- Bound to Emancipate: Working Women and Urban Citizenship in Early Twentieth-Century China and Hong Kong by Angelina Chin
In a refreshing change from recent studies of social, cultural, and gender change in early twentieth-century China that focus on Shanghai or Beijing, Angelina Chin’s book explores the lives of lower-class working women, especially those employed in the service sector such as teahouse waitresses (nü zhaodai) in the southern city of Guangzhou (Canton) and the British colony of Hong Kong during the 1920s and 1930s, a time when increasing numbers of women were entering the public sphere. Using a wide variety of sources that include newspaper reports and articles, government documents, [End Page 316] guidebooks, and women’s oral testimonies, Chin analyzes the different ways “emancipation” (jiefang)—as applied to these women—was defined and put into practice by Chinese officials, urban intellectuals, middle-class feminists, colonial officials, and missionaries. Although Chin states at the beginning of her study that she also aims to capture the voices of lower-class working women themselves in order to illuminate what “emancipation” meant to them, there is disappointingly little evidence of this in subsequent chapters.
One of the principal themes of Chin’s study concerns the ambiguous and ever-shifting meanings attached to the concept of “women’s emancipation.” While May Fourth male intellectuals in 1919–20 might have associated it with freedom from patriarchal control and the enjoyment of educational and employment rights, Communist activists in the early 1920s clearly viewed it as an indispensable element of wider socioeconomic change. Indeed, with the establishment of a Guomindang-controlled municipal government in Guangzhou after 1922, “women’s emancipation” became subsumed within a wider revolutionary discourse that championed freedom from “enslaving” traditions and semicolonialism. Yet for many male officials and commentators in Guangzhou, women’s emancipation did not necessarily connote empowerment; rather, it was a strategy aimed at restricting their movements and dictating their public behavior and appearance in line with what was perceived as desirable in a modern urban citizenry. This particularly applied to those women involved in stigmatized sexualized labor (teahouse waitresses were often seen as disguised prostitutes) or who were viewed as uneducated and morally threatening. By way of contrast, Chin notes that in Hong Kong, women’s emancipation was interpreted by British colonial officials as a component of liberal reform designed to free young girls and women from “barbarous” Chinese customs such as the sale and ownership of female bondservants (mui tsai in Cantonese) and hence demonstrating the superiority of Western civilization—though Chin points out that the term jiefang was not used in this context by colonial officials, since it was often employed by others to connote freedom from British colonial control. Chinese elites in Hong Kong argued, however, that the practice of mui tsai was a benevolent welfare custom that protected and sheltered young girls from poor backgrounds.
Individual chapters discuss the motivations underpinning attempts to regulate the employment of mui tsai in Hong Kong, contrasting their image as “chaste victims” with that of criminalized prostitutes; the contradictory nature of discourses in Guangzhou surrounding campaigns in the 1920s to overthrow outdated and “feudal” customs (fengsu), such as concubinage or the valorization of female chastity, that were thought to hinder women’s self-determination and sexual agency or control women’s bodies with such things as foot binding, breast binding, and ear piercing; public reaction to the increasing presence of female singers (nüling) and teahouse waitresses in places of entertainment and recreation; how the conservative turn in [End Page 317] 1930s Guangzhou led to campaigns targeting women and designed to “protect” morals and socially acceptable standards of behavior (referred to as fenghua) by dictating “appropriate” forms of dress and appearance for women; the role of the Po leung kuk (Society for the protection of women and children) in Hong Kong, a semiofficial charitable and relief organization founded in 1878 and run by Chinese elites whose original function of protecting the destitute and rescuing...