Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ah Sam - the black and white maidservant

photo from

Growing up in Sibu I could not help but notice that some children were so lucky that they had uniformed maids to follow them every where. Several families had the special and unique black and white amahs and were exactly what the writers have written about.

My maternal grandmother once explained that wealthier Foochow families in Fuzhou City in China had bond maids (ah tau ) and adopted girls (ngie nu) at their beck and call. These were girls who had lesser fortune and were either given to the wealthy families or sold for a pitiful sum. Thus rich men had a household of women whom they could use and even abuse. All these girls would be given simple names like Ah San (Number Three) or Ah Moi (Sister) and they would carry the surname of the rich man. It was the dream of many Foochow girls to marry into a family which was rich enough to provide her with ah tau and ngie nu. In which case, she could have a life of ease and luxury. Her hands would be soft, and her stomach well filled. Failing to marry the son of the family, a young woman would not be too bothered by the morality of the day , and she would happily end up becoming a concubine.

However the situation was a little different in Sibu. While the rich in the early 1900's continued to buy girls for their families, the treatment was a little better because of the advent of Christianity. Many families were even giving safe harbour to younger women who wanted just a bowl of rice, so to speak.

In the 50's, I did notice the presence of these less fortunate women in town but to me at that time, it was another kind of romantic, traditional and conservative lifestyle which could even be considered as upper crust and interestingly feudal!!

Indeed we often watched with interest a great lady, whom we affectionately called Ah Sam. She wore blue samfoo top and black cotton loose trousers with a lovely pigtail tied very neatly from the back of her head. She would send two boys to our primary school and would stay for a while to see them settle in properly. While the boys were treated like royalty by the teachers, the amah was treated with admiration by mothers who brought their children to school. News were often exchanged as most of the mothers were interested in just enough morsels of gossip for the day.

After a little while the Ah Sam (amah) would run along and do her grocery shopping. The town was very used to the family's dog (probably pure breed Alsatian) which was trained to carry the grocery basket. He would run ahead of Ah Sam, with a basket full of grocery to the shop house where the family lived. Ah Sam would cheerfully walk quickly back home. It was indeed a fine sight.

Actually I quite miss this scene from my childhoo now that I come to write about it.

I would not be too wrong if I remember that Ah Sam was indeed a very cheerful and positive thinking woman. Ah Sam probably worked for this banking family for the whole of her life,and that would mean two to three generations. She could have migrated from China herself just to work overseas. And having found a rich family to work for, she found dignity in her employment. This was characteristic of the black and white amah of those days. She would have done everything for her mistress or lady of the house.

She would have done all the ironing (with a charcoal iron to start with after the Second World war),cooking, cleaning, shopping, and looking after the small babies. And all these she would do very happily. And definitely she would be the first person waking up in the morning to wipe everything clean before the family woke up. Breakfast would have been cooked before seven o'clock in the morning.

Today, having an Indonesian maid would cost a bomb. A live -in maid would not be that easy to get as the government is rather strict on acquisition of a foreign maid.

Below is a write up on Amahs taken from some books for your quick reference.

The Cantonese word amah is a variant of the romanized version for “mother”: “ah ma” is synonymous with “ma ma.” Strictly speaking, the word amah as opposed to “ah ma” is used in reference to a surrogate mother or a wet nurse. In the 1930s, amahs were single celibate Chinese female migrants who performed paid reproductive labor ranging from childcare to washing clothes and cooking.

The majority of migrant workers who came to Singapore and Malaya during the 1930s were Cantonese women from the Kwangtung region in Southern China. They belonged to a well-established anti-marriage movement: “Nearly all the girls there had a habit of swearing sisterhood to each other, taking vows of celibacy, and looking upon their prospective husbands as enemies. If, as a result of family pressure, they did marry, they would refuse to consummate the marriage, return home on the third day of the wedding and refuse to return to their husbands.”

In order to remain independent from men, young and older unmarried celibate women worked as silk farmers and spinners in Kwangtung’s silk industry. They would pool their resources to build Ku Por Uk or Old Maids’ Houses/Grandaunt’s Houses away from their familial homes. 18 Female residents of Ku Por Uk accepted collective responsibility for household tasks and finances. Patriarchal Chinese society sanctioned Cantonese women’s actions so long as the latter undertook a ritual called sor hei (to comb one’s hair into a bun at the back of the head) in a temple. The ceremony symbolized religious legitimation of women’s newfound rights and status.

The introduction of European technology in the Chinese silk industry during the 1930s, coupled with a series of natural disasters and political strife in Southern China, encouraged women’s out-migration. However, migration was not entirely due to economic factors per se. Even though most of the women had lost their jobs as silk farmers and spinners, their decisions to migrate were precipitated also by the desire to remain socially independent from men. In a 1994 interview with a newspaper reporter, a retired amah explained that:

There is no point in getting married. After all, people like us would not be marrying rich men. If we did get married, we would still have to work so hard, have to have babies and all. There is no point slaving for your husband, is there? You might as well do the same work and get paid for it. If you are on your own, whatever money you earn is yours. No one can tell you what to do.

Out-migration was a key avenue by which the women could retain their independence during a period of turbulent socioeconomic and political change. They migrated with the help of male labor brokers called sui hak (“water guest”). Upon arrival in Malaya, the women were placed in halfway houses until they found employment or they lived in rooms rented by their fellow village/kinfolk.

3 memories:

gweipo said...

great post. thank you.

sarawakiana said...

hi I am glad that you wrote.

In our generation and the next there won't be Ah Sams to help us out.

The next best thing if we could afford is a robot made in Japan!!

I like your blog too. Bee in touch.

Art said...

Hi, I'm a student doing some research on Amahs and I came across your entry, which I found very informative. If it's convenient, could you tell me which books you quoted for the extracts below? Thanks!


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