Helen F. Siu, ed. Merchants’ Daughters: Women, Commerce, and Regional Culture in South China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011. 375 pp. ISBN 978-988-8083-48-0 (paperback).


This collection of eleven essays by historians and anthropologists examines the lives of women in South China, with emphasis on Hong Kong. The authors have employed a variety of ethnographic, literary and historical sources to “challenge static and dichotomous frameworks that stress patriarchy, women’s subjugation and resistance,” which in their view dominate gender studies on South China (p. 1). The essays are organized chronologically into three parts, starting from the Ming and Qing dynasties in Part I: “Cultural Spaces between State-Making and Kinship,” Part II: “Agency in Emigrant, Colonial, and Mercantile Societies,” covers the colonial period, and Part III: “Work and Activism in a Gendered Age,” from around the 1950s to the 1990s.

In Part I, Chapter One, Liu Zhiwei explores how the tales of the “Sisters-in-Law Tomb” in Guangzhou were altered by local scholar-officials who were keen to promote state orthodoxy and local interests. In Chapter Two, David Faure studies the biographies of three Huo lineage women, described as supportive mothers, filial daughters-in-law, and efficient household managers, and reflects on the conventions of works devoted to elite women. Chapter Three by Ching May-bo discusses marriage ballads in muyushu (literally, wooden fish book), songbooks of popular narratives rendered in a verse style of seven-character lines in colloquial Cantonese. While Faure and Liu show that male elites appropriated women’s representations and stories, Ching rereads the ballads not simply as marriage laments but also as sites that women used to celebrate their intimate friendships. Chapter Four by Chan Wing-hoi, examines how women’s work and their management of food sources (sweet potatoes and pigs) shaped their roles within the family and descent groups. Peasant women displayed frugality and self-sacrifice in a distinctly gendered consumption pattern, and were thus crucial to the economic well-being of their families and lineage groups.

In Part II, Chapter Five, Choi Chi-cheung examines the dichotomy of southern families presided over by absent men and managed by capable women. Although some Chaozhou women had capital, many could not enter the business world because there was no institutional protection for women. This changed when men from Chaozhou emigrated overseas, and women started to take on managerial and entrepreneurial roles. Remittances from wealthier male emigrants kept their wives and female family members cloistered, while poor peasant women became more visible as they utilized resources remitted from overseas. Chapter Six by Carl T. Smith examines Chinese and Eurasian women who were on the margins of expatriate society in the coastal cities. Some of these enjoyed few restrictions in their relationship with non-Chinese or non-local men. Such alliances allowed them to own land and property, make investments, reap profit from loans, open brothels, purchase or adopt children for prostitution, and receive protection from their foreign lovers. Chapter Seven by Josephine Lai-kuen Wong is a biographical account of Lady Clara Ho Tung, who utilized her immense wealth and contacts to pursue her religious interests, and in turn contributed to improving the social welfare and education of women in Hong Kong.

Part III starts with Helen Siu’s Chapter Eight, which describes the lives of three nü qiangren (women of influence), whose privileged social status, high level of education and civic participation raised their social profile. Their lives contrast sharply with the women workers of Chapter Nine by Choi Po-king. These women contributed to the postwar “economic miracle” in Hong Kong from the 1960s to the 1990s, but were denied the fruits of the so-called miracle. When Hong Kong shifted from a manufacturing to a service-focused economy, they had to contend with “job insecurity, unemployment, and enforced redomestication” (p. 197). Choi employs self-conscious analytical methods that are sensitive to the women’s need to represent themselves, and reveals the intimate interior fissures and discrepancies they experienced. Chapter Ten by Yan Lijun, Yang Meijian and Zhang Taotao, examines the lives of women from Guangdong, covering a period of thirty years from the late 1950s, and shows how women attained social mobility: by moving from rural to urban areas, through marriages, and escaping to Hong Kong. In these accounts, young urban women experienced disillusionment when they lived in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, but their disenchantment with the system paled in comparison to the young illiterate peasant women who committed suicide to escape their miserable conditions at work (unequal pay) and enforced mercenary marriages. In Chapter Eleven, Pheng Cheah uses Fruit Chan’s movie Durian Durian, a story of a Chinese mainland northern woman who returns home after working as a sex worker in Hong Kong, to critique the fantasies of Chinese-ness, and “exposes the superficiality of transnational Chinese ethnic fraternity” (p. 265).

The theme of work performed by women in South China ties the essays loosely together and these individual essays will be useful for classroom use. The book also reveals the diverse disciplinary methods available today for the study of women in China.

(Margaret Wee-Siang Ng, McGill University, Montreal)