“The Interpreter’s Daughter: A Family Memoir” by Teresa Lim

Detail of cover Detail of cover

All families have their stories, and for families scattered around the world, as Teresa Lim’s is, the stories often have a central pivot decades or generations back. Lim’s family story gets going, if not starts, with her maternal great-great grandfather who emigrated to Singapore from Southern China at the end of the 19th-century. Draught and famine caused many able-bodied men to leave for more prosperous shores; the Chinese Exclusion Act had closed off the US, and Singapore was, in any event, closer.

But Lim’s story pivots not so much around great-great grandfather, nor even son Law Foong-Siew who managed to become the interpreter of the book’s title—no mean feat for a Chinese man in a British colony—but his youngest daughter Law Fan-Fan, or Fanny, the grand-aunt she had never met.

 

The Interpreter's Daughter: A Family Memoir, Teresa Lim (Pegasus, September 2022; Michael Joseph, June 2022)
The Interpreter’s Daughter: A Family Memoir, Teresa Lim (Pegasus, September 2022; Michael Joseph, June 2022)

When the interpreter’s wife died at an early age, their older daughters—both teens at the time—became Fanny’s surrogate mother. Some years later, the eldest daughter, Virtue, returned to her family’s home—with three children in tow—after learning that her husband had a concubine. It was all but unheard of for married women to leave their husbands in early 1900s Singapore, and even more rare for them to return home. Law Foong-Siew allowed it, but he soon found his family in another crisis.

Fanny wanted to follow the Cantonese tradition of unmarried women who take a vow of spinsterhood. She wanted to help Virtue take care of her children, which included Lim’s mother, Virginia. Fanny’s father was not expecting this from his youngest daughter.

 

Law hated the idea… A public spinsterhood ritual not only made Fanny’s choice irrevocable, storing up time for regret, but also announced to the world that he had two unattached adult daughters in his house (though one of them had been married before)… His ancestors would not be pleased.

 

Law agreed, but with the condition that she continue her education. Fanny Law became the first woman from Singapore or Malaya to enroll at the University of Hong Kong. Her extended family, including her father, accompanied her to Hong Kong when she matriculated in January 1932. Women had only been admitted for eleven years at that point.

Fanny returns to Singapore, takes her niece Virginia—Lim’s mother—under her wing and sees to it that she receives a good education. War breaks out in late 1941 and Lim describes in detail the surrender of Singapore, including the terrifying and brutal early weeks of the Japanese occupation. The War will forever change Lim’s family and through her research she uncovers the sacrifices Fanny made to keep the family safe.

 

The Interpreter’s Daughter is a rich history of both Singapore and the Law family, her mother’s lineage tracing its first known ancestors back to central China. Lim originally thought her mom’s side was Cantonese because of their surname and that the family’s mother tongue was Cantonese. But according to a clan book she had translated from the old Chinese, the family goes back to a small town north of Changsha.

 

There are ten thousand characters in the clan book. They sit like motifs on the page. They are impenetrable. The language is archaic, the characters are old, and the dates in the book are calculated according to emperors’ reigns in imperial China. They need adjustment to the Gregorian calendar to make contemporary sense.

 

It’s apparent that Lim has spent a great deal of time researching her family’s history, and she writes about it seamlessly, as if telling the story to a friend.

 

I had no idea of the formality of the process by which this Chinese man became an official interpreter for the British—the years studying English, the internship, the official appointment and then the assumption of specific duties. Law was more than just a translator. He wasn’t simply gadding about chatting in two languages. He was one of the administrators.

 

There are of course numerous Chinese emigrants whose stories parallel that of the Law family in the first half of the 20th century. But each is different in its way and contributes to the mosaic that is the Chinese diaspora.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.