BY: Michelle Liew
Mulan is one of the most watched Disney animated movies and one of the greatest Disney princesses to ever grace the screen.
It detailed the story of Hua Mulan, a Chinese warrior who disguised as a man to enlist in the Imperial Chinese Army to protect her father, whose health was deteriorating.
While her story has inspired many to embrace equality in the modern day, Malaysia (or Malaya at the time) had our very own ‘Mulan’. 21-year-old Cantonese lady Li Yue Mei defied all odds and historical prejudices to fight in the Sino-Japanese War.
According to the book Goodbye Nanyang, the author quoted Mei Yue’s daughters as saying their mother was born in Penang in 1918. Mei Yue’s father, Li Rong Ji, was a businessman who was bold and upright whereas her mother, Liang Feng Chan, was kind and virtuous. Their ancestry can be traced back to Guangzhou, China, particularly the Taishan district.
It was apparent that she studied in a local Chinese school and had an excellent academic track record. Mei Yue’s patriotism was sowed at an early age. She and her classmates organised an anti-Japanese propaganda team during the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War. They did charity performances, sold flowers and even boycotted Japanese goods. Other events included women’s basketball games wherein the donations were handed to the fundraising society to oppose the Japanese.
When the Chinese government appealed to the China Relief Fund for assistance to recruit volunteers from Southeast Asia (known as Nanyang), Li made no hesitations in singing up. Despite the fact that they did not recruit female mechanics, Mei Yue was not at all disappointed and discovered a loophole instead.
Inspired by the story of Mulan from ancient China, she decided to follow her footsteps and took the risk by disguising herself as a man to serve as a Nanyang Transport Volunteer in Yunnan, China. She made her way through to serve during the Sino-Japanese War in 1939.
Her disguise went unnoticed, and Mei Yue managed to become a driver and mechanic. She thus became the only female driver to serve in the Nanyang Volunteer force. Back then, women volunteers were only tasked as nurses or to assigned to tasks not related to driving.
Much like the story of Mulan, Mei Yue changed her name to Li Dan Ying and dressed up in her brother’s clothing. Her efforts were impressive as she was able to keep her identity a secret for over a year, even throughout situations jeopardising her life.
However, it was during a car accident in 1940 in which her secret was out of the box. Mei Yue was rescued by a fellow co-driver, Yang Wei Quan, who then quickly took her to the hospital. It was then that he discovered that Li Dan Ying was actually a woman.
Despite the deception of her identity, and news spreading across the community in a breeze, many people expressed their admiration instead. She was the epitome of Mulan of the modern era. However, she had to be discharged as a transport driver but was allowed to continue serving as a nurse in the force.
Just like any romantic story, Li had fallen in love with Yang. Six years later, Li returned to Penang as a hero when Japan lost in World War II.
She married Yang the same year, in 1946, and made a move to Yangon, Burma, where they ran a quaint little coffee shop and raised their tiny army of 10 children.
However, Li was unable to live a peaceful life after leaving for Guangzhou China with her children, despite Yang’s objection. The country was in the early stages of its violent socio-political movement, the Cultural Revolution. Due to her service as a Nanyang Volunteer and that her father was a businessman, she was faced with allegations of having capitalist connections. This caused a series of harassment which ultimately led to her suicide on the night of 28 August 1968.
Due to the tyrannical measures taken towards those regarded as the enemy to the Cultural Revolution, her children were not able to pay their respects or mourn for their mother. It was only until 1976 where they were able to bring her remains back to Burma in 1976.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government declared Mei Yue a war hero a decade later and held a memorial in her memory on 23 October 1979.
The brave soul and patriotism of Li Mei Yue must not be forgotten. This sacrifices of this Penangite will live forever in the memories of our nation.