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sentiment expressed by Mei Quong Tart, the de facto representative of the Chinese merchant class in Australia, had been superseded by the anti-colonial critique of Lao She, one of China's foremost modern novelists.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.
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