Singapore Shelf: The House Of Little Sisters gives enslaved girls a voice

SINGAPORE – In this monthly feature, The Sunday Times lines up hot-off-the-press local books for readers to dive into, with a focus on titles by women authors.

1. The House Of Little Sisters

By Eva Wong Nava
Young adult/Penguin Random House South-east Asia/Paperback/240 pages/$26.64/Available here

Author Eva Wong Nava has written her first young-adult novel, about a teenager in 1930s Singapore who is sold to a family as a mui tsai (Cantonese for “little sister”), or indentured servant girl.

The book was originally for nine-year-olds but, while working on it, she changed her mind.

“The more I dug up, the more I understood the plight of the mui tsai. I had to bring in all the issues that they faced. They were raped, sold and dumped,” says the Singapore-born author, 53, via a video call from London.

“I was able to explore these horrific issues in greater depth by notching up the age category.”

The House Of Little Sisters is about 16-year-old Lim Mei Mei, who is sold to the Lee family. She discovers a shameful secret lurking within the household, and meets and falls in love with Hassan, an aspiring poet.

To write the novel, Wong Nava drew on her own experiences with sexual assault.

“I was molested by my uncle when I was 10 years old till when I was 14. I couldn’t stop him, I didn’t know how to stop him,” she says.

She was disappointed that the global #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and harassment did not gain more traction in Singapore.

“It was very triggering for me to write House. It was tough, but it was also cathartic. In helping the mui tsai find a voice, I also found a voice for myself. I hope younger girls will have the courage to come out to tell someone, because they are not alone.”

Wong Nava, a naturalized British citizen, grew up in a house in Holland Village in Singapore and moved to Britain in the early 1990s to read English literature at the University of Hull. She is married to an Italian and they have two daughters aged 15 and 24.

Several events planted the seeds for The House Of Little Sisters. One was the story of a Filipino woman who was trafficked into Paris and trapped in the home of the family she was working for.

When Wong Nava returned to Singapore from 2013 to 2020, she also became fascinated by people’s “very co-dependent relationship” with domestic workers. Later, she began to research the history of the mui tsai, typically daughters of poor Chinese families who were sold to rich households as bondmaids.

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