Sold for Silver by Janet Lim

Sold for Silver is the story of Janet Lim who was sold into slavery for $250 as a young girl in 1930s Singapore. The book is not just about her time as a slave but is also about her life from childhood through to the end of WW II. About half the story swirls around the Riau Islands and in east, central and west Sumatra. The heroine went on to hold a significant place in the history of modern Singapore. She was the first Asian nurse to be promoted to the position of matron in a Singapore hospital.

Going by the name Chiu Mei, the main character had a tumultuous childhood living in poverty in a small town in the countryside of China where villagers’ lives were steeped in superstition and age-old customs repressive of women. Before she was eight, she lost a sibling and her father from illness. After her mother remarried, she was sold intoslavery, one of 706 slave girls registered by the British Straits Settlement colonial government in 1932. The servants of the household had a higher status than Chiu Mei because she was purchased, so her master could do anything he wanted with her.

Actually, the “slavery” part of her life was short lived. After a year, she escaped, then was found and put in an orphanage. In 1934, she was one of the few orphans chosen to attend a missionary school where she learned English, sewing and The Scriptures. She somehow avoided being married off to Christian Chinese men who were looking for hardworking Christian girls to marry. Not having any family herself, she was adopted by a Chinese family who had no daughters.

In 1939, Chiu Mei joined the St. Andrews Mission Hospital as a nurse-in-training, which in reality meant that she scrubbed lavatories and emptied bedpans. She remembers the day in 1942 when Japanese warplanes bombed the city. As Japanese troops advanced down the Malaysian Peninsula, Chiu Mei was transferred to the front lines. When the Japanese landed on Singapore Island, she escaped by ship with 500 British, Dutch, Eurasian, Indian and Chinese evacuees as the city fell. While the ship was sheltered on an island in the Riau Islands, it was bombed and sunk. The young girl jumps overboard and drifts aimlessly with blast injuries in the ocean for two days among debris and corpses.

Close to death, Chiu Mei is rescued by fishermen who take her to Senajang on Sumatra’s east coast where the Japanese captured her in February 1942. She ultimately ends up in Padang, West Sumatra where she was to spend three years – the longest portion of the autobiography chronicling her torture, beatings, death-threatening illnesses and starvation. As it turned out, her being sent to Padang probably saved her life. The Japanese military was very cruel to the Chinese in Singapore, killing thousands.

In the course of reading the book, we learn about many Chinese customs and cultural traditions practiced by mainland and overseas Chinese: rites which pay respect to the ancestors, the bathing ceremony on occasion of the birth of a boy, sacrifices to the Hungry Ghosts and Kitchen God, restrictions for women during courtship and after marriage, the custom of preparing ang pau gifts during the 15-day-long Chinese New Year. Poignant scenes as well reverberate throughout the book: the lonely young girl’s befriending and hiding with geese, the sound of her master shuffling about the house in the night looking for sexual favors, female babies left out in the street to die, working in the mortuary of the mission hospital, Singapore’s skyline turned into a “ball of fire” as her ship slips out of the harbor, the ghost of a murdered woman wailing in the night, waiting to be shot while standing in the waves of an isolated beach in Sumatra.

The first half of the story, documenting her childhood, her time spent in orphanages, her training as a nurse, her early adult life, the war-damaged hospitals and the months leading up to the outbreak of war is actually more readable because there is more action and heart than the second half of the book which concerns itself with her confinement, escape, capture and ultimate freedom. The language is deceptively simple and straightforward. The reader is aware of the final outcome of the book, so there’s a subtle yet constant feeling of dread for what is to come.

The story slows down considerably in the 25-page chapter describing, as she was held as a virtual prisoner in a hotel, how she played a cat and mouse game with her male captors to escape sexual exploitation as a comfort woman. During her personal ordeal, she enlisted help from both “enemies and friends,” i.e. Chinese, Malays and sympathetic Japanese who brought her brought her food, money, clothing.

Known as Nona Singapore and China Girl, she was moved in and out of internment camps, put under house arrest, repeatedly escapes, shuttled around to work in different clinics and hospitals, the while surviving purely by her wits and sheer guile. While beseeching God to show mercy, she displays reckless bravado. Much prose is spent on the heroine’s moral travails while “preserving my honor” and “not yielding to their lust” and suicidal oaths if her chastity were to be ever violated.

It is incredulous to me that Japanese military officers, even the ruthless Kempeitai secret police, put up with the bold defiance and rudeness of this 18-year-old girl and did not summarily execute her, all the more readily because she was Chinese. In my reading of the history of World War II, I am not familiar with Japanese soldiers who are as softhearted and tolerant as the ones depicted in this book. Chiu Mei cursed, quarreled and even threatened her captors.

After WW II, Janet Lim (Chiu Mei) settled permanently in Brisbane, Australia, where she raised a family of three children and six grandchildren. Twenty years after the war, doctors discovered that she had suffered a ruptured spleen and bowel from her ordeal after jumping into the sea. That she did not succumb to her internal injuries Chiu Mei ascribes to “God and salt water.”

Sold for Silver: An Autobiography of a Girl Sold into Slavery in Southeast Asia by Janet Lim, Monsoon Books 2005, ISBN-978-981-051-7281, 240 pages, dimensions 13 cm X 20 cm. Available for Rp215,000 from Periplus bookstores.

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