2020-2021 Williams Prize Award Winners

Gregory Jany and Jenna Shin
May 27, 2021

Gregory Jany (Jonathan Edwards ‘21) and Jenna Shin (Morse ‘21) are the winners of the 2021 Williams Prize in East Asian Studies.  Gregory, for his essay submitted to the Department of History, “Imperial Crossings: Chinese Indentured Migration to Sumatra’s East Coast, 1865-1911,” and Jenna for her essay submitted to the East Asian Studies Program, “A Comfort Women Redress Movement without Comfort Women.”

The Council on East Asian Studies had a chance to catch up with Gregory and Jenna shortly before graduation and they kindly answered a few of our questions about their essays.

Gregory Jany

To begin, could you please provide an abstract or brief summary of your essay entitled “Imperial Crossings: Chinese Indentured Migration to Sumatra’s East Coast, 1865-1911”?

In my essay, I trace the lives of Chinese indentured migrants to Sumatra in the Netherlands Indies across multiple archives located in Taiwan, Singapore, the Netherlands, and Indonesia. Between 1881 to 1900, more than 121,000 Chinese migrants left southern China, stopping in the port-cities of Singapore and Penang in the British Straits Settlements before leaving again to labor in the tobacco plantations of Dutch Sumatra. The journey of these indentured laborers across multiple jurisdictions produced curious inter-imperial connections across Asia. 

First, I illustrate how the efforts of Straits Settlements and Netherlands Indies officials in the 1870s to regulate the movement of Chinese labor migrants strengthened a forming Anglo-Dutch border in the Straits of Malacca. These efforts emerged from the paradoxical need to secure the “freedom” of migrants through bureaucratic controls. Then, in the 1880s, Dutch planters attempted to redirect the route these migrants took to contest the power of Chinese players in the migration industry. They tried to recruit laborers directly from southern China and bypass the existing network of Chinese brokers in the Straits Settlements. The task the planters faced was never simple: they depended on inter-imperial networks to achieve their goals, and Chinese brokers and migrants alike complicated the planters’ attempts through spectacular forms of mutiny and everyday forms of resistance. In the last chapter of my essay, I show how these laborers actively maintained ties to China as they navigated the brutality of plantation life. Concurrently, the Qing government made claims to protect these emigrants as a sovereign state. This mutual act of defining the relationship between China and its diaspora was central to the configuration of a more global China. By foregrounding these entangled histories, I illustrate how historical transformations in the age of empire were constituted through the bodies, movement, and imagination of migrants. 

How did you first get interested in your topic of research? 

Two books sparked my academic interest in this topic. First, Eric Tagliacozzo’s monograph, Secret Trades, Porous Borders, offered an account of the consolidation of the Anglo/Dutch border in the Straits of Malacca that followed an expanding regime of surveillance, mapping, and military enforcement on the two colonial frontiers. I was captivated by Tagliacozzo’s vivid recording of smugglers that transgressed this frontier, showing how the border had always been porous. In China studies, Shelly Chan’s Diaspora’s Homeland was illuminating. The book showed how the migration of Chinese overseas influenced China’s own history, creating what Chan calls a migrant temporality that intersected with local, regional, and global histories. I could trace Chan’s argument to an earlier lecture Philip Kuhn gave titled “Why China Historians Should Study the Chinese Diaspora and Vice-versa.” I was interested in how following a single network of Chinese migration could illuminate the interconnected histories of China, the overseas Chinese, and also of Southeast Asia in general. 

A trip to Penang, Malaysia in my sophomore year tied these academic themes together. A friend had told me about two sister temples in Medan, Indonesia, and Penang, Malaysia that provided a space to worship five indentured laborers who had become apotheosized as local deities. Local histories tell that in 1871, the colonial police had sentenced the five laborers to death for allegedly murdering an overseer on the plantation. I was curious to discover the larger story behind these two temples and trace the connections the temples illuminated across the Straits of Malacca. While I was reviewing secondary literature, I also noticed that many works on the overseas Chinese in Indonesia focused on their role as entrepreneurial merchants. I thought that researching the lives of indentured labor migrants on Sumatra’s plantations could complicate this narrative.

What would you say was the most interesting finding of your research?  Were there any surprises?

Taking a trans-imperial perspective on Chinese migration allowed me to discover how the figure of the Chinese migrant was central to multiple projects that manifested transregionally in late imperial Asia. Seemingly disparate actors—Leiden-trained sinologists, young German and Dutch merchants chasing profits, Qing officials thinking about China’s place in the world, and British legislators debating about freedom—all thought and wrote about these migrants. Why were they so interested in these migrants? What stake did they have in a movement that was underpinned by family networks in southern China? Each new answer I came up with tied the journey of these migrants with other historical processes going on in late imperial Asia; for example, the production of a border in the Straits of Melaka, or the reformulation of China’s position in the international system of nation-states.

It was surprising for me to find instances of the laborer and broker’s ingenuity in taking advantage of a new system of migration implemented by Dutch planters in the 1880s. For example, I read about how two emigrant laborers had pretended to be recruiters in the port-city of Shantou to receive cash that was meant to be given as payment for recruiters. It’s also interesting to discover how these indentured workers maintained ties with China. A wooden tablet in a temple donated by an indentured laborer suggests how workers used their meager capital to participate in religious life that connected them to the folk deities of their native-place. Colonial reports documented the remittances (qiaopi) workers would send back to their families each year. Photographs of plantations at the time also showed how overseers invited Chinese opera troupes from the Straits Settlements to perform in the tobacco plantations of Sumatra, allowing workers to listen to folk tales from their home provinces.

What was the most challenging part of your research?

I wanted to try my best to portray the indentured migrants I am writing about as protagonists of their own narratives. It was challenging to attempt to capture the intentions and aspirations of these laborers. It is not a given that scholarship would discuss these indentured migrants as active historical agents. These migrants often left few explicit traces in colonial archives. I tried to carefully read between the lines of official reports to find moments where these laborers took action, bended rules, or raised their voices. It was sometimes unclear how events had actually unfolded—for example, a British colonial inquiry report on the kidnapping of Chinese labor migrants in the Straits Settlements contained contradictory testimonies from brokers, policemen, and colonial officials. Searching for the migrant’s voice also required me to have a more expanded sense of the archive. In the end, I incorporated contemporaneous fiction, police interviews, court cases, newspapers, and even tombstones to discern the migrant’s lived experience beyond what colonial officials recorded. 

Locating primary sources was also a challenge, especially in the context of a pandemic. Yet, in some ways, the conditions of the pandemic pushed me to be more tenacious and creative in my exploration of digital sources. These sources often appeared unexpectedly after countless searches on online databases. It was also challenging to try to give the reader a real sense of the lived experience of the migrants I am writing about. I revised my draft many times to make sure I portrayed the rich texture of their social and cultural lives as best as I could.

What resources at Yale were the most helpful for your research? 

The encouragement and feedback from my advisor, Professor Denise Ho, were indispensable. I am also grateful to Mr. Michael Meng, Librarian of Chinese Studies, who guided me as I searched for Chinese sources. My residential college, Jonathan Edwards, and the History Department provided me with generous funding to conduct my research. The JE Writing Tutor, Kate Hunter, offered detailed suggestions to improve my draft. Lastly, Jiahua Yue, who was part of the CEAS Senior Project Language Support Program, provided crucial feedback for the Chinese translations I prepared.

Were you able to travel to Asia during your time at Yale?  If so, where and when, and what type of program?  Did you go on a Light Fellowship? 

I spent my first-year summer studying advanced Chinese at Princeton in Beijing. Princeton in Beijing was a challenging academic experience. Nevertheless, the rigor of the program provided me with confidence in my Chinese, especially in my ability to improve my skills outside of a classroom setting. Spending time at Beijing Normal University also became one of my fondest memories of college, and I enjoyed getting a taste of university life in China. I made enduring friendships in Beijing and often reminisce about my time there with former classmates. The delicious noodles we enjoyed after our weekly exam each Friday is unforgettable, even today!

How important would you say your language study at Yale was to your research?

I could not have completed my research project without language study at Yale. Studying advanced Chinese at Yale and Princeton in Beijing with Professor Zhang Yongtao allowed me to analyze Qing sources for my senior essay. I also challenged myself to write a paper with Chinese primary sources in a history research seminar with my eventual thesis advisor, Professor Denise Ho. Writing that paper gave me the confidence to use Chinese language sources at a larger scale for my senior essay. 

I also benefited from the Richter Fellowship at Jonathan Edwards College, which allowed me to enroll in an online course that taught basic Dutch reading comprehension. Taking the course opened new avenues for me to analyze documents in Dutch written by officials and sinologists from the Netherlands Indies. In doing so, I was able to further uncover the trans-imperial dimension of the migration of Chinese laborers to Sumatra.

When you had some downtime on campus, what did you like to do for fun?  Any particular interests or hobbies related to East Asia?

At Yale, I spent a lot of time with the Yale International Relations Association organizing educational conferences on global affairs for high-school students from all around the world. I devoted most of my time organizing YIRA’s annual Model United Nations conference in Taiwan, which I led as Secretary-General from 2019-2020. Going to Taipei each year to meet high-school students from around Asia eager to learn about current issues has been an incredibly fulfilling experience.

Besides my extracurricular activities, I love to hop around different cafes in New Haven and try out new Italian pastries. I also have fond memories of cooking with friends at the Asian American Cultural Center before the pandemic. 

What advice would you offer to rising seniors about how to tackle their senior theses?

One piece of advice I received as a rising senior is to start early! Even narrowing down your interests to two or three potential topics in junior spring can be helpful. From there, you can start reading secondary sources to see if there might be an academic conversation you are eager to contribute to. You can also search for possible archives or primary source collections to assess the feasibility of conducting your research. A lot of funding deadlines for the summer happen early in junior spring, so it’s good to start thinking about a topic.

I have also benefited from a well-organized system to manage my primary sources and from citation management software like Zotero. It was especially helpful for me to maintain detailed notes and folders as I was keeping track of a large number of sources. For the Qing memorials I analyzed, I created a simple document guide with a timeline that featured key details, such as the author, the recipient, the date, a summary, and where the memorial was referenced in a secondary source. Such a system was helpful for me to review those sources quickly as I started writing, even while my argument and outline changed.

Last, research a topic you care about. Writing my thesis has provided me with some surprising comfort in periods of isolation during the pandemic. Having a vision of the work you would like to produce can provide extra motivation when times get tough. I tried to write what I would love to read, and I sought to emulate the books I enjoyed reading the most when I was assigned them in my seminars.

What will you be doing after graduation?

I will be working in finance in Singapore. I hope to remain engaged with public history in Southeast Asia, especially by supporting the important work of local archives and heritage organizations.

Jenna Shin

To begin, could you please provide an abstract or brief summary of your essay entitled “A Comfort Women Redress Movement without Comfort Women”?

Former comfort woman Yi Yong-su testified to the public on May 25, 2020 regarding the exploitation of her and her fellow former comfort women by Yun Mi-hyang, former head of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (hereafter referred to as the Korean Council). Since its founding in 1990, the Korean non-governmental organization has been the main advocate for former wianbu or comfort women, a euphemism for the tens of thousands of women, the majority of whom were Korean, who were forcibly enslaved by the Japanese military from the early 1930s until 1945 to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers.

In my essay, I attempt to critically evaluate the Korean Council’s role as advocate and support network for the former comfort women in light of the May 2020 controversy. First, I explore how the Korean Council is not representing the former comfort women but rather disregarding and silencing their voices. Second, I examine how the Korean Council’s focus on framing and maintaining the movement as an international women’s and human rights movement has resulted in the loss of the survivors’ voices from the movement. As a result, the Korean Council perpetuates the silence of the former comfort women and prevents them from once again obtaining closure and resolution. The human rights movement and discourse has drawn immense global attention to the formerly forgotten and silenced former comfort women. However, in the Korean Council’s attempts to frame the former comfort women’s voices and experiences within the larger global human rights discourse and movement, the survivors’ voices have been appropriated for its own agenda, resulting in a truly tragic irony in which the victims are revictimized by their very own advocate.

How did you first get interested in your topic of research? 

I first got interested in my topic of research as I was taking a class on postwar Japan and began to understand the greater historical context of current issues like the comfort women. As a Korean American woman, I had hitherto been exposed to the hate-filled, extremely polarized and politicized narrative that dominates public discourse in Korea concerning the comfort women. However, through the course, I was able to learn about the underlying historical issues as to why the former comfort women still to this day have not achieved closure as well as the complicity of countless actors beyond simply the Japanese government. I kept asking myself why these women had been forced into silence for nearly 50 years and why they still to this day have not been able to find closure. Around the same time, news concerning former comfort woman Yi Yong-su’s public criticism of the Korean Council surfaced as well, leading me to decide to learn more about the role of the women’s support networks such as the Korean Council and what their relationship was in light of the recent controversy.

What would you say was the most interesting finding of your research?  Were there any surprises?

The most interesting finding of my research was the cognitive dissonance that seemed to be occurring within the Korean Council. After observing their press conferences and written statements, they sincerely and genuinely expressed care, love, and respect for the women yet exhibited actions or attitudes that seemed to contradict those sentiments. I think this was most exemplified in their disregard of Yi Yong-su’s demands such as changing the Wednesday demonstrations despite her status as the very victim they were representing. However, while this was an interesting and surprising finding, I realized that this is likely an altogether unfortunately common trap in which advocacy organizations like the Korean Council can fall into, revictimizing and exploiting the very victims they support.

What was the most challenging part of your research?

The most challenging part of my research was approaching my research objectively. Given the polarization and politization of the comfort women issue, it was extremely easy to “take sides” and have my perspective colored by the various dominant narratives surrounding the issue. However, I realized my research was ultimately not in order to make insightful conclusions or support one narrative or another but about the individual women themselves who had endured unspeakable horrors yet were courageous enough to make the issue known. I wanted to represent their voices and opinions well and avoid marginalizing their voices even within my own research and writing.   

What resources at Yale were the most helpful for your research? 

There have been so many wonderful people who have helped me throughout this process!

The Yale library staff deserve an immense shoutout for shipping an obscene amount of books to my home where I was remotely enrolled, and Korean Studies librarian Jude Yang deserves my utmost thanks for helping me narrow down my research question, compiling valuable resources, and providing last-minute romanization advice! The Korean language program at Yale was also invaluable in improving my Korean language abilities and thus making this research possible. The encouragement of and advice from my thesis advisor, Professor Yukiko Koga, were absolutely irreplaceable in both guiding my research and sharpening my analysis despite having never met in person! And her course, Postwar Japan: Ghosts of Modernity, was what started this incredible journey in the first place. This essay would never have become what it is without the help of every single one of these people, and I am so incredibly thankful.

Were you able to travel to Asia during your time at Yale?  If so, where and when, and what type of program?  Did you go on a Light Fellowship?

Unfortunately, I was not able to travel to Asia during my time at Yale. I had planned on going on a Light Fellowship to Korea the summer before my senior year but was unable to do so because of the pandemic. However, I am incredibly lucky that most of my research was possible via the various virtual platforms that became more popular during the pandemic.

How important would you say your language study at Yale was to your research?

My language study at Yale was incredibly important to my research. I came to Yale with very basic Korean language skill gained through listening to and speaking with my family, but the Korean language program at Yale improved my Korean abilities immensely. As a result, I was able to read and analyze Korean language sources, which were essential to my research.

When you had some downtime on campus, what did you like to do for fun?  Any particular interests or hobbies related to East Asia?

When I had some downtime on campus, I loved to simply spend quality time with my friends, eating good food off-campus, having movie nights, baking, and doing life together! I also love watching Korean dramas and listening to K-pop as well as searching for good Asian (particularly Korean) food around campus.

What advice would you offer to rising seniors about how to tackle their senior theses?

While writing a senior thesis might seem like an incredibly daunting task, don’t stress out or worry too much! While it is a wonderful opportunity to research a topic of your choice and work closely with a professor, it should be fun, enjoyable, and ultimately what you want it to be. I think viewing my senior thesis as a culmination of my entire Yale career was both terrifying and untrue and prevented me from really enjoying and seeing the process for what it was – an opportunity to create and produce something of my own. But practically, it is definitely a good idea to create a schedule and to follow it! Deadlines are your friend when conducting an entirely self-driven project.

What will you be doing after graduation?

After graduation, I will be returning home to Georgia and working as a Corporate Analyst for Fiserv as a part of their Corporate Analyst program in which participants rotate around the company with the goal of discovering the career path they would like to pursue. I am excited to gain new skills, learn about the working world and myself, and grow in general in ways that I might not have been able to at Yale. Eventually, I would love to be in East Asia, building relationships and continuing to learn more about the region I have come to cherish.