A new meaning to the term “little sister”
Author Eva Wong Nava’s The House of Little Sisters contains many eye-openers about the past, and the part we still play in them
“I think the past never lies.”
But it does have many layers and sides. It’s what makes history and historical fiction so interesting to me.
Who uttered this quote? Well, it just so happens to be author Eva Wong Nava, whose YA historical fiction novel, The House of Little Sisters, will be released on 22 February 2022. (“A palindrome date day,” she adds.) I asked her about the value of learning about the past and of young people’s lives in the past, and how it affects us to this day. Here’s why.
The House of Little Sisters follows the coming-of-age journey of Ah Mei, a mui tsai or indentured servant girl in 1930s Singapore, who makes a connection with the spirit of another mui tsai, Ah Lian – and discovers damaging family secrets, passion and forbidden love, and a chance to change her fate and future along the way.
My first thought was, “Writing this couldn’t have been easy.” The amount of research that goes into historical fiction can get crazy, because there seems to be so much stuff to read, so many people to talk to, and so many details to figure out before an author can actually even sit down and write.
My second thought was, “Yay! I have another great book to read.” It makes me thankful to the authors for all their hard work, and for deciding to embark on this kind of journey too.
In fact, Eva likens historical research to “working on a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle”.
“The exciting part is piecing together the puzzle to get the big picture,” she says.
“As historians will tell you, once you start digging, you’ll discover that there’s more to dig and more to find out, and the search never ends until it ends. And this is when there’s information and data out there to dig. Some events and people in history are so little documented that it’s hard to find information.”
But it’s all worth it
Because the results – and the books, particularly House – turn out fascinating. Besides, Eva is no stranger to projects like these. She’s a UK-based children’s book author, art historian, speaker, educator, editor and writing coach. She’s also the founder of the fiction platform CarpeArte Journal, and the editorial platform The Writing Essentials.
Her books include the award-winning Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure; the Readers’ Choice Awards-nominated The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs; and the Readers’ Favorite five-star-reviewed Sahara’s Special Senses. And then she also co-authored Mina’s Magic Malong and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali: The Accidental Doctor. Whew.
“I love historical fiction because it shines a light on a period of time, or an event or a person, that I haven’t learnt about in school, or that I wouldn’t necessarily go and find out about out of the blue,” she says. In the case of House, this includes:
• 1930s Singapore
“I wanted to explore a lesser known history that took place in Asia during the 1930s,” Eva begins.
“My novel looks at a specific event in 1930s Singapore – the formation of the Mui Tsai Ordinance of 1932, a legislation that affected many wealthy Chinese-Peranakan families. The novel traces the historical human trafficking of little girls from China to Malaya, in parts, and exposes the plight of these girls, through fiction, in general.
“During this time, many wealthy Chinese families in British Malaya owned slave girls, known as mui tsai, who they bought from traders or agents at an open market. Some were traded secretly, as many of these girls were also sold into prostitution,” she continues.
“The thing was that these families never referred to these girls as slaves; they were little sisters or little girls, as the Cantonese term mui tsai (mui = sister, tsai = child) became known as adopted daughters. The lack of a proper definition of the term mui tsai in English made it possible for many families to bend the rules by insisting that the little girls in their household were adopted daughters rather than bond-servants.”
• The Mui Tsai Ordinance of 1932
“The Ordinance was a British attempt to put a stop to bonded servitude by obliging all families who owned servants to register their servants and pay them a wage,” Eva narrates.
“The girls were paid wages at ‘a rate not less than such minimum rate as may be prescribed, and with sufficient food, clothing of a reasonable kind and, in case of illness, proper medical attention’ (Mui Tsai Ordinance 1932 clause 7.–(2), page 12).
“I dramatised the lived experiences of these servant girls through my book,” she notes.
“The buying and selling of mui tsai did not end after the Ordinance. In fact, it continued to be practised into the later part of the 20th century. You could even say that such practices still exist today – the human trafficking of vulnerable girls and women is still happening.”
• Bonded domestic servants were not only girls
“They were also boys and men, though the majority were girls. During this period, there were different types of servants: paid and unpaid (or bonded), girls/women and boys/men.
“During the period I wrote about, Hainanese men were paid by Europeans to work as houseboys and they were seen as competitors by women seeking domestic positions. Young boys were employed to ferry water, as many houses did not have running water during the 1930s. They were known as water carriers.
“Majority of homes in the 1930s also did not have proper toilets, and men were employed to ferry toilet waste to be disposed at landfills, farms (as fertiliser) or waste disposal centres. These men worked at night and came to be known as night-soil carriers. ‘Night-soil Carrier’ was the occupational name given to men who ferried away human waste; this job title was documented in government records. Their children were teased and called ‘Toh Sai Kia’ (‘Shit Carrier’s Child’, literally translated from the Hokkien). I found it interesting that male servants were also referred to as ‘kia’, infantalising these men.
“Night-soil collecting continued in Singapore until the late 1980s. By that time, it was almost 100 years since it was first introduced to Malaya by the British; Europe and America had their share of human waste collectors too. There were still 78 night-soil collectors left in Singapore in 1987, the same year that night-soil collecting by bucket stopped. These men were either given cleaning jobs or were asked to retire.”
• The majie
“I was fascinated by a sisterhood of domestic helpers known as the black-and-white servants or majie (in Chinese), who came from China to work in Malaya. They were known as black-and-white servants on account of their uniforms: a pair of black trousers and a white top. And they were paid a wage.
“These women subscribed to the ‘anti-marriage’ movement in China that took place in the early 1900s. In essence, these were women who were against feudal marriages, advocating for freedom of choice and economic freedom. They were Singapore’s first feminists, if you will. In Singapore, they took vows of celibacy by going through a hair-combing ceremony and wearing their hair in a plait or bun. Many rented rooms in Chinatown while living in their bosses’ houses during the work week.”
• Mui tsai aren’t only Chinese
“Even though these servant girls were known as mui tsai, they were not all Chinese; there were Malay and Indian girls traded within Malaya too. It’s not surprising to say that poverty is the root of this evil, and desperation and greed are the fertilisers that nourish it,” Eva states.
“While the selling and buying of mui tsai was a Chinese practice during the 18th and 19th centuries predominantly within China, and a dominant export to Malaya, mui tsai also existed in Hong Kong, San Francisco and Australia. The mui tsai system existed predominantly in Malaya because over 70 per cent of immigrants from China stopped over and anchored in Southeast Asia during emigration. My research did not cover other countries in Southeast Asia, like Indonesia, or other parts of the world, like French Polynesia or Canada, where Chinese immigration was also widespread. That would be for another book, I guess.”
We’re not surprised
We did mention there’s a tonne of research involved. You can’t help but go deeper.
(Although Eva did tell us that “Writing historical fiction requires self-restraint.” Clearly we didn’t follow her advice. House gives us so many things to talk about, that we had to try to at least touch on some of them. It’ll help us appreciate the story even more; a trip back in time, if you will. I also thought you might like it.)
It’s definitely a process. Eva says that the characters “inhabited my psyche for nearly two years, which was the time it took for me to write the novel”.
“The novel took well over four years to research, but the idea to write a book like this germinated when I lived in Paris between 2009 to 2013,” she reveals.
“During that time, I met ‘Maria’, a woman who managed to run away from her employer. It was a bizarre story, one that shocked me, because I had naively thought that a thing like this doesn’t happen anymore. Although she was paid a wage, she was not allowed to leave her employer’s house.” (You can read about her here.)
Eva’s experiences in Singapore were also a factor. “When I lived in Singapore between 2013 to 2020, I saw how heavily Singaporeans depended on domestic helpers,” she recalls.
“And when I got to know some helpers who were treated unfairly, memories of Maria’s plight surfaced again. I became curious about Singaporean society’s general (callous) attitudes towards domestic and migrant labourers, and wanted to know where these attitudes had come from.
“I felt a lot of compassion for the many children who are cared for by their helpers, and wondered how these children feel about their ‘aunties’ – and how these ‘aunties’ feel when they finally have to go home to their own (grown-up) children,” she goes on.
“My curiosity led me to make friends with the many domestic helpers in my condominium complex. I chatted with them and got to know about their lives, their hopes and aspirations, and their future plans. When I could, I also had conversations with the children about their ‘aunties’. I also made friends with a migrant worker, who actively uplifts migrant workers’ voices and continues to contribute to making their lives better in Singapore. He inspired me to create my character, Hassan Mohamed.”
Exploring House’s other “characters”
So far we’ve been introduced to Ah Mei, Ah Lian, and now Hassan. There’s more, but we’re not going to talk about them – at least not directly. (Don’t get us wrong – they’re just as intriguing.)
These themes have a place in the book for good reason, as they influence the characters’ perspectives and decisions. They help build House’s world and our understanding of it too. Eva explains:
“Domestic labour is also known by another term – intimate labour. The events dramatised in the novel all took place within a house. The house is a container of secrets in as much as it is a site of memories. One often hears: ‘This house has character.’ If the main character of a story were a house, what secrets would it share?”
• Sisterhood and “little sisters”
“We had a majie in our household when I was very little. My memories of her are fading as time goes by. The majie were known as Amah and that was what I called our majie. In Chinese, Amah means ‘mother’. I think a majie was referred to as an Amah because their jobs were often that of babysitting. The majie no longer exist as a class of household servants; but servants who are made to wear uniforms still do, rare as they may be these days, and helpers who are mother figures to children still exist too.
“What intrigued me about the majie was their pledge to sisterhood and celibacy. They helped one another in times of need and their plan was to work until they can retire with enough money to return to China. Some did, but many didn’t, or couldn’t. Majie also adopted orphaned girls or girls abandoned at orphanages. There is a solidarity amongst these women who were bonded by vows of loyalty to each other and to themselves that resonated with me.
“So here’s another meaning of being bonded, but this one stems from the freedom of choice, even if that freedom is a limited one.”
“This is my first attempt at writing something supernatural. Truth be told, I am a scaredy-cat when it comes to ghosts and ghouls and psychological thrillers. I feel we live with ghosts that we don’t even know. There is nothing supernatural about this because ghosts are metaphors we navigate regularly.”
• Mistakes, and paying the price for your mistake
“I often ask myself, ‘What is the ultimate price I am willing to pay for something?’ As much as we talk about freedom in the democratic world, freedom comes with a price tag.
“In a conservative and patriarchal society like that of 1930s Malaya, the price many women paid for a single mistake was often very high or the ultimate price. House explores this and asks readers what price they’re willing to pay if they lived in such a society, a society that many of our grandparents lived in not so long ago, and many of us still live in today.
“If they were Ah Mei, what price would they pay for love? If they were Ah Lian, what price would they pay to escape a lifetime of servitude?”
“We all have secrets. Secrets are usually shrouded in shame. Secrets work as a literary device because secrets are meant to be exposed, and books help expose them.”
“Shame is the opposite of courage, I feel. It takes courage to recognise shame and to admit that one feels ashamed or has done something shameful.
“Taboos are a result of shame, and underlying this shame is fear. Taboos exist because we fear something. And there is no courage in hiding behind taboos. When we name something, we remove the shame from that something. Menstruation is a taboo in patriarchal societies, and when I was growing up, we couldn’t say the M word; menstruation was so mired in shame that girls were taught to wrap their sanitary napkins with newspapers and discard them in secret.
“The female body has, for centuries, been sites of shame and taboo. As much as many of us are able to speak freely about female bodily effluence today, the topic still makes many shudder with discomfort. In the 1930s, sex out of wedlock was perceived as an act consummated in shame. Extramarital affairs were rife and in Chinese-Peranakan families, these were always acts that men committed.
“The double standards were clear and these double standards still exist. Women were shamed when they were discovered having sex outside of marriage, or to be in an extramarital relationship. But men were never judged, as it was their right to sow wild oats or to take another wife if the former one couldn’t bear him a son.
“Rape was also rife then and within the household. Many servant girls were raped; many were also sold into prostitution. These acts of violence often took place behind closed doors and within the earshot of the women in the house. Wives knew what their husbands were up to, but they had no voice or might to stop them. And men could take as many wives as their wealth and status afforded them. It was condoned because it was regarded as a Chinese tradition, and a man’s right. The Women’s Charter of 1961 put a stop to polygamous marriages. Imagine! 1961. This is within many Singaporeans’ lifetime.
“But unfortunately, women in the 1930s had to wait another 30 years before they were free to be considered the only wife to a man. It took a woman named Shirin Fozdar to appear in the 1950s on Singapore’s shores before polygamous marriages could be outlawed. The many men in high office whom she had approached for help to put in place a law that would protect women and children ignored her, until it became a political advantage to put a law in place. Now that is shameful. I repeat – 1961!”
• Forbidden love
“Ah Mei, the protagonist, falls in love with Hassan, an Indian-Muslim. Love is a theme that’s always covered in YA novels. It’s a coming-of-age novel, so falling in and out of love is something that teens would relate to, and not just teens – everyone can relate to falling in and out of love.
“However, there are certain types of romantic relationships that were forbidden in the past. During the 1930s, mixed-race unions were frowned upon. In some cultures, these still are, although such attitudes are getting rarer and rarer.
“A book is a document of history, if you will. Some books, like Joan Didion’s or Charles Dickens’, are considered classics because both writers document the times they were living in through non-fiction (Didion) and fiction (Dickens). I wanted House to document the historical attitudes in 1930s Malaya in regard to interracial relationships, but not dwell too much on it, leaving gaps for readers to imagine what was and what will be.”
“We make our own fates within the circumstances we’re born into. Fate is about attitude, I feel. But I say this from a position of privilege as fate has dealt me a rather good hand.”
What House is, and what it could be
“Critics have called House a feminist novel – a book that empowers women, and gives marginalised women a voice at a time when women had none,” Eva answers.
After everything we’ve learnt, I think that’s true. But I also believe that reading House, listening to Eva’s own stories, and digging into the issues unearthed by her research will leave us with a feeling of hope, and a plan. That is, to:
#1 Gather more information
“I’m aware that House could be read as a criticism of an aspect of Chinese culture and its practices,” Eva muses.
“For me, the story in House is more my observation of the customs I’m familiar with, being someone from the Chinese-Peranakan community, rather than a critique of Chinese culture. I discovered during my sojourn in Singapore that contemporary attitudes towards domestic help and migrant labour, women, and children are very entrenched in history and the perceived unconscious right to practise certain customs and to treat certain members of society in a certain way.
“I hope that my novel will shine a light on this, and make young adult readers aware of the human trafficking that happened in the past and is still happening today in disguised versions, and the sexist attitudes that are still maintained today in modern Singapore and China because of traditions.”
#2 Be inquisitive
“History is a collective memory, and it’s important to know the past so that we don’t make the same mistakes going forward,” Eva says.
“The Mui Tsai Ordinance is a thing of the past. It was a governmental response to stop girls from being enslaved in servitude. During my research and in the writing of House, I asked myself whether bonded servitude has come to an end in contemporary Singapore (and Malaysia, because Malaysia was part of Malaya). I’d like readers to take that question away with them too.”
#3 Have a “more nuanced” view of the past
… as Eva suggests. “I think we ought to see the past through a critical but empathetic lens,” she points out.
“This is very challenging because personal judgment will always interfere with our perspectives. For history to be observed, we need time to pass before there can be objective distance. I feel that herstory is just as important, and I hope House offers another perspective of herstory.”
Earlier I admitted my first and second thoughts about historical fiction and House. My third (and final) thought? I’d like to read the book again, immerse myself in its connections to history (and herstory), and be inspired to learn even more. I hope you will too.
If you want to read more YA and historical fiction
These are some of the titles Eva’s loved lately:
#1 The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
#2 The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
#3 The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero