Once a common part of Chinese life, but now almost relegated to memory, is the practice of buying and keeping mui tsai, or female slaves. There are elderly women alive in Hong Kong who were sold into servitude as infants. While this was mostly done out of desperate poverty, deeply seated cultural prejudices against girls also played a key role.
Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833 - at least in theory - and it was often ingenuously claimed that mui tsai were not slaves. Nevertheless, the Po Leung Kuk archives in Causeway Bay have numerous deeds of sale drawn up between buyers and sellers, and not all of the sellers were the girls' natural parents.
Taking a mui tsai was nowhere near the same as adoption, whatever present-day apologists for traditional cultural practices might say. Adoption papers were drawn up on red paper while mui tsai sales were handled on white paper - archival records make this distinction clear.
From the 19th century, European do-gooders did much to help eliminate the practice. For decades the mui tsai situation was mostly ignored by London until Clara Hazelwood, the wife of a British naval officer living in Hong Kong in the early 1920s, started her own investigations. Horrified by what she found, she raised the issue with her member of parliament in Britain. Until then, there had been no serious official attempt to interfere with what was considered a long-established, basically charitable Chinese custom.
Mui tsai living contented lives with considerate families had no reason to complain, but there were many cases of cruelty and abuse. Poorer families sometimes took on a pretty mui tsai as a medium-term investment. By raising her to adulthood - and getting her domestic labour for free in the meantime - they could sell the girl on at a substantial profit as a concubine or to a brothel as a teenager.
Sometimes mui tsai, on reaching adulthood, had nowhere to go and stayed with the family that raised them for the rest of their lives. Our family friend Auntie Cissy often recalled the story of her family mui tsai, Ah Ho, bought to be a personal maid and companion for her mother when both were children. Ah Ho stayed in the family for more than 60 years until her death. While her loyalty and devotion were much praised, Auntie Cissy often said Ah Ho's life was ultimately a sad one, as it was completely without choice from infancy.
While the practice of taking mui tsai has died out in Hong Kong, emotional repercussions continue. Within many families, stories that so-and-so is descended from a mui tsai who later became a concubine, and not from the dai por (senior wife), continue to poison personal relationships.
Despite the introduction of legal safeguards for women on the mainland in the 20s, and massive advances since, attitudes towards women in rural areas remain primitive. According to reports, rural midwives continue to drown female infants at birth on the instructions of mothers-in-law. And orphanages these days are mostly filled with girls who once would have been sold as mui tsai. Some things never really change.