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‘A Yellow House’ opens window to the lives of Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore

Desca Angelianawati
Desca Angelianawati

Book reviewer

Jakarta  /  Wed, July 15, 2020  /  08:19 am
‘A Yellow House’ opens window to the lives of Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore

A Yellow House by Karien van Ditzhuijzen. ( Studio/Monsoon)

In Indonesia, the scarcity of jobs leads many to seek work overseas. Meanwhile, Indonesian domestic workers are in high demand in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Middle East.

In 2018, rights group Migrant CARE estimated that there were 4.5 million Indonesian migrant workers overseas. Its report also recounts that these domestic workers contribute financially to Indonesia through their wages and remittances that they send home.

As foreigners, these domestic workers face crucial issues. The problems facing most of them are their dealings with their employment agencies. For example, the placement agencies sweet-talk the employees, promising them a better life, guaranteeing that they will be placed in a home as a domestic worker. Instead of getting the job promised, they are placed in restaurants or in other places with low wages and an unsteady salary. In addition, the Indonesian domestic workers often experience abuse, either physical or psychological.

In 2019, the Singaporean authority found Zariah Mohd Ali, a 58-year-old Singaporean citizen, guilty on 12 charges, including abusing her Indonesian maid, Khanifa, physically with a hammer, a stone pestle or a pounder causing major injuries and psychological damage. Zariah Mohd Ali’s husband was also sentenced to 15 months for his role in the abuse.

Khanifa is one example of the trauma faced by those in similar circumstances. Many Indonesian maids often are locked inside working extra-long hours without even being fed. Some of them experience sexual abuse, which leaves lasting psychological trauma.

Those portrayals of Indonesian domestic workers along with Asian domestic workers are neatly narrated in Karien van Ditzhuijzen’s A Yellow House.

Published in 2018 by Monsoon, the novel portrays the life of Maya – a peranakan child living in Singapore with her British father and Singaporean mixed mother. Maya undergoes a difficult time, both at school and at home. Her mother and father are both ambitious and always busy at work. At school she is bullied. Maya longs for the presence of her grandmother.

These conditions continue on until her parents introduce Aunt Merpati -- a Javanese lady whom she later refers as Aunt M as her Ah Mah (maid). Maya does not like Aunt M at first. Though still a child, Maya thinks that she is mature. Little does she know that she will later experience a new outlook and aid Aunt M in helping other domestic workers in need. 

Karien brilliantly conveys the condition of the domestic workers in Singapore, particularly the Indonesians and the Filipino domestic workers. From her yearly experience of living in Singapore and her active participation in the migrant rights movement, she vividly portrays the cruelty and violence toward those workers and reflects it through her characters, as can be seen in the example of the character named Sri, who is kept all the time at home by her employers and is struck by them whenever she makes a small mistake. Maya and Aunt M find her hurt lying on the ground. Later they rush her to the hospital and place her in a shelter. The long legal battle with her employer prolongs Sri’s painful experience. 

Cultural values and the dynamics between employee and employer are portrayed in the novel. Aunt M, for instance, is portrayed as a maid who obeys the “unwritten rules” of serving her master and the family before feeding herself. In Aunt M’s case, she feeds Chloe first before eating the food herself. She also prefers to eat separately from her masters. When Maya’s mother invites her to join them at dinner and takes her plate, she has no idea which plate to take. Her confusion is understandable because most masters will likely differentiate the maids’ belongings and their place in the household. 

Regarding the book, I have no doubt that Karien has done a great job as a writer. I am able to relate to the hardship and difficulties experienced by the domestic workers. She is able to capture what most of those domestic workers dream of success: which is a better life by bringing back some money to build their own home and start their life over.

Aunt M’s dream is to build a yellow house for her daughter. On her experience, Aunt M says: “You always think, I am so lucky to have such a good employer – but you know, it wasn’t like this. I have it both. Good and bad. Being a maid, it is like a lottery.” 

A minor detail that remains unexplored in the novel is the inclusion of a glossary that lists cultural terms. The word goreng pisang, which refers to fried banana for instance should be pisang goreng in Indonesian, even Indonesian-Malay will refer to it as goreng pisang.

Another example is the use of some Malay/Indo language like “You kacau me…” The non-Malay or non-Indonesian speaking readers may not understand the terms because they are written without any further explanation. They may have to guess the meaning of the words. readers. 

The novel provides the readers with insights on valuing humanity. The book also brings different perspectives in seeing and appreciating domestic workers. 

It is a light but also very entertaining and enlightening read, which takes on the real-life experience of domestic workers and adds it to our diasporic literature. (kes)


Desca Angelianawati is a book reviewer, research assistant at an Indonesian NGO and English instructor at one of Yogyakarta's universities. In her spare time, she writes, reads and travels with her partner. She can be found at and Instagram account @descanto.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.