“To Bob or Not to Bob?” Revolution and the “Modern Girl” of 20th-Century Asia
From This Year's Cundill History Prize Shortlisted Title Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire by Tim Harper
The following was excerpted from Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire, by Tim Harper, which has been shortlisted for the 2021 Cundill History Prize.
At a quarter to 11 on Friday morning, January, 23 1925, the world revolution came to Kuala Lumpur. It was an otherwise slow day. The main barometer of the life of the town, the rubber price, was falling and the market sluggish. Around the Market Square the banks and businesses were closing early as people prepared for the Chinese New Year holiday. The Year of the Ox was to be announced by firecrackers at midnight, a grudging concession by British officials to the local lords of misrule.
In the late-morning bustle, a young Chinese woman made her way towards the government bungalows at the lower end of the High Street. She was alone, dressed in a white jacket, black skirt, white shoes and white stockings. She was carrying a small briefcase.
She was a striking presence. For one thing, she was not wearing a hat, as any respectable woman would do. But more than this, her hair was trimmed very short, in the modern style. There were few women of any kind to be seen in Kuala Lumpur. European women tended to come out rarely to this part of town, and then only in long dresses and hats and veils. It was a town of thrusting young men, the majority of them Chinese from the southern provinces.
In the previous decade, only about one in 14 Chinese arrivals in the Federated Malay States had been women. Many of those had been trafficked—shipped via Shanghai, Saigon, Bangkok and North Borneo to avoid detection—and were to be found in the brothels of the High Street. There were 26 Chinese brothels and 11 Japanese brothels in Kuala Lumpur with an estimated 326 known inmates. The “Protector of Chinese” in KL, Daniel Richards, had overseen 144 admissions in the Federal Home for Women and Girls in 1924.No single event heralded the arrival of the Asian revolution so much as the advent of the “Modern Girl.”
The protector’s office was on the High Street, a short walk from the Market Square, past the gambling booths and the barred, open windows of Chinatown and the heavily painted women within. The door of the office was just opposite that of the local chief of police. The girl opened it and peered in, then entered. She stood, flushed in the face, in front of Daniel Richards and his junior, Wilfred Blythe, who were seated at a table.
“There is someone threatening me,” she said in Cantonese dialect, the patois of the town, or so it seemed to Blythe’s ears. Richards asked what it was all about and she offered him the briefcase, saying that a friend had told her to give it to him.
As she placed it on the table, Richards saw two ridges on the case, as if a tin had been squeezed into it. As she appeared to fumble with the catch, Richards noticed that there did not seem to be one on the case. She then withdrew her hands and stepped back slightly. She turned and spoke again, but almost immediately there was a loud explosion.
A four-foot hole was blown in the table, the baize-green public works curtains of the office were pitted with holes and the floor was covered with shreds of paper and plaster. In the remnants of the case could be seen a switch and a single-cell battery, together with nails and fragments of a tin which bore the words “Sperry Pure Rolled Oats.”
The girl staggered out of the office, turned around, walked two or three paces then fell over on her back, blood on her mouth, at the feet of a shocked Chinese clerk.
Richards was rushed to the European hospital, the girl to the general hospital, both unconscious. Astonishingly, both of them were alive. The bomb was lightly packed and, there being little resistance, the force of the explosion was weakened. Later accounts claimed that the girl had thrown herself beneath furniture to escape the worst of the blast. Richards, however, lost the use of one hand. The girl was kept under guard for five days as the shards of metal in her forearms and face were removed; her torso was badly scarred by puncture wounds. The doctor who treated her remarked that throughout she remained calm and collected and, he was careful to add, she showed no signs of insanity.
“The bobbed-hair woman,” as she rapidly became known, was the most sensational local news story for years—at least since 1911, when a housewife, Ethel Proudlock, had shot dead her lover, claiming he had tried to rape her, an incident which only the previous year Somerset Maugham had turned into a short story, “The Letter.” But this case, by contrast, seemed to be a motiveless crime.
There was speculation that it was a crime of passion, to avenge a dead lover. The female assassin driven by “filial piety, contained sexuality, and sublimated passion” was a familiar type in public debate in China, not least in the avenging daughters of the sentimental “Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies” fiction. But the girl made no appeal to public sympathy. Nor did she make recourse to well-travelled arguments that her feminine passion had overwhelmed her reason.
The colonial public was chilled by her exacting premeditation. The “bobbed-hair woman” had arrived in Kuala Lumpur only that morning. Some reports said that she came from Canton; others that she was from Penang, and fluent in Malay. They were, above all, obsessed by the way she looked. She appeared in court on January 29, her arm still in a sling. “She has,” intoned the Straits Times, “a singularly masculine appearance. Her hair is bobbed particularly short. She is of dark com- plexion, has a scar near the right temple.”
No single event heralded the arrival of the Asian revolution so much as the advent of the “Modern Girl.” Across Asia, women were suddenly visible on the city streets, working in shops and factories, taking public transport, talking in a direct way, raising their hemlines, rouging their cheeks, crossing their legs in public and—above all—cutting their hair.
The year 1925 was when the “Modern Girl” became a global phenomenon, and in this the women of Asia took the lead. Letters to readers’ pages in local newspapers hotly debated the question, “To bob or not to bob?” Many people, and not all of them men, expressed outrage at what they saw as decadent, brazen and masculine behaviour. There were stories of “bobbed-hair riots” as far away as Mexico City, of rival “anti-bobbed-hair leagues” and “bobbed-hair defence leagues.”
From Shanghai to Tokyo to Penang, the “Modern Girl”—in Chinese modeng gou’er, in Japanese modan garu, or moga, in Malay wanita moden—suggested a cosmopolitan awareness that shocked and inspired people in equal measure. Such was the speed with which new ideas syndicated around Asia that it was impossible to say which had come from where, or who had thought of it first. What was certain was that it was no longer the west that was leading the way with things new.
The “Modern Girl” was increasingly linked to a dangerous, disordered modernity; to nihilism and to anarchism. As one expatriate journal put it: “The now notorious ‘bobbed-haired’ lady might just as well have turned up in Venezuela or Tibet for all the relation that her ‘mission’ had to events in Malaya…Politics virtually do not exist in this country.” The Straits Times brayed for a system of “identity tickets” to indicate who was a loyal subject of His Majesty King George V and who was not. There were suddenly other sightings of “strange” young women in Kuala Lumpur.
At a subsequent court appearance, in late February, her name was given as “Wong Sang.” As she waited for her case to be called, she continually glanced at the crowd and seemed to exchange smiles with spectators. Reporters noted the calmness, even disinterestedness, with which she walked to the dock. She listened to the charge with a smile. Her interest only seemed to be aroused when the police chief held in his hand a photograph taken ‘evidently when she was much younger and before she bobbed her hair’. She kept staring at the photograph until it was hidden from view.
At the root of the case was her “new style.” As the sole official statement on the case put it: “The woman who was self-educated and educated in opposition to the wishes of her parents is obsessed with an idea of grievance against the world in general.” Her trial came to the Kuala Lumpur Assizes two months after the event, on March 23, delayed due to Richards’s stay in hospital. Wong Sang entered the courtroom with complete composure and, with what the court reporter called ‘a complacent smile’, as she took the dock she surveyed the court and gallery.
The room lacked ornament. There was a raised and partitioned area for the judge and his three assessors, in the absence of trial by jury, and a large semicircular table for the counsel. The capacious dock was guarded by Sikh policemen, who were rotated every half-hour. Where the jury would sit in an English court there was the high chair for the interpreters, like that “used by umpires at tennis.” The proceedings, which were entirely in English, broken by hurried translation, were rarely understood by the accused, and the testimony rarely understood directly by the judge. The whole affair resembled a military court martial.
When asked to plead, Wong Sang said only that she had nothing to say. She briefed no counsel and called no witnesses. The judge pressed her to explain herself.
“I admit I brought the bomb to the Protectorate,” she told him in the flat tones of the court interpreter. “I admit that I did wrong. I plead guilty. I ask for leniency. I have a very bad temper”: this was said with a smile. “I have repented for what I have done.”
“You say you have a very bad temper,” the judge ventured further. “I do not know whether you wish to explain that. Is it that you have some ill-feeling?”
“I do not wish to say anything beyond what I have already stated.”
His lordship then turned to the deputy public prosecutor to ask him to speak in her defence: “This woman has not as far as I can see told us the motives as to why she did this: have enquiries been made?”
“Some political reasons, my lord.”
“Has she said so?”
“Yes, she has—several times. She has got some weird notions about the brotherhood of man and other things.”
“Was she born in Penang?”
“Yes, my lord, but she has been in Canton. Her father was banished from this country and later killed in Canton. She has made some very broad statements as to her opinions on political questions—very loose, wild sort of anarchical statements, but there is no definite statement against Mr Richards personally.”
She was sentenced to ten years’ rigorous imprisonment. As he delivered the sentence, the judge rebuked her.
“After having told the authorities in prison or hospital, I don’t know where, that you did this for political reasons you ask me to be lenient with you on the ground that you have a bad temper, and that is about all the assistance we can get. It is impossible for me to be lenient with you even though you are a woman, because you have committed such a particularly cruel and dastardly crime. You, therefore, must be rigorously imprisoned for ten years.”
The press reported “that eternal smile” as the verdict was read to her. They were shocked at the court’s leniency, even though such long sentences were relatively rare.
In the west, when such dangerous individuals were brought to trial, legal process had by the later 19th century increasingly demanded some form of confession or self-revelation. Even in this colonial parody of the law—where the accused had no representation and called no witnesses—there seemed to be a similar expectation that the accused “really ought to speak a little about themselves, if they want to be judged.” But the “bobbed-hair woman” had remained silent. She had evaded the crucial question: “Who are you?”
Excerpted from Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire, by Tim Harper. Copyright © 2021. Available from Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.