Monday, 16 February 2015

"Puteh and Mary" by Chuah Guat Eng vs. "Stranded in Semenyih" by Ethel Hume


This paper attempts to analyse the ways in which Chuah Guat Eng’s Puteh and Mary are different from Ethel Hume’s Stranded in Semenyih in terms of the perception, cultural stereotypes, position of authority, and gender issues.


It is inevitable that both Chuah and Hume have different perceptions, which are evident in their narrations, due to the fact that they have different backgrounds and beliefs, among others.  We can see the differences from the titles, in their views of cultures or beliefs of others, and the voices or points of view of the narrations.

The title can tell quite a lot about a writer’s perception or opinion of the incident that they have written.  In the case of Stranded in Semenyih, the title has already given us the idea that the writer has a negative perception of the place (Semenyih) from the word “stranded”. “Stranded” according to the Longman Dictionary means, “in a very unfavourable position or situation, especially alone among dangers and unable to get away,” (p.1044).  The word is used, though we know that Hume and her team were not in a great danger or unable to get away from Semenyih.  However, in Chuah’s narration, she has chosen Puteh and Mary as the titles, which are the names of the main characters in the narration.  The use of the names is very neutral and tells us that the story is about the characters Puteh and Mary.  Basically, the titles in Chuah’s narration do not indicate any negative perception.

Another difference in perception is towards other’s culture or beliefs.  In Stranded in Semenyih, the narrator makes fun of the native’s culture and beliefs.  This is evident when the narrator sits at a place marked as “kramat” (p.175).  This shows that she is not sensitive and does not have any respect to the native’s belief – the place is marked and she is told about it, yet she chooses to sit there.  Another incident is when she ridicules the native’s belief that a man could turn into a tiger at will, as she says, “next time I get a fit nerves I shall know it is the tiger-spirit entering me,” (p. 177).  Here, we can see that the narrator shows lack of respect and even makes fun of the native’s beliefs.  Puteh and Mary, on the contrary, show no sign of teasing or making fun of the native’s beliefs.  For example, the writer shows respect to Yusuf’s religion (Islam) and what he believes, as she states what is in his thoughts, “Do you not see it is Allah’s will that shameful deeds should not be hidden?….” (p.200). The writer has shown sensitivity towards Malay’s religion.  Yusuf has faith in Allah, and thus, it is his right to practice what he believes.  It is evident here that both writers have different perceptions towards the other’s culture or beliefs.

Besides that, another difference between Hume and Chuah’s is the point of view or voice of narrator.  Hume’s has the first person point of view.  This makes the perception and narration very subjective and at certain places, quite judgmental.  For example, the writer used “tailless cat” to refer to the natives, giving the connotation that they are cowards.  Another instance is when she is referring to the Tamils as “Klings” and “coolies”, offensive words to the Indians.  No voice is given to the natives to express their opinions, except for the Singh, whose utterances are full of grammatical errors, and to the people on the street at the end of the story when they say “Tabek, tabek!”.

However, in Puteh and Mary, the third person point of view has been rather fair to all characters. The view is almost objective where the writer does not judge or give opinions, but the characters do, where the voices in their thoughts are stated.  Readers are given the sense that they are part of the story, and know what is going on in the characters’ minds.  For example, in Mary, Simon thinks that if Ah Foo was a dog, his tail would be wagging (p.142). Similarly, at the beginning of Puteh, we are presented with Yusuf’s thoughts about what the villagers might think of the baby (p.199-200), as in it is Yusuf who makes the judgment based on his situation, not the writer.

Cultural stereotype

Cultural stereotype is another difference that Chuah’s and Hume’s has.  In Stranded in Semenyih, Hume stated many racial stereotypes, where the natives are seen as a group (giving the notion of a race) and generalisation is made upon that race.  For example, the Chinese are associated with gambling (p.178), and having yellow faces (p.180).  The Malays are criticised for having a theory that the wife is only “the chattel of the man,” which means a wife is an object, rather than the literal meaning of “wife”, that is “the woman to whom a man is married” (Longman Dictionary).  The Tamils are called “Klings” and “coolies” (unskilled workers).  Finally, the Singhalese are said to enjoy sharing information, especially when they do not have to worry about being correct.  The races are generalised that their individual differences and abilities are unseen.

However, in Puteh and Mary, we are able to see the natives as individuals with their own character and abilities.  For example, Mak Cik Zainab who likes to spread stories around the village (not the general Malays), and Ah Foo who are loyal and a good servant, and Ah Soh who is good in doing the laundry.  Yusuf, a Malay farmer, is not said to think that Puteh is his “object” or chattel, but more to his wife, a woman he learns to love (p.208).  Other than that, we are taken to Simon’s mind to see that there are Chinese who are not yellow, but white, earth-beige and brown (p.143).  Here, we can see that the natives are not seen as a race, but individuals with their own characteristics.

Position of authority/power

Position of authority is another way how the two writers are different.  In Stranded in Semenyih, the English are seen as superior, and the natives always inferior.  For instance, “Malay houses, English bungalows” (p.175), stating the stereotype that the Malays live in houses only and not in bungalows, the label “coolies” for Tamils (p.178), and the natives’ salute to the English (p.180) as an act of respect.  As stated before, the natives are not given plenty of voice, and when they are (the Singh and people in the street) perhaps it is just to show that they are of lower intelligence and inferior than the English.  According to Zawiah (1994), the English, particularly the Victorians, believed that it was important to impose the superiority of the English values and institutions to ensure “progress” or civilisation.  Because the natives are not seen as civilised, they are looked down upon, such as “a cluster of chicken” (p.179).  This happens because, according to Zawiah (1994), the English feels superior and seen as superior by the natives, which causes them to be “marginalised, suppressed and silenced.”

In Puteh and Mary, on the contrary, the English are not really seen superior.  They are still seen as human, such as Simon who is capable of feeling uneasy when Mary is staring at him, and conscious of his own complexion when compared to Mary’s.  Here, we can see that other than judging others or the natives, he also judges himself (his physical feature).  This also shows an alternative view that it is not only the English who is looking at the natives (as in Hume’s observation towards the natives), but they are also being looked at (here, by Mary).  Puteh and Mary also tell us that the natives have their own pride and honour, not as inferior objects.  For instance, Yusuf’s decision to move from his village when the baby is born is due to face and honour (p.200), and the Malay Communist guerrillas and the Indian army are fighting and risking their lives to repossess what they have lost, is also for their pride and honour (p.209).


Another difference in Hume and Chuah’s narrations is the gender issues.  In Stranded in Semenyih, the native women, particularly the Malays, are said to be weak, mere “objects” and chattel of the man (p.176). Here, they are referred to as the property of men, not individuals.  However, being a female traveller and independent, Hume thinks that she is more superior to the native women.  On the contrary, Puteh and Mary show us that the native women are actually human, not objects or chattel of the men.   For example, Yusuf, as we have seen earlier, does not refer or think of Puteh as his “object” or chattel, but more as his wife, the woman he learns to love (p.208).  Both Yusuf and Puteh respect one another. In addition to that, when they finally talk to each other, they spare each other’s feelings by not telling things that might cause anger or offence (p.209).

Moreover, it is not true that according the Malay theory that a woman is the chattel of her husband.  Zawiah (1994) states that “the Malay woman is brought up to regard her husband as the head of the family.  Her duty is to look after the well-being of her man and children.” Therefore, Hume’s claim that Malay women are “objects” is misleading. Puteh or Mary’s silence is also another question: is it out of weakness or strength?  Perhaps, her silence is out of strength because she endures all the pain and hardship in her life alone, not sharing them with anyone.  This disagrees to Hume’s view that native women are weak.


To conclude, there are four ways in which Hume’s Stranded in Semenyih and Chuah’s Puteh and Mary are different; which are, in their perception, cultural stereotypes, position of authority and gender issues.


Longman Dictionary.  1998.  Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.  England : Longman Group

Mass Lecture: Comparative Literature. 1998. Faculty of Language Studies: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

Zawiah Yahya. 1994. Resisting Colonialist Discourse. Bangi: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

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