Janet Lim



Janet Lim Chiu Mei (b. 14 July c.1923, Hong Kong–5 August 2014, Brisbane, Australia), born Kwek Chiu Mei, was Singapore’s first Asian hospital matron but is better remembered as its first Asian memoirist. Lim’s bestselling memoir, Sold for Silver, recounts her childhood sale into servitude by her mother, her subsequent journey from abuse and exploitation to freedom and a fulfilling career, as well as her near-death wartime experiences.1

Childhood and sale
Lim’s birth year is uncertain but it is believed she was born in Hong Kong in 1923. When she was a few months old, Lim’s father moved the family to his home village in Guangdong, China, where she spent her childhood on her father’s plantation. Lim’s father died when she was six and after her mother remarried,2 she took her stepfather’s surname, Lim.


Soon after Lim turned eight (age in Chinese years), the family moved to Swatow (now Shantou) to seek a better life. However, her stepfather could not find a job and in desperation, her mother told her they were selling her as a bondservant to a wealthy couple in a neighbouring town. Lim felt duty-bound to agree and personally witnessed the transaction that took place. Her mother gave her 25 cents and promised to return for her once they had money, but she never saw her mother again. Lim later estimated that the 120 Chinese dollars obtained from the sale would have lasted them a year.3

China’s centuries-old mui tsai (meaning “little younger sister” in Cantonese) system allowed poor families to sell unwanted daughters to wealthy households to be used as domestic servants. They could later regain their freedom through marriage at the age of 18. Mistreatment and abuse of mui tsais were widespread. The couple Lim was sold to turned out to be mui tsai dealers from whom she soon tried to escape, which prompted her mistress to leash her for a month leaving permanent scars on her legs.4

Life in Singapore
Around 1930, Lim was sent to Singapore and realised after arriving that she was being resold, this time to a rich man for 250 Straits dollars. Worse than the drudgery, sleeping on the floor and eating leftovers were the old man’s nocturnal advances, as he believed that sleeping with young girls resulted in health benefits. On such nights, Lim would hide from him and his wife in one of the 20-odd rooms in the house.5

From 1933, a government ordinance banned the importation of mui tsais and required existing ones to be registered, paid and regularly examined. Punishment for the mistreatment of mui tsais was also stiffened. Lim and the household’s other mui tsai were among the 706 registered that year.6

Unable to take any more of the ill-treatment, Lim and the other mui tsai decided to run away. The latter managed to leave the house unnoticed and went to the police. The next day, a woman from the Chinese Protectorate rescued Lim. Out of shame, her ex-master changed his name and gave her 700 Straits dollars.7

Education and nursing training
Lim lived for a short period at Poh Leung Kuk, the institution that sheltered vulnerable Chinese girls. She then began her studies at the Church of England Zenana Mission School (now St Margaret’s Secondary School) in 1934, paying for her fees with the compensation money she had earlier received from her ex-master. At the school, Lim learned English, joined the Girl Guides and converted to Christianity, taking the name Janet. In 1939, the school started to receive government grants and as a result overaged students like Lim, who had finished Standard 7, had to leave the school.8


The school encouraged girls to think of doing something more worthwhile rather than becoming housewives. After a teacher suggested that Lim enter nursing, she started training at St Andrew’s Mission Hospital in early 1940.9 At the hospital, Lim found the European staff aloof and condescending, but she benefitted from the hands-on training and passed her hospital certificate exam in late 1941. She was also adopted by a Christian family during this time.10

Wartime ordeals
St Andrew’s closed in 1941 and Lim worked for a short while at the General Hospital before joining the Indian Military Nursing Service. While fleeing the Japanese invasion of Singapore in February 1942, her ship was bombed and the injured Lim was among the survivors taken to Japanese-occupied Sumatra after two days on a raft.11

Being an Asian, Lim was not automatically imprisoned but the Japanese tried to make her a “comfort woman” (a woman forced to provide sexual services) in Padang. She violently resisted an attempted rape and then spent nearly three weeks as a fugitive before being caught.12

Once captured, a Japanese military officer accused her of being an American spy and decided her defiance warranted a death more painful and much slower than summary execution. She attempted suicide after a week of imprisonment, torment and deprivation but was freed in June 1942.13

Lim returned home briefly but found occupied Singapore’s atmosphere unbearably tense. Back in Sumatra, she worked as a nurse at a factory clinic and later at Padang Hospital until the war ended.

Professional success
Upon her return to Singapore after the war, Lim helped former comfort women at the Social Hygiene Hospital. She then qualified as a midwife at Kandang Kerbau Hospital before returning to St Andrew’s Mission Hospital in 1948.14

With the help of a British Council bursary in 1951, Lim became the first nurse from Singapore to pursue further nursing studies in Britain, specialising in child nursing.15 She returned to Singapore in 1952 as a state registered nurse16 and was appointed Singapore’s first Asian hospital matron of St Andrew’s Mission Hospital in 1954, a post she held until 1959.17

Sold for Silver
In 1958, Collins and Sons Ltd of London published Lim’s memoir Sold for Silver, which was the first English book by a woman from Singapore and the first local autobiography.18 Friends and colleagues had encouraged her to recount her wartime ordeals and to include an account of her unusual childhood. Lim did so partly to squelch gossip among the Chinese in Singapore about her “questionable” background.19

Lim travelled to London for promotional events of her book, including a television interview by the British Broadcasting Corporation.20 Strong sales prompted a second edition after just a month.21 The book was published in the United States the following year.

International reviewers praised the book, particularly its vivid depiction of life in pre-war rural China and Lim’s admirable lack of self-pity or bitterness. She did not reveal the identity of her Singapore master out of consideration for his son and glossed over the details of her initial sale by her parents as the stigma remained too great.22

The book earned a sympathetic response from many local Chinese despite the prejudice against ex-mui tsais. Her book has remained in print and is a valuable first-hand account of a largely forgotten practice.

Departure from Singapore

In 1959, Lim wed an Australian missionary doctor.23 They moved to Kuala Lumpur, then Hong Kong and finally settled in Queensland, Australia in 1973. Lim passed away on 5 August 2014 in Brisbane, Australia.24

Family
Parents: Kwek Nai Poh and Chua Gwek Lui.25
Husband: Dr Errol J. Strang (married 16 May 1959).26
Children: Three children and six grandsons.27



Author

Duncan Sutherland



References
1. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 211. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei
2. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 209. Retrieved from Gogle books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 109. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
3. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 209. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Tan, J. (2004, December 16). Slave duty. Today, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 110–111. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
4. Tan, J. (2004, December 16). Slave duty. Today, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 111. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
5. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 210. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei; Tan, J. (2004, December 16). Slave duty. Today, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 113. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
6. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 210. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 115. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM); Reid, L., & Thay, W. (2006). A light that shines: The story of St. Andrew's Mission Hospital. Singapore: St Andrew's Mission Hospital, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 362.11095957 REI)
7. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 210. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 115–116. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
8. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 210. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 116–118. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
9. Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 118. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
10. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 210. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei
11. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 210. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Tan, J. (2004, December 16). Slave duty. Today, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 118. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
12. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, pp. 210–211. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 118. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
13. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 211. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Tan, J. (2004, December 16). Slave duty. Today, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei; Singapore nurse going to U.K. (1951, November 22). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 118. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
15. Singapore nurse going to U.K. (1951, November 22). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Hall, N. (1952, February 19). Doctor Joan is not going to approve of this. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 211. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei; ‘Sold-for-silver’ Janet (to marry tomorrow) gives hospital $1000. (1959, May 15). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 118. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM); Reid, L., & Thay, W. (2006). A light that shines: The story of St. Andrew's Mission Hospital. Singapore: St Andrew's Mission Hospital p. 74. (Call no.: RSING 362.11095957 REI)
18. Koh, T. A. (1994). Sing to the dawn: Novels in English by Singaporean women. In T. B. Kintanar, Ungku Maimunah Mohd Tahir, Koh, T. A., & Heraty, T. (Eds.). Emergent voices: Southeast Asian women novelists. Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, p. 67. (Call no.:809.8959082 EME)
19. I was sold as slave girl – Janet Lim. (1958, April 16). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei
20. Hall, N. (1958, October 2). Janet had such a wonderful time in London. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Romney, H. (1958, September 23). After 16 years Janet Lim meets her sea blitz saviour. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Sold-for-silver VIP returns. (1958, October 2). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Miers, S. (1994). Mui tsai through the eyes of the victim: Janet Lim’s story of bondage and escape. In Jaschok, M. & Miers, S. (Eds.). Women and Chinese patriarchy: Submission, servitude and escape (pp. 108–121). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, p. 108. (Call no.: R 305.420951 WOM)
23. Sit, Y. F. (1959, February 19). Author Janet’s secret is out: She’s to marry a doctor. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Simple wedding for ‘Sold for Silver’ girl. (1959, May 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 211. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false; Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei
25. Chander, H. (2001). Janet Lim. In G. Huang (Ed.). Asian American autobiographers: A bio-bibliographical critical source book (pp. 209–213). Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 210. Retrieved from Google books website: http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=L11CQ4Uw7MQC&pg=PA209&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false
26. Simple wedding for ‘Sold for Silver’ girl. (1959, May 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Singapore Council for Women's Organisation. (n.d.). Janet Lim Chiu Mei. Retrieved from Singapore Women's Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-inductees/18-health/155-janet-lim-chiu-mei



Further Resources
Koh, T. A. (2000). Literature: Southeast Asia. In C. Kramarae & D. Spender (Eds.). Routledge international encyclopedia of women: Global women’s issues and knowledge (Vol. 3 - Identity politics to publishing, p. 1281). New York: Routledge.
(Call no.: R q305.403 ROU v. 3)

Lim, J. (2004). Sold for silver: An autobiography of a girl sold into slavery in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Monsoon.
(Call no.: 940.547252 LIM -[WAR])



The information in this article is valid as at 12 December 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Writers
Biographers
Lim, Janet, 1923-
Personalities
Child slaves
Nurses--Singapore--Biography
Chinese writers
Autobiography--Women authors
Personalities>>Biographies>>Authors

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