It’s a Disney flick, I reminded myself before a screening of Mulan , it’s not meant to be historically or culturally accurate. Even discounting the flagrant errors and inventions, and ignoring how everyone in the film speaks like messages found in fortune cookies, it’s a terrible film, whose thematic progression and characters’ motivations fail to convince. Thirty minutes in, this viewer had ceased to care. But two characters stood out for me: the Witch, played by international star Gong Li, a fellow Singaporean who has the passport to prove it; and the Matchmaker, portrayed by legendary kung fu star Cheng Pei-pei, whose filmography includes classics such as Come Drink with Me (1966) and its sequel Golden Swallow (1968). Witches and female matchmakers were traditionally women on the fringes of polite society in China, or excluded from it altogether. You may have heard the phrase “the three women and six hags”, or san gu liu po (in Cantonese saam gu luk po ), which describes gossipy women who find delicious pleasure in spreading rumours and sowing discord. However, the phrase originally referred to nine categories of females whose occupations prejudiced society against them. The three gu , or women, were those who had taken religious vows or whose work involved religion. The Buddhist nun ( nigu ) was a female monastic who renounced most aspects of secular life, including marriage and family – essential features of Chinese society. Life inside the Forbidden City: how women were selected for service The Taoist priestess ( daogu ) had more leeway in her asceticism. She could remain celibate and live in a Taoist temple, or live a normal life and, literally, put on her religious hat whenever the occasion arose. When people wanted their fortune told or their dead relations contacted, they went to female shaman ( guagu ), who were also mediums that could supposedly channel the spirits of supernatural entities or dead people. As for the six po , or hags, the first was a female broker ( yapo ). While brokers facilitating business exchanges have existed since the invention of money and trade, female brokers in China seem to have specialised in the buying and selling of women and young girls. The brothel madam ( qianpo ) dialled up the conviviality of her establishment, which increased business, and was indispensable in keeping a semblance of order in a disorderly house. The witch ( shipo ) was similar to the female shaman, except she used her powers to cast malevolent spells on one’s enemies for a fee. Her modern, more benign sisters can still be found plying their trade under the Canal Road flyover, in Causeway Bay. The fourth hag was the female matchmaker ( meipo ), erroneously depicted in Mulan as a grande dame of the community when, in reality, she would be tolerated by few if not despised. The medicine woman ( yaopo ) was not an official physician, but an itinerant herbalist who dispensed drugs such as painkillers and potions to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Finally, the midwife ( wenpo ) provided a life-saving service for countless women over several millennia. One reason for the historical vilification of these women, some of whom – the matchmakers, medicine women and midwives – performed essential services, is that they subverted the traditional ideals of womanhood as meek, dependent and homebound. Bad apples among them and the less reputable occupations contributed to their infamy. The mobility afforded by their work gave them an undeserved reputation as rumour mongers and purveyors of strife, which is why san gu liu po is still a byword for gossips, though few today would remember who these women were.