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Women and Malay Voices

Undercurrent Murmurings in Indonesia’s Colonial Past


Tineke Hellwig

Women and Malay Voices examines Malay literature by Chinese peranakan authors in the Dutch East Indies between 1915 and 1940. The narratives, some of them based on sensational murder trials reported in the news, offer insights into women’s lives and experiences and glimpses of female agency. With its primary focus on Malay texts and Asian women, this book offers a unique opportunity to hear subaltern voices and understand the lives of colonized women in new ways. Using feminist and postcolonial theories, this study juxtaposes the Malay texts with Dutch fiction and newspaper accounts to gain insight into how gender, race, and class are represented and what ideologies marked power relations in Dutch East Indies society.


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Chapter 5 Nyais of Plantation Managers 99


Chapter 5 Nyais of Plantation Managers Soon after European men set foot on the Indonesian islands and started to build trading posts and settle on these shores around 1600, they acquired the habit of inviting local Asian women to share their households and their beds. Over the centuries concubinage or nyaihood became institutionalized and these Asian women gave birth to generations of hybrid “bastard” children born out of wedlock. Historical studies that have scrutinized concubinage and interracial marriages (Taylor 1983; Stoler 1990, 1991, 1992) reveal unequivocally that the nyai personified inequalities of power at multiple levels, i.e. in terms of gender, race, class and age. Nyais were formally without rights and could not legally claim anything, not even their own children (Baay 2008, 83). Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when travel time between the Netherlands and the colony shortened because of faster modes of transportation and the opening of the Suez Canal, the number of European residents in the Indies increased. Many of the newcomers, particularly the women, were surprised to find European men cohabiting and having children with Asian women, and they publicly denounced the practice. This general disapproval led to two reactions (Baay 2008, 33–34). In a number of cases the nyai’s position moved socially upward, as she was expected to adjust herself to European culture, to take on European manners, and to accompany her master at public events as if she were his wife. Sometimes her master would indeed marry her. More frequently, however,...

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