amah [ˈɑːmə ˈæmə]
(in the East, esp formerly) a nurse or maidservant, esp one of Chinese origin.
[from Portuguese ama nurse, wet nurse]
Throughout our time in Singapore we always had an Amah, as did most of the people we knew. Our Amah had her own room or quarters (depending on the house), and she did all our housework and cooking, six days a week. On the seventh she would go home to her family.
Our first Amah was also the longest-lasting and most memorable. We knew her as Kim. Her Chinese was something like Gan Chwee Gin (no idea how you would spell it). Kim was a young woman, probably no more than 20 years old when she came to us, in 1961. My mother took an immediate liking to Kim, and took her under her wing, helping her to improve her English, as well as teaching her some traditional English cooking.
My early recollections of Kim are that she was sweet and patient, as well as willing and hard-working. What I didn’t realise at the time was how good looking she was. But I was only 7, and she was off my radar!
Kim stayed with us for about 3 or 4 years, then something went wrong. She and my mother fell out. There was shouting from both parties. And tears. And when the weekend arrived my father paid her off. And that was the last we saw of her. It was a great shame. She had become like a family member to us.
My parents interviewed a series of girls, and eventually picked one. I don’t remember her name. She was an older woman, short and business-like. She got on with her work, without smiling or speaking. Her English was limited. She seemed to understand what we were saying, but answered in monosyllables. I don’t know whether my parents were happy with her, but she moved on while we were away at boarding school.
When we got back for our summer holiday, there was another amah in place. Again, I don’t remember her name, but she was a good natured woman with a couple of young children. Her English was not great, but at least she made an effort, and she seemed to be happy with her lot. I don’t think my mother was over the moon with the cooking, but they seemed to get on otherwise. There was none of the closeness that we had had with Kim, though.
Coming from an English working class community, it must have been a strange experience for my parents to employ a domestic servant. In olden days, we (the working classes) would have provided the serving girls for the well-off families in Bradford. By the 1960s, live-in servants were only employed by the very richest families.
Some people back home were shocked to hear that we employed a live-in housekeeper. They somehow see it as demeaning to have someone else do your housework for you, just because you are better off. I have an open mind about it. Personally, I think work and dignity go hand in hand, and every employer has a duty to treat his or her employees with dignity.
What did disturb me, even at a tender young age, was to hear my mother’s lady friends moaning about their Amahs. Some of them were quite bitchy and two-faced about them.
I would like to hear what the Amahs had to say about their employers!
1) Amah, grandmother, mother or servant by Peter Chan
2) Mike Robbins’ fond memories of Singapore
3) Lynne Copping remembers Pulau Brani
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