Chinese amahs

An amah or ayah is a girl or woman employed by a family to clean and look after children etc. It is a domestic servant role which combines the functions of maid and nanny. The term, resembling the pronunciation for “mother”, is considered as polite and respectful in the Chinese language when it is used to refer to a maid.

In Taiwan and China, amah may even refer to any old lady in general. Similar terms in the same context include ah-yee (Aunt), yee-yee (aunt), or jie-jie (elder sister).

Ah Ho, in The Orchid, is based on my mother’s amah from the late 1920s when my grandparents employed her to look after their daughter. She had a son, Ah Jun. I didn’t know him but, just like Jimmy was Kate’s friend in the novel, he was my mother’s childhood companion.

The day after the Japanese surrender, Ah Ho turned up at the Stanley Internment Camp to look after my grandparents. Her first words to my grandmother were, ‘You got any washing?’

When my parents married and my grandparents left Hong Kong, Ah Ho came to work for our family and she was my baby amah. I’ll never forget her kindness and I loved her dearly. Here’s a pic of us together, with my dog, Socks.

Siobhan Ah Ho and Socks

Ah Jun didn’t became an office clerk, and his children are all doctors or lawyers. The whole family emigrated to Canada, including Ah Ho, in the nineteen seventies.

The picture below is of my mother, my siblings and me with Ah Luk. She took over from Ah Ho when Ah Ho retired. Ah Luk had a tragic past. She escaped from China during the civil war by swimming across a shark-infested bay with her baby tied to her back. The baby drowned and Ah Luk looked after my little sister as if she were her own baby.

Ah Luk’s husband, who was in the Nationalist Army, sent for her from Taiwan and a new lady, Ah Lai, became our amah. She was a wonderful woman who ruled the house, making sure we all toed the line.

Here’s a pic taken at my brother’s ninth birthday party with Ah Lai (on the right) and Ah Ho (who always visited us on special occasions, even after she’d retired).

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These fantastic women will always hold a special place in my heart.

Stanley Civilian Internment Camp

My heroine, Kate, falls in love with Charles when she is fifteen and has been interned with her parents by the Japanese in the Stanley Internment Camp. About 2,800 men, women, and children were held at the non-segregated camp for 44 months from early January 1942 to August 1945 when Japanese forces surrendered. My own grandparents were interned in the same camp.

On 8 December 1941, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong, marking the start of the Battle of Hong Kong. Seventeen days later, on Christmas Day of 1941, which came to be known as “Black Christmas”, the Hong Kong government surrendered, and Hong Kong came under Japanese occupation.

The Stanley site was chosen by the Japanese through consultation with two Hong Kong government officials, the Director of Medical Services, and the Colonial Secretary. Located on Stanley Peninsula, which was about nine kilometres from the city at the time, the camp consisted of St. Stephen’s College and the grounds of Stanley Prison.

The Japanese forces had not made plans for dealing with enemy civilians in Hong Kong. As such, the camp was provided with few necessities, and the internees were left to govern the camp themselves. Committees were formed for such matters as housing, food, and medical care.

The biggest concern was food; ensuring there was enough food occupied most of the internees’ time. Little food was provided by the Japanese authorities, and it was of poor quality — frequently containing dust, mud, rat and cockroach excreta, cigarette ends, and sometimes dead rats.

St. Stephen’s College was re-opened in 1945 after the war. St. Stephen’s Chapel was built on the grounds of the school in 1950; the memorial window over its west door was a donation, serving to remember the suffering at Stanley Internment Camp.