Raffles Reads: The House Of Little Sisters

Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Faith Wan (23S02B)

Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.

Rating: 4/5

Don’t let them get away with it.”

Set in 1930s British Malaya, award-winning children’s novelist Eva Wong Nava’s The House of Little Sisters is an immersive work of historical fiction. It centres on our protagonist, Ah Mei, a 16 year-old girl who has been sold to the wealthy Lee family as a mui tsai, or unpaid domestic servant, and is tasked with taking care of Precious Jade, the family’s youngest daughter.

From the first chapter, Wong Nava establishes palpable unease and tension. The Lee family seems to be hiding a secret so grievous even Ah Wan Jie, the head mui tsai of the family, skirts cagily around any mention of  it. In addition, Ah Mei starts to see visions of a certain spirit, who pleads with her to “take action”—though against what exactly is a revelation only uncovered later in the book.

As Ah Mei accustoms herself to her new life away from her family, she also takes a liking to Hassan Mohammad, an Indian-Muslim boy who works for his uncle at the nearby sundry shop. Hassan is an aspiring poet, as well as an avid fan of Tagore, and he charms Ah Mei with his sweet words. 

“I’m sure your sweet smile will stir the embers of my loving heart. Your smile would be brighter than all the nine suns in the sky.”

– Hassan to Ah Mei

Together, the two of them navigate the rapidly changing nature of their relationship as Ah Mei begins to piece together the identity and backstory of the spirit she often sees, Ah Lian. 

The book picks up its pace in its later half, when the family’s eldest son, Percy, returns from the United Kingdom and  starts championing for mui tsais to have greater rights, including being able to draw a salary. This causes more than one instance of conflict between him and his father, Eminent Mister Lee.

As Ah Mei fights to keep her stolen moments with Hassan under wraps, she must also wrestle with how the Eminent Mister Lee has taken a liking to her, which she later learns is a recurring theme with other young mui tsais as well. 

Throughout the book, Wong Nava deftly juggles two cultures rich with history. She dedicates paragraphs to Peranakan cuisine, with its aromatic spices and lengthy preparation processes, as well as the intricacies of Chinese culture by detailing unforgettable events like burning hell notes during the Hungry Ghost Festival. 

Even though the there are elements of romance in the book, do not be fooled: the love story is but the tip of the iceberg. More accurately, it is one of a young girl fighting to choose her own destiny. Though the characterisation of Hassan feels a little lacklustre and superficial at times, it is clear that he is not meant to be a standout character: this book has chosen to focus primarily on female characters, and that choice turns out to be the right one.  

The House of Little Sisters explores the complex nature of indentured servitude and the plight of mui tsais, who, stripped of their voices, often had to suffer in silence. It also lends itself to a complex, sympathetic portrayal of women struggling to have greater autonomy over their finances and bodies. 

Wong Nava makes her message clear in her author’s note: “women can be both the instigator of their own oppression as well as the activist of their own freedom”. She illustrates this deftly through making two characters foils of each other: Ah Wan Jie, who though kind, has internalised women’s unquestioning subservience to men, and Ah Mei, who challenges every societal norm possible. 

Possibly distressing themes including rape and abuse and the characters’ responses to those are the mainstays of this book, so readers should exercise care. Additionally, the book does touch on self-harm and suicide, which may be a bit too heavy to those looking for a lighthearted read. 

Overall, The House of Little Sisters is well-researched and historically accurate, which makes for a cohesive and engaging read, and is a wonderful recommendation for readers looking for a good mix of history and romance. 

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