As Equals: The Oei Women of Java

Daryl Yeap

As Equals: The Oei Women of Java is a pace- driven narrative of three independent Chinese women living in a male-dominated society of the fin-de-siècle era.

They were two out of the many children and the 7th wife of an Indonesian Chinese tycoon, known as the Rockefeller of the East

This is Daryl Yeap’s 2nd book after her excellent The King’s Chinese.

Her first book tells the struggles and eventual success achieved by her paternal great grandfather in the colonial tropical port of Penang.

In her 2nd book she has grown in ambition. She drew on a much bigger canvas. This time she narrates the lives of three ladies from the family of the sugar tycoon Oei Tiong Ham, the richest man in Southeast Asia in the 1920s. They are relatives of hers.

Of the three ladies, the most famous is Oei Hui Lan (aka Madame Wellington Koo]. She is famous for her Cartier jewels which were recently exhibited in 2023 in a special Cartier exhibition in the HK museum.

Her husband Wellington Koo in his sterling career was China’s ambassador to the US and China’s foreign minister as well as one of China’s representatives to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

I find the narrative on Hui Lan’s encounters and interactions with The Young Marshal, The Dogmeat General, Madame Chiang Kai Shek aka Soong Mei Ling, President and Mrs Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon most fascinating.

Daryl used an excellent technique of moving the stories around the three ladies, narrating Hui Lan in the first 13 chapters before she moves on to Lucy Oei from chapters 14 to19 and then to Ida Oei Yeap chapters 30 to 34, before she moves back to Hui Lan in chapters 35 to 38.

Interspersed among the personal stories Daryl describes how historical events like foot binding, the May 4 movement, Dutch and English colonial rule and the decision by Dutch authorities to milk their Indonesia colony dry caused Tiong Ham and many to migrate to Singapore to avoid the unfair taxes.

These historical events show that humans, no matter how rich, cannot avoid the tug and pull of forces beyond our control. We can only live the best way we can.

All on all a most fascinating story. For all his love for Lucy and Oei Hui Lan, Oei Tiong Ham, [ did not or was not willing to break with Chinese tradition], left the bulk of his 50 millon Straits Dollars to his 9 sons from wife 3, 4 and 7(Lucy]. Lucy his favourite wife receives nothing except a (handsome)fee as one of the three Executors of his Will. [p 147].

The narration of the life of Ida Oei Yeap [Daryl Yeap’s grandfather’s 1st wife] brings the narrative to an excellent close.

Lwh @ Bangkok, Chiangmai, Sukhothai
16 to 22 Dec 2023

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