Travelling Pictures and Blurry Visions: Photographs of Chinese Amahs

Our project seeks to trace not only how ayahs and amahs travelled across the world but also how images of these women circulated. Pictures of ayahs and amahs travelled as illustrations in books, photographs enclosed in letters, ethnographic postcards exchanged as curiosities, and as paintings purchased for display in homes and galleries. Today these images continue to travel and be exchanged, including as part of this research project.

The iconography associated with the Indian ayah is particularly rich as illustrated by our previous blog and by the work of academic and community historians.[1] By comparison, the visual culture associated with Chinese amahs seems sparse, at least in terms of images held within formal archives. However, we are constantly unearthing new material, aided by the generosity of our colleagues around the world and by individuals willing to share precious family photographs. Ebay has also proven to be a boon in our search for previously unseen images, including the ones in this blog.

A variety of historians have explored the ways in which photographs can be used to illuminate the lives of people whose stories are difficult to locate in colonial archives, including Chinese women.[2] This approach is difficult to replicate when it comes to historical photographs purchased on Ebay which arrive with little or no information about their origins. We purchased the images shown here based on their description as ‘vintage Chinese amah photo x 10 lady woman maid servant of Shunde origin’ (Figure 1). Below we provide a selection of the images and invite you to consider some possible insights that might be drawn from them.

Figure 1. A Ebay purchase described as ‘vintage Chinese amah photo x 10 lady woman maid servant of Shunde origin’

The photographs include two different amahs pictured alone, together, or with their employers. Considering that we purchased them from a seller in Singapore, it seems likely that the photographs were taken in that city. Chinese amahs predominated in domestic service in Singapore by the late 1930s, employed in British, Chinese and Eurasian households.[3]

Figure 2

The large house and extensive gardens featured in the images attests to the wealth of the employers (see especially figures 2, 3, 4 and 5). It is possible they lived in the leafy suburb of Tanglin where many British elites resided.[4] It is also possible that the photographs include different employers and households. The one constant is the amah shown in figures 3 and 5, who appears in almost all the photographs.

Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5

Images of smiling servants neatly dressed and standing to attention was a common way in which colonists portrayed domestic workers. Perhaps this was an attempt by employers to underscore their sense of power in authority in the home and the colony.[5] But these images also tell us about how the amahs wanted to be portrayed. In the featured image of this blog, one of the women wears a wristwatch while the other is adorned with earrings, symbols of success and material advancement. The decision to wear jewelry for the photographs was likely a conscious one. When they posed for studio images intended to be sent to family members back home, amahs reportedly requested that jewelry be painted on if they done none to wear.[6]

Amahs worked in all forms of domestic service in Singapore. Our particular research project is focused on those women that cared for children. Intriguingly this set of photographs includes an image of one of the women holding a baby (figure 6). The baby, who appears to be Chinese, is probably not the child of the white employers who feature in the photographs. So, who does the baby belong to?

Figure 6

Amahs from the Shunde district of Guangdong came to Singapore as members of spinster sisterhood groups that had originated in China. They were a highly organised group of workers known to the British as the ‘black and ­white amahs’, a reference to the colours of the uniform. In Chinese, they were referred to as maijie.[7] The amahs pictured in these photographs were reportedly from Shunde, and thus likely part of spinster sisterhoods. Surely then, the baby could not belong to the amah. On the other hand, oral history accounts from former amahs suggest that some opted to leave the sisterhood, marry and have children.[8] Indeed, the British in Singapore were known to have employed husband and wife domestic teams with their children also living on-site.[9] So perhaps she is holding her own child? It is likely that we will never know.

Claire Lowrie 2021


[1] See for example Satyasikha Chakraborty, ‘Mammies, Ayahs, Baboes: Postcards of Racialized Nursemaids from the Early Twentieth Century’, Visual Culture and Gender, Vol.13, September 2018, pp 17-31. See also the Ayahs Home Instagram account created by Farhanah Mamoojee

[2] For recent work in this vein see: Sophie Couchman, ‘Chinese Australian Brides, Photography and the White Wedding’ in Kate Bagnall and Julia Martinez (eds), Locating Chinese Women, University of Hong Kong Press, 2021, pp. 45-75; Susie Protschky, Photographic Subjects: Monarchy and Visual Culture in Colonial Indonesia, Manchester University Press, 2019.

[3] Claire Lowrie, Masters and Servants: Cultures of Empire in the Tropics, Manchester University Press, pp. 30-31.

[4] Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, National University of Singapore Press, 2003, pp. 225, 28.

[5] Kenneth Gaw, Superior Servants: The Legendary Cantonese Amahs of the Far East, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 98-99.

[6] Claire Lowrie, ‘“What a picture can do”: Contests of colonial mastery in photographs of Asian ‘houseboys’ from Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, 1880s-1920s’, Modern Asian Studies 52(4), 2018, pp. 1279-1315.

[7] Lowrie, Masters and Servants, pp.106-107.

[8] National Archives of Singapore, ‘Transcript of Interview with Lee Lin Oi’, 4 December 1982, Accession Number 000239/02. The interview was translated from Cantonese to English by EthnoLink Language Services, certified by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI), https://www.ethnolink.com.au/.

[9] Ooi Keat Gin, ‘Domestic servants par excellence.’ Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 65 (2), 1992, pp. 69-84

One thought on “Travelling Pictures and Blurry Visions: Photographs of Chinese Amahs

  1. How interesting! Thank you for this post.
    How exciting it must have been when this parcel of photos arrived.
    Seeing the photos is so helpful!
    I was especially interested in your reference to the ‘spinster sisterhood groups that had originated in China.’ Those groups sounds so impressively purposeful, almost like a more democratic version of the British women’s emigration groups of the late 19C.

    Like

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