The Marathon Life and Death of the Singaporean Woman

John Yang, Class of 2000, EL 119, Brown University

In The Bondmaid, Catherine Lim explores the subjugation of Chinese women in 1950s Singapore. In the face of oppression and humiliation, characters sometimes find hope and promise that carries them to the conclusion of the novel. Han loves young master Wu, and her love fuels her life until her dying days. The bondmaid Chu tortures and humiliates the invalid Old One as a vengeful response to her own humiliation.

However, neither of these examples produces a satisfactory outcome for the two characters. We see in Han's dreams that Chu is tormented even beyond her death. Her measures of revenge did not suffice to quell her troubled spirit. Moreover, Han never truly receives the ultimate act of love from master Wu, that of becoming his second wife. Instead, she has her baby boy stolen, and she dies, imparting curses upon the House of Chang and Wu. What are the lessons learned from Han's and Chu's fates? Does hope then not exist for the underprivileged Singaporean women? Some characters in The Bondmaid manage to find some satisfaction in their lives despite a seemingly bleak future. These characters possess endurance, a quality extolled by several characters in the novel including Popo:

"Look at me," said Popo. "Look at me and my good life with my family. If I had made a fuss and something bad had happened, would I be like this today?" And she held up her lucky male baby by way of reinforcing her point. Endurance. If women endured enough, a good life would eventually come to them. (275)

Popo endured the molesting hands of the Reverend, endured the demands of the matriarch to massage her back at any hour of the day, and ultimately found a satisfactory husband while giving birth to a treasured first son. Similarly, the old keo kia woman gives Han the same advice in Han's dreams, stating, "You think you are so clever . . . You think you have changed anything? My advice is to endure." (275)

Ultimately, Han ignores the old keo kia woman's advice and allies with the Goddess of Forgetfulness to repel her enemies and to win master Wu's love. Han never again is subjected to the abuse of the Reverend and the Fourth Older Brother, and she even benefits from a prostitute's curse on the Fourth Older Brother from Oldest Brother's bordello. However, Li-Li steals her first born and claims him as her own. In addition, Chu's wish to act upon her revenge results in her continued torment after death. It seems as though the characters that endure through their subjugated status receive the benefits of their perseverance. For example, Popo gets married and has a healthy baby boy. The bondmaid Choyin ultimately becomes a treasured assistant to Li-Li and benefits from both Houses.

What does this novel say about women who act upon their wishes and desires? What does it say about women to accept the hierarchy of their social system? Is then endurance the only means of survival and profit for these women?

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Catherine Lim