Brightly coloured cloth baby carriers slung on the backs of Chinese women were once a common sight in Hong Kong, and have recently made a comeback. Part of the reason is their lightweight practicality: unlike the modern stroller or other bulky types of contemporary infant transporter, traditional cloth carriers can be folded up and easily stored away.
Wearing the garment was (and still is) easy; the child was placed against the woman’s back, with its legs straddling her waist. Upper straps were tied around and over her shoulders, and the lower pair under the woman’s arms and child’s legs, to form a sling. Most women were involved in manual work – perhaps on fishing boats, tending fields or looking after animals – and could manage with an infant strapped to their back. As new babies were born, older sisters carried infant siblings.
In earlier times, traditional Chinese male wedding garments included a strip of red cloth draped across one shoulder and tied on the opposite hip, as an auspicious wish for children. This fabric was kept aside for later use as a baby carrier. Adult men seldom (but by no means never) carried young babies using such an arrangement themselves.
Sturdy, bright red cotton was the most commonly used material (it was also easily washable – important for those with young infants not yet toilet trained). Auspicious decorative symbols included Mandarin ducks, lotus flowers and pomegranates, as well as the characters for things such as luck, fortune and virtue. Special-occasion carriers, for use during Lunar New Year and other festivals, might be made from embroidered satin on a brocade background.
Cantonese and Hakka village women preferred a heavily decorated centre, while Tanka and Hoklo boat women often made their carriers from patchwork, sometimes using the serviceable sections of otherwise worn-out garments.
Among the Tanka, baby carriers were traditionally made by the infant’s grandmother, and each subsequent arrival had a new one. If the grandmother did not have adequate needlework skills to make a carrier herself, then one was ordered from someone who did, with specific direction given as to the appropriate motifs, such as zodiac signs, for an individual child.
A baby’s clothing was often kept long after its practical use had passed, partly for sentimental reasons and partly from a superstitious belief that keeping it would ensure the child grew into healthy adulthood.
In her 1991 scholarly article “Chinese Baby Carriers: A Hong Kong Tradition Now Gone”, local textile collector Valery Garrett predicted their complete disappearance. But, like most practical customs, baby carriers never entirely vanished.
Recent years have witnessed a resurgence in their popularity, partly driven by a revival of interest in formerly disregarded aspects of their cultural heritage by younger Chinese. Different forms of baby carrier have also been widely seen in Hong Kong since Indonesian domestic workers arrived in large numbers after 1998. The selendang (the long, broad cotton scarf used as a general carry-all in Indonesia) can be looped and tied around the shoulders and hip to provide comfortable support for babies and small infants.
Commercially made backpack/frontpack carriers, which retail for thousands of dollars in upmarket shops, are the modern versions. European-style prams were not a usual item in Hong Kong until recent years. High cost for limited use was a disincentive, as was the amount of space they take up in cramped homes.
In addition, it was a notion of child rearing in China – and in other Asian societies – that infants should be held and comforted at all times, and not left bawling alone in a cot.