Dr Stephen Lim is interested in reading the Bible in the context of Asia to address the issues that people in Asia face. Here he retells the Book of Ruth from the perspective of a domestic helper in Singapore.
Ruth as Esperanza
Esperanza waited by the lobby below the condominium for Mr Chee to drive his car to pick her up to take her to the airport. The air was heavy, made all the more burdensome by the silence that sat between her and Mrs Chee.
“How come he take so long?” Mrs Chee said impatiently, breaking the silence that was beginning to cement. The car horn sounded and Esperanza heaved a quiet sigh of relief as the car finally pulled into the porch.
“Why you take so long? Cannot find the car again, is it?” Mrs Chee questioned with her usual sharp, interrogative tone. Mr Chee silently got out of the car and helped Esperanza put her luggage into the boot of the car. It was not a big bag. No bigger than the bag she brought to Singapore two years ago, and would have fitted the back seat just as well. Mr Chee had to steady himself as he had used too much strength to haul the bag into the boot. He did not expect it to be so light. The surprise registered on his face but he chose not to say anything. Then Esperanza sat in the back as the car pulled away from the porch, heading towards the airport.
The journey was silent with some soft Chinese pop music playing in the background.
Esperanza thought to herself that this was most probably only the second time she had seen the expressway. The first being the time she came to Singapore to meet her employers at the maid agency.
Her thoughts began to stray. She wondered why she chose to come here to Singapore. The face of her grandmother came to mind.
A cool breeze blew as the sun began to set in her village in Mindoro. She remembered she was twelve, old enough to be helping out in the kitchen. Dinner was especially busy but she and her cousins looked forward to the time after that.
“Grandmama, tell us again the story of Ruth!”
“Again? Have you not heard the story many times before?” Her grandmother replied in her usual feisty tone.
But her grandchildren persisted. “Yes! Yes!”
Esperanza wiped the table and did her share of washing the dishes as quickly as she could so that she could join them.
“It was a time of famine in Bethlehem. What is Bethlehem?” Her grandmother enjoyed quizzing them as she told the story. Esperanza thought it was just her way of keeping them engaged.
“House of bread!” One of her cousins replied glibly.
“Indeed. But it was just that then it had no more bread. So Elimelech and his wife, Naomi had to bring her two sons into another country, Moab. There their two sons married two beautiful Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Famine came upon Moab and Elimelech and his two sons died. But now Bethlehem was full of bread again so Naomi decided she would return to her homeland.”
Looking back, Esperanza wondered how cursed Moab was. Its wealth was all but fleeting. All that it had left was hunger and death. Bethlehem’s misfortune seemed to pale in comparison and be just as fleeting. Just like Singapore.
“Who were Ruth and Orpah?” One of her cousins asked. “Were they poor?”
“Why, they were princesses, my dear. Daughters of the Most High King of Moab. They saw how pitiful Elimelech and his family were and they took them in.”
This exchange floated up from the depths of her memory. She recalled in her university days reading Ruth in the Bible. It seemed that there was nothing mentioned about who Ruth and Orpah were. No background. Simply just Moabites. Like her. Mr and Mrs Chee never once asked her about her background. Had they asked, they would know she had a degree in English and Political Science. That she understood way more than they would have liked when they spoke to each other in English. That she could hear very clearly what Mrs Chee and her friends thought of helpers in the home when they were playing their overnight mahjong.
“Eh how come your maid so pretty one? You not scared she and your husband…”
“Aiyo, I tell you ah, if you leave these maids alone, you never know what they will do…”
“Actually ah, teach her how to do, better I do. Take up so much of my time some more! Might as well pay me her salary…”
“You can never leave her alone one… sekali she sleep with some construction worker, get pregnant, then how?…”
“So scary la…my friend told me she find more and more thing go missing in the house. She thought, must be the maid do one. So she search her room and there, she found her bras, her panties all put in a milo tin…”
Idiots, prostitutes, thieves. Maybe that was what the Moabites were like, Esperanza thought to herself. Or that would be what those like Naomi might think.
“So Ruth begged Naomi to let her go with her to Bethlehem while Orpah chose to return to her family. Naomi was reluctant as she was feeling bitter. But Ruth pleaded with her,
‘Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
Naomi, hearing how determined Ruth was, said no more.”
“Got remember to bring your passport or not?”
Mrs Chee’s shrill voice pierced through her reminiscing of the past. Startled, Esperanza could only manage a nod.
“Aiyo, you deaf ah? Ask you so many times, now then say something.”
Mr Chee then interrupted, saying, “Don’t disturb her la. You ask this question so many times since we left already.”
The car pulled into the airport car park, much to the relief of everyone in it. As Esperanza unloaded her bags, she spotted from the corner of her eye her best friend since university days, Amy.
“Sir, Ma’am, I think I can manage from here,” she could feel her voice shaking.
“You sure or not? Later you never fly off, then how?” Mrs Chee barked in her usual impatient tone.
“Just let her be la,” Mr Chee then turned to Esperanza and told her sternly, “Make sure you get on your flight, ok?”
“Yes, Sir.” Esperanza picked up her luggage and started to walk towards the departure hall.
“Grandmama, did Ruth feel at home?”
“Esperanza dear, Ruth found Boaz. He was a respectable man in the community. He made sure she was safe in the fields by asking her to take the leftover corn in his fields.”
“But Grandmama, you mean Ruth was in danger?”
“Yes even in the safe place of Bethlehem, a widowed woman was very vulnerable.”
“But why did Naomi not tell her?”
Esperanza remembered Grandmama’s stunned silence.
“Tell her what, dear?”
“Ruth told Naomi that she wanted to go to the fields. So why did Naomi not know that it was not safe for a woman like Ruth?”
Mrs Chee was only concerned for her when she needed her, Esperanza thought. She then caught herself wondering if that was what had actually happened to Ruth. It was a question she wished she could ask her Grandmama.
“Esperanza, are you okay?”
“Oh Amy, the last few days have been horrible. I am so angry… Mrs Chee does not treat me like a human being… just someone to do the work she does not want to do… I have to stay up and work under impossible conditions… I am so angry…”
Esperanza told Amy that Mr Chee found her with the watch he had given Mrs Chee. Naturally he accused her of stealing. In reality, she was so frustrated that she scratched the watch just as he walked in. So instinctively, out of shame, she hid it in her pocket.
“Am I wicked person?”
“Oh Esperanza, no…”
“Grandmama once told us the story of Ruth and how she found her Boaz in a foreign land. An honourable man who would shoulder her burden and give her what she needed. I thought Singapore was my foreign land and I will meet my Boaz here.”
Tears began to stream down Esperanza’s face. Amy reached out and held her hand.
“Oh Esperanza, Ruth gave her body to be part of Israel. Remember what Naomi told her to do when she went down to the threshing floor to find Boaz?” Amy said in the gentlest voice she could manage as one also all too familiar with this story turned urban legend.
“Amy, you must try to get me back here. If there is a job opening, please let me know.” Esperanza exclaimed, seemingly oblivious to all that Amy had just said. “My father, he does not know what happened. I just told him I am back for family holiday. Oh Amy, you must help me!”
Amy heaved a sigh. She was definitely more fortunate than her best friend. The family who took her in respected her and gave her regular time off, even to come to the airport to make sure Esperanza was all right. Even then, she knew she would always be an outsider. She knew that it was not possible to find her Boaz here.
But when she saw Esperanza’s pleading eyes, her heart broke. She could not bear to tell her that as the story wore on, it became increasingly more about Naomi than Ruth. For the son was not born to Ruth, nor to Boaz but to Naomi. That was possibly part of the price Ruth paid to be part of the people of Bethlehem.
“Final call for all passengers leaving for Manila on flight PH 834. Please proceed to Gate E73 for immediate boarding.”
Esperanza looked at Amy, “Please, promise me you will help me. I will do anything. Anything.”
Amy nodded, trying valiantly to hold back her tears. Both of them hugged.
Esperanza picked up her bag and walked towards the departure gate, feeling hopeful again.
This is a retelling of the Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible through adapting a play that was written by Wong Souk Yee and Tay Hong Seng in the 1980s in Singapore called Esperanza. Esperanza means hope in Tagalog. The play was written in consultation with Filipina domestic helpers in Singapore.
 This word has been adapted from the Malay language into Singaporean English to mean, “what if”.
 Souk Yee Wong and Hong Seng Tay, “Esperanza,” in 5 Plays from Third Stage: A Collection of Five Singaporean Plays, ed. Anne Lim and Suan Tze Chng (Third Stage: Singapore, 2005), 99-129.