Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

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

  • Sascha Auerbach (a1)

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expressed by Mei Quong Tart, the de facto representative of the Chinese merchant class in Australia, had been superseded by the anti-colonial critique of Lao She, one of China's foremost modern novelists.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

Corresponding author
Hide All

1 Hall Stuart, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Williams Patrick and Chrisman Laura, eds., Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (New York: Columbia University Press), 222.

2 According to John Jackson, this is also true in the U.S. context, where race has occupied a much more central space in the work of scholars across the disciplinary spectrum. Jackson John L.Jr., “In Medias Race (and Class): Post-Jim Crow Ethnographies of Black Middleclassdom,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 7, 1 (2010): 3539, here 35.

3 Recent notable examples in the British metropolitan and imperial contexts include Sinha Mrinalini, Colonial Masculinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995); Burton Antoinette, At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late Victorian Britain (Berkeley: University of California Press 1998); Kale Madhavi, Fragments of Empire: Capital, Slavery, and Indian Indentured Labor Migration in the British Caribbean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Deslandes Paul, “‘The Foreign Element’: Newcomers and the Rhetoric of Race, Nation, and Empire in ‘Oxbridge’ Undergraduate Culture, 1850–1920,” Journal of British Studies 37, 1 (Jan. 1998): 5490.

4 For discussions of the relationship between race, class, and gender in regards to African, Caribbean, and Indian immigrants before World War II, see McClintock Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York: Routledge, 1995); Tabili Laura, “Women ‘of a Very Low Type’: Crossing Racial Boundaries in Imperial Britain,” in Frader Laura and Rose Sonya, eds., Gender and Class in Modern Europe (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1996), 174; Magubane Zine, Bringing the Empire Home: Race, Class, and Gender in Britain and Colonial South Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Schneer Jonathan, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), chs. 8 and 9; McDevitt Patrick, May the Best Man Win: Sport and Masculinity in the British Empire (New York: Palgrave, 2004); Sinha Mrinalini, Spectres of Mother India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). For an example of contemporary debates over the relative significance of class versus race in the British government's attempts to address discrimination and inequality in contemporary society, see “John Denham: Class as Well as Race Holds People Back,” Telegraph, 14 Jan. 2010.

5 Holmes Colin, John Bull's Island: Immigration and British Society, 1871–1971 (London: Macmillan, 1988), 6585; Northrup David, Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834–1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Milligan Barry, Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in 19th-Century British Culture (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 21; Hyslop Jonathan, “The Imperial Working Class Makes Itself ‘White’: White Labourism in Britain, Australia, and South Africa before the First World War.Journal of Historical Sociology 12, 4 (Dec. 1999): 398421; Guterl Matthew and Skwiot Christine, “Atlantic & Pacific Crossings: Race, Empire, and the ‘Labor Problem’ in the Nineteenth Century,” Radical History Review 91, 1 (Winter 2005): 4061; Bickers Robert, Britain in China: Community, Culture, and Colonialism 1900–1949 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999); Witchard Anne, “Aspects of Literary Limehouse: Thomas Burke and the ‘Glamorous Shame of Chinatown,’Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London 2 (2004): 18; Seed John, “Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900–1940,” History Workshop Journal 62 (2006): 5885; Seshagiri Urmila, “Modernity's (Yellow) Perils: Dr. Fu Manchu and English Race Paranoia,” Cultural Critique 62 (2006): 162–94; Keevak Micheal, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 124–44.

6 Auerbach Sascha, Race, Law, and “The Chinese Puzzle” in Imperial Britain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 2027.

7 Chinese society itself was profoundly hierarchical, with an individual's status determined by official rank, parentage, ethnicity, education, clan association, occupation, region of origin, age, and a broad array of other metrics.

8 Tosh John, A Man's Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 1; Hammerton A. James, “Pooterism or Partnership? Marriage and Masculine Identity in the Lower Middle Class, 1870–1920,” Journal of British Studies 38, 3 (July 1999): 293–94.

9 According to the 1871 census, there were only ninety-four China-born aliens resident in London. By 1891, the number had risen to 302. Due to the migratory nature of the population in this period, however, such numbers do not accurately reflect the true size of the community. Ng Chee Choo, The Chinese in London. MA thesis (published in London by Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations, 1968), 6–7.

10 Parkinson Joseph Charles, Places and People, Being Studies from the Life (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1869), 25.

11 East London Opium Smokers,” London Society 14 (July 1868): 68, 69. Chi Ki's “opium den” and other Victorian depictions are discussed briefly in the seminal work by Berridge Virginia and Griffin Edward, Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), 195205. Berridge and Griffin argue that the image of the den itself as a locale where the demoralized and debauched lolled in drug-addled turpitude was a literary invention that did not jibe with the reports of more objective, or at least less sensationalist observers.

12 Ibid.: 72.

13 Hyam Ronald, “Empire and Sexual Opportunity,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 14, 2 (1986): 3490. For a more nuanced view of the complex relationship between race, gender, and sexuality in the empire, see Levine Philippa, “Sexuality, Gender, and Empire,” in Levine Philippa, ed., Gender and Empire, Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 134–55.

14 Dickens Charles, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (New York: Dover Thrift Edition, 2005 [1870]), 2.

15 Jack Chinaman existed as a racial archetype rather than as an individual. Readers never meet him in person, but only learn of him by another character's allusion to his presence on “‘t'other side the court’” (ibid.: 2). Dickens's son, however, writing nine years after his father's death in 1870, claimed that the opium den depicted in the novel had been based on a real-life location and that “Jack Chinaman” was an actual person. The inspiration for the locale in Drood, he wrote, was the “best known of these justly-named dens,” that belonging to “Johnstone,” a.k.a. “Johnny the Chinaman,” whose garret was just off of Ratcliffe-highway in Tiger Bay, an infamous East End slum district in Bluegate Fields. Dickens CharlesJr., Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879: An Unconventional Guidebook (London: Howard Baker, 1879), 190. Census records from 1871 confirmed this. “John Johnstone,” aged forty-five, baker, born in Amoy, China, was recorded as residing at the location indicated by Dickens, Jr. The same record identified his wife as “Hannah Johnstone,” aged thirty-nine, tailoress, born in Bath, though Dickens, Jr. made no mention her in his description (1871 Census Records; made available courtesy of the National Archives and Philip Mernick of the East London History Society).

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.

20 Hammerton, “Pooterism or Partnership,” 303.

21 Milligan, Pleasures and Pains, 85.

22 Lindeborg Ruth, “The ‘Asiatic’ and the Boundaries of Victorian Englishness,” Victorian Studies 37, 3 (1994): 381404, here 388.

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.

25 Auerbach, Race, Law, and “The Chinese Puzzle,” 128–40.

26 Wade George A., “The Cockney John Chinaman,” London Illustrated Magazine, July 1900: 306.

27 Armfelt Count E., “Oriental London,” in Sims George R., ed., Living London (London: Cassell & Co., 1901–1903), 84.

28 Walkowitz Judith, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), Introduction.

29 John Seed's analysis of census data and business directories puts the official, permanent Chinese population of London ca. 1900 at 120 and the number of Chinese-owned businesses at only two (“Limehouse Blues,” 63–65). But the numbers of short-term residents, particularly itinerant seamen, and the informal nature of the businesses that served their needs, such as cafes, laundries, and boarding houses, make such official records highly unreliable.

30 Specifically, in 1859. Tart Margaret Quong, The Life of Quong Tart, or, How a Foreigner Succeeded in a British Community (Sydney: W. M. Maclardy, 1911), 5.

31 Jayasuriya Laksiri, Walker David, and Gothard Jan, eds., Legacies of White Australia: Race, Culture and Nation (Crawley: University of Western Australia Press, 2003), 1729.

32 Lake Marilyn and Reynolds Henry, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 7, 1719.

33 Brisbane Courier cited in Travers Robert, Australian Mandarin: The Life and Times of Quong Tart (Kenthurst, Australia: Kangaroo Press, 1981), 96.

34 Travers, Australian Mandarin, 69.

35 Antoinette Burton has examined the negotiation of racial identity by the Indian politician Dadabhai Naoroji in the metropolitan context in her article, Tongue Untied: Lord Salisbury's ‘Black Man’ and the Boundaries of Imperial Democracy,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 42 (2000): 632–59.

36 Travers, Australian Mandarin, 32–33.

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

38 Travers, Australian Mandarin, 34; Australian Dictionary of Biography, s.v. “Simpson, Edward Percy (1858–1931),”

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

40 M. Tart, Quong Tart, 6.

41 Travers, Australian Mandarin, 35.

42 Ibid.: 8.

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

44 Travers, Australian Mandarin, 49.

45 Joyce Patrick, Democratic Subjects: The Self and the Social in Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 16.

46 Tart Quong, Plea for the Abolition of the Importation of Opium (Sydney: John Sands, 1887).

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

49 Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Dec. 1887, cited in M. Tart, Quong Tart, 32.

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), 9.

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), 91; 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).

60 Bland Lucy, “White Women and Men of Colour: Miscegenation Fears in Britain after the Great War,” Gender and History 17, 1 (Apr. 2005): 2961.

61 These instances were the most extreme in western Canada and South Africa, though London experienced its fair share as well, most notably in the maritime labor union leader Havelock Wilson's extended campaign to exclude Chinese seamen from service on ships of the British merchant marine. For the employment of racial discourse in the construction of a transnational white labor identity, see Lake and Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line, 26.

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), 288–89.

63 Auerbach, Race, Law, and “The Chinese Puzzle,” 65–73.

64 As found in Bickers, Britain in China; and Holmes, John Bull's Island.

65 Shih Shu-Mei, “Gender, Race, and Semicolonialism: Liu Na'ou's Urban Shanghai Landscape,” Journal of Asian Studies 55, 4 (Nov. 1996): 934–56, here 935.

66 For a discussion of how the hybridized Anglo-Chinese bourgeoisie formed in Shaghai, see Carroll John M., Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

67 Bickers Robert, “New Light on Lao She, London, and the London Missionary Society,” Modern Chinese Literature 8 (1994): 2139, here 31. There was a small expatriate Chinese student community in London at the time, but there is no evidence that Lao She had extensive contact with them (ibid.: 34).

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), Introduction; Loomba Ania, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, 2d ed. (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2005), 91153.

71 Shih, “Gender, Race, and Semicolonialism,” 935.

72 For a discussion of the latter three groups, see Shi Shu-mei, The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Other works by Lao She, most particularly Camel Xiangzi, have received more sustained attention from scholars of Chinese literature.

73 Vohra Rabir, Lao She and the Chinese Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), 2.

74 Bickers, “New Light on Lao She,” 22–23.

75 Shih, “Gender, Race, and Semicolonialism,” 935; Chow Rey, “Rereading Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies: A Response to the Postmodern Condition,” in Docherty Thomas, ed., Postmodernism: A Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 471–72.

76 Lao She, Mr. Ma, 53.

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): 182–83. 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): 1830.

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): 408–23.

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

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 3
Total number of PDF views: 51 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 278 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.