Thursday, 13 February 2014

British Families Chinese Amahs

I browsed the web pages of the whole day today. What did I learn from the web pages? The photo contributors were former students of the St Johns school in Singapore. Most of the contributors were men. They attended the school sometime between 1964-67. Then they returned to the UK by air (British Eagle) or by ship (P&O Cathay or SS Oronsay). Many lived with their families in Singapore. A few families lived in Penang and the students boarded at St Johns.

I looked at the houses meant for the British families who came to Singapore. Many houses were rather small. There were a few double-storey bungalows. Most interesting is the little booklet made for the newcomers. It spelled out everything for the newcomers to take note of. Most interesting are notes about mosquitoes, mosquito nets, hot weather, taking salt tablets, and suntan.

A feature in some of the photos was the female Chinese amahs (maids). They had simple names and they looked hardworking. Ah Yang, Kim, Ah.... And many more are the names of such amahs. In one photo it showed 2 amahs washing clothes outside by the drain. In one photo the amah climbed a papaya tree! In many photos, the amah stood together with the British family members in the garden, and with the house in the background. They looked shy, but had friendly smiles. Only one amah had a white top and loose black pants. Most amahs had floral 2-piece Chinese-styled clothes.

I have no clues how much amahs were paid back then, or what was covered and paid for by the British families for their respective amahs. I supposed the British families were fond of their amahs. There was one amah who took her British family to visit the Chinese temple on Wesak Day, with permission from the monks.

There was British interest in many of the local beliefs, festivities, and rituals of the Asian settlers. Even Ramadan fasting is detailed and respect called for when dealing with the fasting Muslims.

The British continued their lives in their way, shopping at the local markets, night market, and get together, celebrating Christmas and life at the officers' mess or clubs. The schoolchildren helped raised funds for their school by running school plays, including the Wizard of Oz, the Midsummer Night's Dream, etc. The boys even drove from Singapore to camp in Malaysia. Overall, it looked like the British families enjoyed themselves in Singapore in the post-independence period.


Léon Moch said...

Chinese amahs with white top and black trousers with pigtails are called sor hei. This name has to do with the ceremony they participate in to be sworn into the sisterhood of such amahs. Their hair is combed a couple of times and if I remember correctly, with each combing they swear not to marry, not to cut their hair etc. I remember seeing such amahs up to the 1980s. Their story can be found in books like Silver Sister.