In her serenely composed debut memoir, native daughter Lum provides a rare, compelling glimpse of Singapore during WWII.
Her father came to “the Lion City” in 1919, when his widowed mother decided to leave the island of Hainan and educate her four-year-old son to become an interpreter. She died shortly after he married at age 16, and the young couple was forced to move in with the bride’s mother, Popo. A disapproving old dictator, trained in herbal medicine and steeped in ancient superstition, she ruled the household; it was Popo who named the author Miew-yong (Subtle Lotus) upon her birth in 1933. As Father’s salary improved, the family steadily moved to nicer neighborhoods. His growing prosperity enabled Popo to marry off her unlovely second daughter to a government employee and to purchase—and roundly abuse—several muichai, girls sold into servitude by their families. Meanwhile, Lum’s mother embarked on a life of leisure and neglect of her girls; one daughter died of abuse, another was given up for adoption. Miew-yong became keenly aware of the ruling matriarchs’ double standard: She and her sisters were relentlessly blamed and beaten, while their two brothers were indulged. British colonial rule collapsed with the 1942 invasion of the Japanese, who oppressed and tortured Singapore’s various ethnic groups over the next three-and-a-half years. Father’s work as a translator largely spared the family from starvation, but the humiliation heaped on him by his mother-in-law and wife drove him to drink; he died at the end of the war. When Mother entered into a liaison with a married man who persuaded her to make disastrous financial decisions, it was hardworking Miew-yong and her sister who (barely) held the family together. Now living in London, Lum subtly champions the will of a young girl who refused to be silenced.
A riveting narrative of little-known Chinese history.