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Reviewed by:
  • Merchants’ Daughters: Women, Commerce, and Regional Culture in South China
  • Wong Pik-wan (bio) and Ka-ming Wu (bio)
Helen F. Siu, editor. Merchants’ Daughters: Women, Commerce, and Regional Culture in South China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. xii, 320 pp. Hardcover $59.50, ISBN 978-962-209-969-2.

If South China studies have long been dominated by attention to powerful lineages, rigid gendered and family hierarchies, and male-dominated trade and colonial encounters, Merchants’ Daughters, a multidisciplinary book project led by Helen Siu, has instead treated the boundaries of these paradigms as fluid and shifting. It opens up the conditions of possibility of some of the dynamic constructions of gendered spaces previously unattended in South China regional studies. Through these gendered spaces, authors of the book reveal that Confucian morality and lineage patriarchy are not unchanging institutions but complex cultural processes and notions in which women, in different social status and class positions, actively participate, negotiate, and resist. The eleven chapters are organized around three distinctive historical periods: cultural spaces between state making and kinship during the Ming and Qing dynasties, woman agency in colonial mercantile societies during the late Qing and Republican era, and woman’s work and activism in the postwar period. In part 1, May-bo Ching’s chapter stands out particularly in response to the main theme of the book. Exploring the bridal laments in Cantonese ballads muyushu (songbooks of various popular narratives), Ching works through the narrative of popular fictions in which married women expressed their sufferings after wedding, blamed the parents for marrying her off, and stressed sisterhood feelings for female companions. However, Ching argues that the bridal lament was not merely a cultural space where one glimpsed at women’s uncertainty and anxiety about marriage. Attending to the finer expressions of female intimate relationships, Ching found that the laments often included language of love sickness when the “sworn sisters” knew that one party had to marry or had fallen in love with another girl (p. 70). Reading between the lines of intensive expressions of pain, depression, and hatred that women spoke to each other in these laments, Ching shows a type of sworn sisterhood that was not simply about raging resistance to conventionally arranged marriage, but reveals a kind of ambiguously intimate and demanding relationship. The affection, love, and intimacy between women should certainly not be understood through modern Western categories of homosexual relationships. But such female intimacy, as Liu Zhiwei in the volume argues, was often reinterpreted and appropriated into proper women images in traditional male literati cultural productions. In this way, it is particularly important to see how Ching rereads this uniquely female literary space and tells more about how women sought emotional support and alternative linkages. This support, however, does not fit into the male-expected roles of wife, daughter-in-law, mother, or aunt in that historical and local context. [End Page 240]

In part 2 of the volume, Chi-cheung Choi focuses on women in the Chaoshan district who took over many managerial tasks as buyers and sellers of property and family business transaction when the male members of the household had emigrated oversea en masse in the last century. He shows that the emergence of city ports and the influx of capital created the conditions for a generation of Chaoshan women, traditionally not allowed in the public sphere, to step out and become recognized as entrepreneurs. Similarly, Carl Smith shows how a group of socially marginalized Chinese, the Dan fisherwomen, became the early landowners in Hong Kong, after they had sexual or marriage relationships with the colonial settlers. Ng Akew, for instance, after having been acquired by the American ship captain James Bridges Endicott, successfully established herself as a capable trades-woman who negotiated interests between the pirate community (most of them of the boat population) and the colonial community, with much at stake in the opium trade at sea. Colonial and trade encounters, therefore, ironically opened up boundaries set by Confucian and Victorian moralities, in which women of different classes and social positions negotiate the control of their lives and engage in spheres previously prohibited.

Part 3, which focuses on...