Pop-up Noise: Soul Searching (2016)

Ah Jie: 阿姐 

From the 1930s to the 1970s, a wave of female migrants, many from the Guangdong province of China, came to Singapore to seek work as domestic servants. They were known as amah, which is a translation of a Mandarin term meaning mother, and often served in expatriate or wealthy families. Going against patriarchal norms, these women were the breadwinners of their families back in China. Many never married, instead dedicating their lives to their work. Some of the amah took a vow of celibacy to signify their commitment. These amah were known as ma jie. 

The amah served in households in Singapore until foreign domestic workers replaced this labour in the 1980s. There are few left; many have since passed away or have returned to China. A small number, in their eighties and nineties, continues to live quietly in Chinatown's rental flats. This story is about them.

An initiative of the National Arts Council, Pop-up Noise commissioned various young artists to engage with the Chinatown community and produce an artistic response. 

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The Business Times

The Straits Times

Khau Jie, aged 87, in her one-room rental flat in Chinatown. Rental flats are public housing allocated to low-income Singapore citizens. The ma jie were addressed by their names, followed by their title of jie, which means older sister in Mandarin.  

A picture of Lui Jie, 70, when she was a teenager. She was raised by majie, and eventually worked as a servant alongside them. They tied her hair in braids, as traditionally worn by women in the ma jie community. Lui Jie espoused practicality, and eventually cut her braids off.

Khau Jie sits on her bed, hands clasped, as she recalls her life as a ma jie. 

Khau Jie's bed. Many of the ma jie lived simply, possessing few items.

Khau Jie demonstrating how long her hair used to be. Because of the practicality of short hair, especially as they aged, many ma jie cut their long hair off. 

Khau Jie still visits, and occasionally cooksfor, the household where she worked for 54 years, seeing them through threegenerations. "They like my cooking," she said.

Khau Jie (right) when she was in her twenties. On the left are pictures of her family in China. She likens her sor hei, a ceremony demonstrating the ma jie's commitment to work and celibacy, to a wedding. 

Fang Jie, 90, on her bed. She spends her time either watching television, or at the elderly care centre a few storeys down. "No, I never fell in love with anyone. And no onefell in love with me."

A pile of handsewn samfoo, a garment worn by many of the ma jie in Singapore. The ma jie traditionally wore colours like white or blue. 

The inner garment worn by many Chinese women in the early to mid-20th century.

Wah Jie, 91, sitting on an office chair outside her flat. Now working as a "cardboard auntie", a colloquial local term used to address ladies who would collect scrap cardboard to sell it, Wah Jie keeps stacks of cardboard outside her flat, along with other discarded items she finds.

The amah traditionally kept their hair in a bun. Many of the amahs have, over the years, chosen practicality over tradition, and cut their hair short. Wah Jie has seen no reason to cut her hair, and is one of the few who has left it long.

Wah Jie collects used or discarded items to sell, much of which she places in the corridor outside her flat. 

Wah Jie's face is full of freckles from years under the sun. She continues to work every day. 

Moon Teng Jie, 89, fell down recently, hurting her head. The doctors cut off a significant portion of her hair, which she had always kept long. 

Moon Teng Jie cooks enough rice to last her two days. She says it saves her electricity. 

Moon Teng Jie's bed.

The ceiling in Moon Teng Jie's flat. Her flat, as well as the flats of the other ma jie, is spartan.

Fang Jie, on her way to the elderly care centre on the third floor. 

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