Introducing Tamara Cooper

Tamara Cooper is a PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong in Australia. 

Her research focus is on the British Women’s Missionary Movement and its involvement in debates on the trafficking in women and children in China and Hong Kong during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her wider research interests include histories of imperialism, empire, religion, and women’s history.

I stumbled into the study of missionaries during my honours year. Previously I had completed a small research project on the connections between globalisation, orientalism, and imperialism during the Opium Wars as part of my undergraduate degree. I was wanting to expand on these themes in my honours research but was interested in adding the element of gender. I was primarily interested in examining ways in which the different cultures of the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ interacted with each other in the 19th Century. In my quest to add the element of gender to my research I stumbled upon a book called ‘Pagoda Shadows’. It was written by an American Baptist missionary called Adele Fielde. Upon my discovery of this book, my honours thesis became an examination of Fielde’s work in China and how this was part of a larger cultural imperial project.

My PhD thesis continues this theme of examining the work of missionaries, except this time it jumps between China and Hong Kong. In this thesis, I examine how the British women’s missionary movement intervened in and interacted with the trafficking debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one of the central questions of the thesis is to what extent did the missionaries intervene and what was the nature of this intervention. By examining the work of a number of women missionaries from various missionary societies I have found that missionaries were less inclined to join formal protests led by advocates in the British metropole, and instead relied upon evangelisation and conversion as a means of intervention.

The late nineteenth century is an interesting time for the women’s missionary movement, particularly in China and Hong Kong. It was at this time that missionary societies started actively recruiting women, specifically single women, into the movement. Due to the gender segregation of Chinese society and culture, the missionary movement was not able to succeed without the contribution of women. Single women were of a particular value as they were without the responsibilities of the married woman missionary, whose duties within the family often left her without enough time for evangelisation, or so the argument went. This active recruitment of single women into the missionary movement had another effect: it professionalised and legitimised the single woman missionary. The turn of the twentieth century saw the numbers of women missionaries equal that of male missionaries.

I chose to include Hong Kong as a case study in my thesis primarily because of the mui tsai controversy of the 1920s and 1930s. Briefly, the controversy was a dispute over the employment of young girls as domestic servants called mui tsai. Those against the employment of mui tsai argued that it was akin to slavery, while others argued that it was an act of charity that saved the young girls from a life of neglect. My research is not focused so much on which side was right but rather what the missionaries were doing during this debate.

In the Church Missionary Society (CMS) archives, held at the University of Birmingham, I came across the papers of the Victoria Home and Orphanage, a rescue centre that had been established in Hong Kong by CMS missionaries. The home, or school, was founded in 1888 by Mrs Mary Ost and her husband Reverend John Ost, who had been sent to Hong Kong in 1881 to take up the post of vicar in the church of St Stephens. In the home’s first annual report, Reverend Ost reported that one of the primary functions of the home was to facilitate the rescue of young girls who he believed would otherwise be forced into a “life of immorality”. The Osts only ran the home until 1892, when they were transferred to the society’s mission in Pakhoi (Beihai). Following the departure of the Osts, the home was run by Miss Agnes Hamper, a single woman missionary who was sent to the home at the end of 1888. From 1892 onwards the home was run by missionaries who were single women.

While the home operated as a school, its intended function was as a rescue centre for young girls. Some of the stories of the girls who were rescued by the home were featured in the home’s annual report; however, the most telling record of the girls who were rescued and brought to the Victoria Home comes from a list of inmates, or students, for 1898. The handwritten list contains details such as each girl’s name, her age, who brought her to the home, when she was brought to the home, and who admitted her. It also contained details about why girls were brought to the home; which in turn revealed information about how missionaries intervened in trafficking beyond just running rescue homes. While a fair number of the girls were brought to the home on behalf of the Registrar General, there were a number who were brought to the home by missionaries, including members of the Church Missionary Society.

There are two stories of young girls included in this list that I found particularly interesting, the stories of Wong Mui and Wong Kui. In June 1897, Miss Hamper admitted Wong Mui, aged twenty, to the home. Wong Mui had been described as a slave girl who worked in Pakhoi and had been rescued by missionaries of the CMS before being brought to the home. In April of the following year, Hamper admitted Wong Kui, aged seventeen, to the home. Wong Kui had been sold to San Francisco where she had been rescued by Presbyterian missionaries who returned her to Hong Kong. Wong Kui only stayed at the home until she was married.

The Victoria Home ran until 1935 when it merged with the neighbouring Fairlea School also run by the CMS. The Fairlea school had previously been run by the Female Education Society. In 1899 the Female Education Society was disbanded. Upon its disbandment, all of its properties and missionaries were absorbed into the CMS. This move ensured a continued relationship between the two schools. When the Victoria Home and Fairlea School merged, they became the Heep Yunn School, an Anglican Day and Boarding School for girls. The Heep Yunn School still operates as an Anglican school in Hong Kong.

While the Victoria Home undoubtedly had a lasting impact, on the lives of the girls it took in, I believe that its most intriguing legacy is that of the colony’s missionary women. Throughout the home’s history, it was run almost entirely by women. These women maintained control over the home in the face of the overwhelming male leadership of the CMS. The home’s interactions with other rescue organisations in Hong Kong reveals a network of female leadership within the wider missionary community. A network that was, I believe, symptomatic of the increasing influence and power that women were coming into within the missionary movement.