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.
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.
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)