Gender & Space at Tai Kwun Reclaims the History of Women in Hong Kong

This article is brought to you by Tai Kwun.

There’s a striking collection of images that greets you as you enter the Duplex Studio in Tai Kwun’s Block 1, the Police Headquarters Block, where the exhibition Gender & Space is running until January 15. You are faced with photos of the policemen and male prison warders who used to inhabit this place – British, Indian, and Chinese men dressed up in their uniforms, following the rules of racial hierarchy and segregation that the British had imposed on Hong Kong. They look at the camera with expressionless faces. The main question that accompanies this stimulating exhibition is: where are the women? Do we see their shadows in history, even in photos like these ones, where they do not appear, is their omitted presence a reality just behind these uniforms and these hierarchies?

The answer, sometimes whispered and sometimes spelled out loud, is “yes” – as no society, not even a prison society, could exist without women, even if in some cases they have been erased from history. Taking as its starting point the very space in which it is held, this exhibition places women in their rightful context, from the police married quarters and Victoria Gaol outward to other aspects of Hong Kong society. We learn about who the wives of the police officers and prison masters might have been, and about the female inmates, for whom the colonial authorities decided to have matrons, or female prison guards.

Sir Henry May, before becoming governor of Hong Kong from 1912 to 1918, had been the captain superintendent of police and the superintendent of the Victoria Gaol, which was renamed Victoria Prison in 1899. He lived there with his family, in what is now Tai Kwun, from 1897 to 1901.

1. Parade Ground. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Museum of History
2. Warders and staff in 1905. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Museum of History

The matrons also did not appear in the photographs, but by tracing their names and those of nurses serving at the prison from the administrative books kept during colonial times, it has been possible to resurface some of their identities, a small but crucial detail to imagine what their work experiences were like. Some of them were Portuguese or Macanese, a few were British, and some had Chinese names. A black plaque hangs at the exhibition, carrying the names of 40 of them who worked here from 1855 to 1931. It’s a surprising and touching tribute to their existence, which has been made possible by the dedication of curatorial research.

“We couldn’t find any of their visual representations,” says Dr. Anita Chung, Head of Heritage at Tai Kwun and curator-in-charge of this exhibition. “But being able to write down their names hints at their contribution of services.” Chung says one of the major aims of this exhibition is precisely that – to show “alternative histories, filling a gap in the history of Tai Kwun”.

Just outside the walls of the old prison and the Central Police Station were a number of licensed sex workers, divided into those that worked at brothels for Europeans customers on the streets of Central — notably Hollywood Road, Wellington Street, Lyndhurst Terrace, Wyndham Street— and those who worked in brothels for Chinese customers, located further west in the Tai Ping Shan and later Shek Tong Shui areas. What were called “lower-class foreign houses” were located in Wan Chai, and the customers who went there were soldiers, sailors and Malay labourers. These women were just as invisible to the history books as the women of Victoria Prison. And just like those women, a careful usage of the remaining photos, newspapers, magazines, and archive materials has made it possible to reconstruct fragments of their lives, giving some dignity back to them.

One of the most striking things we can see and feel as we look at a diversity of women’s portraits is how, while gender inequality, marginalisation and, at times, exploitation were an important part of their lives, their agency and identities should not be forgotten and erased. Among the women were so-called “protected women” who engaged in long-term sexual relationships with the foreigners, and their Eurasian descendants, a category apart in Hong Kong’s racial hierarchy, who faced discrimination from both Chinese and European society. These women created their own support groups. The Eurasian community became one of the most significant pillars in Hong Kong’s economic and cultural development. Many Eurasian men became compradores (agents for foreign merchants) and some of their names are still easily recognisable in today’s Hong Kong.

1. The sisters of the French Convent School received their first orphan girls in 1848. Courtesy of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres, Hong Kong
2. Growing up poor was the experience of many urban street girls in early Hong Kong. Courtesy of the Special Collections, University of Bristol Library

Through this exhibition it is possible to start to imagine the experiences, maybe even the thoughts, of women who lived decades ago and found themselves at the intersection of race, class, and gender, and how they negotiated their roles and identities in order to survive in the best possible way in early Hong Kong. Some women kept written records of their lives, allowing us today to reconstruct some of what they experienced through their own words.

The exhibition dedicates a significant amount of space to girls, known as mui tsai (mui6 zai2 妹仔, “little sister”) who had been sold into bonded servitude to wealthy families, a Chinese custom that at the end of the 19th and in the early 20th centuries became the target of different anti-slavery campaigns spearheaded by British women, religious leaders, and other local Chinese, who campaigned against female indented labour. Their pressure campaigns were effective, as the mui tsai system was legally regulated in Hong Kong in 1923 and in subsequent law amendments in 1929 and 1938. Brothels for foreigners were closed in 1932, and those for Chinese in 1935. It’s another demonstration of the intersecting concerns around gender in early Hong Kong, from the impositions of poverty to social activism to the female morality that coalesced around the suffragette movement in Britain.

Gender & Space is not a purely historical exhibition. It’s also the setting for encounters at the Gender Salon, an elevated space that hosts public talks and open meetings. Visitors can also go there to sit and watch videos, and maybe strike up a conversation about gender inequalities then and today – because, just as the Central Police Station compound has been transformed into Tai Kwun, the questions of gender and society continue to evolve.

Gender & Space: Women in the Shadow of History runs until January 15, 2023 at the Duplex Studio, Block 1, Tai Kwun. Click here for more information.


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