When the first world war ended, in 1918, an entirely new set of social problems arose with the outbreak of peace. In Britain alone, about two million women were regarded – unkindly, but with some degree of accuracy – as being “excess” to population requirements. These women were unable to marry because of the demographic drop caused by the carnage of war. Marriage – almost the only acceptable career for women, then – was nearly impossible because there were so few available men of marriageable age; they’d been killed at Gallipoli and Verdun, and on the Somme, and many other battlefields.
Not all of these women stayed in Britain; burgeoning employment opportunities in the colonies during the Roaring Twenties provided a chance for a new (and, hopefully, more fulfilling) life far from an embittered home existence, cooped up with a griefstricken mother who wept incessantly for her dead brothers killed in Flanders, and the ongoing social stigma that came from being “left on the shelf”.
When a newspaper advertisement for an executive secretary’s position in the Far East came up, many leapt at the chance. Colonial governments also offered employment opportunities; the 1920s and 30s saw a boom in confidential work for women. The Colonial Nursing Service provided excellent career opportunities in many parts of the world, including Hong Kong; many women who had already partially trained as wartime auxiliary nurses became fully qualified.
This generation of excess women provided a valuable role model – though few would have ever thought of themselves in those terms – for the next generation.
In particular, those who had forged a new life in the Far East offered a sense of possibility significantly lacking to those who had stayed at home.
Brought up to regard Auntie Ethel – whose fiancé had been killed at Passchendaele in 1917 and who had subsequently never found anyone else to marry – as an object of pity, her nieces gradually came to see their maiden aunt very differently. Why? Because Auntie Ethel came “home” on long leave every few years, glamorously dressed, bearing exotic gifts for everyone and obviously well satisfied with her lot. Her stories from Hong Kong clearly showed that there were other lives to be created somewhere out there, and these could be both fun and fulfilling.
Between visits, postcards arrived from holidays spent in places such as Java, Shanghai, the Philippines and Japan, along with Christmas and birthday presents the likes of which no-one back in Birmingham had ever seen before.
Youngsters were carefully warned before Auntie Ethel arrived not to make any disparaging remarks within earshot about spinsters or “old maids”; after all, it was Ethel’s cash (which only existed because she was a working woman) that helped out with school fees, uniforms and extras, which the family could not have otherwise afforded. Nieces brought up to feel sorry for Auntie Ethel had, by their own late teens, started to see her life as perhaps something to emulate.
Then the second world war intervened and more women than ever before entered the workplace.
After that conflict ended, nothing was the same again. Too much had changed. The slow march toward gender equality, which had begun with the Suffragettes, moved steadily onwards towards equal pay for equal work, and the current generation – rightly – regards the very thought of employment disability on grounds of gender as incredible, and completely remote in time and place.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong