The forgotten maids of China

Three-month old Peggy
in the arms of Mei cheh
SHE was not pretty like Mary Poppins or a sweet warbler like Maria of The Sound of Music.  But she shared their same trait of solid dependability.  

Long before Filipino, Indonesian and Sri Lankan maids arrived on our shores, I had the privilege of being cared for by a mah jie, a member of the sisterhood of Chinese domestic servants or amah.

When I was born, mum had a full-time career and as it was difficult to manage the home and three young girls, the amah's extra pair of hands were welcomed.  

We called her Mei cheh. The word cheh corresponds with the respectful title of kakak, Malay for older sister.

I must have been quite a handful because my mother had to continue to do the cooking while Mei cheh minded me. 

I remember I slept in the tiny back room with her. Fitted with a wide wooden platform that was also our bed, it was a dark and dingy room next to the kitchen in the government quarters at Jalan Dato' Wilson.

I did some research and learnt that the sisterhood to which she belonged had its origins in the rural areas of China's Guangdong Province. The sisters were workers during the silk boom of the early 20th century.  

At that time, half of China's population worked in the booming silk industry but it was the women who harvested the trees, raised the worms and produced the silk.  

Working from homes or factories, these hardworking women did all the reeling and spinning of silk threads into yarns.

For the first time, rural women were financially independent and with this new independence, young silk workers refused to get married.  They swore oaths of chastity and moved to live in spinster houses and vegetarian halls. 

The sisterhood built strong bonds and to protect one of their sisters from unwanted marriage, they would even threaten mass suicide.  

When the silk industry slumped in the early 1930's, these women lost their jobs and many migrated to Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya as labourers, mail-order brides, slave girls and prostitutes.

But many who took their sisterhood vows seriously retained their independence, remained single and worked as mah jie.  

This sisterhood of spinsterhood and female independence started organisations or kongsi to provide lodging when mah jie arrived in the new country and help them get jobs as domestic maids.  

This order of domestic servants was identified by a dress code of white sam-foo blouse teamed with black trousers and neat pigtails but older mah jie, mostly with less hair, wore their hair in low buns.  

Grandma once had an amah whom everyone fondly called Botak sum because she had hardly any hair left to weave into a bun.

When Mei cheh retired, she used her life savings to join a vegetarian hall to live the rest of her days with her "sisters".  

With the gradual demise of these old, capable and much loved mah jie over the last 20 years, this way of life vanished.  

Many Chinese families will fondly remember their mah jie just as we will never forget Mei cheh's down-to-earth character, her gritty provincial accent and unique style.

Baby Peggy wearing a bib
made by Mei cheh

Old photos show that I wore collared bibs that mei cheh designed and sewed to catch my baby drool, whichever way I rolled. 

Mei cheh often used traditional remedies for illnesses, too. I had a rare ailment, with which she treated by toasting and feeding me a cockroach -- without mum's prior approval. 

I inadvertently became a participant of Fear Factor and since I lived to tell the tale, I guess it did me some good after all.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 12 May 2009

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