A beautiful, sweeping, multigenerational narrative that spans from nineteenth century south China to modern day Singapore.
I would learn that when families tell stories, what they leave out re-defines what they keep in. With my family, these were not secrets intentionally withheld. Just truths too painful to confront.
In the last years of her life, Teresa Lim's mother, Violet Chang, had copies of a cherished family photograph made for those in the portrait who were still alive. The photo is mounted on cream card with the name of the studio stamped at the bottom in Chinese characters.
The place and date on the back: Hong Kong, 1935.
Teresa would often look at this photograph, enticed by the fierceness and beauty of her great-aunt Fanny looking back at her. But Fanny never seemed to feature in the family stories that were always being told and retold. Why? she wondered.
This photograph set Teresa on a journey to uncover her family's remarkable history. Through detective work, serendipity, and the kindness of strangers, she was guided to the fascinating, ordinary, yet extraordinary life of her great-aunt and her world of sworn spinsters, ghost husbands and the working-class feminists of nineteenth century south China. But to recover her great-aunt's past, we first must get to know Fanny's family, the times and circumstances in which they lived, and the momentous yet forgotten conflicts that would lead to war in Singapore and, ultimately, a long-buried family tragedy.
The Interpreter's Daughter is a beautifully moving record of an extraordinary family history. For fans of Wild Swans, The Hare With Amber Eyes, and Falling Leaves, The Interpreter's Daughter is a classic in the making.
Journalist Lim debuts with a captivating family history focused on her great-aunt, Fanny Law. Lim begins by detailing her feelings of displacement after leaving Singapore for Britain in 1992, which led her to research the life of her great-grandfather Law Quan-Yee, who was displaced by famine from his native Canton to the British colony of Singapore in the 1890s, where he became a clerk and interpreter for the Chinese Protectorate. The focus then shifts to Lim's grandmother, Mong-Han, and her sister Mong-Fan, who Anglicized her name as Fanny Law. Caught in a collision between Chinese tradition and Western modernity, Fanny took a vow of celibacy and devoted her life to education and to caring for her family. As a teacher, she supported Mong-Han and her children through the Great Depression and Law Quan-Yee's death. In gratitude, Mong-Han expected her daughter Violet, Lim's mother, to become a "sworn spinster" like her aunt, but Fanny's tragic death during the Japanese occupation of Singapore set Violet on a different path. Lim vividly recreates Singapore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and lucidly explains historical matters (the 1927 Shanghai massacre) and cultural traditions (spirit tablets). Fans of Lisa See's On Gold Mountain ought to take a look.