The Power of the Subaltern in Catherine Lim's The Bondmaid

Valerie Braman, 2000.5, EL 119, Brown University

The dynamics of power play a crucial role in the lives of those who do not possess it. Not only do the oppressed find themselves subjected to the whims, fancies, and abuses of their superiors; they also construct their own hierarchies of power, replete with privilege and punishment, to which they cling desperately. The maintenance and resistance of the allegiances formed as a result of these internal quasi-power structures consume the energy that might have been formerly directed at deconstructing the original, tyrannical power. Effectively, then, the creation of these sub-hierarchies within the ranks of the oppressed appropriates their consciousness in such a way that the powers against which they might naturally revolt become the very ones they, in their competition against one another, fortify.

Catherine Lim's jarringly straightforward novel, The Bondmaid, explores an example of the world of the secondary power hierarchy. Already relegated to a level far below that of the male, the female in 1950's Singapore faced significant social, religious, and filial constraints on her public realizations of power. However, such a female as the matriarch could enjoy the benefits of her husband's wealth, and this factor immediately set her above most of the other women she would encounter. The world of the rich, which entailed its own particular set of customs and expectations, was set far apart from that of the poor. The only way in which the two worlds could meet involved the practice of charity to beggars, and that of the tradition of bondmaids. A matriarch who must defer to her husband's status at all times, one who was not entitled to share this man's breakfast table until "age conferred upon her the privilege of eating with her husband," (pp. 37-38) finds her power in her sovereignty over the House of Wu's bondmaids.

These women, who the matriarch could purchase from desperate mothers when the girls were too young to understand,

All wore the same austere hairstyle of hair pulled back into a tight, well-oiled back-knot, the same long-sleeved, long-trousered suit of equally austere grey or black. But while the dictates of womanly chastity and decorum made for dull homogeneity, those of status lifted the matriarch immeasurably above her serving maids; her clothes would always be of the finest silk, theirs of the plainest cotton, her ornaments always of jade and gold and diamonds, theirs of bone or silver at most. Above all, the power of which these appurtenances were only a small indicator, was written in every gesture of the soft, work-free hands with their delicately curling nails, in every haughty configuration of eyes, nose, mouth and plucked eyebrows, (p. 36)

Even amongst these women whose lives consist of abuse, servitude, and silence, hierarchies of power develop and thrive. Choyin, the head bondmaid, enjoys privileges of dress, adornment, and action, "Appeared superior to the other bondmaids by virtue of her age, her sever expressionÉand, most of all, a certain hauteur of bearing successfully copied from the matriarch." (p. 41) Choyin functions, in this novel, as the embodiment of the slave who has become so dependent on her master and on the system that produced her situation that she is willing to spite her fellow slaves in her search for her master's approval, and the little power this will bring her. Choyin relishes the hold she has over the other bondmaids, and grows to use her authority to serve her own personal vendetta against Han. After hearing that the child refused her offer of adoption, "the antagonism of the forty-year-old woman towards the six-year-old child became an animating force in her dull, bleak life." (p. 89)

Choyin continues to use her status to further distinguish herself, and her superiority, from Han. She the girl (and later, woman) tasks which might allow her to interact with Master Wu and his friends, and later, makes certain to speak of the master, his fiancee, and their lavish lives in front of Han, in order to further torture the maid:

For the victory was the head bondmaid's now. The girl stood rejected by the young master, as all could see, whereas she, as head bondmaid, was the only one among them that he sometimes chose to speak to. It gave her immense satisfaction to be able to come into the kitchen and announce to no one in particular, "Master Wu said to me --," "Master Wu told me --," in the manner of the arch concubine coyly flaunting her favoured position. (pp. 121-122)

Clearly, Choyin's actions reflect her need to achieve power for herself in any way that she can. Although she will always live in a subordinated position, she takes refuge in the fact that she will remain superior to someone or something.

Throughout the novel, other examples of the ways in which the subverted seek to establish their own power abound: Chu's poisoning of the Old One with the faeces of animals, her hoarding of personal money, Han's spilling of tea on the Reverend and Fourth Older Brother, her influence on Spitface in the refusal of Li-Li's ang pow, Popo and Wind-in-the-Head's marriages and births of sonsÉ. What do these alternate power and status systems say about the overarching gender and class structures at work in Lim's novel? Is the author, through exposing the often tragic workings of the life of the subordinated woman and bondmaid in 1950's Singapore, seeking to make a larger point about the position and options of the subaltern in the post-colonial world? What is at stake when struggles for power collide with one another in these ways?


Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Catherine Lim