Lim, Catherine

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LIM, Catherine

Nationality: Singaporean (naturalized). Born: Kedah, Malaysia, 23 March 1942. Education: University of Malaysia, B.A. (honours) in English l963; National University of Singapore, M.A. in applied linguistics 1979, Ph.D. 1987. Family: Married in 1964 (divorced 1980); one daughter and one son. Career: Education officer, 1965-78; deputy director of curriculum development, Institute of Singapore, 1979-85; lecturer in sociolinguistics, Seameo Regional Centre, Singapore, 1989-90. Address: 18 Leedon Heights, #07-05, Farrer Road, Singapore 1026.



The Serpent's Tooth. Singapore, Times Books International, 1982.

The Bondmaid. Singapore, Catherine Lim Publishing, 1995; New York, Overlook Press, 1997.

The Teardrop Story Woman. Woodstock, New York, Overlook Press, 1998.

Short Stories

Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore. Singapore and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1978.

Or Else, the Lightning God and Other Stories. Singapore and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1980. They Do Return. Singapore, Times Books International, 1983.

The Shadow of a Shadow of a Dream: Love Stories of Singapore. Singapore, Times Books International, 1987.

O Singapore!: Stories in Celebration. Singapore, Times Books International, 1989.

Deadline for Love and Other Stories. Singapore, Heinemann, 1992.

The Woman's Book of Superlatives. Singapore, Times Books International, 1993.

The Best of Catherine Lim. Singapore, Heinemann, 1993.


Love's Lonely Impulses. Singapore, Heinemann, 1992.


Critical Studies:

"Catherine Lim and the Singapore Short Story in English" by Robert Yeo, in Commentary, 2, 1981; "An Interview with Catherine Lim" by Siti Rohaini Kassim, in Southeast Asian Review of English, December 1989; in Literary Perspectives on Southeast Asia: Collected Essays by Peter Wicks, 1991; Women in Bondage: The Stories of Catherine Lim by Lim Yi-En, Singapore, Times Books International, 1999.

Catherine Lim comments:

Absorbing, enduring interest in the Chinese culture of my childhood; aware of my unusual position as an English-educated Chinese writing in English, with a perspective inevitably coloured by the fact of straddling two worlds.

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Catherine Lim's writing is fuelled by the energies of incongruities, incongruities that power themes including clashes between generations and cultures, the disparity of attitudes and lifestyles found amongst various income-groups, and the discrepancy between the society's ever-improving economic profile and its state of moral poverty. While the themes are large ones, they are expressed within a context of the mundane, in terms of the bric-a-brac of everyday life which lend these themes concreteness and believability. The authorial voice is generally ironic though not uncompassionate, the irony exploiting the territory between differing levels of awareness (e.g., between author, reader, and characters) and pointing sharply to the complacence and the unthinking selfishness displayed by individuals that must be remedied. Lim, however, seldom intrudes judgement; action is allowed to serve as its own comment, and the discrepancies, blandly presented, (e.g., Angela in The Serpent's Tooth spends 5, 000 dollars on a birthday dinner whereas 17 dollars and 25 cents is undreamed-of wealth to Ah Bah in "Ah Bah's Money") insist on the reader's attention, engendering social/moral awareness even if none should have existed before.

The Serpent's Tooth brings together many of the concerns treated of separately in the short stories. As its reference to King Lear makes clear, it is on one level about ingratitude and thankless children. But more importantly, it is about the tensions born of the different assumptions and perspectives brought to bear upon things and events, by the main character, Angela and her mother-in-law, (and to a lesser extent, by other members of the extended family). The one stands for the modern, English-speaking Singaporean, for whom money stands in place of culture, the other is an adherent of traditional Chinese beliefs and practices, impervious to change in the world around. They are each other's serpents, each seeing the other as the cause of separation from her child, each making life intolerable for the other, yet ironically unaware of her own shortcomings and insensitivity. What emerges here, and in the short stories, is a sketch of a culture/society comprising morally indifferent and solipsistic individuals. Neither set of values (modern or traditional) is seen as being above reproach. The antique bed belonging to the mother-in-law serves as a vehicle by which both the callousness of the older generation: a bondmaid (who subsequently bled to death) has been raped on it, and also the mercenary tendencies of the younger generation, concerned only with the value of the antique, are exposed.

Certain of the short stories (e.g. "Gold Dust," "Miss Pereira," and "Deadline for Love") examine the disparity between economic plenty and emotional/spiritual starvation, and the groping of the individual for meaning un-indexed by the ownership of material things. However, genuine piety or spirituality is seldom encountered in Lim's stories; instead, what is made to substitute for this is a shallow and formal worship of supernatural forces. These forces must be propitiated, not out of devotion, but from a desire to avert ill-fortune ("Or Else the Lightening God") or to increase wealth. Kindness goes ill-repaid ("A.P. Velloo") and hopes are, more often than not, thwarted. Thus, while as a body of work, Lim's stories stand as testimony to culture in transit, the older traditions particular to race becoming slowly eradicated or homogenized, they also stand as an indictment of materialism on the increase which threatens to destroy things of intangible value.

Lim was forced to self-publish The Bondmaid, due to censorship of the work in Singapore. It is a novel of modern slavery, as four-yearold Han is sold into slavery during the 1950s. Raised in the wealthy House of Wu, she falls in love with her young master, who had been her playmate as a child; yet she can never be his equal, and she reaps a harvest of bitterness and betrayal. The 1950s also provides the setting for The Teardrop Story Woman, which takes place in Malaya during the latter years of the British occupation. The title refers to a teardrop-shaped mole beside the eye of protagonist Mei Kwei, a defect that the Chinese associate with a destiny of suffering. Much of her life fulfills that destiny, but the indomitable Mei rises above all challenges to find fulfillment in the forbidden love of a young French priest.

Susan Ang