Back in 1939, hundreds of Nanyang Volunteers from Penang embarked on a dangerous mission to aid Chinese frontliners in the Sino-Japanese War in China.

Among the battalion of brave volunteers stood one Penangite named Li Yue Mei, a woman who refused to be subjected to the stereotypes of her time.

Instead of signing up as a nurse, she craftily concealed her female identity and in doing so, is now remembered as the only female driver to serve in the Nanyang Volunteer force.

Nanyang Volunteers were recruited from all over Southeast Asia and were drivers and mechanics who delivered essential war supplies to China’s army. (Chinatownology pic)

Li was just 21 years old when she left Penang. Dressed in her brother’s clothing, she successfully snuck through the ranks and enlisted herself as a male driver and mechanic.

To complete her ruse, she changed her name to Li Dan Ying and was thus drafted as one the volunteers destined for the treacherous terrains of the 1,154 km-long Burma Road.

The route itself, which stretched from Kunming, China all the way to Yangon Port in British Burma, was constructed by the Chinese government to keep Japanese forces at bay.

The Burma Road was China’s only link to the outside world. (Chinatownology pic)

Li’s perilous journey began in March 1939 as she transported essential war materials to China across the Burma Road.

Like thousands of Nanyang Volunteers, she was also constantly in danger, having to deal with the chills of malaria, horrific accidents along the dangerous Burma Road and frequent Japanese air raids, all of which cost many lives.

Despite this, Li persevered and still managed to shield her female identity from her male colleagues, that is, until she got into a road accident in 1940.

Li dressed in her Nanyang Volunteer uniform. (Chinatownology pic)

Thankfully, she was saved by fellow co-driver Yang Wei Quan who quickly rushed her to a hospital. As Yang stood by her bedside, his worry turned into shock after discovering that Li Dan Ying was in fact, a beautiful woman.

Naturally, news of Li’s true identity and her brave heroics soon reached home and was met by admiration from many Malayan women.

Unfortunately, the discovery of Li’s true identity led to her being discharged as a transport driver but she was still allowed to continue serving as a nurse, a role she also thrived in.

Like Disney’s version of Mulan, Li eventually fell in love with Yang and in 1946, the couple tied the knot and returned home as heroes. Sadly, Malaya’s Mulan didn’t have a happy ending.

A photo from the 1950s of Li with her children and her husband Yang Wei Quan. (National Archives of Singapore pic)

Upon returning to Penang, the newlyweds were immediately forced to pack their bags and flee to Burma, as the Japanese army had occupied Malaya.

Once in Burma, Li and Yang settled into a peaceful life whilst running a quaint coffee shop and raising their small army of 10 children. However, a casual meeting with the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai in 1954, changed everything for the family.

Being aware of her famous heroics, the Chinese Premier encouraged Li to send her children to study in China, much to her husband’s disagreement.

In a bid to give her children the best education, Li and her children eventually made for China in 1965, leaving Yang behind in Burma.

The Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong lasted from 1966 till 1976. It was a bloody period marked by Red Guards killing anyone suspected of capitalist connections. (Wikipedia pic)

To her dismay, Li and her kids were harassed upon arriving in their motherland during the early stages of China’s violent sociopolitical movement – the Cultural Revolution.

As Li’s father was a businessman and a nationalist who also served as a Nanyang Volunteer, Li and her family were faced with allegations of having capitalist connections. With that, the family was cast into the countryside where she was constantly humiliated by the Red Guards who mocked her in the streets and physically harassed her in public.

Engulfed by the humiliation and abuse, Li eventually succumbed to her dismal state of mind and took her own life on the night of Aug 28, 1968, by slashing her own wrists and thrusting a knife through her once zealous and kind heart.

After awakening to the horrendous sight of their mother’s suicide, Li’s children weren’t allowed to pay their respects or grieve, as the Red Guards ordered them to disown their mother for being an enemy to the Cultural Revolution.

Li’s remains were tossed into a nylon mosquito net and left to rot in an unmarked grave for years until her children eventually brought her remains back to Burma in 1976.

Although her life ended in tragedy, Li Yue Mei was recognised as a war hero on Oct 23, 1976 by the Chinese government. But to Malaysians, she will always be remembered as the Penangite who gave her all in service of her loved ones and fellow man.

Editor’s Note: Tsen Ee Lin’s article was published in on 14th July 2021.

#RobrenReview: 8 | 10

A heroic story of Country & War Karmic Debt.

Published: 16th July 2021.


Malaya’s forgotten Mulan Heroine: Li Yue Mei