Who Belongs in the Empire? Culture, Race, and Malleable Identities in East and Southeast Asian Port Cities, 1840-1900
3: British Subjects by Birth, Imperial Citizens by Choice: The Straits Chinese and Cultural Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century Colonial Malaya
Saturday, March 26, 2022
12:30pm – 2:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
La Trobe University, Australia
In 1897, the Straits Chinese trader Khun Yiong was arrested and imprisoned by Chinese authorities in Amoy, China over an unpaid debt to a German firm operating in the treaty port. Despite protestations that he was a British subject by virtue of birth and residence in Singapore, the British Consul in Amoy denied Khun representation on the basis that he was not a true British subject but rather a Chinese national attempting to levy his birthplace in a British territory to escape Chinese sanction. Khun’s plight prompted lively commentary amongst the Chinese of the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore about British subjecthood and the rights it entailed. Drawing from contemporary accounts from the time, this paper investigates how Straits Chinese with the status of British subjects conceived of their subjecthood and understood their place in the British Empire and beyond.
In particular, I make the case that Anglophile Straits Chinese understood British subjecthood as a form of what historian Daniel Gorman calls ‘imperial citizenship’: legal and juridical rights in exchange for loyalty to the Crown. Drawing on the ground-breaking work of Lynn Hollen Lees, who has made a compelling case for how being British in Malaya went beyond legal definitions of status and incorporated a cultural identification with the symbols, language, and style of the Empire, I contend that this conception of subject-as-citizen derived from a sense of cultural citizenship developed through the inculcation of cultural ‘Britishness’ within sections of the community.