The American decision at the turn of the twentieth century to prohibit Chinese from entering the Philippines, that I wrote about below, obviously must have offended some people at the time. I was therefore not surprised today when I came across some references to Chinese efforts to boycott American goods in response to that policy.

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On 4 July 1905, American consul general in Singapore, David F. Wilbur, reported to Francis B. Loomis, Assistant Secretary of State, that Chinese in Singapore, Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Selangor had met and decided to enact a boycott of American products (but for some reason Standard Oil products were to be exempted from the boycott).

Then in a report on the same issue later in the month, Wilbur noted “one very curious feature about the movement,” and that was that “the prime mover and most active in the mater was Mr. Lim Boon Keng.”

Lim Boon Keng is a very famous person in the history of Singapore, and Wilbur provided a sucint biography Lim Boon Keng’s life up to that time in his report:

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“. . . a Chinaman born on this island, a British subject, was educated at the Raffles Institution here, graduated at the head of his class, winning the Queens Scholarship which gave him an income of £250 a year for four years and untitled him to attend any college in England or Scotland.”

“He selected the medical college at Edinborough where he graduated, returned and has been practicing medicine here since. Shortly after his return he cut off his cue [i.e., queue], thereby loosing considerable of his practice among Chinese but I understand he has regained it largely.”

“He has been a member of the Legislative Council and at present is a member of the Municipal Board of Singapore. Here we have a British subject and official, the prime mover in the Chinese boycott at Singapore.”

SCM

Lim Boon Keng was a complex individual. He was Straits Chinese (i.e., Peranakan), that is, part of a group of Chinese who had intermarried with Malays and who had created a new hybrid culture.

Growing up in British-controlled Singapore, and going to the best schools there, however, he was also very “British.” But then as an adult he more or less tried to “re-Sinify” himself and the Chinese community in Singapore. And he did this in part through his writings in a journal he published, The Straits Chinese Magazine, and through other activities (this page has good information about him).

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Today some people might see Lim Boon Keng as a “global citizen,” but in colonial Singapore in the early twentieth century, he was more of a “problem.” Who was he? Was he Chinese? A British subject? Both? How could one be both? What was this guy???

Wilbur’s final sentence captures this ambiguity about Lim Boon Keng nicely: “Here we have a British subject and official, the prime mover in the Chinese boycott at Singapore.”

This was indeed “one very curious feature about the movement” to boycott American goods.

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