Finding Lee Sam: Gardener, Trafficker, and a Stateless Subject in British Malaya

By Sandy Chang

 I first discovered Lee Sam – a woman convicted of trafficking and operating a brothel during the 1930s – in a brown folder at the National Archives of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. I had not been looking for her. But as is often the case with archival research, this particular encounter was a serendipitous one.

Traces of Lee Sam in the Malaysian National Archives

On that afternoon, I decided to take a break from my research on prostitution in British Malaya, ordering instead a stack of documents related to colonial banishment. I was curious about the legal governance of Chinese mobility into and out of Malaya, and the historical connections between immigration laws and banishment policies. Under what circumstances, I wondered, were migrants forcibly expelled?

Poring through the files, it quickly became apparent that banishment was highly gendered in its application, particularly during the interwar years. In the 1920s and 1930s, the rising tide of Chinese nationalism and the Kuomintang (KMT) activities in Malaya aroused the suspicions of the British colonial government. The banished were thus mostly Chinese men who were associated with secret societies and accused of political subversion and harboring anti-imperialist sentiments.

Lee Sam, though, did not fit into either of these categories.

As a Malayan-born Chinese woman and a gardener, seemingly apolitical (by all accounts), it was rather extraordinary that she ended up in the banishment files. And yet there she was: marked on paper by her smeared black fingerprints and her mug shot. In the black-and-white photograph, Lee’s chin is titled up, her lips pursed in seeming defiance of the authorities.

At the time of her arrest in the summer of 1932, Lee was fifty-years old, living in the state of Perak. She was sentenced to three months of rigorous imprisonment, followed by banishment for life from the colony – an unusually harsh sentence typically reserved for foreign-born political dissidents.

Lee’ primary occupation, listed in the registry of criminals, was that of a gardener. Like many other Chinese women who lived in the interior of the Peninsula, she probably engaged in subsistence farming, tending to her vegetable gardens. The earnings Lee made from her involvement in the brothel was, in all likelihood, supplementary. It’s clear that her role in “assisting in the management of a brothel” and “procuring young prostitutes,” as noted in her criminal file, did not generate a lucrative income. Unable to pay the stipulated $500 fine for her crimes, she was instead sent to a federal prison in Kuala Lumpur as punishment. Unlike the well-established brothels in Penang and those around the tin mines of Taiping, where inscriptions of local temples evidence the generous donations from prostitutes and brothel-keepers, the brothel Lee assisted in operating was likely much more modest in scale.

For historians, such an up-close encounter with a convicted female trafficker is relatively rare. Histories of trafficking are often more preoccupied with the trafficked rather than those accused of trafficking. This discrepancy in the scholarship is due, in part, to the uneven nature of historical documentation. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, anecdotes about trafficked women elicited much horror and sympathy across the British Empire, in both the metropole and colonies, at a time when global anti-trafficking campaigns grew in prominence. Colonial officials, police inspectors, missionaries, and social reformers wrote extensively about the plight of these women.

By contrast, traffickers, especially in popular white slavery narratives, were reduced to one-dimensional figures: dangerous, (usually) male criminals who seduced unsuspecting young women into an “immoral” life. (For a more dynamic discussion on this, see two recent articles by Julia Laite[1] and Jessica Pliley[2]). Or in the case of British Malaya, traffickers were almost always cast as wicked women or more specifically, “pocket mothers” – a popular term used to describe elderly women who bought young girls as daughters only to sell them into the sex trade once they came of age.

The chance discovery of Lee Sam, then, offered the possibility of adding more nuance to our historical understanding of the lives of traffickers. Although Lee’s criminal file was thin, containing merely five pages, much could be extrapolated from it.

Her arrest in 1932 signaled a pivotal moment in the history of prostitution in Malaya. In the early-twentieth century, brothels were tolerated by colonial officials even if they were not accorded official legal status across the Peninsula. Brothel-keeping – if it was undertaken by a female – was not a criminal offence under the laws of the Straits Settlement and the Federated Malay States (FMS). That quickly changed in 1931 with the passing of the Women and Girls Protection Enactment in the FMS, which called for the immediate abolition of brothels and the criminalization of all activities associated with their operations.

With the passing of the law, Lee found an important source of her economic livelihood delegitimized overnight. Her arrest the following year and her banishment attest to the increasingly harsh criminalization of sex work and the brothel industry – a trend evident not only in British Malaya. Across the British Empire, during the interwar years, there was a distinct policy shift from brothel toleration to its suppression.

After Lee’s imprisonment, she was scheduled to be deported from Kuala Lumpur in the fall of that year. What happened to Lee after her release from prison, however, is less clear. Here is where the paper trail concerning her fate ends.

There was, however, a strange twist to her tale that offers us some clues.

After the police in Selangor (where she served her sentence) filed for her banishment to Kedah (the state of her birth), the government in the latter state refused to take her. Officials in Kedah pointed to a section in the 1910 Banishment Enactment which prohibited a person banished from one Malay state to be transferred to another. The banished were instead ordered to be deported back to their home country. Banishment, as the law suggested implicitly, could not be applied to Malayan-born British subjects or protected persons, irrespective of race, who had no “home country” to return to. Banishment, in turns out, was not supposed to be applied to a person like Lee Sam.

In the months following her release, Lee occupied a liminal status as a stateless subject. Banished from one place and rejected by both the states of her birth and her residence, she represented a conundrum for the governments of Perak, Kedah, and Selangor. The colonial correspondence surrounding her case was marked by a chaotic confusion – a political volleying, back-and-forth, between three states that did not want to claim legal responsibility over her. In mistaking Lee as an immigrant and an “alien” rather than a native-born Chinese woman of Malaya (and thus a British protected person), the colonial regime rendered her, at least temporarily, an abandoned subject with no home to return to.

There is much more that can be unpacked about the racial politics that underwrote this curious episode. But for now, it is worth noting that sometimes a glitch in the colonial bureaucratic machinery – a human error and a misinterpretation of law – renders people who would otherwise have remained in the shadows visible to historians. This particular glitch left behind a small paper trail about a life of one female trafficker, a trail made more previous given the sparsity of colonial police records that remain from the Federated Malay States.

Sometimes a bureaucratic mistake coupled with an archival detour can yield unexpected stories. In this case, it is a tale about trafficking and about a woman who found herself entangled in a web of colonial incompetence.


Sandy F. Chang is a Trafficking Past Network Member and a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include migration and trafficking, gender and sexuality, and the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. Currently, she is working on her PhD project, “Across the Nanyang: Gender, Intimate Labor, and Chinese Migration to British Malaya, 1870s-1930s,” which explores the “forgotten” history of Chinese migrant women, who traveled as wives, servants, and prostitutes, to the Malay Peninsula at a time when modern migration control first emerged as a system of gender and racial exclusion.


[1] Julia Laite, “Between Scylla and Charybdis: Women’s Labour Migration and Sex Trafficking in the Early Twentieth Century,” Int Rev of Soc His International Review of Social History 62, no. 1 (2017): 37–65.

[2] Jessica Pliley, “Vice Queens and White Slaves: The FBI’s Crackdown on Elite Brothel Madams in 1930s New York City,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 25, no. 1 (2016): 137–67.