Janet Lim Chiu Mei
Janet Lim Chiu Mei is a remarkable example of a woman who, against the odds, managed to change the course of her life. Sold into slavery as a child in China, she managed to escape a life of servitude, gain an education and vocation, rise to a leadership position, and write a best-selling book about her tumultuous life.
Born in Hong Kong in or around 1923, she grew up in the Chinese province of Guangdong. She lost both her father and a sibling to illness before the age of eight, after which her mother remarried. When the family fell into hard times, Janet was sold into slavery, as a mui tsai or domestic servant.
Janet was sent to Singapore in the early 1930s where she was resold to a rich man who made nocturnal advances on her. By now Singapore had banned the import of mui tsais and required the registration of existing ones. Janet’s mui tsai registration was in fact a major turning point as she was able to demonstrate to a representative from the Chinese Protectorate Office her ill treatment at the hands of this rich man.
The representative took Janet and placed her in the Po Leung Kuk orphanage for girls. In 1934 she was moved to the Church of England Zenana Missionary School (now known as St Margaret’s Secondary School) and spent many happy years there gaining an education.
In early 1940 she began training in nursing at the St Andrews Mission Hospital (SAMH) and by late 1941 she attained her qualifications. During this time she was adopted by a Christian family. She worked as a nurse but then fled when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942. The ship she escaped on was bombed and sank. Janet jumped overboard and drifted among corpses for two days. Rescued by fishermen, she was taken to Sumatra, only to be captured by the Japanese. For three years she endured torture and beatings, narrowly escaping sexual imprisonment as a comfort woman.
Following the war, Janet helped former comfort women at the Social Hygiene Hospital, before returning to SAMH in 1948. Three years later she became the first nurse from Singapore to study nursing in Britain. She returned to Singapore in 1952 and was appointed the nation’s first Asian hospital matron at SAMH in 1954.
Her friends and colleagues at SAMH persuaded Janet to recount the unusual story of her life. In 1958, Collins and Sons of London published her memoir Sold for Silver. Roundly praised, it was the first English book by a Singaporean woman and the first local autobiography.
Janet left SAMH in 1959 and married Errol Strang, an Australian doctor. The couple moved to Kuala Lumpur, then Hong Kong, finally settling in Australia in the late 1960s, where they brought up three children. Errol Strang passed away in 2002. In March 2014 Janet, accompanied by her family, came to Singapore for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Five months later, in August, she passed away peacefully.