Friday, January 20, 2012

1960s Singapore – Amahs (by Tim Light)

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!

Related Posts.

1)   Amah, grandmother, mother or servant by Peter Chan
2)   Mike Robbins’ fond memories of Singapore
3)   Lynne Copping remembers Pulau Brani


Anonymous said...

During the 60's and early 70's we had several amah's. The one I remember most (except her name :() was Chinese and young. She was really efficient and our whole family liked her. We lost her when she got married. I went to her wedding and took pictures. I still have one of them. I sometimes wonder how she is doing.

Brian and Tess said...

I think for many British people from working class backgrounds (which both of my parents were from) the idea of employing any kind of servant was a difficult one. Whilst I have very little memory of the Ahmahs we employed I recall a feeling of embarassment from my parents in their dealings with them.
I well recall the little room and adjacent toilet at the back of our quite modest bungalow in the Toh Estate which were the Amah's quarters, I don't think she lived in with us but came each day. The fact that I know so little about them may reflect the fact that the embarassment at having a servant was mine as well as my parents.

Anonymous said...

We had a string of them. This was before the current Indonesian and Filippino maids.

I was born in 66 and the first one had a short stint (she stole from the neighbours). The second one smoked and carried me around the neighbourhood; she was a day maid. Then we had a really old one who stayed with us. Mind you, they were all Singaporeans.

The final one stayed with us until I was a teenager. She left us and joined the snack counter at Yaohan Jurong. Unfortunately she was killed by a Skyhawk that crashed into her house in 1983.

Jean said...

A few amahs came & went in our household but there was one in particular who was very special. I loved her. She rapidly became a part of the faimly & remained so long after she left us to get married. Sadly she passed away not long ago but we still keep in close contact with her husband & children.
As a Christian household I remember she asked us to give her a western name,as she termed it, to blend in & for fun. And because she was giggly & we knew she envied & wanted our curley hair we suggested Shirley. She loved it. I have a tear in my eye thinking of her.
Thanks for everything Shirley & R.I.P achi...

Ginny Webb said...

I've just returned from a one-week holiday in Singapore with my seven year old son . We did a kind of homestay with a family, US citizens originally from the Phillippines. I could have wept at the life the young child (3) is leading in inner city high rise Singapore. Arrested language skills due to being with a Phillipina nanny and her poor English, all day long while his parents work long hours in IT and a shopping mall! So different from my own amah experience, since my Mum was still around an didn't; have to work. We had a few work for us. as day cleaners. All were kind and let me help them sweep and hose down the porch, etc. A night market at the end of our road where we used to go for satay.

I took my son to the 'new' botanical gardens, where we saw the small yellow butterflies I remember so well, and used to chase in our garden! They've built a kids playground, where my boy had a great time running around under the fountain in his undies! Later we went to the artificial Sentosa Beach which was not as bad taste as I'd imagined, plus there was a great buskers festival on which my son thoroughly enjoyed. I was glad that there is still some child-friendly places in 'the new Singapore'.

We were there in the late sixties, when my Dad (Cedric Webb South African but in the RAF) was stationed at Changi Air base, and left in 1970 to come to Australia. We lived in Jalan Pergam in Somapah. I went to the Peter Pan kindergarten and my brother to Changi Infants School. We used to chant "Changi Gaol, Changi Gaol!" as we went past the prison on route to school in the school bus.

If anyone has any photos of that area, and the houses that were allocated to servicemen, I'd be grateful to see them.

I have vivid memories of the Chinese funeral processions with all the loud music, heading down the main road parallel to ours. Also getting stuck in the old style monsoon drain, where all the kids in the neighbourhood used to play, and my Dad having to come and lift me out!

Opposite was a kampong, complete with pigs and chickens, long since razed to the ground and its people housed in high rise flats. We also went over to Pulau Ubin on a bum boat last Wednesday and cycled around- the last remaining kampong and another nostalgia trip for me.

It's only now that I'm home in Perth that I'm weeping tears of grief about the changes. I wish I'd actively looked for Jalan Pergam, but I think I may have been saddened by what I saw, and it was hard getting around with a small kid in tow on public transport. I'm glad for the Singaporean people that they achieved independence, of sorts, and are housed, but I am so shocked at the high density landscape, changed so much even since I visited in 1984.