Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A Moment In Time

Recently, one of my siblings shared a photo of my mother in her teens with her family. It was a family portrait taken in 1940.

I was very excited to see this photo because I've always wondered what my mother looked like when she was young. My mother has zero photos of herself before marriage. Fyi, she's the hot babe top right.

Having a photo taken in those days must have been a big occasion. Note all the girls were wearing lipstick, ear rings, bangles, a big necklace and pendant. These are very likely made of gold and jade. It's a typical "show how rich I am" kind of Chinese thing. Check out the women's outfits - all were dressed in samfu which is a 2-piece outfit comprising of the blouse and pants. I remember my mother wearing these when I was young. Sometimes the samfu was sleeveless. The blouse had a front overlap which was secured either with toggles or snaps. I remember playing with my mother's blouse  because I was fascinated by the closure.

I'm rather surprised by how dressed up Grandpa was. The jacket, the tie and he was wearing some kind of a pin with chain. I mean, dude! All I've ever seen him in were regular garments men of his generation wore. What my grandma wore raised some questions. Her black and white samfu was what Amahs (maids) wore back in the days. My mother said she doesn't remember her mother dressed in black and white. So maybe it was her take photo clothes. Her regular samfu were a blue top with black pants.

Anyway, later it surfaced that my grandma was a "charbohkan". In Cantonese, it's called mui tsai. Essentially a "charborkan" was a young female sold as a domestic servant to a wealthier family usually because her family was too poor to raise her and mostly due to a deep rooted gender bias. This was a custom which originated in China and migrated to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. A "charborkan" had no salary, no rights except a lifetime of servitude. When she reached marriageable age, she technically could attain her "freedom" through marriage. Or she may have to marry the son of the family she was sold to which is kinda convenient for everyone - maid with benefits. So my grandma is considered "lucky" to marry her young master? Considering that some mui tsai were sold into prostitution...

According to my mother, grandma lived her life silently. She rarely spoke. She did not play with her numerous children. She did not scold her children. She did not share her opinion. She did not speak her mind. Another thing. She always stayed home. She did not go to the market. Grandpa did the marketing. Grandpa went to the bank. Grandpa took care of stuff. Was it by choice or was it grandpa's way of controlling his wife? She had nine children and no helpers. That alone would tie her to the house. Grandpa did not hire any helpers despite his wealth. Another thing. Grandpa had to do all the ancestor worship stuff himself as well. Haha. This one made me laugh. Methinks grandma was a rebel. She made her husband do all the ancestor worship stuff because it's a freaking amount of endless work. (psst, they weren't her ancestors)

When I was young, I painted this fairy tale that my grandparents were regular Chinese folks who were match made like regular folks back then. They were scary, stern looking people I see once a year during Chinese New Year. The only words they spoke to me were "whose child are you?" I never saw them as real people. When it was suggested that that my grandma was a "charbohkan", I felt quite sick. Because that would mean my grandma was a child slave, a person who had no choice and no voice. My heart breaks a little thinking how hard it must have been for her. How did she find the strength to embrace her fate and live?

My grandpa gave away 2 of his daughters. Mind you, not to wealthier people but very poor folks. I don't know the reason why both daughters were given away but the funny thing is both knew who their real parents were and continued to acknowledge my grandparents as parents. I saw both of these aunts during Chinese New Year. Both continued to have relationships with their siblings. The practice of giving away daughters continued during my parents generation. I asked my mother if she ever considered giving away her daughters since she had 5 daughters and 4 sons herself and lived in poverty. She acknowledged that there was one time when my father raised the option. I won't tell you which of my sisters was targeted. (it wasn't me) My mother said she did the big big cry thing and the idea was aborted. Big win for my mother.

Nowadays you can't sell your children anymore or leave them with random strangers. We have laws. But the gender bias is still around. Boys over girls. For me my first born was a boy and the second a girl. So I was spared the pressure to make a boy baby. I know some people who had to keep popping them out until a boy was produced.

One year my mother was summoned back to her parents home. Her father was about to divi up his fortune and since daughters were excluded from his fortune, he wanted to give his daughters a token. My mother received $1,000 and a long gold chain. She later sold it for over 1k so she got a little over 2k from her miserly father. It is peanuts compared to what her brothers received. I too received a small token - a gold ring which turned rusty later. I joked with my mother to return it. Haha. Anyway, the interesting thing is my grandma quietly slipped her daughters an extra $500 from what little money stash she had. I told you she was a rebel. Thankfully she died waaay before her husband. She did not have to nurse the old man when he turned senile in his old age. Ironically, one of my aunts who was given away took up the challenge to take care of my grandpa. Certainly she was paid a fee but I really marvel at how she could find it in her heart to nurse the person who discarded her. I would be full of vengeful thoughts and plotting some sort of revenge.

The photo was taken in 1940 which was 2 years before the Japanese Occupation. This means that 2 years later in 1942 or possibly late 1941, my mother was match made with my father. She was 13 or maybe 12. The marriage was to "protect" my mother. That's a nice way to put it. In any case, my mother who despite all the crap life threw her managed to live a not too bad life and she is now 90. Or 91 in Chinese age.

In 1932 the Mui Tsai Ordinance was passed to legislate mui tsai in Singapore. Was it successful? I'm not sure. (it probably wasn't) Anyway, the Japanese Occupation changed everything.


Kate said...

Wow, that is quite a story. My mother met my father at a sock hop, like something in an Elvis movie. Seems boring by comparison.

Ely said...

Fascinating! It feels pretty sad that your mother’s brothers didn’t want to share any part of their inheritance with their sisters, but so it goes. That kind of gender bias is pretty ingrained and they are of that generation.

Would your husband have insisted on a son (he seems pretty laid back and modern), or is it that cultural pressure would have made you keep trying?

Projects By Jane said...

Hi Ely, Chinese families need sons to carry on the surname and hubs was the only male descendant in his family. With that in mind we went into marriage both agreeing NOT to have any children. For me, I felt I wasn't grown up enough to raise a child. Of course we changed our minds and luckily for everyone, the first child is a boy. I doubt if we would have kept trying for boys for the sake of carrying on the surname. Pregnancy requires money, kids even more... we're practical people. I was the one who asked for a 2nd child as companion for the first. At one point, I contemplated a 3rd child (because I was insane) but fortunately the Universe intervened. That was 2001 when Singapore went into recession.

Jane McLellan said...

Really interesting, thanks for sharing the photo and the story. Your grandmother didn’t have an easy life, did she? Thank goodness times and customs have changed! Even if there are a few remnants, like pressure to produce sons.

Projects By Jane said...

Hi Jane McLellan, there's been improvements esp in Singapore. China though does not have a balanced gender ratio at birth. I wonder if female infanticide is still practiced? What's going to happen to all the extra male in future?

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