IN CHINA, in 1834, eight-year-old Mei Lan was asked by her parents to travel with an ''aunt'', whom she had just met, to Singapore. The sea journey was long and uncomfortable but uneventful. Upon arrival at the bustling British port, her ''aunt'' took the young girl to an impressive-looking mansion. There she was introduced to the Tang family and told that this house would henceforth be her home and she a part of the household. Mei Lan became a mui tsai of the Tangs', performing an array of domestic chores. Although she was rarely beaten, her daily workload was heavy and endless. It was a life of drudgery, little comfort, and continuous reprimands and nagging from the hot-tempered Mrs Tang, the tai tai (mistress) of the household. Mei Lan served the Tang household faithfully until she died at the age of 52. Mei Lan is an example of the hundreds of Chinese girls in pre-war (1941) Malaya who were victims of the traditional institution of mui tsai. The term is an euphemism for a form of servitude practised in China and extended to Chinese communities in the Nanyang (South-East Asia).
In the Cantonese dialect ''mui'' means ''younger sister'', and ''tsai'', which literally refers to ''a son'', is a diminutive; mui tsai is, therefore, ''little younger sister''. Char boh kan, meaning ''female slave'', is the equivalent in Hokkien.
The traditional Confucian Chinese patrilineal social system favoured male offspring to perpetuate the family name. Only a son could perform the rites of the all-important ancestor worship. A female child presented a family with numerous disadvantageous. Any hint of sexual impropriety on the part of the young girl would bring shame and scandal to the family.
A daughter was a liability. When she married she left the family and entered her husband's household. There, everyone hoped that the young bride would bear a son; failing which, her status in her husband's household would be slightly above that of a common servant. It was said that it was ''better to raise geese than girls'' - at least the geese could contribute to the household. Female infanticide was a common practice, particularly in rural China where an additional mouth to feed was a burden to a poverty-stricken household.
Throughout the greater part of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century, China was plagued with political instability, economic dislocation, social upheaval, and natural calamities resulting in widespread suffering. Faced with such dire circumstances, poor and desperate peasant families often willingly transferred a daughter directly, or through an intermediary, to a richer family that would use the child as a servant without paying any wages. In return, her parents would receive a consideration from the host family.
In some cases, the transfer of a pre-adolescent girl represented a pledge for a loan, her services as a domestic slave, a mui tsai, in lieu of interest until the loan was repaid. The details of the transfer were set down in a document; they included the amount of the loan to the girl's family, as agreed upon by both parties.
Rich Chinese households in South-East Asia, including those in British colonial Malaya, arranged with intermediaries in China to acquire mui tsais. The mui tsai presented several advantages over a hired male servant: as a member of the household, she is trusted more than a paid servant would be.
The institution of the mui tsai offered a safety net of survival for young girls of poor households who otherwise faced certain death from starvation in times of crisis. Her host family was obligated to provide the mui tsai with food, clothes and shelter, and look after her general welfare as it would any other family member.
Furthermore, it was expected that when she came of age at 18, her host parents would arrange that she be married. In practice, however, not all mui tsai had the privilege to be married off and many remained with their host family until they died.
In households where the mui tsai was treated like an adopted daughter, ill treatment was rare. However, cases of mui tsai being subjected to cruelty and abuse, including sexual assault and rape, were reported. Male members of her adopted household, knowing she was helpless, often took advantage of her sexually, whereas the womenfolk exploited her labour to the maximum and often abused her both physically and mentally.
Generally, these young girls lived under conditions of tight control; their sense of filial piety and their timidity and low self-esteem prevented them from complaining about ill treatment.
The mui tsai's situation in Malaya was even more untenable as it would have been more difficult for her to reach out for help if she was abused. In China, it was not uncommon for her to be placed with a host family that lived near her own parents or relatives so they could keep an eye on her situation.
In Malaya, however, the mui tsai was effectively an orphan as her parents were so far away. There was practically nothing the young girl could do except suffer and weep in silence. Her existence was one of silent sorrow.
More often than not the mui tsai system was abused for commercial gain. Under the pretence of bringing mui tsai into colonial Malaya, pre-adolescent Chinese girls and young women were brought in to serve in the country's numerous brothels as prostitutes.
Poverty-stricken families traded their daughters to junk owners for the price of the ship fare or for a small payment. These girls were virtual slaves and sold to the brothel keepers upon arrival at Penang or Singapore. Up until the 1920s prostitution and brothels were legal and British colonial authorities did not wholly proscribe the traffic in Chinese women and girls, though they did make an effort to check ill treatment and cruelty.
Those mui tsai who were sequestered in the brothel lived as sex slaves. Escape was unthinkable and almost impossible. Well-organised syndicates of what the British authorities referred to as Chinese ''secret societies'' controlled the brothels in colonial Malaya.
While not recognising the institution of the mui tsai, the colonial government of Malaya during the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century was prepared to tolerate its existence and only stepped in when abuse was reported. The colonial authorities were content that various legislations like the Women and Girls Protection Ordinance and laws relating to children were adequate safeguards.
From the mid-1920s onwards, however, this complacent attitude began to change. Public opinion in Britain was appalled by official tolerance of the mui tsai system. This criticism began to exert pressure on the Colonial Office in London. Consequently, in 1925, a Female Domestic Servants Law appeared in Malaya that sought to protect the moral and material interests of young Chinese females. It was undoubtedly an encouraging step forward.
The 1930s witnessed more far-reaching legislation that subsequently gradually phased out the mui tsai practice among the Chinese in Malaya. By this time in Hong Kong, the British colonial authorities had abolished the mui tsai system and similar moves were envisaged in Malaya. In 1932 the Mui Tsai Bill was passed, officially proscribing all forms of slavery including that of young females. The legislation required the registration of all existing mui tsai in an attempt to monitor their welfare and arrest abuses. Those mui tsai who were found to be victims of cruelty and ill treatment were sent to the Poh Leong Keok (alternately spelt Poh Leong Kuk), a girls' welfare home administered by a committee of towkay (Chinese business leaders) and presided over by the British Colonial Secretary for Chinese Affairs.
The new law forbade the practice of acquiring a mui tsai, who was defined as a female domestic servant of 18 years and below. When the existing group of registered mui tsai reached 18 years of age, they ceased to be mui tsai, therefore abolishing the system altogether. The bill, however, was only applicable and enforced in the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca, Singapore), the Federated Malay States (Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Pahang), Kedah and Johor. The small Chinese communities in Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu were unaffected.
A Commission of Enquiry that investigated the mui tsai problem in British Malaya published its report in early 1937. Acting on its recommendations, legislations were passed in the Straits Settlements between 1938 and 1940 that reduced further the age limit for domestic service to 14. From the second half of the 1930s the increasing availability of the Cantonese amah chieh, the professional domestic servant, gradually diminished the need for wealthy households to acquire mui tsai.
After the end of the Asia-Pacific War and the Japanese occupation, the remaining number of mui tsai in Malaya was small, and dwindling. By the late 1950s the institution of the mui tsai had entered into the annals of history.
* Dr Ooi Keat Gin, a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia's School of Humanities, has research interest in the historical role of Chinese and indigenous women in colonial societies in South-East Asia.
Notes: STF - : Many might not realise it, but the practice of slavery was alive and well in this country even up to the late 19th century. Dr OOI KEAT GIN examines the tradition of bringing over young Chinese girls to be virtual domestic slaves, even sex slaves in Malaya's brothels.
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