‘Bad Boys’ and ‘Fast Girls’: Policing American Adolescence in Shanghai, 1917-1937

History PG_1
17 Aug 2022 05.00 PM - 06.00 PM Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public
Organised by:
NTU History Workshops

How was American adolescence defined—and how was it policed—beyond the official boundaries of the United States? These questions strike at the heart of my paper, which examines the modes and meanings of discipline that governed boarders in the Shanghai American School’s dormitories between 1917 and 1937. Founded by US missionaries to prepare their offspring for adult lives in North America, S.A.S came into being as part of a wider ‘civilizing mission’ aimed at transforming the China-born children of evangelists into model citizens. But while this project assumed distinctly academic dimensions in the institution’s classrooms, my paper contends that it manifested in the dorms as a strict code of conduct, which emphasized the performance of what staff identified to be morals and behaviors befitting ideal American youths.

When teenaged boarders deviated from this standard, they faced a complex disciplinary regime that combined carceral and cultivational forms of punishment. For minor infractions, including whispering after bedtime or tardiness, penalties would be determined by the offending pupil’s peers, who had been organized into dormitory councils and invested with policing power. Oriented around the notion that self-government and its subsidiary values could be taught through such a process, the school’s leadership lauded this system as a crucial mechanism for familiarizing their charges with responsibilities that befell Americans ‘at home.’ Simultaneously, however, burgeoning conceptions of adolescence dictated that youthful agency needed to be circumscribed, particularly when crimes cohered with negative stereotypes associated with American teens in the early twentieth century. By interrogating the nuances of this punitive structure, my paper seeks to probe the expectations and limits that shaped the lives of young people in treaty port Shanghai. In the process, it asks how adult fears concerning adolescence mingled with those of raising white youths at the informal fringes of the American empire.


Hayley Keon is a final year PhD candidate in History and a recipient of the Hong Kong Research Council’s PhD Fellowship. Her research focusses on the experiences of American missionary youth in treaty port China during the early years of the twentieth century.