on oral history and latent selection

I’ve also been thinking about oral history as a primary source. A good chunk of my sources for my thesis come from written or oral testimony of people alive today who knew about or were mui tsai (domestic servant girls) in British Malaya. One book in particular, Concubines and Bondservants, which contains the life stories of women who used to be mui tsai as collated by Maria Jaschok, seems to show that many of these girls were abused in terrible ways by their owners.

I don’t dispute the fact of the abuse. Undoubtedly it occurred. But it seems to me inherent in the whole system of locating & interviewing these women that the abuses are more readily discoverable than the happy outcomes. There is a latent selection process at work, even before the historians begin their own selections. Women who would come out today to air their grievances about being child slaves would naturally be the ones who had felt the injustice & exploitation. Women who had been child slaves and worked their way up and out to some status of respectability today would be more inclined to remain silent about their past. It follows that historians listening to these oral histories today would hear only the shrillery or melodrama.

I am also thinking of a connection to immigrant peoples — particularly Chinese in British Malaya, who were viewed as industrious to a fault, mercenary and cutthroat, concerned with nothing but the acquisition of wealth. When British colonials constructed their knowledge of ‘The Chinese’ from their experience in Malaya, did they understand that the population they were looking at were precisely the sorts of people who would thrive overseas in unfamiliar environments — industrious, willing to work for any amount of money, etc. — and that perhaps it was not ‘The Chinese’ they were understanding, but ‘the section of the Chinese population specifically seeking fortune overseas’? Of course they were mercenary. Latent selection processes.

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