Majie



The majie were a group of women who worked as domestic helpers, or amahs, in Singapore between the 1930s and 1970s.1 They were easily identified by their plaited hair or hair bun and distinctive black and white samfu outfit.

Historical background
While all majie worked as domestic servants, not all amahs were majie. The term “majie” is used to refer to a distinct group of amahs who came from Shunde (Shun Tak), a district in China’s Guangdong Province. Unlike other amahs, this group of women took a vow never to marry.2


During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a group of women in Shunde who chose not to marry. They were known as zhishu nü, meaning “women who dressed their own hair”.3 These women would usually undergo a ceremony called sor hei (combing-up). The ceremony was a simple one which took place either at a temple, ancestral hall or at home. During the ceremony, the individual would have her hair combed up into a bun. She would then take a vow of celibacy before a deity on an altar, in front of a witness, to never marry.4


After the sor hei ceremony, these women were regarded as independent and could no longer live at home with their families.5 They thus organised themselves into sisterhoods. Some of these groups also set up homes, usually known as ku por uk (meaning “house of grandaunt” or “house of the spinster”), where their members could reside.6 Some of these women also chose to live in vegetarian halls.7

Not all zhishu nü became majie. Many of them were involved in the silk industry, for which Shunde was famous.8 When the industry began to decline in the 1930s, many of these women left Shunde for Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore as part of the larger female emigration from China to seek employment elsewhere.9 Many of these Shunde women became domestic servants.


The term “majie” is derived from a Shunde term, ma cheh in Cantonese, meaning “mother and sister”. It refers to these women’s work as servants who took care of children and also alludes to their spinsterhood.10 The majie had a distinctive “uniform” of black trousers and white tops known as samfu.11 Some of the younger majie wore their hair in a plait, while many also tied up their hair in a bun.12

Job description
Many of the majie were employed as domestic helpers, usually in expatriate or wealthy families. They worked as cooks, housekeepers or nannies for these families’ children.13 A notable example was Ouyang Huanyan, a majie who first worked in the household of the rubber tycoon and Chinese community leader Tan Kah Kee, and later found employment with the family of Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore.14


The majie employed as cooks were responsible for buying groceries in the markets and preparing the family meals. The housekeeper majie took charge of the washing, ironing, and general cleaning of the house. Some families only hired one majie who was responsible for all the domestic chores. These majie were usually known as “one-leg kick” (or yat keok tek in Cantonese) because they did all the work in the household.15

Majie who looked after the babies or children were known as “baby amah”.16 Generally, the nannies did not take on other household chores as their main responsibility was taking care of their young charges. They would be responsible for the feeding, cleaning and general care of the children under their charge.17

In some wealthy families, each family member or child had their own amah to attend to their needs. There would be other amahs responsible for cooking and general household duties.18 The working hours of the majie were long. They usually worked from about 5 am in the morning to around 8 or 9 pm in the evening.19

Many of these amahs served their employers for a long time and were generally treated as part of the family. There was reportedly little abuse of these amahs.20

By the 1970s, many majie had gone into retirement and were replaced by domestic helpers from neighbouring countries such as the Philippines.21

Social organisations
Because they did not have families in Singapore, most of these women treated their fellow majie as family. Many of them would jointly rent rooms in Chinatown as their living quarters.22 These were known as “coolie fong” or “workers’ rooms”. The majie would return to their rooms daily or on their days off if they lived with their employers.23

Some majie also got together and formed their own clans – such as the Seng Cheow Tong clan, which was formed by 51 majie in 1963 and disbanded in 2004.24

While some majie would live with their employers until they retired or passed on, some stayed at their coolie rooms after their retirement. Others chose to stay at “vegetarian houses” after they retired.25 Also known as chai tong, these houses generally provided food and lodging for unmarried Buddhist women or women who had no family or relations in their old age.26

The chai tong were generally organised along clan or dialect lines. Although run as religious outfits, the women did not have to become nuns to stay in these accommodations. Generally, they paid a monthly fee and did some work in the house in exchange for food and board.27



Author

Jaime Koh



References
1.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. xvii. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
2.
DeBernardi, J. (Ed.). (2011). Cantonese society in Hong Kong and Singapore: Gender, religion, medicine and money. Essays by Marjorie Topley. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 109–110. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105125 TOP); Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 87–89. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
3. 
DeBernardi, J. (Ed.). (2011). Cantonese society in Hong Kong and Singapore: Gender, religion, medicine and money. Essays by Marjorie Topley. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 423. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105125 TOP)
4.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 45. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
5.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 47. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
6.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 41. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
7. 
DeBernardi, J. (Ed.). (2011). Cantonese society in Hong Kong and Singapore: Gender, religion, medicine and money. Essays by Marjorie Topley. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 107–123, 423–446. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105125 TOP)
8.
DeBernardi, J. (Ed.). (2011). Cantonese society in Hong Kong and Singapore: Gender, religion, medicine and money. Essays by Marjorie Topley. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 424–429. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105125 TOP)
9.
DeBernardi, J. (Ed.). (2011). Cantonese society in Hong Kong and Singapore: Gender, religion, medicine and money. Essays by Marjorie Topley. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 110–111. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105125 TOP); 韩山元 [Han, S. Y.]. (2009, August 14). 自梳女 [Majies]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao]. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg
10.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 89. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
11.
Koh, J. (2012). Singapore childhood: Our stories then and now. Singapore: World Scientific and Singapore Children’s Society, p. 53. (Call no.: RSING 305.23095957 KOH)
12.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 91. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
13.
卢丽珊 [Lu, L. S.] (2002, July 28). 梳起以后的世界 [The world of the majies]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14.
Toh, M., & Lim, R. Y. (2009, February 1). Majie recalls life with the Lees. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. xvii, 91. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
16.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 91. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
17.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 118–120. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
18.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 111. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
19.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 112. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
20.
韩山元 [Han, S. Y.]. (2009, August 14). 自梳女 [Majies]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao]. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg
21.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 165–166. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW);
Chan, K. S. (2000, October 16). Remembering the amahs of yesteryear. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22.
自梳女. (1989, June 11). 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 39. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 95–98. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
23.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 98–100. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
24.
Wong, S. (2004, January 16). Amah clan donates $500,000 from sale of flat. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25.
Gaw, K. (1988). Superior servants: The legendary Cantonese amahs of the Far East. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 144. (Call no.: RSING 331.481640460951 GAW)
26.
DeBernardi, J. (Ed.). (2011). Cantonese society in Hong Kong and Singapore: Gender, religion, medicine and money. Essays by Marjorie Topley. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 107. (Call no: RSING 305.895105125 TOP)
27.
DeBernardi, J. (Ed.). (2011). Cantonese society in Hong Kong and Singapore: Gender, religion, medicine and money. Essays by Marjorie Topley. Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 114, 116–117. (Call no: RSING 305.895105125 TOP)



The information in this article is valid as at 28 November 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from out sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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