The sisters of Shunde

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am


Shunde - better known in Cantonese as Shun Tak - is a substantial city on the West River, about an hour's drive north of Macau. Heavily industrialised, like most of the Pearl River Delta, Shun Tak nevertheless remains distinct.

While Foshan makes a large proportion of the world's tiles and sanitary fittings (and its kilns contribute significantly to the region's poor air quality), and Dongguan specialises in electrical goods, Shun Tak produces much of the world's cheap furniture. Aeroplane hangar-sized warehouses, piled high with sofas, tables, chairs, beds and other everyday items, are a common sight. The quality is reasonable - if you don't expect to get an eventual family heirloom - and hotel chains frequently order several thousand identical items at a time.

In years gone by, Shun Tak's most famous exports were high-quality silk floss and its entrepreneurial, hard-working women. Silk floss was exported to Japan in the 17th-century. The Japanese wove the silk into high-quality fabrics - far better than the Chinese product, in some instances - but produced little raw silk themselves. This had to be imported - and Shun Tak produced the best.

Shun Tak's female-dominated silk production contradicts contemporary assumptions about the role of women and their economic situation in pre-modern China. For centuries, Shun Tak's silk industry was controlled by women and they used the proceeds as they saw fit.

Accustomed to relative economic independence and the personal freedom that followed, many Shun Tak women chose not to marry. And why would they, when they had a viable alternative to the average Chinese woman's fate: being married off to a stranger, having untold numbers of children and - quite possibly - being victimised by an uncaring mother-in-law?

Those who chose the single life went through a ritual known as sor hei ('pinning up the hair'), when they swore to remain celibate before an image of Kwun Yum, the bodhisattva goddess of mercy, and joined sororities for mutual aid in sickness and old age. On becoming sor hei, the women wore their hair in a distinctive long plait and partly because of this became popularly known as mah jeh. Literally 'mother sisters', mah jeh is sometimes punned in Cantonese as 'horse sisters' - a reference to their long, braided 'tails'.

When Shun Tak's silk industry collapsed in the 1920s, mainly due to competition from cheaper Japanese rayon imports, the city's women sought an alternative living. Thousands moved to Hong Kong, Malaya and the Straits Settlements, and became domestic servants. Immaculately dressed and always professional, the 'black and white' amahs - as they were called because they habitually wore black trousers and white blouses - were famed for their loyalty and many remained with the same employer for decades.

However, the last mah jeh had retired by the 80s and another local tradition ended. Most families who employed mah jeh remember them with intense affection.

Back in Shun Tak, the long-standing connections to the outside world also led to dietary changes. The city was one of the few areas in southern China where milk products were not viewed with nauseated disdain. Dun nai ('steamed milk'), originally a Shun Tak speciality, has now become popular throughout the Cantonese world.

Like other centres in the Pearl River Delta, Shun Tak has a superb classical garden complex. Qinghui Yuan, one of Guangdong's four famous gardens, was first established during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Courtyards and cloisters feature etched and painted glass, and green-glaze Canton-glaze ceramics while century-old ornamental trees, ponds and bridges complete the picturesque effect - a world away from the factory complexes and furniture warehouses.

Some mah jeh were lesbians and their same-sex relation- ships were (generally) politely ignored.