Mulan is a story about a girl who dressed as a man to join the army in the father stead. With a red dragon and cricket as her cute and loyal sidekicks, she ended up saving China from the Huns’ invasion and ultimately hailed as a hero. Well, that is how the Disney story goes. But the story for the Malaya Hua Mulan is not quite as fairy tale liked as the Disney character. In fact, her story is far from a happy ending.

In 1939, many Nanyang volunteers from Penang started their dangerous journey to aid Chinese frontliners in the Sino-Japanese War in China. Among all the volunteers, one person stood out. Li Yue Mei, a Penangite who refused to be oppressed by the stereotypes of her time.

The Forgotten Hero of Malaya
Li with her fellow drivers.

Instead of signing up as a nurse, she concealed her identity and joined the battalion as a male driver and mechanic. Li was jut 21 years old when she left Penang. She dressed herself in her brother’s clothing before successfully snuck through the ranks and enlisted herself.

She even went as far as changing her name to Li Dan Ying to completely her ruse. She as thus drafted as one of the volunteers destined for the treacherous terrains of the 1,154km 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.

Her journey began in March 1939 when she is tasked with transporting essential war materials to China across the Burma Road. Li was constantly living in the face of 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.

The Forgotten Hero of Malaya
A newspaper clipping of Li after her identity was exposed following a road accident.

Li persevered on and has been successful in concealing her identity until she got into a road accident in 1940. She was saved by fellow co-driver Yang Wei Quan who rushed her to a hospital. Yang shocked to learn that Li Dan Ying was in fact a woman when he stood by her bedside.

News of Li’s true identity and her brave heroics spread far and wide and soon reached home. It was met with admiration by many Malayan women. However, with her true identity exposed, she was discharged as a transport driver but she was allowed to continue serving as a nurse.

Li fell in love with Yang and the couple tied the knot in 1946. They returned home as heroes. However, the bliss is only temporary. Upon their return to Penang, the newlyweds were immediately forced to pack their bags and escape to Burma as the Japanese army had occupied Malaya.

The Forgotten Hero of Malaya
Li and her husband Yang, together with their children.

Once in Burma, Li and Yang settled into a peaceful life, running a quaint coffee shop and raising their 10 children. However, a casual meeting with the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai in 1954, changed everything for the family. Aware of her heroic acts, the Premier encouraged Li to send her children to study in China. Despite her husband’s disagreement, she left Yang in Burma and made it to China in 1965, in a bid to give her children the best education.

However, upon arriving in China, Li and her kids were harassed during the early stages of China’s violent socio-political movement – the Cultural Revolution. Li and her family were accused of having capitalist connections as her father was a businessman and a nationalist who also served as a Nanyang Volunteer. The family was banished to the countryside where she was constantly humiliated by the Red Guards who mocked her in the streets and physically harassed her in public.

Li took her own life on the night of August 28, 1968, by slashing her own wrists and stabbing herself in the heart. Li’s children were not 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 brought her remains back to Burma in 1976. Li Mei Yue was eventually recognised as a war hero on October 23, 1976 by the Chinese government.