Childhood lost to a tradition of slavery

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 1999, 12:00am

THEY were shocking stories: a child of four forced 'to eat nightsoil', because she had been careless in her domestic chores; another, not much older, beaten and made to kneel on Chinese teacup covers; and a third child, 14, forced to kneel on the legs of an upside-down Chinese bamboo stool . . . with a basin full of firewood on her head and the threat of a beating if it fell. It fell and she was thrashed.


Stories like this shocked Hong Kong, and the world - and created a diplomatic crisis 80 years ago that was to bring the whole colonial policy into question: should the British interfere with Chinese tradition or leave it be? The 'Mui Tsai Question' of the 1920s and 30s and a band of determined campaigners pushed the Government to interfere, despite itself.


It also forced the hand of the Chinese: 'Even in a case of animals and birds, the Europeans have formed a society to prevent their ill treatment. I am sure that for the good treatment of servant girls . . . the Chinese will not hesitate to help in forming a society to carry out the object.' With such mild sarcasm Lau Chu-pak (comprador of Messrs A S Watson and Co) opened a landmark meeting of 300 prominent Chinese residents at Tai Ping Theatre on July 31, 1921.


They included Ho Fook (brother of Sir Robert Ho Tung), legislator Chow Shou-son and 'several Chinese ladies'.


The meeting was ostensibly concerned with reports of cruelty to a particular type of unpaid domestic servant called mui tsai - slave girl - whom poverty-stricken parents sold to employers for life.


They were, however, much more concerned that the traditional practice of keeping indentured domestic labour - almost all of them had mui tsai as ladies' maids, some as concubines - was being brought into question by interfering campaigners.


'The percentage of cases in which the mistresses are exacting, bad-tempered or cruel-hearted in treating their servant girls is infinitesimal. These women would treat their own daughters no better if their daughters were as naughty, lazy and disobedient as these servant girls are,' Lau is recorded to have said.


He pointed out that many of the girls were better off with their new families (who often bought them pretty dresses and gave them light work) than those that had sold them and had, therefore, been very poor and in some cases very callous.


There were dissenting voices, however, and some even proposed, and seconded, a motion to abolish the mui tsai system in Hong Kong. But the chairman ruled it out of order, and instead called a vote to form a society 'for the protection of the mui tsai', protecting both girls and tradition. Eight days later, the rival 'Anti-Mui Tsai Society' was formed to abolish the institution.


The boxing gloves were on. In one corner were the indomitable flyweight Clara Haslewood, her naval husband, the churches, the YWCA, the YMCA, the British Anti-Slavery Society and Secretary of State to the Colonies Winston Churchill.


In the other, Chinese heavyweights including the Tung Wah Hospital directors, kai fong leaders, most British diplomats, including Cecil Clementi, who became governor in 1925 and otherwise had a decent human rights record, and the Government.


The Post made the odd point that there 'could not be much harm in the traditional Chinese custom' when in 80 years of the colony's history no steps had been taken to abolish it.


It was not only the future of 10,000 girls and women at stake. Also in question was the basis of British policy in Hong Kong, stated in 1841 by Captain Charles Elliot, the first administrator, to rule 'according to the laws, customs and usages of China, as near as may be [every system of torture excepted]'.


In some minds the future of British rule was at stake. Governor Sir Reginald Stubbs reported to the Colonial Office in 1922 that 'the Chinese for the first time are setting themselves against the Government. This is the beginning of the end'.


Dirty dealings started early. When asked to explain the early termination of Commander Haslewood's service in 1921, the Government admitted it was because the activities of his wife were 'causing annoyance to the Chinese community'.


Had they been more sensitive, they might have realised nothing would incite the campaigners more than an unfair dismissal, and with Churchill on their side the 'antis' started to pull ahead. The Hong Kong press published daily reports of the girls' mistreatment, many as prostitutes and concubines.


One involved 12-year-old Xiu-ling, who was sold to a wealthy family. They beat her and set her alight until one day she fainted after a particularly sadistic session and they gave her up for dead. The mistress sent her to be buried, but as the caretaker lowered her into a pauper's grave he heard muffled cries and opened the coffin. To add further injury, the box was too small so she had been forced into it.


By 1929 there had been hundreds of orders and telegrams from London and by 1930 mui tsai had to be registered by law. By June, when records were closed, 4,183 mui tsai were recorded, thought to be only half the actual figure.


But even the new law had a huge loophole - 'adopted daughters' were excluded. Slowly, and despite exceptions including secret slave auctions, law changes allowed mui tsai their childhood.


In 1949 there were 853 'adopted daughters' in the registry. Mui tsai were still in Hong Kong until the 1970s, registered as servants or daughters.


In her autobiography, One Of The Lucky Ones, blind social worker Lucy Ching remembered the arrival of a terrified 15-year-old mui tsai, Ah Yung, to her home in Canton in 1946.


Ching asked her amah, Ah Wor: 'What . . . [is] the difference between an amah and a mui?' 'Ah Wor told me that an amah would be able to decide where she wanted to work and to agree or disagree about her monthly pay from her master or mistress. Later, if they were not happy with each other, the amah could be dismissed or she could leave if she wishes, whereas a female slave could not do anything like this.


'Once she was sold by her family she would have to work for the same master or mistress all her life, without pay, unless her owner chose to sell her or give her away. As she grew older, the decision as to whether she should be married, and to whom, would rest entirely with her owner.' As recently as 1958 a girl called Deng Ying was sold for $880 to a family in Fei Ngo Shan to pay for her father's funeral. She was forced to marry the son, and had five children, while he lived with another woman.


Ms Deng has become one of 15 members of the New Territories Female Indigenous Residents' Committee, determined to help oppressed women who do not dare speak up.


But if the mui tsai question has been dealt with through legislation, some of the more human issues are still current. The courts frequently hear cases of cruelty to domestic helpers, punished by employers who still believe their maids, in some fundamental way, belong to them.