Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Amah: Grandmother, Mother or Servant? (by Peter Chan)

Depending on how you pronounce it or who you are referring to, Amah can be interpreted in different ways. In this article, I shall refer to paid domestic services and what I knew when I was growing up until my teenaged years. Being a “50/50” Cantonese myself, I am aware that traditional Cantonese homes do use the terms such as Chi Ka Kung, Kung Yan or Ma Cheh to describe a paid domestic worker.

Photo 1: Chinese amah doing her washing behind the house (c 1965)

When my family became fairly comfortable in economic terms, we were able to afford a Kung Yan, a woman who worked part-time in our house for three times a week. Her duties included general housekeeping, washing and ironing. I addressed her as “Ah Sor”. “Ah Sor” was of Hakka origin and lived in a nearby village which is now Cashew Villa. She started work around 7.30 am until 10 am and afterwards worked at another employer in the neighbourhood.

My father laid down strict rules that the children (us) were not permitted to order “Ah Sor” to make our MILO, fetch shoes, or simply run back and forth until we were satisfied; things I quite often hear about Singapore employers (regardless of age and gender) do to their foreign maids. “Ah Sor” was paid S$60 a month in 1965. My Tai Pak had a Malay woman for part-time help but she was referred to as the washer-woman or Nenek.

Photo 2: Song Cheh working in a European household (c 1965)

Then there was my grand-uncle and my maternal grand-auntie who employed the “Black & White Amahs”. My grand-uncle’s lived-in domestic servant was addressed as “Keng Cheh”, where Cheh stood for “older sister”. Cheh can also refer to single women who took the vow of celibacy, thus giving rise to the term Ma Cheh or someone who sor hei. Those who sor hei kept long hair tied into a bun.

Ma Cheh is differentiated from the others because she strictly looks after children. In my maternal grand-auntie’s case Yi Por, her “Kum Cheh” took care of her from infancy through the time she got married and when she had her own children. “Kum Cheh” took care of two generations before she retired and went back to San Wui, China. I believe my grand-auntie was a pampered princess because after she married a rich Hokkien coffee towkay she went on to live at a Branksome Road villa with two other “black & white amahs” beside “Kum Cheh”.

So how do we explain amah?

According to an old friend who is currently a professor in Chinese History at the Hong Kong University, the Cantonese word amah is a variant of the romanised version for “mother” because Ah Ma refers to a wet nurse or even a surrogate mother. I am lucky to have bumped into “Prof” during my short trip to Hong Kong in 2009. “Prof” shared with me many good insights on this amah subject. He also brought me up to speed with my Cantonese knowing very well how rusty I became living in Sing-ka-por.

Photo 3: Malay amah looks after child (c 1961)

Now why do many expatriate families in Singapore call their servants amah? “Prof” thinks it is because the term amah was used as a generic word rather than its original meaning referring to single Cantonese female migrants from the Pearl River Delta district of Shun Tak. In the colonial era, amahs left the Pearl River Delta and arrived in Singapore through Hong Kong, a British colony then. So we got Malay amahs, Chinese amahs (not necessarily Cantonese ones) and Indian amahs.

The type of jobs in a British military family ranged from cooking, child-care, general cleaning, washing and ironing. Some amahs worked part-time, some lived-in. Many came from the nearby kampong houses close to where the British or expatriates resided. Generally, amahs who worked for the foreigners were paid more than their local counterparts, S$100 and above for part-time work. One reason amahs preferred to work for them was because pay-day came every fortnight.

Prior to the age of shopping complexes and shopping malls, it was common to find pasar malams (night markets) in Singapore. The confusion arises when expatriates refer to night markets as Amah’s Market. There must be good reasons for this but I don’t have the answer.

Photo 4: Amah’s Market (c 1963)

I hope I have done justice on this subject of amah. Next time I shall talk about our first maid, a Filipina.

(Note: All the words in italics should be read/pronounced in Cantonese)





15 comments:

stanley said...

How were the employers addressed by the "white and black" amahs? The maids presently address their employers either as sir or mom depending on the gender.

Icemoon said...

I think they call the master "Tuan", at least in the colonial days.

Icemoon said...

Can I have "prof" to brush up my Chinese too? Victor or any experts?

My guess:

Chi Ka Kung - 自家工
Kung Yan - 工人
Ma cheh - 妈姐
Ah Sor - 阿嫂
Tai Pak - 大伯
Keng Cheh - 宫姐
sor hei - 梳起
Yi Por - 姨婆
Kum Cheh - 金姐
San Wui - 新会
Shun Tak - 顺德

For keng cheh and kum cheh, maybe keng and kum are the amah's nickname? Also keng sounds more Hokkien than Cantonese.

Here is something related .. Ama Keng is 亚妈宫.

Zen said...

I believe the cantonese word amah- cheh is specifically used to describe those professional domestic servants who dressed up in white blouse and black pants. The word cheh is actually means sister and it implies that this amah-cheh is unmarried. Most amahs in the past were confirmed splinsters and spent their whole lifetime (whenever possible) caring for the families they served. During their time off-days they usually spent time with their fellow amahs, especially during chinese festivals.

Zen said...

Sorry for wrong spelling above (splinsters). It should be spinsters.

Anonymous said...

Did you read about the maid (amah) in Singapore who inherited six million dollars (property and cash)? ... she is now considered a "Tuan Besar".

Good for her! Good deeds shall be rewarded.

peter said...

No need for Hongkie prof, we got our Prof Victor Koo.

stanley said...

Peter-just to let you in that Hong Kong people would not like to be called hongkies. I do not know the reason. Does anyone know?

Icemoon said...

maybe hongkies sound like donkeys?

Victor said...

I don't claim to be an expert but I think Icemoon is largely correct in his translation, except maybe for the following:

Keng Cheh should be 琼姐 instead of 宫姐 which would have been pronounced as "Goon Cheh" in Cantonese; and

Chi Ka Kung should be 住家工 instead of 自家工. 住家 means "stay in" (a residence).

Icemoon said...

Thanks Prof Koo for the clarification.

琼 must have similar pronunciation in certain dialects because Keng Chew or Kheng Chiu is 琼州. But isn't Keng Chew Hokkien? That means in Hokkien, Keng can be 宫 or 琼?!

Brian and Tess said...

I know from this site and others that some British service families had close relationship with their Amahs. But for our family in 1960 the idea of having a servant was completely new and a little intimidating. So as a teenager I had very little contact with our Ahmahs - perhaps my brother who was much younger had more contact but my memories are very limited, I think I was rather appalled at the tiny Ahmah's room at the back of our house in Changi (still there) and probably continually embarrassed at having someone around the house doing the chores.

A very good blog indeed, very informative and sorry I cannot add very much to it!

Andy Young* said...

Another interesting post by Peter. Perhaps he should think of writing a book about amahs in Singapore.

Ishiguro's third novel, 'The Remains of the Day' (1989)should be inspirational.

PRChao said...

There's this book about the life of a 'black and white' sor hei amah called Silver Sister (Ngan Cheh or 銀姐) by Lilian Ng. It details the life of a sor hei from her birth and how her work brought her from China to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and Australia.

Speaking of sor heis, I remember two sor hei sisters who operated a char siew fun stall at the end of Jalan Bunga Raya in Malacca. They wore their trademark white tunic top and black trousers everyday. I don't know whether they're still plying their trade at the same place. They were probably the only sor heis I've ever met.

Pampered Girl said...

Great article. We had an Amah - but she didn't wear black and white or take an oath of celibacy! But yes she took care of two generations of us! And then when she got old we took care of her till she had to be in a home and recently passed. She wasn't the official type of amah, but i think of her as one.