One Sunday during my family’s visit to Hong Kong, I arranged to meet them outside the HSBC tower in the Central district. As they approached me across the concourse I heard a loud, high pitched noise. It sounded more like the clucking of a flock of flamingos than anything you’d expect to find on the streets of Hong Kong. All of us were intrigued so we moved closer to the noise to take look. It was coming from a cafe in front of the building and emanating from noisy flock of another kind, a gathering of Filipino women sitting and eating together, comparing jewellery bought from nearby shops and nattering in their native tongue.
“What are all those women doing there?” I asked my mother.
“I think they are the amahs,” said my mother.
“Amahs? As in Maids? All of them?” I asked
“Its Sunday, they all get a day’s holiday on Sundays. I suppose this is the only place they can meet.”
To understand the unique role of amahs in Hong Kong society, one must first understand class. Hong Kong’s class system was one of Great Britain’s less welcome gifts to the colony. While money had always separated the opulent lives of the rich from the grim struggle of the poor in China, the British added a unique layer of social convention to the divide. In Hong Kong, this class system was as clearly demarcated and as difficult to transcend as it was at home in the UK. Though the foreigners had lived in Hong Kong for decades, few of them could have imagined the day to day hardship of the Chinese who worked for them, nor the backwards rural life of the villages they came from.
These two diametrically opposed worlds lived and breathed next to each other, yet seldom crossed over. The bridge between the two was occupied by the amah. These trusted Chinese maids were often the mothers of peasant families who spent their days, and most of her nights, serving as a butler, baby-sitter, seamstress and cook to the wealthy families that employed them. The amahs would work tirelessly over long hours, neglecting their own children who were left to grow up under the care of grandparents.
Between the 1930 and 1950, amahs rose in popularity. Chinese women began to displace Chinese male as household servant. Women would work for half the monthly wages of the men, earning something between HK$5 to $15 a month. Male Chinese servants demanded at least HK$30 per month. It made financial sense to choose them.
In England, I did not know any family with a maid. To me, maids only existed as characters in period dramas shown on TV however they are part of the fabric of Hong Kong life.
As a young woman, my grandmother was an amah and had served in the grand homes of the city. After the loss of her father my grandmother and her sisters had been forced to grow up fast and returned to Hong Kong with the intention of rebuilding their lives as best they could. But with no money and dependent once again on their Aunt and Uncle for a home they needed work.
My grandmother was 12 when the family returned to Hong Kong. She was no longer the naive little girl who had once held onto her father’s coat tails for fear of losing herself in the city’s crowds. As the family made there way home from the docks, my grandmother wandered through the mobs that swarmed through its narrow streets like a zombie. The festival and the excitement of seeing old friends in the village had been a distraction to the reality of their now she was nervous returning to her Uncle tiny shared shack. As Lilly climbed the steep steps to the apartment, she was filled with a deep yearning for her late father.
To their surprise, Aunt and Uncle were welcoming. The family’s obvious grief had softened their stance towards the women and they were met not with the usual sarcastic remarks and scraps but by sympathy, food and drink.
Despite their hospitality, Lilly remained ill at ease in their company. The small space felt impossibly claustrophobic. She wanted to leave immediately.
Her mother tried to pacify her. She called her over and demanded that she greet her aunt and uncle politely but she was unable to hide her feelings, Lilly kept her distance and glared at them. The more her mother tried to coax her to sit and eat with them the more difficult it became to contain the grief and loss that swelled inside her. She wanted her father back and with it, the protection and freedom he had offered her. The situation was too much to bear, she ran out of the cramped apartment and into the streets. She ran blind, pushing aside those in front of her, her vision obscured by the tears in her eyes. She ran until her lungs ached. When she finally came to a halt breathless and exhausted, she found herself once more standing on Robinson Road.
Excerpt taken from Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse. Published by Random House in 33 countries. Now available on Kindle.