The freedom trail

IT happened over 50 years ago now, but to Ah Gum it was as if it happened yesterday. ''I was barely 10,'' she says. ''Early one winter morning, my father made me walk without shoes for two hours. Then he sold me to a family as a mui tsai (servant girl).'' For 65-year-old Ah Gum, born in Xi Chao Gao Zhou village in Guangdong and now working as an amah in Hong Kong, choice was a luxury she never had when young.

Sold by her father to be another family's servant, and later married to a stranger she had never seen before, Ah Gum is a living reminder of the hardships faced by millions of women in China earlier this century - some of which are re-emerging today as reports about women forced and sold into marriage reveal.

Ah Gum's father, a teacher in Nanhai County, smoked opium and his addiction led the family into poverty. When money ran low, he sold Ah Gum, the oldest of his four children, to buy more of the drug. ''My father was the root of all evil,'' Ah Gum recalls bitterly.

Later he sold Ah Gum's brother. As a boy, he was bought by another family to be their son. Ah Gum, a girl, was not so lucky. Sold to a farming family in Dongguan, she was treated like a slave.

Every day she had to get up before dawn, go to the fields to look after the cows and pick grass to feed the pigs. She was given just one meal a day - porridge with a little rice in it. It contained little nutrition and Ah Gum's health soon deteriorated.

''Because of the food I ate, I always had to go to the bathroom to be sick. When I stayed in the bathroom for a long time, my family accused me of being lazy,'' she says.

Her only comfort was having a bed to sleep on. When she was hungry, she ate wild grass and picked a few sweet potatoes from her neighbour's field. When the neighbour found out and complained to her family, she was beaten.

''After staying there for two years, I was so desperate, I decided to run away. If not I'd simply have been waiting to die in that family,'' she says.

After slipping away, Ah Gum wandered from village to village until she came to Shi Long near Dongguan. There, she was picked up by a woman who took her to work in her family. But the family's two sons didn't like Ah Gum so again she was sold.

She was bought and sold several more times. ''The wealthier the family, the meaner they treated me,'' she says.

Finally, she ended up in happier circumstances, ironically with a family who made coffins. ''They treated me very well and fed me good food. I recovered gradually and worked in their store,'' she says.

When she was 21, the village matchmaker asked her about marriage. In her circumstances, this provided the only escape route to a new life, although the partners she was eligible for were limited.

''There were three choices: a widower - I'd never consider that, it's not laisee (good fortune); marrying into the family as a concubine - who wants to be concubine?; or marrying a man 17 years older than me.'' She chose the last option and married ''blind'', meeting her husband for the first time on her wedding day. ''For three days I didn't dare to look at him,'' she recalls.

Marriage proved another misery. Her husband was a scaffolder who travelled back and forth between Dongguan and Hong Kong in his work. Just days after their wedding, he went to Guangzhou returning a few weeks later. The pattern was repeated throughout their marriage and when the two did meet, they did not get on.

''We had nothing to say to each other. He was always annoyed when I talked to him,'' Ah Gum says.

''He was very feudal-minded and a gambler. He did not send any money home. I raised all four children on my own. He never touched them.'' To support herself and her family, she worked in a matchbox factory in Guangzhou and in 1979 she came to Hong Kong to join her husband, working as an amah to several families and as a cleaner in residential buildings to make a living.

As a devout Buddhist, she treated her husband well, despite his behaviour. ''Sometimes his blanket would come off as he slept and I put it back on him, but he'd throw it to the floor. He never cared about me. He was very bad tempered and yelled at me all the time,'' she says.

When Ah Gum refused to give him gambling money, he would throw a chair at her, one time injuring her leg badly. She says frankly: ''Had I known marrying blind would turn out like this, I would have never married.'' The couple are still together 44 years later. Ah Gum knows she could have divorced her husband, but felt she couldn't as she would lose face.

On a trip back to her village, she learnt the sad fate of the rest of her family. After selling his two eldest children, her father stole his neighbour's cows to gain some money. Meanwhile, money-lenders kept pestering relatives to repay her father's debts until unable to stand it any longer, her father's nephew shot him dead.

By then, her mother and two remaining children were in desperate straits and her younger sister starved to death. Her mother, in an attempt to save her remaining son, decided to re-marry. She too died of starvation on the way to her new husband. Ah Gum's brother was picked up by a stranger and today he is living in Guangzhou.

''I really feel bad about what my mother went through. If she was here now I'd treat her very well,'' Ah Gum says.

For at last, Ah Gum is in a position to do this. She is financially independent and her small amah's salary keeps both her 82-year-old husband and herself. Although she has never had the chance to study, she would like to go to school. She has taught herself some Chinese characters by learning songs and then reading the lyrics in song books.

Thinking back on her tough life, Ah Gum says: ''I used to cry a lot. I wondered if I had done something really bad in my past life. I don't cry anymore. I am having the best time of my life.'' Hard times . . . a young girl is put up for sale by her family in China earlier this century Ah Gum . . . sold to buy opium I used to cry a lot. I wondered if I had done something really bad in my past life. I don't cry anymore. I am having the best time of my life