I’ve just begun writing a book chapter about the travels of white wives of Chinese men from Australia/NZ to China in the period 1880 to 1930. It’s a topic that I’ve been gathering material on for years and years, but now it’s down to actually writing something concrete and (hopefully) intelligent, it’s proving difficult to work out how exactly I’m going to frame their stories.
What’s troubling me most right now is the overwhelmingly depressing tales that emerge from the sources, like this one that I found this morning, titled ‘Harbor Bridge Suicide’ from the Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 17 January 1933:
At the inquest yesterday into the death of Mary Anne Mee Hing (62), who jumped off the Harbor bridge on January 5, it was stated that she was an Australian woman who had married a Chinese store-keeper with whom she went to China.
Her husband’s people disowned her, and she returned to Australia, where her parents refused to have anything to do with her. She returned to China and found her husband married to a young Chinese girl.
The woman thereupon came back to Australia, where she took to drink and subsequently ended her life.
The coroner returned a verdict of suicide.
I will see if I can get the full records of the inquest, in the hope that there are more subtle shades to the story, but The full records of the coroner’s inquest into Mary Anne’s death no longer exist, and from the other little bits and pieces I’ve found about her, it seems quite possible that Mary Anne’s life was as full of disappointment and heartbreak as this short report suggests. So many reports tell of marriages that have broken down, of women returning to Australia in financial and emotional distress, of illness, death or separation from children. The nature of these sources is something that I’ve tackled before, in my work on Agnes Breuer’s visit to China with her husband in 1933, but as I look over the bits and pieces I’ve assembled I now wonder if I’m wrong in wanting to assert that the difficult and unhappy times related in the sources are not a fair representation of how white wives experienced China.
At the heart of my response to the sources is my own response to life in China, most particularly as part of a Chinese family there. I went to China more or less on a whim, and it overwhelmed my life, both personally (I fell in love and married there – a relationship that, like many of my subjects’, has not endured) and intellectually (it sparked my passion for Chinese Australian history). There were and are aspects of life in China that I love, and aspects that I find so very difficult to deal with. It is a place where I have been both my happiest and my most unhappy.
If you caught me in the right mood I could paint a picture of my time as Chinese wife and daughter-in-law that was as sensational or pathetic as any that appear in my 19th and early 20th century sources. From seemingly small things, like not being allowed to wash my hair on feast days or to use a needle and thread while pregnant, to bigger things, like the idea of letting my parents-in-law raise my baby or meeting women in the village who had effectively been bought by their husbands. There were many things that contradicted my own (university-educated, Western, liberal, feminist) sense of how the world should work and ultimately how I wanted my own life to be.
At the same time though, spending time in China both as an independent entity and as part of a family has brought me a richness of experience and knowledge, a strength of character and sense of self, and many memories and stories that I would never had if I had stayed safely home in Australia. So if you asked me on another day, I might rave about how wonderful China is and how much I miss being there.
Couldn’t this also be the case for my white wives of a century ago? I know of wives who made short uneventful trips (happy holidays, even?) to China with their husbands and children. And I have scant detail about perhaps half a dozen white wives who stayed living in their husbands’ south China villages for long periods, like one who was described by New Zealand Presbyterian missionary Alexander Don as being ‘far more important in [the] Chinese village than she would have been in her own country’ (Otago Witness, 11 April 1906).
I don’t want the focus of this chapter to be on the biases and prejudices of the missionaries, newspaper reporters and government officials who recorded the experiences of my white wives, rather I want to think about the lives of the women themselves. But with a growing amount of evidence to suggest that my sources are going to remain weighted to the negative, I’m going to have to think about how or if it might be possible for them to reveal a more balanced account. If ever were a time for reading ‘against the grain’, I think this might be it.