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A Letter From China
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A Letter From China

Early Memories

By Cynthia Muak

When I was young and growing up in Penang, China meant very little to me. All I knew was that my father came from Shunde, Guangdong, China to join my auntie - his elder sister - who had earlier arrived in Penang from Shunde to join her husband, who was also from Shunde. My mother was from Hong Kong; an island just across a stretch of water from southern China. So we were often reminded by our 'black & white' domestic help that we must never forget our roots, China the great motherland. What she actually meant was 'Shunde'.

Before the Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai Shek (Jiang Jieshi) ran off to Taiwan, they had looted and bankrupted mainland China. They made sure that when Mao and his Communist party took over the country in 1949, there would be nothing good left for them, except a country horrendously devastated by war (Japanese, china's own Nationalists, British, French, Germans, and USA), no food, no money, and a large population to feed.

My auntie received mail from her surviving relatives in Shunde, all bemoaning the hardships they had to endure due to lack of food and necessities. They did work on the lands and fished from the rivers but all harvest was handed over to the local Community Party cadres for them to ration out food supplies. A big part of the harvest had to be sent to other parts of the country short of food supply. They were only allowed so much food themselves, any extra being confiscated. This meant that in a time of near famine, there was no incentive for them to produce more; they simply met the quota.

My auntie immediately sailed for Shunde taking with her dry goods food supplies, which she estimated could last a family of 6 for about a year.

The food she brought was commandeered by the local Communist Party (C.P.) office and shared out among all the villages. They told her one family was only allowed one tin of one item. The three new Raleigh bicycles she took with her were also confiscated by C.P. officials. These were taken apart, the pieces being used to repair old and broken bicycles.

All had to suffer in silence. One word of protest would mean being sent to the interior of the country to do manual labour.

After a few years my auntie decided to visit Shunde again. This time she planned carefully for the trip. She asked a welder to make her 20 metal containers about 2/3 the size of oil drums. She filled these with many food items; mostly essentials: rice, oil, salt, sugar, dry milk powder, etc., one bicycle outfitted with a multitude of accessories, and shoes with 4-5 layers of thick leather soles.

I remember I was about 10 years old at that time, already quite skilled in knitting woollies for my dolls, and knitting bootees, bonnets, and shawls for my cousins' babies. My auntie asked me to knit 6 plain cardigans for the relatives, one for each. The only requirement was the cardigans had to be big, and I had to knit them together using 4 strands of 3 ply wool. The garments were heavy, the knitting needles thick, and my fingers had problems handling the yarn, the needles and the garment all at the same time. I persevered. It took me a year a finish all 6 cardigans even though it was simple stocking stitch. I thought I would never be able to live through another ball of Patons wool. Funnily enough, for my future knitting needs, only Patons would do!

You see, after these cardigans were handed to the relatives they would unpick the cardigan. With the wool in hand, they would be able to knit 4 cardigans. So with 6 cardigans they would end up with 24 pieces. Pretty neat. And I am ashamed to admit this was the only thing I ever did for my relatives in China.

I didn't even know who these relatives were! You see, to the southern Chinese, titles for each, and every member of the family were more important than personal names. These honorific titles designated the status and social positions of each family member in the family's hierarchy, in a culture where communal living was the norm.

I grew up in a large family but I never knew the names of my cousin brothers' wives. To me they were simply addressed as 1st cousin brother's wife; or 2nd cousin brother's wife. I could only address someone by name if their position in the family was lower than mine.

Should mail arrive and not bearing my name, my cousins' names, the maid would simply toss the mail to one side waiting for someone to claim it. It's so different now where respect for others is seldom shown. Honorific titles? Many kids even address their fathers by name!!! And everyone knew everyone else's business.


'Black & white' does NOT denote skin colour, but the colour of the maid's uniform. One is accorded the highest esteem when a domestic helper is acknowledged as a 'black & white'. In most domestic set-ups where a 'black & white' is employed, she practically takes over the running of the household from kitchen duties, to house cleaning, to looking after the children. In other words, to the children she is like a substitute mother and that's where the word 'amah' (mother in Cantonese) came from. So, after this explanation I will refer to these 'black & white' as 'amahs' a most common term used across Asia.

Why 'black &white'? It was their immaculate cotton white tops and wide black silk pants. Affluent Chinese families usually employed a few. The very rich European families in Hong Kong, especially the very big 'hongs', started taking in 14-15 year old girls into their families for training when they expect a baby soon to arrive in the family. The young girl's sole responsibility was to look after the baby, and she usually remained with the family until retirement age, about 65.

Why 'Black & White' so special?

Black & white amahs are not your usual run of the mill domestic help; all other's wore similar tops and pants not quite as baggy. These would be one colour, either plain or with printed design (Pictured left), and were called 'samfoo'. Black & white amahs only came from Shunde County of Foshan City Region, Guangdong, China. At the turn of the 20th century, young women were employed by Shunde's silk producing factories to separate silk filaments from cocoons. The work was hard, but well paid.

These young women discovered that their new found financial independence meant they did not have to marry in order to have a secure future. They formed a sisterhood comprising of financially independent, confirmed spinsters. When there were more women than jobs available, the newer members decided to try their luck in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia as domestic helpers. They were an instant hit.

Diligent and clean in housework, great cooks (Shunde cuisine is considered best of Cantonese cooking), patient and loving with children, they were highly regarded and sought after. The most well known British, European, and American families in Hong Kong at that time all wanted their 'amahs'. They commanded wages way above the norm for a domestic help, be it Filipino, Vietnamese, or Indonesian. They wore their uniform proudly like a badge - they were easily recognisable in their cotton white-on-white top and special black silk (China's mud-treated black silk that doesn't cling to the body and feels crisp all the time) baggy pants.

Scattered all over the world, these amahs' aim was to be financially independent and to make enough money to be able to remit plenty home so their family members could have a better life. One could safely claim that they were the initial backbone of Shunde's strong economy. With regular money flowing into Shunde from these amahs, many of the families decided to pool their money together to form a co-operative enterprise, and Shunde became the 1st and most successful county in China, earning big bucks from their co-operative efforts. Many other townships from all over China came to Shunde to study their modus operandi.

The amahs also pooled their financial resources together to buy an old building in Shunde where amahs, upon their retirement with no place to go to, could live in a dormitory-style building. Their loyalty was beyond reproach. They usually became so deeply rooted into their new family's everyday life, that they actually became so loved for some inexplicable reason, like a cog in a wheel - that they were never let go even when all the children had grown up and married off.

Ah Lean

Why the 'amahs' cannot be compared to other domestic helpers?

Following is a true story to show closeness of an amah and her charge (names changed of course. I know the family personally. The man died 10 years ago at age 68).

Angus Freeman was born in Hong Kong to Scottish parents, who had lived almost 3/4 of their lives in the British Crown Colony. They operated a large and successful car dealership, carrying many of the most well known and sellable car brands.

Freeman Senior's household was run by an amah and when Mrs. Freeman became pregnant, amah suggested a 20 year old relative, Ah Lean from Shunde, be employed as nanny. The Freeman's were fluent Cantonese speakers so they didn't foresee any problems.

Baby Angus arrived and Ah Lean loved and coddled him as if he was her own. Angus learnt to speak Cantonese before he learned to speak English. As Angus grew Ah Lean was there for him every step of the way. Those two were thick as thieves.

Angus married when he was 25, his bride a girl from Scotland. She found the Cantonese dialect difficult to learn, and always felt left out when her husband was forever chatting away with his nanny in Cantonese; especially in the mornings at breakfast. Angus would explain that day's stock market movements and recommended certain 'sure win' stocks Ah Lean should invest in. Once the ok was given, Angus would have his broker handle the matter, since he was co signor for Lean's trading account ever since he began playing the stock market. In fact, Lean had made quite a bundle, and so much so that before her 60th year, she owned two properties in Hong Kong outright. One was a modest flat she kept as her sanctuary on her days off; the other she rented out.

Soon babies arrived; the first a boy, Cameron; 2 years latter a girl, Meg. Ah Lean took care of them along with her other tasks. Naturally the kids mastered Cantonese in no time at all. The household's arrangement during meal times was strange. Mrs. Angus would eat her Scottish food. Angus and the children would eat their Chinese food. If a week went by and Angus didn't eat Ah Lean's cooking at least once he would feel unwell.

As the children grew older, Mrs. Angus wanted to retire Ah Lean, but the children objected and threatened to run away and go live with Ah Lean. Cam knew his mother didn't like Ah Lean, even though she worked so hard and was so devoted to the family. Mrs. Angus complained she found Ah Lean too intrusive and was always going in and out of their rooms at all hours of the day. "Don't you feel embarrassed each time she catches you with no clothes on in the bedroom?" she asked her husband.

Angus simply laughed and reminded his wife that Lean had seen him in the buff from infancy to grown man. What had she not seen?

Wonder why? Angus would ask his wife. Ah Lean would come into their room with his 1st drink of the day - his cup of warm honey lemon, a habit he acquired since he was 15, and faithful Lean made sure he had his drink every morning. In fact it was this habit that stopped him from attending a university in Scotland. He opted for Hong Kong Uni instead, so Lean could still take care of him. And ever since he was a baby, Ah Lean had prepared his morning toiletries, like squeezing toothpaste onto his brush; made sure his shaver was clean; his bath towels warm during winter; laying out his clothes, etc. etc. Not just for him but now for the children too.
Cam decided to attend UK school for GCSE to prepare for entry into Uni. He took Lean with him to England. The next year Meg decided to join her brother. During their 5 years in England, Angus visited the children at least once each quarter to enjoy Lean's cooking and pampering.

Cam and Meg eventually returned to Hong Kong and each set up their own household. Each wanted Lean and finally comprised: Lean would spend one month with Cam and one month with Meg. This alternating arrangement worked fine until Lean's death at age 80.

Meanwhile in Angus' home, they had employed a Filipino maid, but to Angus, no one could replace his nanny. He often complained his clothes were not ironed properly, his fruits not cut up right, his shoes not polished enough, his honey lemon drink not prepared the way Lean did, the consistency of his poached eggs too runny, etc etc. And he would bounce off to either Cam or Meg's place for Lean's food.

When Lean died, Angus and the children though heartbroken, were surprised that she had left Cam and Meg a million HK$ each. The rest of her cash was willed to surviving family members. To Angus she left her two apartments. Angus was too shocked and bereaved to know what to do. A few months later he transferred the deeds of the rental property to Lean's family in Shunde. He kept Lean's apartment because Cam said the place held many happy memories for them. Meg and he were always at the place whenever Lean had her off day and they would bring some of their friends over.

Their mother wasn't keen on their friends who bore body tattoos, so they never brought them home. Lean didn't mind because which ones were good or bad influence she could tell, and would always let them know. The place also contained many souvenirs Lean had collected over the years, especially the photo gallery: Angus from baby to present, Cam and Meg from infancy to the time in England to present. Father and his two children would meet from time to time in this apartment and over dinner would argue which one of them was most loved by Lean.

This kind of closeness is not an isolated case. In fact many of the 'tai pans' of Hong Kong's top companies (if they were born and grew up in Hong Kong) would have similar stories to tell.

This was the end of an era. With modernisation and Shunde enjoying fantastic manufacturing and trading success, and prosperity, there was no need for the educated young women of Shunde to work as domestic help. And also not many of today's young would willingly sacrifice the chance to secure a good marriage contract.

Not like in olden times of the sisterhood where all marriages were arranged by the parents; the girls had no choice. Often times the bride-to-be and the groom-to-be had never met - this being known as 'blind engagement leading to mute marriage'. Now, there is Freedom - freedom to choose, freedom to fall in love, freedom to reject any suitor proposed by the parents, freedom to say 'yes' or 'no' to marriage, or any other kinds of love or singlehood arrangement, whatever!

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from my work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.
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Ah Ling and niece,
picture courtesy Tim Roberts

Image: An amah pictured wearing the baggy pants, not black ones though - Click to Enlarge
A typical Samfoo
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2 Shunde 'black & whites'
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A bicycle and side-carriage
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2 Shunde 'black & whites'

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1980's Hong Kong

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The perception of modern Mainland youth culture, was that "It was all happening in Hong Kong."

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