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For Centuries, Some Asian Women Have Chosen to Live Communally, Preferring to Take Care Of Each Other Rather Than Rely On Men

by BUST Magazine

“Vegetarian halls”—havens where Asian women live communally—flourished both in Singapore post-World War II and in China before communism. Residents arrived there for various reasons, but most had one thing in common: they preferred to take care of one another rather than rely on men 

vegetarian halls opener2 0a4a7[Top to bottom]: a Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) statue in a vegetarian hall in Indonesia; vegetarian hall nuns in Malaysia; a vegetarian hall in Singapore

“Men are bad. Why marry?”

“Marriage is no good, men cannot be trusted.”

“My husband is dead, and I cannot burden friends and relatives with the trouble and expense of keeping an old woman and providing her with a funeral.” 

These are just some of the reasons women in 1950s Singapore gave British anthropologist Marjorie Topley for living in zhaitang, or “vegetarian halls.” Also called “vegetarian houses,” these were communal spaces where members took care of one another and often followed Buddhist-influenced teachings, such as vegetarianism. 

Men have also lived in their own vegetarian halls, but Southeast Asian women in particular have found these residences to be a welcome alternative to marriage, sex work, and loneliness, where they might even find a nurturing environment they would not have gotten from family.  

One of the few researchers to delve into the history of vegetarian halls, Topley was the first scholar to execute ethnographic fieldwork on these establishments, which she did from 1951 to 1955. But vegetarian halls were around long before the late pioneering anthropologist set foot in one. Show Ying Ruo, a current researcher of gender and religion based in Singapore, says the tradition developed in China during the Qing Dynasty, a period spanning 1644 to 1912, then spread to many regions of mid-19th century Southeast Asia, mostly in Malaysia and Singapore. “The earliest artifact found in the vegetarian halls of Malaya dates back to 1859, while the earliest established vegetarian hall in Singapore dates 1880,” says Show. 

“Vegetarian houses became a way of saying, ‘I won’t go into a risky situation. I prefer to make money on my own, live on my own, live with women, and be cared for by women.’”

While Topley visited some vegetarian halls in Hong Kong, she focused her research on those in Singapore, where, she estimated, there were 60 to 80 in existence. “The number [of halls] cannot be certain as many of these places were hidden,” explains Show. “And we do not know the approximate number in other regions of Southeast Asia.”  The locations she studied were home to Chinese women who moved to Singapore seeking independence, both economically, and from the confines of traditional marriage

In her writing, Topley describes a lifestyle that drove some Chinese women away from their homelands. “A woman’s world was her home, and she had no property rights,” explained Topley. “Even if she should earn some money by weaving, spinning, or embroidery, it went to the head of the family—her father if she were not yet married and her father-in-law if she were married—and only he could dispose of it. After marriage, a woman came under the authority of her mother-in-law in all domestic matters and was often harshly treated by her.” In addition, many women feared their husbands taking on second or third wives—or even becoming a second or third wife unbeknownst to them until after it was too late. At the time, polygamy was accepted in Chinese culture, but only for men, of course. 

53 1 ab294Residents of a vegetarian hall in Singapore

14 04037 Residents of a vegetarian hall in Malaysia

53 2 8997aA vegetarian hall in Singapore

The 1933 Aliens Ordinance of Malaya brought an influx of Chinese women to Singapore. The ordinance set a quota on the amount of people emigrating to Singapore, but women were outside that quota. As a result, about 190,000 Chinese women came to Singapore between 1934 and 1938. Many never returned to China. Some even adopted daughters in Singapore so they would have someone to look after them in old age instead of returning to their Chinese families.

According to Kristy Kelly, a professor of gender and Southeast Asian studies at Columbia University and Drexel University, vegetarian houses are examples of the ways women have historically found to navigate highly patriarchal and classist systems. “The fluid power that men had, and still have, over women created a fear of marriage,” she says. “Vegetarian houses became an option for them; a way of saying, ‘I reject all of that. I won’t go into a risky situation. I prefer to make money on my own, live on my own, live with women, and be cared for by other women.’” 

Women joined vegetarian houses for various reasons, but most did so because they were considered “unattached.” Topley wrote that women might have joined one if they were without immediate family connections nearby, unmarried, needed someone to care for them, working, widowed, deserted by or separated from their husbands, or were otherwise unable to marry while young—like sex workers, actresses, and “dancing girls.” 

Singapore-based anthropologist Vivienne Wee’s great aunt, Lài Xián Y?ng, founded a women’s vegetarian house on Cuff Road in Singapore called Gu?ny?n Gong, which means “Gu?ny?n’s Palace” (Gu?ny?n being the Buddhist bodhisattva known as “the Goddess of Mercy”). One of the women there—residents were all called “aunt” (G?)— joined because she didn’t want to get married.  “At least one of the vegetarian aunts, who has since passed away, said that she joined my grand-aunt’s house because she saw how her brother was treating his wife and she did not want to end up in that situation,” says Wee. 

Parentless young girls also found themselves at vegetarian houses. Some families would leave their daughters there because girls weren’t valued as highly as boys in Malayan Chinese culture. Others worried about affording dowry expenses or had daughters born with “unlucky horoscopes,” which was thought to bring families bad luck or make a girl unsuitable for marriage. 

Daughters adopted into vegetarian houses, however, were allowed to choose their own paths when they grew up, whether it be to remain there, pursue studies, get married, or work, making it an attractive option.  “My great aunt adopted several daughters from families in need,” says Wee. “One of them is her lone surviving disciple who is now in charge of the vegetarian house. She is known to devotees as Fèng Zh? G?. The girls who were adopted by my great aunt are grateful because they know they could have ended up somewhere much worse.” 

Walking into these vegetarian houses, British anthropologist Topley found self-sufficient communities growing their own fruits and vegetables on their own plots of land, and residents equally divvying up chores and financial obligations in order to keep their homes afloat.

The houses were also religious in nature, mainly Buddhist, varying from the devout (nunneries) to more informal (workers’ associations). Many halls followed The Great Way of Former Heaven (Xi?nti?n Dà Dào), a religion influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. “The Great Way of Former Heaven is one of the many sectarian new religions which appeared in late Imperial China after the 17th century,” says Chün-fang Yü, a scholar of Chinese Buddhism and Chinese religions from Columbia University. “The followers of the sect might identify themselves as Buddhists, but the sect is not a sect of Buddhism.” She adds that it is similar to Yiguandao (The Way of Unity), another popular sectarian religion found in Taiwan and diaspora Chinese communities including those in the U.S. However, Buddhist officials don’t recognize either religion as Buddhist.

The layouts of the houses varied, but most had a room for worship in addition to a kitchen, sleeping quarters, and a cemetery for deceased members. Shrines sometimes included statues or images of Gu?ny?n, Goddess of Mercy. Scholar Michael Pelez writes that some legends say Gu?ny?n “successfully repelled all efforts on her father’s part to get her married off and became a Buddhist nun in spite of great opposition from her family.”

54 1 78f43A vegetarian hall in Malaysia

54 2 2eadcDr. Show Ying Ruo conducting fieldwork, photographing a tomb for vegetarian hall residents in Malaysia

54 3 74dc2A vegetarian hall in Malaysia

As the name implies, vegetarian halls cooked and served vegetarian food in accordance with their religion. Women gathered to eat dishes like vegetarian rice vermicelli, vegetarian curry, and vegetarian pastries. Buddhist vegetarianism forbids eggs, dairy, and of course, meat, and excludes five types of plants: garlic, onion, chives, shallots, and scallions. Topley, however, found that children in vegetarian halls might have been given milk and meat, because it was considered important to their growth. 

Houses were often organized according to the districts or cities in China women came from or their Chinese dialect-group orientations. While houses composed of Chinese immigrants were more common, locally born women also formed vegetarian houses in Singapore. 

In return for work in the house, vegetarian halls offered “care while alive and a funeral at death,” Topley found in her research. “Members of vegetarian houses are free to come and go as they please,” she wrote, “as long as they get their allotted work done and attend religious observances.” The amount of work that residents were required to do depended on their financial situation. For instance, if a woman could contribute more financially to the household, she did fewer chores. Those who couldn’t pay did more intensive chores like cleaning, chopping firewood, cooking, and washing. 

One tradition that still thankfully exists is that vegetarian houses continue to adopt unwanted girls, providing them with food, lodging, and even a path to acquire a college education.

The houses also provided services for their larger regional communities, performing rituals, advising devotees, providing vegetarian meals, and more. And while a vegetarian nunnery might require strict codes of conduct, residents of more secular houses could live an easier lifestyle. They could smoke, wear what they wanted, and entertain guests. 

It also wasn’t unheard of for some women within the halls to have same-sex relationships. However, these relationships were not well documented, according to scholars. 

House ownership and management varied from house to house. For example, vegetarian houses could be opened by a group of women who ran them by committee with a president elected annually, or they could be owned and managed by one woman acting as “head vegetarian.” Those that were designated as nunneries or monasteries were built with capital from Buddhist businessmen, and managed by female vegetarian house members. 

If a woman wanted to start her own vegetarian house, she’d seek out a teacher to guide her on all things necessary to run her own home. Once she completed her course of study, she’d find a plot of land, build a home, and perhaps take in residents from the house where she’d once studied. This was supported, and even arranged, by the head vegetarian at the pre-existing home where the new house leader previously lived, wrote Topley. 

Some head vegetarians presided over many vegetarian halls at the same time. In these cases, the residences all run by that woman would maintain close relations with each other. An example of this kind of sisterhood existing beyond one vegetarian house is seen in the Hall of Virtue and Bliss in Singapore. It was founded in 1919 by one woman but expanded to over 10 branches in Singapore and Malaysia. According to Show, some of these linked houses were even able to maintain close relationships after race riots and unrest caused Singapore and Malaysia to separate in 1965.

Today, the number of vegetarian halls still in operation has dwindled by half, and the few that remain, like Gu?ny?n Gong in Singapore, are in danger of disappearing. According to Wee, her great aunt’s disciple Fèng Zh? G? knows of no younger women currently living in the halls. “She thinks that when she and the other surviving vegetarian nuns die, vegetarian halls and vegetarian nuns will disappear from Singapore,” says Wee of Fèng Zh? G?. “She is worried about who would make offerings to the gods that are worshipped at Gu?ny?n Gong, and would like to ensure that these gods continue to be worshipped.”

There is now an effort to set up a community museum at Gu?ny?n Gong. And Wee says Fèng Zh? G? is also in discussions with academics and heritage advocates with an interest in learning first-hand about vegetarian houses while they still can. “Singapore has about 30 to 50 [vegetarian houses] left,” estimates Show. “[And outside] Singapore, they still exist in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and some parts of China.”

There are a number of reasons why this way of life is now disappearing. For one, modern-day women have many more paths to independence beyond joining a vegetarian house. For another, women interested in becoming nuns don’t see vegetarian houses as their first option. Additionally, a number of important leaders of The Great Way of Former Heaven have died off, resulting in a decline in interest. To adapt, many houses have tried to integrate into mainstream Buddhism. In these cases, images of Gu?ny?n, Goddess of Mercy, are replaced with those of the Buddha, to appear more traditional. 

One tradition that still thankfully exists, however, is that vegetarian houses continue to adopt unwanted girls, providing them with food, lodging, and even a path to acquire a college education. As long as they survive, these havens will be home to any women who need them, and that is a powerful thing.  “A woman [who] recently contacted me is the adopted daughter of a vegetarian house in Kuala Lumpur,” says Show. “Her master-teacher vegetarian nun actually supported her to study Buddhism in Taiwan, so she is very grateful to the hall. And although she now works in China, she will always continue to visit her former home.”  

By Lara McCaffrey 

Photos by Show Ying Ruo 

Collage by Aeva Karlsrud

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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