Chapter 7. A journey of love: Agnes Breuer’s sojourn in 1930s China

Kate Bagnall

In his 1933 book, White China: An Austral-Asian sensation, journalist John Sleeman discussed the story of a young Queensland woman that had appeared in Sydney’s World newspaper the previous year.[1] The sensational article claimed that after marrying a Chinese man in Townsville, the woman had gone with him to China where she was treated badly by her husband and his family. The World wrote that a fortnight after having a baby, the woman was ‘forced to work in the rice fields like a coolie’, that she lived ‘under conditions that an Australian would scorn to allot to a diseased dog’ and that her child was taken away by her husband’s Chinese wife. The story had come to the World from a party of Anzac members of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps who had helped the Salvation Army ‘rescue’ the woman from China and facilitate her return to Australia.

The World article was like something from the pages of a melodrama: a sensationalist tale of slavery, immorality, racial pollution, cruelty, kidnapping and piracy mixed together with tropes of female helplessness and the heroism of the white Australian male. It spoke of a ‘thrilling rescue’ from a ‘Chinese hell’, of ‘terrible conditions’ and ‘frightful cruelties’. Its white Australian heroine, identified only by the Chinese name of Low Mun, was nineteen years old and ‘very beautiful’—and she was but one of a number of women in similar situations, the article claimed, two of whom were still ‘being held captive’. Moralistic as well as sensational, the article ended with a quote from one of the woman’s Anzac rescuers. He said, ‘Australian women who marry Chinese should heed the perils attached to such, and should on no account accompany their husbands to China.’[2]

In White China, Sleeman countered the World’s version of the woman’s experiences by reproducing a statement she gave to customs officials on returning to Australia. Her statement, as published in the book, itself given a journalistic gloss by Sleeman, highlighted the exaggeration of the newspaper reports and noted that some of her Anzac rescuers were, in fact, press men (in Sleeman’s words, ‘scandal-mongers intent on falsifying fact to get a thrill out of falsehood’). The statement addressed particular points of exaggeration from the World’s account. The woman had not had to live in a hut, nor did she have to work in the rice fields; instead, she had stayed in a flat on the main street of the town and had not even been made to do her own housework! She was certainly not held captive and could have left for Australia at any time, albeit not easily with her infant son.

The real root of her difficulties, she said, came from her father-in-law’s objections to her marriage to his eldest son. Her father-in-law had been angry with her and with his son, whom he disowned for marrying against the family’s wishes. Picking up on this, Sleeman argued that:

It is the sort of thing that is happening every day, everywhere. It is the story of a family dispute. The least said, the soonest mended. The girl had a very unhappy experience, the sort of experience that thousands of Australian girls have at home without taking a trip to China to find.[3]

The woman had married her husband of her own free will, and of her own free will had gone with him to China. According to Sleeman’s argument, it was a simple example of ‘domestic infelicity’ and he suggested that this one case should not be made to stand for all, saying: ‘Many of our women who have married Chinese have lived happily and have reared children who to-day are playing a big part in the most important stage of world history.’[4]

Sleeman’s White China was, according to Shirley Fitzgerald, ‘perhaps the most widely read work on [the] China–Australia relationship in the ’30s’.[5] The book’s main argument concerned the state of trade between China and Australia, yet its tone was far from that of a dry work of economic theory. Sleeman, a former publicist for NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang and editor of the short-lived but vivacious weekly magazine Beckett’s Budget, was an old hand at wrapping politics and idealism in colour and drama. White China followed the same formula, ranging widely in its discussions: ‘Chapters on Chinese culture and political events were juxtaposed with details of Australian involvement and attitudes, from the heroic to the villainous, in a compilation designed to target the Australian conscience.’[6]

Sleeman placed the Queensland woman’s story in a chapter on ‘The women of China’—among accounts of some of the Middle Kingdom’s great and legendary women, including Madame Sun Yat-sen, the Dowager Empress T’zu Hsi and Yang Kuei-fei—and he gave it as many words as he gave any of them. There was something about the story, or perhaps more particularly about the way it had been told in the press, that was behind Sleeman’s decision to include it in the book; it certainly gave him another opportunity to lecture his reader about the foolishness of Australia’s attitudes towards Asia and Asians. There was, however, also an untold personal connection between Sleeman and the unnamed woman, through their separate connections to businessman and Chinese community activist William Liu. It is likely that Sleeman was given access to the woman’s statement—‘duly signed and witnessed, to the Australian Government, through the agency of a Customs officer’—through Liu.

A sensational story

The World article appeared on Wednesday, 21 September 1932 and further details about the dramatic events in China were revealed in the next weeks, as the press in Sydney and Queensland pursued the story. On the evening of 21 September, a Brisbane newspaper retold the story from the World under the banner ‘Young Queensland woman rescued from Chinese—wife in Australia was slave in Orient’.[7] The next day, the Townsville Evening Star gave full details of the woman’s identity, but it was likely that much of the Townsville population would already have known who she was, had they chanced on the papers of the previous day. The Evening Star stated that she was ‘originally Agnes Breuer’, and that she had married, late in the previous year, ‘a cultured young Chinese named William Lum Mow, the son of a well-known Chinese merchant, formerly of North Queensland, but now resident in China’.[8] It outlined how in March that year the young couple left Australia for Shekki in China and how it was there that the Australian wife discovered the presence of a Chinese wife—an event that was only the beginning of her ‘sensational story’. On 26 September, the Daily Mail published a photograph of the couple and their newborn son—a seemingly happy young family—sent to her parents and just arrived with the Hong Kong mail.[9]

On 27 September, the Evening Star reported that Agnes was finally on board the SS Taiping, ‘bound for home and safety after a succession of terrifying experiences as the wife of a Chinese’. It quoted from a letter from one Harold Brockenshire, ‘Australian journalist, resident in China’, who had written to a Sydney friend with news of Agnes’s plight and plans for the rescue:

After the marriage the Chinese carried the girl off to his native village. She found on arrival that he already had a Chinese wife and a couple of concubines. She has had a baby, and is in a bad way. To-morrow we catch the boat to Macao [from Hong Kong], dash to the village, and seize the girl.[10]

The press coverage of Agnes’s ‘rescue’ and return to Australia drew on the themes presented first in the World article. Headlines included ‘Rescue in China—Townsville girl’s plight—sensational story of bondage’, ‘Fled from life of sorrow—rescue of white girl in China’ and ‘East is East—Australian girl’s rescue—married to bigamous Chinese’.[11] Agnes spoke to the press on her arrival in Australia on 4 October, firmly denying the allegations made by the World about her time overseas. Nevertheless, her story was an unhappy one and she confessed that during her stay she had lived under ‘wretched conditions’. ‘I am very pleased and excited to get back home to Australia,’ she said.[12]

Her Anzac rescuer’s comment in the World article—that ‘Australian women who marry Chinese should heed the perils attached to such, and should on no account accompany their husbands to China’—echoed sentiments expressed time and again in discussions of Anglo-Chinese intermarriage in previous decades. These discussions, together with that of Agnes’s experiences, focused greatly on troubles caused by the fact that women not only chose to marry across racial boundaries, they left Australia (or England or America) and went with their husbands to China. Crossing the racial line in choosing a husband was one thing, but going with him to ‘heathen’, ‘barbarian’ China was another. It was thought widely that the chances of a successful marriage between a Chinese man and a white woman were generally very slim, but in China were virtually impossible.[13]

Sleeman was unique among commentators in arguing that Agnes’s situation was one common to many Australian women, that it was a personal and familial problem in which race, culture, language and place played little part. Most accounts were generally negative and frequently condescending, and there were very few published accounts by families themselves that could be used to counter the dominant narrative.[14] With the case of Agnes Breuer, however, there is a small but significant collection of personal documents, which together with Sleeman’s White China and Agnes’s statements to the press and correspondence with government officials, reveals a level of detail of her own thoughts and personal experience that makes it possible to go behind the superficial public commentary about her relationship and to consider from a more intimate perspective the particular challenges faced by white wives who chose to accompany their Chinese husbands to China.

In these documents, the challenges to love across racial and cultural boundaries in white Australia become apparent. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australia could be ambiguous and contradictory in its reactions to interracial sex and marriage between white women and non-white men.[15] Increasingly, white women who formed intimate relationships with Chinese men and bore their children found that the interracial and sometimes transnational nature of their love and relationships conflicted with the ideologies, policies and mechanisms of the emerging nation-state. Their lives and personal dramas became not simply stories of family trouble, but could be and were drawn into and impacted on by wider narratives of racial and national anxiety.

Figure 7.1: Agnes and William Lum Mow, with baby William, Shekki, August 1932. Agnes Breuer told Australian reporters that William Lum Mow’s Chinese wife was ‘furiously jealous’ of this photograph (Telegraph, 4 October 1932). She sent the picture to her parents from China and it was published in the Daily Mail on 26 September 1932 under the heading ‘A cheerful couple’.

Figure 7.1: Agnes and William Lum Mow, with baby William, Shekki, August 1932. Agnes Breuer told Australian reporters that William Lum Mow’s Chinese wife was ‘furiously jealous’ of this photograph (Telegraph, 4 October 1932). She sent the picture to her parents from China and it was published in the Daily Mail on 26 September 1932 under the heading ‘A cheerful couple’.

Courtesy: Liz McNamee

[1] Sleeman, John H. C. 1933, White China: An Austral-Asian sensation, self-published, Sydney, pp. 126–32.

[2] World, 21 September 1932.

[3] Sleeman, White China, p. 131.

[4] Ibid., p. 132.

[5] Fitzgerald, Shirley 1996, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The story of Sydney’s Chinese, State Library of New South Wales Press, p. 128.

[6] Ibid., p. 129.

[7] Unreferenced newspaper cutting, dated 21 September 1932, National Archives of Australia (hereafter NAA), A433, 1942/2/3297.

[8] Townsville Evening Star, 22 September 1932.

[9] Daily Mail, 26 September 1932.

[10] Townsville Evening Star, 27 September 1932.

[11] Townsville Evening Star, 22 and 27 September 1932; Telegraph, 4 October 1932.

[12] Brisbane Courier, 4 October 1932; Townsville Daily Bulletin, 4 October 1932.

[13] See, for instance, Norton-Kyshe, James 1971, The History of the Laws and Courts of Hong Kong from the Earliest Period to 1898. Volume 2, Vetch and Lee Ltd, Hong Kong, pp. 520–1. It is interesting to note that Chinese Australian commentators were similarly opposed to the idea of relationships between Chinese men and white women. See, for example, Tung Wah Times [Donghua xinbao], 26 August 1899, 29 November 1899, 14 and 21 September 1907. An introduction to questions of gender in the nineteenth-century Chinese Australian newspapers can be found in Poon, Yulan 1995, ‘The two-way mirror: contemporary issues as seen through the eyes of the Chinese language press, 1901–1911’, in Shirley Fitzgerald and Garry Wotherspoon (eds), Minorities: Cultural diversity in Sydney, State Library of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

[14] Two examples of detailed and publicly accessible accounts of the experiences of white wives in China are Mae Franking’s My Chinese Marriage, originally published in 1921 (Porter, Katherine Anne 1991, Mae Franking’s My Chinese Marriage: An annotated edition, University of Texas Press, Austin), and Yue Henry Jackson, ‘My reminiscences 1890–1917’, Micro MS 112, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand.

[15] See, for example, Haskins, Victoria and Maynard, John 2005, ‘Sex, race and power: Aboriginal men and white women in Australian history’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 37, no. 126, pp. 191–216; Ellinghaus, Katherine 2006, Taking Assimilation to Heart: Marriages of white women and indigenous men in the United States and Australia, 1887–1937, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London.