspora, and the stirrings of dramatic change in China, the Straits Chinese began their own reform movement that sought to improve the well-being of the community on many fronts, modernising it while also reconnecting with their Chinese roots, opening new ‘corridors’ to China after several generations of more independent development in the Nanyang, while also drawing on their own history of encounter with the West.4 Through this movement, the Straits Chinese sought out a leading role in Chinese affairs more broadly while never fully divorcing themselves from the British Empire. This coincided with the growing movements for reform and revolution in China which interacted with and drew on the Babas’ own experiences. Thus, the reform movement in the Straits became intertwined with the transformation of China in the first decades of the twentieth century, generating cosmopolitan ideas but tempering them with the growth of the state and its affixation to nation. This in turn meant that the Straits Chinese were never fully accepted back into the Chinese fold.

4.1 Reform and Revolution in China and the Straits

  • 5 Zhongping Chen, “Kang Youwei’s Activities in Canada and the Reformist Movement Among the Global Chi (...)
  • 6 Jane Leung Larson, “Articulating China’s First Mass Movement: Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, the Baohua (...)
  • 7 Ibid., 9.
  • 8 Sun Yat-sen, San Min Chu I, 7.
  • 9 Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia (Lond (...)

2 One problem with the literature on the reform movement in China has been its constriction by methodological nationalism, meaning its global dimensions are rarely mentioned. And yet, the leading reformers, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, spent a significant amount of time abroad. Not only did their ideas often derive from these experiences, but they also played an active role in shaping the politics of overseas communities. In Canada, for example, which Kang Youwei visited after he was rejected from entering the US on racial grounds, he won over the local Chinese to the cause of reform, politicising the community and tying it in to events in China far more closely than before.5 With the establishment of Protect the Emperor Societies wherever he went, eventually amounting to over 70,000 members, the overseas Chinese consequently became united on transnational political grounds, being drawn back to the politics of the mainland. The 1905 Boycott, which received support from both Kang and Liang, was organised through the Protect the Emperor Society in various parts of the globe.6 In what would become a common theme, Liang spoke out against the idea that the ‘Chinese are just like loose sand who cannot easily be gathered together.’7 Sun Yat-sen made this sand metaphor famous in his argument for the first principle of the people, minzu.8 Liang, like Sun, saw the 1905 boycott as a sign that the diaspora, no matter where they were born, had a shared connection to China which could be mobilised in favour of reform. He himself had benefited from time abroad and like many other leaders at the time, was generating a political thought that was deeply affected by changing international conditions.9 In this sense, the reform movement cannot be understood separately from the Chinese diaspora.

  • 10 Immanuel C. Y. Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 2nd ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 5 (...)
  • 11 Harold Z. Schiffrin, “The Enigma of Sun Yat-sen,” in China in Revolution, ed. Mary Clabaugh Wright (...)
  • 12 Mary Clabaugh Wright, “Introduction,” in China in Revolution, 37.
  • 13 Joseph W. Esherick, “Making Revolution in Twentieth-Century China,” in A Critical Introduction to M (...)
  • 14 The origins and applicability of the phrase are, however, disputed. See, Jianli Huang, “Umbilical T (...)

3 Sun Yat-sen was similarly of an international background which shaped not only the revolutions he carried out before success in 1911, but also informed his political ideas more generally. In 1879, Sun went to Honolulu with his mother where he entered Anglican missionary school and eventually graduated from Oahu college.10 Afterwards he went to the Government Central School in Hong Kong and became a doctor in the colony, also converting to Christianity despite his brother’s wishes. This would suggest a certain degree of similarity with the Straits Chinese who were raised in close proximity to British ideas and institutions and indeed Sun had many Western friends, some of whom even aided in him in the revolution.11 After a failed uprising in 1895 led by his own Revive China Society, Sun would spend most of the subsequent years up to 1911 travelling the world in exile, meeting with other Asians also pursuing nationalist objectives. This and other organisations were ‘essentially Overseas Chinese organisations’ and gave the diaspora a role in crafting the revolution that would eventually overthrow the Qing.12 Building on the ‘loose sand’ metaphor, Sun said, ‘If we are to resist foreign oppression in the future, we must overcome individual freedom and join together as a firm unit, just as one adds water and cement to loose gravel to produce something as solid as rock.’13 It was thanks to their contributions to the movement that Sun labelled the overseas Chinese as the ‘Mother of the Revolution’.14

  • 15 Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 445-6. See also, Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 3r (...)
  • 16 Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 450.
  • 17 Ibid., 453.

4The creation of a Chinese nation-state in 1911 should not be seen as the eclipse of cosmopolitanism and deterritorialism in China history. The political thought of Kang Youwei in particular contained traces of cosmopolitanism that are relevant to this study and which were born out of changing global conditions and his own encounter with the diaspora. Most significant was his reformulation of the Confucian idea of da tong (大同) or Great Unity (alternatively translated as Universal Commonwealth). Rather than simply reviving an ancient idea, Kang’s reformulated da tong as part of a stadial vision of history in which it represented an ideal future utopia where there would be no nations, only locally elected central and regional governments organised in a quasi-federal fashion.15 This idea informed Kang’s advice to the Guangxu Emperor in the Hundred Days Reform. Kang explained to him, ‘The present is a time in which countries exist side by side; the world is no longer a unified one. The laws and governmental system [as they now exist in China] are institutions of a unified empire. It is these that have made China weak and will ruin her.’16 In other words, the political institutions of China were still designed for a world resembling da tong, not the contemporary world of nation-states in which China appeared as an anachronism. China no longer existed as a ‘world in herself’, and so could not govern in a cosmopolitan imperial fashion, it had to adopt the trappings of a nation-state before it could once again achieve da tong.17

  • 18 Sun Yat-sen, San Min Chu I, 44.
  • 19 Ibid., 64.
  • 20 Quoted in Cheah, “Introduction Part II: The Cosmopolitical—Today,” 25.
  • 21 Translated by the author, 三民主義吾黨所宗以建民國以進大同. The common translation of da tong in the anthem to “ (...)
  • 22 See, Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, 14.
  • 23 Ibid., 49.
  • 24 See, Yen Ching-Hwang, “The Confucian Revival Movement in Singapore and Malaya, 1899-1911,” Journal (...)

5 Despite their differences, Sun Yat-sen appeared to adopt a similar line of thinking regarding cosmopolitanism and the Chinese Empire as a universal state. Sun saw cosmopolitanism in opposition to nationalism, one of his three principles of the people. Comparing cosmopolitanism to a world-state much like in Kang’s idea of da tong, Sun believed that ancient China had functioned as a cosmopolitan world-state under the umbrella of tianxia or ‘all under heaven’. In simple terms, this form of Chinese cosmopolitanism made ‘no distinction between barbarian and huaxia’, () a term referring to the Chinese people.18 It was due to this lack of distinction that the Chinese state was susceptible to imperialism since foreign barbarians were readily absorbed into the body politic. However, this did not mean Sun rejected cosmopolitanism. Rather, like Kang, Sun argued that China should first work through nationalism to regain its sovereignty and then once again take up the mantle of cosmopolitanism to create da tong.19 Here there are shades of Giuseppe Mazzini who argued that ‘in labouring according to the true principle for our Country we are labouring for Humanity; our Country is the fulcrum of the lever which we have to wield for the common good.’20 In this conception, nationalism and cosmopolitanism were not so much mutually exclusive as successive stages of development. Indeed, this is how the term da tong appears in the National Anthem written by Sun Yat-sen, ‘Three Principles of the People, from this our aim shall be to establish a Republic, and advance into a state of da tong.21 From this we can better understand his commitment both to Chinese nationalism and anti-imperialist internationalism.22 As he remarked: ‘when Might is overthrown and the selfishly ambitious have disappeared, then we may talk about cosmopolitanism.’23 Rejecting a world of imperialist empires of the Western fashion and seeing nation-states as a temporary solution, Sun Yat-sen embraced a forward-looking cosmopolitanism even as he advanced nationalism on the ground. Thus, Sun and Kang both crafted an alternative vision of world order that defined empire in very different terms to the racial ones being used to circumscribe citizenship in the British Empire or to the internationalism represented by the League of Nations in which the world was still divided into separate nation-states. This more closely matched up with the cosmopolitan expectations of the Straits Chinese than the nationalisms that would come to dominate in the 1920s and 30s and which through Kang in particular, influenced Lim’s own ideas about Confucianism.24

‘Forget not your old country’

  • 25 Jean Elizabeth DeBernardi, Penang: Rites of Belonging in a Malaysian Chinese Community (Singapore: (...)

6 What is more important in this study is how the Straits Chinese interacted with the growing push for dramatic change in China, whether this be of a reformist or revolutionary variety. When visiting Penang around 1900, Kang Youwei is said to have inscribed the words ‘Forget not your old country’ on a boulder at the Kek Lok Si temple.25 While the Straits Chinese had never forgotten their Chinese roots, the turn of the century signalled a significant shift in their relationship to China. Not only did the Qing, reformers, and revolutionaries all court the overseas Chinese, the Straits Chinese also found themselves identified with ethnic Chinese whether they liked it or not. With their potential for advancement within the British Empire limited by racial restrictions, the Straits Chinese took an important role in the nascent nationalist movements in China, self-consciously adopting the label Chinese but tempering it with their different background and the benefits this supposedly involved.

  • 26 Lim Boon Keng, “The Queue Question,” 23.
  • 27 Ibid., 25.
  • 28 Lim Boon Keng, “The Role of the Babas in the Development of China,” Straits Chinese Magazine, Septe (...)

7Their role as leaders derived from their unique background compared to other Chinese. In one of his first articles on reform, Lim said that subjects of the Qing in China proper must first overthrow their oppressors before they could hope to achieve real reform and so addressed his concerns to the ‘free men’ of the Straits instead.26 To prove themselves worthy of the rights that this freedom came with, Lim argued that the Straits Chinese had to alter their culture and break free from the conservatism of their forefathers. At the same time, he rejected the proposition that ‘we wish to renounce our race’, as ‘a Chinese always remains a Chinese however he may dress and wherever he may live.’27 Lim believed that their unchangeable physical features should not prevent a thoroughgoing reform within the community that drew on this difference. If the Straits Chinese wanted to contribute to the ‘awakening’ of China or maintain their privileged position in the colony, they had to first reform themselves. From this, the Straits Chinese could adopt a vanguard position in the reform movement of China as well. As Lim said in an article on the role of the Babas in the development of China, ‘when the Straits-born Chinese with proper qualifications arrives in China he finds that he is the sort of individual destined by nature to reconcile the great Chinese Nation to the ways of the great world beyond China.’28 Recognised in China as almost equals (and this distinction would be important), they could enact the changes China required to advance. Lim finished his piece with the remarks, ‘while every son of man is trying to get whatever good is to be got, why should you Straits Chinese remain contented at home? Why should you not go forth and take your fair share of the heritage that belongs to the sons of Han?’ With opportunities limited in the British Empire and potentially endless in a transforming China, even the most staunchly anglophile of the Straits Chinese were racially bound, from within and without, to the nascent Chinese nation.

  • 29 Chan, “The Case for Diaspora,” 112.
  • 30 This branch only lasted until 1914 due to splits in the movement. Yong and McKenna, The Kuomintang (...)
  • 31 Ong Soon Keong, “Rebuilding Corridor, Preserving Prestige: Lim Boon Keng and Overseas Chinese-China (...)
  • 32 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 511.
  • 33 Wu was married to a daughter of Wong Nai Siong, one of the leaders of the revolutionary movement, a (...)
  • 34 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 101.
  • 35 Ibid., 33-4, 473.
  • 36 Wang Gungwu, “Sun Yat-sen and Singapore,” Journal of the South Seas Society 15, no. 2 (1959): 55-68
  • 37 Singapore Free Press, December 13, 1911, “The Straits-born Chinese,” Straits Times, February 5, 191 (...)
  • 38 Gungwu, “Sun Yat-sen and Singapore,” 68.

8 Following Lim’s call to action and their own interest in the winds of change blowing in China, many Straits Chinese became engaged in the reformist and revolutionary movements, some more directly than others. For example, Lim Boon Keng briefly served as personal secretary to Sun Yat-sen and worked on the new Republic’s Board of Health.29 When the Guomindang was officially registered in Singapore in December 1912, the British counted 16 out of 123 office holders as British subjects, including Lim Boon Keng as one of the presidents.30 He would then, at significant personal risk, leave Singapore behind and work at the new Amoy University founded by Tan Kah Kee from 1921.31 Kung Tian Cheng, who was born and raised in the Straits and India and worked in the colonial administration, moved to China in 1910, becoming an editor of a republican newspaper and then working directly for Yuan Shi Kai.32 Wu Lien-the, one of those cited by MacCallum Scott as an exemplary British subject, joined the Medical College under Yuan Shikai in 1908 and went on to lead in several Chinese public health functions.33 Khoo Teck Him (also known as Khoo Seok Wan) entertained both Kang and Sun during their time in Singapore and liaised with Babas to garner their support.34 When Sun visited Singapore again in December 1911 en route to China, more local Chinese met him including Tan Boo Liat, part of the Straits contingent to the coronation of Edward VII, and Teo Eng Hock, the son of one of the first Chinese born in the new colony of Singapore in 1833.35 Teo was also one of the founding members of the Singapore branch of the Tongmenghui in 1906, Sun Yat-sen’s political organisation that grew out of his previous societies.36 Through this institution, money, supplies and even volunteers were gathered to support several uprisings including the successful one in 1911. While much of this support came from China-born Chinese, the Straits-born were clearly active members of the movement. Many offered more passive contributions such as donating money and other behind-the-scenes support but were perhaps less brazen than their China-born comrades as subjects of a government which nominally propped up the Qing.37 Wang Gungwu concludes that Sun’s travels and the support he garnered for the revolutionary movement in the Nanyang had the effect of offsetting any ‘babaisation’ that may have occurred among the immigrant Chinese, however, I would argue that this process had already begun with Qing overtures to wealthy overseas Chinese and the racial problems facing all Chinese in the colonies.38 Either way, Straits Chinese support for the reformers and revolutionaries represented a decisive shift towards China and one that was further legitimated by the success of the revolution in 1911.

4.2 World War I and its Aftermath

  • 39 Frost, “In Search of Cosmopolitan Discourse,” 79-80.

9 While their contributions to the reformist and revolutionary movements in China were important, we should not read this as also a shift away from Britain. Indeed, even though many leading Straits Chinese joined the revolutionary movement and even relocated to China, they still retained their British affiliation, difference in perspective, and subject status. This is especially obvious if we look at their role in supporting the British war effort. In their support we see the Babas’ constant assertion of their identification as both Chinese and British subjects. Consequently, we should not take their shift to China as a capitulation in the cause of imperial citizenship. Rather, the First World War offered the Straits Chinese, and many other colonial subjects across the world, an opportunity to prove their worth as equals deserving of the same rights and privileges in the Empire. Indeed, Lim Boon Keng and others continued to make overtures towards Imperial Federation simultaneously with their support for the new Republic in China, fusing da tong with empire.39 However, by asserting their continued loyalty to the British Empire alongside their sanguine attachment to the Chinese Republic, the Straits Chinese were holding on to an increasingly tenuous position.

  • 40 For example, “Belgium Relief Fund,” Malaya Tribune, October 31, 1914, “Prince of Wales Relief Fund, (...)
  • 41 “Malacca Canton Relief Fund,” Malaya Tribune, August 2, 1915, “Y.M.C.A. Special Building Fund,” Str (...)
  • 42 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 519, 542.
  • 43 See, Yu-Lin Ooi, “Philanthropy in Transition: An Exploratory Study of Asian Women and Philanthropy (...)
  • 44 For example, Jeffrey B. Miller, Yanks behind the Lines: How the Commission for Relief in Belgium Sa (...)

10 When the First World War broke out, the Straits Chinese were among the largest contributors to and instigators of public funds to support the war effort. Since subscriptions were published in the newspapers listing by name and amount those who contributed, we have a very detailed record of Straits Chinese commitment to the allied forces in the war. Among these funds were the Belgium Relief Fund, Prince of Wales Relief Fund and the King Albert’s Civilian Hospital Fund.40 Many of the contributions came from Straits Chinese social organisations such as the Tennis Club.41 The wealthiest, such as Eu Tong Sen and Tan Jiak Kim, donated aeroplanes.42 This also served as an opportunity for Straits Chinese women to engage in politics in the public sphere, with several appearing in the subscription lists and organising the fundraisers.43 The historiography of wartime relief efforts has been overwhelmingly focused on metropolitan Europe and the United States with very little attention to the voluntary financial contributions made by imperial subjects, however, as these records show, vast sums of money were also raised in the colonies.44 This is in keeping with the argument that many colonial subjects used the First World War as an opportunity to prove their loyalty and therefore readiness for self-government.

  • 45 Straits Chinese British Association, Duty to the British Empire. For more on their role in this per (...)
  • 46 See especially, Straits Chinese British Association, Duty to the British Empire, ch 1-2.
  • 47 Duty to the British Empire, ch 14.
  • 48 “The Pretoria Procession,” Singapore Free Press, June 14, 1900.
  • 49 Duty to the British Empire, ch 2.
  • 50 “Straits Born Chinese and the War,” Malaya Tribune, December 3, 1915.

11In 1915, under the auspices of the Straits Chinese British Association, Tan Jiak Kim, Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang, wrote a lengthy guide directed at the Straits Chinese and their ‘Duty to the British Empire during the Great War’.45 It explained the causes of the war and outlined the rights and privileges of a British subject as the underlying basis for their duty to the Empire.46 They were sure to distinguish themselves from others who were Chinese in both race and nationality. The authors placed special emphasis on equality granted under English law, making appeals to the idea of civis brittanicus sum and specifying that they would not discriminate ‘with regard to colour or creed’ in the services they hoped to provide.47 The same patriotic sentiment appeared in 1900 after the capture of Pretoria brought on spontaneous processions in support of the Empire which was interpreted as a sign that its subjects recognised ‘the legal privileges, which no mere national rule —Chinese, Malay or Indian—could ever assure to the individual.’48 It is notable in this regard that the pamphleteers took special offence to the German notion of a Pan-Germanic League which they believed targeted only those of Germanic race and therefore did not follow the same universalistic ideals that the Straits Chinese read into the British Empire.49 Similarly, Song said in a speech in Malacca that naturalised British subjects of German descent had given the category of ‘naturalised British subjects’ a bad name.50 On the surface, then, this was a clear alignment with a cosmopolitan reading of the British Empire.

  • 51 Straits Chinese British Association, Duty to the British Empire, ch 12.
  • 52 Ibid., ch 10.
  • 53 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 246. Asilatul Hanaa Abdullah, “The Impact of World War I on Brit (...)

12What is more interesting, however, in keeping with the arguments of this paper, is that there remained some ambiguity regarding their attitude to China. For example, their definition of patriotism was unclear as to whether it could apply to China as well as Britain. Lim Boon Keng said patriotism was not merely limited to love for the land of birth but also its non-territorial aspects like ‘deep and sacred associations’, and ‘filial piety’, things that could equally have brought Straits-born Chinese into patriotic support for China.51 The authors also noted that they could follow Chinese customs and still remain British subjects.52 This may have been an intentional ambiguity that did not reject the possibility of simultaneous patriotisms or a third way between the two. A similar tension appears in their treatment of race in the Empire. While giving credit to the British for supposedly granting equal rights through shared citizenship/subjecthood, the authors still outlined their struggle to be allowed to form a volunteer corps of Straits Chinese as the 1888 Ordinance allowed only European British subjects to do so. Although this was eventually granted in 1901 (Song Ong Siang and Lim Boon Keng were original members), Penang and Malacca had only recently been able to form their own, perhaps thanks to the pressure of the war (the German SMS Emden attacked Penang in 1914).53 These tensions and ambiguities underlined the gap between the universal and the particular in the British Empire as well as the intermediate position of the Straits Chinese.

  • 54 Harper, “Singapore, 1915, and the Birth of the Asian Underground,” 1795.
  • 55 “Straits Chinese V.C.,” Malaya Tribune, January 11, 1916.
  • 56 “Legislative Council,” Malaya Tribune, October 16, 1915.
  • 57 “Straits Chinese British Association,” Malaya Tribune, December 3, 1915.
  • 58 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 547. “The Singapore Mutiny,” Singapore Free Press, September 29, (...)

13 The 1915 Mutiny in Singapore of a regiment in the Indian army garrisoned in Singapore, part of the Ghadar movement, demonstrated the alternative possible trajectories for transnational politics in the colonies. Although the Chinese had protested against Japan’s 21 Demands just a few weeks before the mutiny and the Straits Chinese demonstrated a concern with a specific kind of imperialism represented by Germany and increasingly Japan, they still followed the prevalent liberal position at the time which contended that reform could be achieved within Empire.54 Thus, the Straits Chinese were quick to condemn the attack which seemed to strike against the cosmopolitan possibilities that the Straits represented. Indeed, Song Ong Siang was promoted to captain for his service in the Chinese Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps which helped suppress the mutiny.55 In the Legislative Council, Lim Boon Keng used it as an example that the Straits Chinese ought to do even more for the war effort.56 Meanwhile in Malacca, Tan Cheng Lock implored his fellow ‘Straits Chinese’ to contribute more to the war, pointing to the mutiny in Singapore as a reason why they should all sign up as volunteers in the local corps.57 When the victims of the Mutiny were memorialised, the cosmopolitan nature of Empire was again emphasised, with the Memorial being placed in the City Hall instead of a religious building to symbolise the overarching imperial attachment that brought the city’s inhabitants together.58 Consequently, we can see how the Mutiny contrasted with the liberal ideology of the Straits Chinese and their perseverance in working through the British Empire.

May Fourth and the New Culture Movement

  • 59 Erez Manela, “Imagining Woodrow Wilson in Asia: Dreams of East-West Harmony and the Revolt against (...)
  • 60 “Telegrams received by the Chinese Delegation in support of their stand on the Shantung question” ( (...)
  • 61 Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea (London: Penguin, 2012), 128-136.
  • 62 Manu Goswami, “Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms,” American Historical Review 117, n (...)

14 The end of the First World War made the liberal position an increasingly uncommon one. In its aftermath, we see the overseas Chinese becoming more and more active in nationalist struggles abroad, including the beginnings of anti-colonial activities. This was in part due to the failings of the new world order created in Versailles. Initially it seemed to offer a great deal of potential for cosmopolitanism. Kang Youwei, for example, interpreted the League of Nations and Wilson’s ideals as a way of bridging East and West and helping to realise da tong.59 This was a reading of internationalism triumphing over nationalism. During the Conference, the Chinese delegation received telegrams from Chinese organisations based all over the world with statements such as ‘all oversea Chinese fully support your stand at the Conference’ against the Japanese and that Wilson’s Fourteen Points must be realised.60 Inspired in part by ideas of Imperial Federation originating in Britain, it is no surprise that the League appeared, at first glance, to offer potential for the realisation on a world scale of what many Straits Chinese had been arguing for.61 As Manu Goswami writes, ‘What set colonial internationalist thought and practice apart was not just the insistence that the immediate present marked a potential transition to a new egalitarian world order. It was the way this temporal reckoning was mobilized to counter both the historicist orientation of cultural nationalism and a restored interwar imperialism.’62 Kang Youwei and Sun Yat-sen’s thought on da tong and cosmopolitanism well represents this style of ‘internationalism’, so it follows that they were excited by the prospect of a new world order that might arise from the League.

  • 63 Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nati (...)
  • 64 See, Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determinations and the International Origins of Antico (...)
  • 65 “Anti-Japanese Disturbances in Straits Settlements,” Consular Report from Singapore, July 26, 1919, (...)
  • 66 “Chinese Boycott and Japanese Goods,” Consular Report from Phuket, June 29, 1919, FO 628/35.
  • 67 See, David Kenley, New Culture in a New World: The May Fourth Movement and the Chinese Diaspora in (...)

15The reality of the League was much different to how it was first imagined by Asian subjects. Indeed, it seemed to underwrite the prevailing discourses of racism and nationalism with international backing following Smuts’ and Wilson’s architecture.63 The global colour line remained and any possibility of an Imperial Federation, even though it had helped inspire the League itself, was still divided on racial and ‘civilisational’ lines. Consequently, numerous parts of the world saw a significant backlash against the perceived failings of the Wilsonian moment.64 The May Fourth Movement in China, for example, was prompted by the legitimation of Japanese imperialism on the mainland by the Treaty of Versailles. What is more interesting in our case, is how the May Fourth Movement percolated into the Straits Settlements. This both demonstrated the continued importance of the overseas Chinse to a deterritorialised China and their differences with the Straits Chinese. In June 1919, reports came in of disturbances in Penang and Singapore with Japanese products being destroyed and altercations with the police.65 Martial law had to be declared in both cities. A notice in Phuket affirming the duties of the ‘Chinese people’ to support their country seemed to quote Sun Yat-sen, saying ‘unable to combine we are scattered abroad like grains of sand.’66 Nationalist and anti-imperialist activity would continue in the Straits in the following decades, however it was increasingly directed and managed by China-born Chinese and their institutions with close connections to the mainland, rather than through the autonomous energy of the Straits Chinese and their hybridised approach.67 As a result, the Straits Chinese seemed to become alienated from the nationalist struggle in China and its fusion with the Republican state. They discovered that their racial connection was not enough to make them equals in thought and being to the China-born Chinese, despite being pushed and pulled in this direction over the previous few decades.

  • 68 Lim Koon Teck, “Sons of Malaya,” Straits Chinese Annual (Singapore: 1930): 16.
  • 69 “Chinese Community,” Straits Times, March 19, 1920.
  • 70 Lim Boon Keng, “The So-Called clash of Races in Malaya,” Straits Chinese Annual (Singapore: 1930): (...)
  • 71 “A White Ocean,” Straits Times, May 2, 1905. The discourse of being “sons of the soil” has special (...)
  • 72 “The Straits-Born Chinese,” Malaya Tribune, February 12, 1931.
  • 73 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 33.
  • 74 Penang tried to secede from the Federation, “Majority Support for Secession At Penang Meeting,” Str (...)

16In contrast with the growth of nationalism and communism among the immigrant Chinese in the interwar years, the Straits Chinese continued to hold a liberal view of race, empire and cosmopolitanism that sought the realisation of much of the universal languages emanating from Britain as well Confucian ideals. For instance, in 1930, Lim Koon Teck argued that the harmony and unity felt between different ‘nationalities’ in Malaya (notice the continued slippage with race) was proof that ‘world peace under a sort of league of nations is attainable.’68 In typical Straits Chinese style, he cited Confucius’ maxim that ‘Within the Four Seas all are Brothers’. Similarly, Lim Boon Keng, when welcoming the new Governor Sir Laurence Guillemard in 1920, asked that he ‘establish in our midst the beginnings of a small League of Nations of the British Empire’, building on the cosmopolitanism of the Straits.69 In the 1930s, in response to rising racial tensions and mounting criticisms of the Chinese population as a threat to stability, Lim Boon Keng continued to defend both Babas and immigrants as central to Malayan development and innocent of destroying race relations.70 Indeed, the Chinese community writ large increasingly made claims to autochthony in the colony despite their immigrant background. For example, one Chinese writer claimed using language similar to ‘son of the soil’ that it ‘is the earnest hope of every real son of Singapore’ that British seamen are not replaced by ‘foreigners’.71 In 1931 Lim Cheng Ean, a Cambridge educated lawyer and legislative councillor, made a similar claim ‘that the Chinese were entitled to be called part and parcel of this country which was their native land.’72 They also wrote this into a longer genealogy of the colony. Written in the 1920s, Song Ong Siang’s One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore helped establish the Straits Chinese as a permanent feature of Straits life and labelled Teo Lee one of the first ‘sons of the soil’ in Singapore given his birth in the colony in 1833.73 For Penang and Singapore, both largely settled after their acquisition by the British, these claims had a great deal of truth and help explain why, in the 1940s both Penang and Singapore began to diverge from Malaya as the country headed towards decolonisation.74 Thus, their defence of a multiracial League of Nations, inspired by the local cosmopolitan example of the Straits, built on local claims of belonging and combined these with an acknowledgement of their Chinese heritage. In this way, many Straits Chinese became increasingly wedded to the politics of Malaya over the narrower and more anti-colonial nationalism of China in the interwar years.

  • 75 Wang Gungwu, China and the Chinese Overseas (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1991), 147.
  • 76 Chan, “The Case for Diaspora,” 114.
  • 77 Gungwu, China and the Overseas Chinese, 150.
  • 78 Ibid., 151.

17It is in this context that Lim Boon Keng became embroiled in a debate with Lu Xun, one of the premier figures in the New Culture Movement, signalling his difference from China-born Chinese despite his increasing identification with the Republic of China. In keeping with the modernist tendencies of the New Culture Movement, Lu Xun criticised Lim’s Confucian teachings at the new university in Amoy in 1926-7.75 Lu Xun called him a ‘Chinese of British nationality who cannot open or shut his mouth without the word Confucius.’76 Here we see how the Straits Chinese were not fully welcomed back into the new Chinese nation-state. This was in part due to Lim’s difference as being a British subject which complicated his commitment to the nation. In fact, Lim often lectured in English, fearing that his Mandarin was not good enough for his Chinese students, although Lu Xun still recognised his being ‘Chinese’ in racial or ethnic terms.77 In addition to this, the Straits Chinese approach to reform that had originated in the 1900s was already becoming anachronistic in the youth movements of 1920s China. In one of Lim’s lectures while Lu Xun was present, he spoke out against the equation of Confucius’ doctrine of ‘respect the ruler’ with ‘imperialism’ and instead argued that they should follow Mencius and ‘value the common people’ in order to achieve da tong.78 Coupled with his Christianity and association with the British Empire, Lim’s rejection of the stark anti-imperialist politics of many of China’s cutting-edge intellectuals such as Lu Xun resulted in his uncomfortable reception into mainland politics. Consequently, we can see how the Straits Chinese and their unique views and background were never fully accepted into the increasingly narrow nationalisms of post-May Fourth China.

  • 79 Maurice Freedman, “The Chinese in Southeast Asia: A Longer View,” in The Study of Chinese Society: (...)
  • 80 Wang Gungwu, Home is Not Here (Singapore: NUS Press, 2018), 19.
  • 81 Wang Gungwu, Home is Where We Are (Singapore: Ridge Books, 2021).

18Their inability to fit in to a post-1911 Chinese nation-state was a lasting problem for the Straits Chinese. Maurice Freedman writes, ‘as some of them have painfully discovered by going back to one of the two Chinas, many are so little Chinese in their outlook that they are foreigners in several senses in the land of their forefathers.’79 Wang Gungwu’s memoirs attest to a similar experience: ‘Waiting to go to China and returning to Malaya shaped my life more than I realized. Now that I am old, I find so much of my life to be traceable to those places…. An image of Nanjing reminds me of what I seemed to be looking for several times in my life while Ipoh represents the world of multiple cultures that I lived with and learnt to love.’80 The challenges of matching self-identification with the identification of others were partially resolved in his second memoirs with the title ‘Home is Where We Are’.81 Thus, Wang, like some other ethnic Chinese born and raised abroad, eventually found comfort in a pluralised and personalised understanding of ‘home’ which was built out of his Malayan experience, no longer awkwardly straddling places and spaces. It is this final acceptance which this paper hopes to underline as a cosmopolitan resolution to the problem of the transition from a world of empires to nation-states. In this way, Wang, like many of the Straits Chinese, challenged the liminality that the rise of the nation-state and its sorting of populations into citizen-subjects produced for cosmopolitan peoples.

Notes

1 Rebecca Karl, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), “Awakening of Chinese in Singapore,” Straits Times, November 27, 1906.

2 Reforming Babas,” Straits Times, January 27, 1898.

3 Tzu-hui Celina Hung, ““There Are No Chinamen in Singapore”: Creolization and Self-Fashioning of the Straits Chinese in the Colonial Contact Zone,” Journal of Chinese Overseas 5, no. 2 (2009): 263.

4 This is Philip Kuhn’s preferred metaphor, Kuhn, Chinese Among Others, 168-9.

5 Zhongping Chen, “Kang Youwei’s Activities in Canada and the Reformist Movement Among the Global Chinese Diaspora, 1899-1909,” Twentieth-Century China 39, no. 1 (2014): 3-23.

6 Jane Leung Larson, “Articulating China’s First Mass Movement: Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, the Baohuanghui, and the 1905 Anti-American Boycott,” Twentieth-Century China 33, no. 1 (2007): 4-26.

7 Ibid., 9.

8 Sun Yat-sen, San Min Chu I, 7.

9 Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia (London: Penguin, 2013), ch 3.

10 Immanuel C. Y. Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 2nd ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 552-3.

11 Harold Z. Schiffrin, “The Enigma of Sun Yat-sen,” in China in Revolution, ed. Mary Clabaugh Wright (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 450-2.

12 Mary Clabaugh Wright, “Introduction,” in China in Revolution, 37.

13 Joseph W. Esherick, “Making Revolution in Twentieth-Century China,” in A Critical Introduction to Mao, ed. Timothy Cheek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 31.

14 The origins and applicability of the phrase are, however, disputed. See, Jianli Huang, “Umbilical Ties: The Framing of the Overseas Chinese as the Mother of the Revolution,” Frontier History of China 6, no. 2 (2011): 183-228.

15 Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 445-6. See also, Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 3rd edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2013), 245-6.

16 Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 450.

17 Ibid., 453.

18 Sun Yat-sen, San Min Chu I, 44.

19 Ibid., 64.

20 Quoted in Cheah, “Introduction Part II: The Cosmopolitical—Today,” 25.

21 Translated by the author, 三民主義吾黨所宗以建民國以進大同. The common translation of da tong in the anthem to “world peace” distracts from its connection to Kang Youwei.

22 See, Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation, 14.

23 Ibid., 49.

24 See, Yen Ching-Hwang, “The Confucian Revival Movement in Singapore and Malaya, 1899-1911,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 7, no. 1 (1976): 33-57.

25 Jean Elizabeth DeBernardi, Penang: Rites of Belonging in a Malaysian Chinese Community (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 24.

26 Lim Boon Keng, “The Queue Question,” 23.

27 Ibid., 25.

28 Lim Boon Keng, “The Role of the Babas in the Development of China,” Straits Chinese Magazine, September 1903.

29 Chan, “The Case for Diaspora,” 112.

30 This branch only lasted until 1914 due to splits in the movement. Yong and McKenna, The Kuomintang Movement in British Malaya, 27.

31 Ong Soon Keong, “Rebuilding Corridor, Preserving Prestige: Lim Boon Keng and Overseas Chinese-China Relations,” China and Asia 2 (2020): 138-9.

32 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 511.

33 Wu was married to a daughter of Wong Nai Siong, one of the leaders of the revolutionary movement, as was Lim Boon Keng. Kam Hing Lee et al., “Dr Wu Lien-teh: modernizing post-1911 China’s public health service,” Singapore Medical Journal 55, no. 2 (2014): 99-102.

34 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 101.

35 Ibid., 33-4, 473.

36 Wang Gungwu, “Sun Yat-sen and Singapore,” Journal of the South Seas Society 15, no. 2 (1959): 55-68.

37 Singapore Free Press, December 13, 1911, “The Straits-born Chinese,” Straits Times, February 5, 1914.

38 Gungwu, “Sun Yat-sen and Singapore,” 68.

39 Frost, “In Search of Cosmopolitan Discourse,” 79-80.

40 For example, “Belgium Relief Fund,” Malaya Tribune, October 31, 1914, “Prince of Wales Relief Fund,” Singapore Free Press, December 4, 1914, “King Albert’s Civilian Hospital Fund,” Malaya Tribune, May 8, 1916, “Malacca Chinese Aircraft Fund,” Malaya Tribune, September 17, 1915, “British War Loan,” Malaya Tribune, October 16, 1915, “Malayan Aircraft: Malacca’s Contribution to the Imperial Government,” Malaya Tribune, February 17, 1916.

41 “Malacca Canton Relief Fund,” Malaya Tribune, August 2, 1915, “Y.M.C.A. Special Building Fund,” Straits Times, September 25, 1916.

42 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 519, 542.

43 See, Yu-Lin Ooi, “Philanthropy in Transition: An Exploratory Study of Asian Women and Philanthropy in Singapore, 1900-1945,” Philanthropy in Asia, Working Paper No. 2, Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship & Philanthropy (May 2016).

44 For example, Jeffrey B. Miller, Yanks behind the Lines: How the Commission for Relief in Belgium Save Millions from Starvation During World War I (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

45 Straits Chinese British Association, Duty to the British Empire. For more on their role in this period see Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 524-528.

46 See especially, Straits Chinese British Association, Duty to the British Empire, ch 1-2.

47 Duty to the British Empire, ch 14.

48 “The Pretoria Procession,” Singapore Free Press, June 14, 1900.

49 Duty to the British Empire, ch 2.

50 “Straits Born Chinese and the War,” Malaya Tribune, December 3, 1915.

51 Straits Chinese British Association, Duty to the British Empire, ch 12.

52 Ibid., ch 10.

53 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 246. Asilatul Hanaa Abdullah, “The Impact of World War I on British Malaya: The Battle of Penang, 1914,” International Journal of West Asian Studies 12 (2020): 61-75.

54 Harper, “Singapore, 1915, and the Birth of the Asian Underground,” 1795.

55 “Straits Chinese V.C.,” Malaya Tribune, January 11, 1916.

56 “Legislative Council,” Malaya Tribune, October 16, 1915.

57 “Straits Chinese British Association,” Malaya Tribune, December 3, 1915.

58 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 547. “The Singapore Mutiny,” Singapore Free Press, September 29, 1917.

59 Erez Manela, “Imagining Woodrow Wilson in Asia: Dreams of East-West Harmony and the Revolt against Empire in 1919” American Historical Review 111, no. 5 (2006): 1342-3

60 “Telegrams received by the Chinese Delegation in support of their stand on the Shantung question” (Paris: Government publication, 1919).

61 Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea (London: Penguin, 2012), 128-136.

62 Manu Goswami, “Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms,” American Historical Review 117, no. 5 (2012): 1464.

63 Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

64 See, Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determinations and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 2007).

65 “Anti-Japanese Disturbances in Straits Settlements,” Consular Report from Singapore, July 26, 1919, FO 628/35.

66 “Chinese Boycott and Japanese Goods,” Consular Report from Phuket, June 29, 1919, FO 628/35.

67 See, David Kenley, New Culture in a New World: The May Fourth Movement and the Chinese Diaspora in Singapore, 1919-1932 (London: Routledge, 2003).

68 Lim Koon Teck, “Sons of Malaya,” Straits Chinese Annual (Singapore: 1930): 16.

69 “Chinese Community,” Straits Times, March 19, 1920.

70 Lim Boon Keng, “The So-Called clash of Races in Malaya,” Straits Chinese Annual (Singapore: 1930): 1-11.

71 “A White Ocean,” Straits Times, May 2, 1905. The discourse of being “sons of the soil” has special purchase in Malaysia where it is used as justification for the bumiputera (literally meaning sons of the soil) affirmative action policy of special rights and privileges.

72 “The Straits-Born Chinese,” Malaya Tribune, February 12, 1931.

73 Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years, 33.

74 Penang tried to secede from the Federation, “Majority Support for Secession At Penang Meeting,” Straits Times, December 14, 1948. See also, Clive Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonization, Nationalism and Separatism (London: Tauris, 1996), 44-51

75 Wang Gungwu, China and the Chinese Overseas (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1991), 147.

76 Chan, “The Case for Diaspora,” 114.

77 Gungwu, China and the Overseas Chinese, 150.

78 Ibid., 151.

79 Maurice Freedman, “The Chinese in Southeast Asia: A Longer View,” in The Study of Chinese Society: Essays by Maurice Freedman. Selected and Introduced by G. William Skinner, eds. Maurice Freedman and G. William Skinner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979), 20-21.

80 Wang Gungwu, Home is Not Here (Singapore: NUS Press, 2018), 19.

81 Wang Gungwu, Home is Where We Are (Singapore: Ridge Books, 2021).

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