Wednesday, June 10, 2009
  Sold for Silver
Janet Lim
Monsoon Books (2004) Singapore
[Originally pub. William Collins & Sons, UK (1958)]

Janet Lim's account of her early life is subtitled The Autobiography of a Girl Sold into Slavery in Southeast Asia. When it was first published, in 1958, she wrote, "Today I am not, as I used to be, ashamed of my past."

She was by then 35 and times were different. Fifty years later and her statement is even less unusual as her fate has been mirrored in many ways across continents and cultures by countless others. There can be no shame when your life is determined by the circumstances of your birth.

Born in Hong Kong in 1923, her early childhood was spent in rural China. Her father was a doctor who practiced sin seh, traditional medicine, and doted on her. Her mother was strict and rarely showed affection towards her, but at that time, Chinese wives lived almost entirely separated from their husbands and, presumably, in turn little affection was shown to her.

Girls were generally considered a nuisance, only good for marriage at 15. Janet had two sisters who died in infancy and a beloved brother who died aged four, and when she was six her father died. Thus ended her relatively benign childhood.

As it was not the custom for bereaved wives to inherit property, her mother remarried in order to have a measure of security. Janet did feel that her mother loved her, but she had become an extra burden and what followed was seemingly inevitable - she became a mui tsai. This term referred to girls transferred from their families, for payment or as settlement of a loan, to other families to be used as domestic servants. Given no pay, they were on the lowest rung of a household.

Janet was transferred indirectly through a trafficker in girls from destitute families and, at just 8, she ended up in Singapore where she "was looked at, criticized, and after much bargaining sold for $250”.

"My master was a very rich man, a landowner .... who craved female company. After about three months, he started trying to visit me at night. I cannot express my terror when I heard his footsteps. I crawled anywhere, inside cupboards, under the beds, outside the windows, anywhere, as long as I could get out of his reach. I never slept for two nights in the same place."

In 1933, the government passed a law requiring all mui tsai girls to be registered and Janet then began a journey, which took her via a Christian orphanage to the nursing profession.

In December 1941, war arrived in Singapore and on February 13th Janet along with her fellow nurses was evacuated aboard a ship which was doomed to be sunk by a Japanese bomb. After drifting for two days, she and a few other survivors were rescued and taken to the island of Sumatra.

In the second half of the book Janet Lim gives an account of her struggles, mainly in Padang, West Sumatra, with malaria and the seemingly endless concern that she would become one of the 'comfort women' for the Japanese.

She escaped into the surrounding jungle only to be recaptured and tortured. There were times when she was ready to give up. Following one lengthy bout of questioning, she was taken to the beach at Padang at two in the morning. She thought that she was going to be shot as this was a preferred method of execution by the Japanese who were thus spared the problem of body disposal.

As I stepped out (of the car) they caught hold of me thinking that I was trying to escape. I laughed aloud and said, "Don't touch me, I won't run. I am more eager to die than you know."

Eventually, the Japanese allowed Janet to resume nursing at the local cement works. With the end of the war, she returned to Singapore, where she became a hospital matron, eventually relocating to Australia and raising a family.

Janet Lim's prose may leave readers underwhelmed. Apart from the recurring underlying motif of protecting her 'honour', from her Chinese slave-master in Singapore to the Japanese overlords in West Sumatra, there is very much a sense of unexplored emotions. This account may have served as an exorcism of past hurts, but, although she denies this at the outset, there are still echoes of a lingering sense of shame. None of us can ever completely overcome the traumas of our childhoods.

After repeated and continuing news through the years of genocide, massacres, serial killings, of 9/11, the Bali bombings and other more recent terrorist outrages, I often wonder whether we build a blanket of insouciant immunity to the shocking news of Man's inhumanity to Man and other desecrations of the human spirit..

Janet’s is a lone voice from the past reminding us of present societal ills. There may be fewer countries at war, but torture is no longer, nor indeed has it ever been, the prerogative of a few rogue states. According to the UN, up to 27 million people are now held in slavery, far more than at the peak of the African slave trade, and the majority of the victims this time are Asian women.

The message of this book lies in Janet’s struggle to be true to herself, even at those times when all seemed lost. Her experience as a bought child gave her the strength as she began her adult life in appalling circumstances to be true to herself and no-one else. That is a valuable lesson for today's world.
I wrote the above book review a couple of years ago but failed to get it published in the local English language print media for a variety of reasons which, I was told, were connected with internal reorganisation. Not wishing to see my pearls go uncast, I pass them on to you, dear readers.


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