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Margaret Tart, Lao She, and the Opium-Master's Wife: Race and Class among Chinese Commercial Immigrants in London and Australia, 1866–1929

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2013

Sascha Auerbach*
Department of History, University of Nottingham


What little has been written about Chinese immigrants in the British Empire has focused mainly on laborers, commonly known as “coolies,” and their roles in imperial society, culture, and industry. Chinese commercial immigrants, though they loomed large in public dialogues about race, migration, and empire, have been virtually ignored. This article examines how such immigrants were represented, and how two prominent individuals represented themselves, in London and metropolitan Australia, respectively, during a high tide of British imperialism and Chinese global migration. By the 1920s, the ardent pro-British sentiment expressed by Mei Quong Tart, the de facto representative of the Chinese merchant class in Australia, had been superseded by the anti-colonial critique of Lao She, one of China's foremost modern novelists. Lao She's semi-autobiographical depiction of Chinese life in London condemned the violent and emasculating character of British imperialism, while also excoriating Chinese society's failure to modernize, cohere as a nation, and overcome internecine class conflicts. Both authors were concerned with social relations between Chinese men and white British women, as were British commentators throughout this period, and with differentiating themselves from laboring Chinese immigrants. Contrary to Stuart Hall's famous assertion that “race is the modality through which class is lived,” for these Chinese commercial immigrants class and gender proved to be more essential than were crude concepts of race to their experiences and self-identification, and ultimately to British society's rejection of their attempts to assimilate.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2013

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16 East London Observer, 22 Sept. 1883: n.p.

17 Greenwood observed “a marvelous grafting of Chinese about her, that her cotton gown of English cut seemed to hang quite awkwardly … her skin was a dusky yellow … and evidently she had taken such a thoroughly Chinese view of life that her organs of vision were fast losing their European shape, and assuming that which coincided with her adopted nature” (“Opium Smokers,” 71; Greenwood, Strange Company, 219).

18 Greenwood, Odd People, 100.

19 Ibid.: 98.

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23 Williams, a magistrate and philanthropist, smoked opium himself.

24 The two women in question were Ada Ping You and Billie Carleton. The former was implicated in the latter's death in 1918 of a supposed narcotics overdose.

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37 Ibid., 33–35; M. Tart, Quong Tart, 6.

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39 Travers, Australian Mandarin, 35; M. Tart, Quong Tart, 6.

40 M. Tart, Quong Tart, 6.

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42 Ibid.: 8.

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50 Ibid.: 33.

51 Sydney Mail, quoted in ibid.: 55.

52 Times (of London), 23 Feb. 1889: 16.

53 That same year, Parkes publicly gifted Tart an inscribed copy of his poetry anthology, Fragmentary Thoughts. Travers, Australian Mandarin, 91.

54 Jayasuriya, Walker, and Gothard, Legacies, 23.

55 The impossibility of full assimilation, and the manner in which the process itself emphasizes racial and cultural differences rather than eliding them, have been emphasized in the work of Zymunt Bauman, Homi K. Bhabha, and most recently, Ien Ang. The latter argued, The traces of Asianness cannot be erased completely from the westernized Asian.” Ien Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West (London: Routledge, 2001), 9Google Scholar.

56 Evening News, Jan. 1900, repr. in Travers, Australian Mandarin, 156. This rendering of his speech by the newspaper stands in sharp contrast with Tart's common public communications, which came in the form of impeccably written letters to newspaper editors, politicians, and other Australian public figures or organizations.

57 Evening News, Jan. 1900, repr. in Travers, Australian Mandarin, 156.

58 Opposition to Conservatives' alleged support of “Chinese slavery” in South Africa had been a rallying cry among opposition candidates. Grant, Anthony, A Civilized Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926 (New York: Routledge, 2005), 91Google Scholar; Auerbach, Race, Law, and “The Chinese Puzzle,” 51–56.

59 Well-established in Australia and the United States by the late nineteenth century, the images of Chinese villainy began gaining popular traction in Britain with the publication of M. P. Sheil's The Yellow Danger (1898).

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62 Britain tacitly supported the Japanese invasion of Shandong in 1916 as a counter to German aspirations on the territory, and subsequently endorsed Japan's permanent claims there during the Versailles Treaty negotiations. Spence, Jonathan D., The Search for Modern China, 2d ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 288–89Google Scholar.

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68 Ibid.: 24–29.

69 According to John Seed's survey of London directories, there were eighteen Chinese-owned businesses registered in 1928, rising to twenty-four by 1930, and twenty-six by 1932. Limehouse Blues, 65.

70 Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, and Tiffin, Helen, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Introduction; Loomba, Ania, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, 2d ed. (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2005), 91153Google Scholar.

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77 Ibid.: 363.

78 Ibid.: 273–74, 361.

79 This idea of self-hatred fostered by the dynamics of racism is another theme that would be notable in later postcolonial writings.

80 Lao She, Mr. Ma, 273.

81 Ibid.: 72–73.

82 Ibid.: 98.

83 Ibid.: 279.

84 In a more contemporary context, similar ideas appear both in Edward Said's analysis of how the British constructed images of the Orient and the Orientalized “other” to confirm their own racial superiority, and across the realms of post-colonial literature and critique, which emphasize the persistent power of British cultural hegemony decades after Britain itself has ceased to be an imperial power. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 3; Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, Empire Writes Back, 7.

85 Beyer, John, “Review of Jean M. James (tr.), Mr. Ma and Son, a Novel by Lao She,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 46 (1983): 182–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Much of Lao She's work was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, and the author was found drowned in a Taiping lake in October 1966. He was posthumously “rehabilitated” by the Communist Party in 1979.

86 Mrinalini Sinha argues for the centrality of a similar dynamic in British-Indian imperial relations, in Colonial Masculinity, 1.

87 Lao She, Mr. Ma, 57.

88 Ibid.: 53.

89 Ibid.: 327.

90 Ibid.: 362–63.

91 Lai, Annie, Little, Bob, and Little, Pippa, “Chinatown Annie: The East End Opium Trade 1920–1935: The Story of a Woman Opium Dealer,” Oral History Journal 14, 1 (1986): 1830Google Scholar.

92 Seshagiri, “Modernity's (Yellow) Perils,” 162. Other examples in which Chinese villains figured prominently included Thomas Burke's bestselling Limehouse Nights (1916), and the play Mr. Wu (1913). Along with Rohmer's Fu Manchu, who would similarly appear on the big screen in a variety of incarnations (all preceded by a film adaptation of The Yellow Claw in 1921), the prominence of Chinese stereotypes in British popular culture owes much to American filmmaker D. W. Griffiths, who adapted Burke's story “The Chink and the Child” into the film sensation Broken Blossoms (1919). For further discussion of Chinese villains in British literature, theater, and film, see Auerbach, Race, Law, and “The Chinese Puzzle, 73–88, 109–18, 143–49.

93 Shompa Lahiri offers some excellent insights into how Indian immigrants interpreted and performed class identity in Performing Identity: Colonial Migrants, Passing and Mimicry between the Wars,” Cultural Geographies 10 (2004): 408–23Google Scholar.

94 A prominent recent example being Chakrabarty's, DipeshRethinking Working-Class History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)Google Scholar.