Penang Hua Mu Lan – Lee Yue Mei
Hua Mu Lan or Hua mulan(花木蘭); to some people it may be the title of popular 1998 Disney animated film, Mulan. Mulan was a 1998 American animated film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation, and released by Walt Disney Pictures on June 19, 1998. It was based on the legend from ancient China and was originally described in a Chinese poem known as the Ballad of Mulan (木蘭辭). In the legend Hua Mu Lan, a female warrior, who replaced her father for the call of national service, fought for 12 years and merited 12 ranks of rewards, which she refused and retired back home instead.
The Ballad of Mulan was first transcribed in the Musical Records of Old and New (古今樂錄) in the 6th century, the century before the founding of the Tang Dynasty. The original work no longer exists, and the original text of this poem comes from another work known as the Music Bureau Collection (樂府詩), an anthology of lyrics, songs, and poems, compiled by Guo Maoqian (郭茂倩) during the 11th or 12th century. The author explicitly mentions the Musical Records of Old and New as his source for the poem. The poem is a ballad, meaning that the lines do not necessarily have equal numbers of syllables. The poem is mostly composed of five-character phrases, with just a few extending to seven or nine. The story was expanded into a novel during the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Over time, the story of Hua Mulan rose in popularity as a folk tale among the Chinese people on the same level as the Butterfly Lovers. It is one of the first poems in Chinese history to support the notion of gender equality.(Wikipedia)
That was the ancient legend, but in reality there were modern Hua Mulan. During the World War II, there was a female who was named as modern Hua Mulan by Chinese people. He was from Penang, her name is Lee Yue Mei(李月美), a 21 years old Cantonese woman from Penang, who volunteered to serve in Yunnan, China as Nanyang Transport Volunteer(( 南侨机工), Li Yue Mei was one of four women who joined the ranks of the Nanyang Transport Volunteers in late Febuary, 1939.
Not many Penang lang(Penang people) know her, many who know her had either passed away or had forgotten. It was not mention in our history, but it will be forever remember by people who had suffered from the painful experience of Japanese Imperial Army invasion of China and Malaya during WW2.
During the Sino Japanese war, the Japanese attempted to terminate Chinese import of war materials by imposing a sea blockade. The Chinese government responded by building the Burma Road( 滇缅公路), but lacked drivers and mechanics so they turned to China Relief Fund, 筹振会, for help to recruit volunteers from Nanyang (Today’s South East Asia).
On 7 February 1939, the first notice for volunteer drivers and mechanics was issued and batches of volunteers came forth. These volunteer drivers and mechanics were known as the Nanyang Volunteers( 南侨机工). Li Yue Mei (李月美 )was one of the Penang volunteer, he joined the volunteers by using a man’s name李丹英. There were initially four female volunteers 白雪娇、陈娇珍 and 朱雪珍 from Malaya, another female volunteer Wu Siew Fern(吴秀芬) was from Siam (Thailand). Bei Siah Kiew(白雪娇) and Tan Kiew Chin(陈娇珍) were from Penang, Strait Settlement. Li Yue Mei disguised as a male volunteer, and was later discovered during an accident as a female, so together there were 5 female volunteers , three were from Penang, namely Li Yue Mei (李月美), Bei Siah Kiew(白雪娇) and Tan Kiew Chin(陈娇珍). She was the only woman who had drive in Burma Road, as she was disquested as male driver, other female volunteer were sent to work as nurse or non-driving task.
Nanyang Transport Volunteers(南侨机工)
19-2-1939 was Chinese New Year, and it fall on Sunday. The initial 80 departed for China on 18-2-1939, the New Year Eve, when most of the Chinese families will stay home for reunion dinner. Yet the pioneer 80 left their home and family a day before Chinese New Year. All Chinese language newspapers reported as headline, but the main English newspaper, The Strait Time was not reported on 19-2-1030(sun), and 20-2-1939(mon).Their main news on that day was “Search for Submarine”. Only on 6-3-1939, that a substantial media coverage was given.
March 1939- 400 VOLUNTEER FOR CHINESE ARMY Transport And Mechanical Units Recruits - AS a result of an appeal made by the Chinese Government to oversea Chinese to send voluntary cadets to serve in the Chinese Army in transportation corps and mechanised units, more than 400 young Chinese mechanics and drivers have offered their services. That numbers included more than 100 each from Singapore and Perak, 50 from Negeri Sembilan, 35 from Taiping, 25 from Muar, 24 from Kedah, and 10 each from Malacca and Raub. Already 80 of them have left for China. A Contingent which arrived from Taiping today included an Indian and a Malay. A party of 36 Hainanese mechanics and drivers has been organized, and leaves shortly for Chungking( The Straits Times, 6 March 1939, Page 12)
July, 1939- MALAYAN CHINESE OFF TO WAR Malayan Chinese volunteers waving good-bye as they sailed for the China war front last week Eighth "Troopship Leaves Singapore bringing the total of Malayan Chinese volunteers for the China war front to more than 2,000, the eighth "troopship" left Singapore last week with a party of 350 motor mechanics and drivers. Known as 3rd Malayan Mechanical Unit the party included men from all over Malaya and Java.
With the unit, a party of nine 15 years old Singapore school boys left to join the military school in Kiangsi. Several rich men’s sons were in this group.
The leader of the unit gave up his position as foreman mechanic in a leading European motor firm with salary of $250 a month.
The 93 Penang Chinese in the Party before leaving received their colors at the Wembly Park from the Chinese Consul, Mr Huang Yuan Kai, and with 75 youths from Taiping joined the unit at Singapore.
The China Relief Fund Committee arranges and pays for the passages of the volunteers , who are all medically examined and given training for several months before sailing. (The Straits Times, 23 July 1939, Page 10)
LEE Yue Mei(李月美)(b 1918- d 28-8-1968)
She was Lee Yue Mei(李月美), in Penang, and Li Yue Mei (李月眉)in China. The list of Nanyang Transport Volunteers in Penang given was reported as follow(in Chinese);
Lee Yue Mei was staying at Nan Dong Street, Penang(马来亚槟城南通街). I cannot find the name of the brother in the list Lee Kim Yoon(李锦容), but there was another person, living in the same street, but using the name of Tan , can it be him? I think her brother also disguised himself to avoid knowing by his parent. I cannot located Nan Dong Street in today’s Penang streets, where is the place? Or is it another fictitious address?
Li Yue Mei left for China in March 1939. She went for short military training at Kunming, and later posted as driver to HQ of the Red Cross Society at Guizhou(贵州). Her brother Lee Kim Yoon(李锦容) joined the 8th batch Trooper in July 1939, and attached to 西南运输处第十五大队, working as driver along Burma Road(滇缅公路), they frequently met each other. And it seems that her gender was not disclosed when she drove alongside other male drivers, she worked for one year as driver, carrying both medical supplies and military supplies.
Ironically, in Singapore, it was reported that :
HUA MU LAN" THE Penang-born star, Miss Chun Yun Chang, gives a first-class performance in "Hua Mu Lan,'* a story of old China, filmed in Mandarin, which was shown at the Capitol Theatre at a midnight show last night. For Europeans the film has consider appeal, as it has full English (The Straits Times, 30 July 1939, Page 2)
The Burma Road was a very difficult road to navigate and many Nanyang Volunteers were killed in accidents, by malaria or during Japanese air raids. In 1940, Li Yue Mei was involved in an accident but was saved by a fellow driver, Hainanese Yang Wei Quan(杨维铨). Yang Wei Quan(杨维铨),was the one who took care of “him” as brother when she was hospitalized, but later discovered that she was a woman in disguise. The news, which at the time, created a great impact to the Chinese community, and stir up intense media coverage in China and South East Asia. She was hailed as the modern Hua Mu Lan(当代花木兰), the ancient Chinese woman who disguised as a man to serve in the army in place of her aging father. The Overseas Chinese societies in Singapore and Malaya were full of praise for her passion to volunteer for her service in the war of resistance to Japanese Imperial Army aggression.(Note: As Malaysian, we must remember this was the era when Malaya is under British colonial rule, an independent nation of Malaysia was not formed yet)
The famous Chinese revolutionary and feminist Ho Hsiang-ning or He Xiang Ning(何香凝)(b 27/6/1878 – d 1-9-1972) honour her with a banner with the Chinese calligraphy writing “巾帼英雄”, which means female heroine. Ho Hsiang Ning was the wife of Liao Zhongkai(廖仲恺) (b 23-4-1877 –d 20-8-1925). He was principal architect of the first Kuomintang-Chinese Communist Party (KMT-CCP) United Front in the 1920s. He was the Finance Minister of the Southern Government under Dr Sun Yatsen. Unfortunately, he was murdered in 1925, during political struggle for leadership of KMT.
Li Yue Mei eventually recovered and was transferred to serve as a nurse. By this time, she had already fallen in love with her savior Yang Wei Quan(杨维铨), who later become her husband.
Ho Hsiang-ning or He Xiang Ning(何香凝) （1878年6月27日－1972年9月1日)
Chinese revolutionary and feminist. She was one of the first Chinese women publicly to advocate nationalism, revolution, and female emancipation, and one of the first to cut her hair short. An active advocate of links with the communists and Russia, she went to Hong Kong in 1927 when Chiang Kai-shek broke with the communists, and was an outspoken critic of his leadership. She returned to Beijing (Peking) in 1949 as head of the overseas commission. Educated in Hong Kong and Japan, she married fellow revolutionary Liao Zhongkai in 1905. Her husband was assassinated in 1925.
1946 Return from China and settled in Burma
The Sino-Japanese War evolved into World War Two and ended with Japan’s unconditional surrender on 15 August 1945. In 1946, after 6 long years of service in the battlefield, Li Yue Mei finally returned home as a hero to her family in Penang, Malaya.
In late Feb 1946, when Li Yue Mei arrived in Singapore on the way to Penang. She was presented with banners from the Nanyang Chinese Girls School and attracted intense media attention in Singapore.
That same year, the overseas Chinese in Penang built a monument in memory of civilians and Nanyang Volunteers who lost their lives, at the foot of Penang Hill, Air Itam.
Li Yue Mei later married Yang Wei Quan, the Nanyang volunteer who saved her life, and the couple relocated to Yangon, Burma. There, they ran a coffee shop and soon the couple had 10 children.
In 1954, Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai(周恩来), began the first of his many visits to Burma. Li Yue Mei represented the Overseas Chinese in Burma to meet the Premier. Zhou En Lai praised her for her heroic efforts during the war encouraged her to send her children to study in China.
In 1965, Li Yue Mei finally decided to relocate to Guangzhou for the sake of her children and their education. However, her husband disagreed and she left for Guangzhou alone with her children.
1965 From Burma to China
Li Yue Mei was posted to Yangdi Oversea Chinese Farm(英德华侨农场), a farm which was a people commune(人民公社). The moment she arrived in China. He started a commune way of life in the remote place north of Quangzhou, where her children were studied. Unfortunate for her, Cultural Revolution started on 16-5-1966, few months after her arrival in China.
1966-1968 Death in Cultural Revolution文化大革命(1966-1976)
In reality, it was a political movement started by Mao Zedong or Mao Tse-tung毛泽东((December 26, 1893 – September 9, 1976) and Lin Yurong or, better known by the nom de guerre Lin Biao(December 5, 1907– September 13, 1971), Jiang Qing(江青), 2nd liners from the Chinese leadership, to remove Liu Shaoqi(刘少奇)( 24 November 1898 – 12 November 1969) and Deng Xiaoping(邓小平), Zhoa En Lai(周恩来)was trying to protect Liu and Deng, but only Deng escaped. The movement also involvedthe removal of 彭真,罗瑞卿,陆定一,杨尚昆, 叶剑英, 朱德, 贺龙, 彭德怀 and their supporters from the power base. They were all old timers in the formation of communist China. The political conflict evolved into a disastrous Cultural Revolution, the darkest period in the history of modern China. Mao officially declared the Cultural Revolution to have ended in 1969, but its active phase lasted until the death of Lin Biao in 1971. The political instability between 1971 and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 are now also widely regarded as part of the Revolution. The idol worship of Mao during Cultural Revolution was like Hitler of Germany and Japanese Emperor during the WW2., which similarly developed into political and military extremism. It was greatest disaster in the political history.
Lee Yue Mei was at China at the wrong time....
As a returned oversea Chinese(归侨),who was born in family of businessman father, she was treated with suspicious by the Red Guards as capitalist class(资产阶级)with oversea connection(海外关系) , and her past as Nanyang Transport Volunteers was treated as the supporter of KMT or Kuomingtang(pro KMT). She was called “The element of KMT who has escaped eradication”(国民党残渣余孽).
She faced the untrue charges imposed by the Red Guards and their opportunist supporters, she was to undergo process of criticize and denounce (批斗), and also confiscation of property(抄家). She lost everything in her house, her children lost the opportunity for education. The remittance from oversea for children education fund was treated as spying fee, at that time her eldest daughter had married and staying Taiwan. Her husband was staying with the eldest daughter. The two eldest children had been accepted to College in Beijing.
Li Yue Mei and her children were sent to the countryside for “labor reform”( 劳动改造 or劳改) . The labor of their work was not fairly rewarded based on their labor contribution or labor marks (劳动力工分), but reward was based on political marks or political background(政治评工分), what she got was 50% of actual entitled rewards, her children only get 25%.
With the termination of oversea remittance from husband, the proceeds from their labour was not enough to sustain their daily living. Li Yue Mei wrote to Zhou En Lai . But Zhou at the time was under political pressure by Mao and Lin Biao, he was making effort to save Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping and many of the first tier founding members of PRC. He was facing a political crisis, and even his own position was in danger. He wrote to Li, requested her to follow the crowd or the current climate. This letter created more problems for Lee. The Red Guards revenge by escalated their treatment.
The photo of her in uniform become the clue to Red Guards that she was the spy for KMT and America. The Red Guards humiliated Li Yue Mei by parading her in the streets. At times, she was even physically assaulted by the Red Guards and the villagers. Physically she no longer able to withstand the cruel act of Red Guards. Mentally she was tormented day and night. She often fainted during the parade or criticize and denounce(批斗) process.
This was too much for a young lady who gave up everything to save her homeland. Li Yue Mei refused to be humiliated and decided to end her life. On the night of 28 August 1968, she waited for her children to fall asleep before she embarked on her act of resistance. Li Yue Mei used a knife to slash both her wrists and then using her bleeding arms, thrust the knife to silt her throat. The children woke up the next morning to discover their mother dead and soaked in a pool of blood.
When the Red Guards discovered Li Yue Mei’s suicide, they demanded that her children disowned their mother for being a counter revolutionary and forbade them to grief for their beloved mother.
Li Yue Mei’s body was wrapped in a nylon mosquito net and buried in an unmarked grave. Her children decided to escape from Guangzhou and left after secretly paying their last respects to their mother.
Note: On July 27, 1968, the Red Guards' power over the army was officially ended. A year later, the Red Guard factions were dismantled entirely. In December 1968, Mao began the "Down to the Countryside Movement". During this movement, which lasted for the next decade, young intellectuals living in cities were ordered to go to the countryside. The term "intellectuals" was actually used in the broadest sense to refer to recently graduated middle school students. In the late 1970s, these "young intellectuals" were finally allowed to return to their home cities. This movement was in part a means of moving Red Guards from the cities to the countryside, where they would cause less social disruption.
Her Children escaped to Hainan Island
The children escaped to Hainan Island, their father’s hometown, where they were cared for. After the fall of the Gang of Four, the children returned to Guangzhou in 1976 to collect their mother’s remains. After much searching, they finally found their mother’s remains still wrapped in the nylon mosquito net that they brought with them from Burma in 1965.
Rememberance of war heroine Li Yue Mei
On 23 October 1979, the Chinese government declared her a war hero and held a memorial in her memory. Meanwhile, all of the Nanyang Volunteers were also accorded the same status and received state pension and healthcare benefits.
《关于为李月眉同志彻底平反恢复名誉的决定》：一九六六年我场四清运动后期，由于林彪、‘四人帮’反革命修正主义路线的干扰、破坏，在归侨中全面进行评划 阶级成分，李月眉同志被划为资本家，并扣上国民党的残渣余孽的帽子。为了拨乱反正，全面落实党的政策，根据英德县革命委员会（1978）第三世界号《关于 取消原驻英德华侨农场四清工作分团给归侨评划阶级成分的通知》精神，现决定：
On 7 July 1989, the Yunan government constructed a monument, 赤子功勋, in memory of Nanyang Volunteers.
Hua Mu Lan in ancient Chine, who merited 12 ranks of rewards, which she refused and retired back home instead. Hua Mu Lan lived happily in her retired life. Unlike ancient Hua Mulan, the Hua Mu Lan of modern China, who was from Penang, suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and committed suicide. Her family members were badly treated and endured poverty.
The brave lady from Penang, volunteered to fight Japanese in the war, she had prepared to died for the country she loved. She would have died as a war heroine during her Nanyang Transport Volunteers' days. But she died of humiliation, during Cultural Revolution, died in the political struggle of the nation she loved. Fate was unfair to the modern Hua Mulan from Penang.
A sad story for a heroine; but her patriotic spirit will forever remember by the people. Due to the political history of the country, the heroic act was not recorded in our history textbook. I hope that her heroic act will be remember by Penang, by having a statue of her at Penang Anti War Memorial at Air Itam, and the list of the names of all Nanyang volunteers from Penang at the memorial site. Regardless of country she served and her racial background, she is a heroine that Penang will cherish as daughter of Penang. It is her spirit of patriotic and heroic act that the younger generation can learn from.
But she is still the proudest daughter, Penang has ever produced; even it happen during colonial period.
Personally, I am touch with her life story; and proud she is from Penang....