What the mahjeh did preserve from the self-combed women of previous generations was the sense of sisterhood and bonding among themselves. Without husbands, sons or daughters, they supported each other. Cheung remembers a time when more than 60 amahs formed a small community. “We knew each other by referral. When we would hang out during holidays, I would bring my own [amah] friends and they would bring theirs,” says Cheung.
These 60 amahs, including Cheung, each contributed HK$200 to buy a ground floor flat in a Buddhist nunnery in Sham Shui Po. They pledged to live there when they retired and grow old together. In the meantime, it became their gathering place on their days off, “Sometimes I brought my boss to the flat. Some amahs would play mahjong while the others did cooking. It was really happy,” says Cheung.
Over the years, the amahs gradually lost contact with each other. Cheung says most of them have probably passed away, moved to nursing homes or returned to their home towns. “When we bought the flat, we promised to help each other in times of need. But, in the end, everyone scattered. It is easier said than done,” she says.
Cheung does have two close amah sisters who she still keeps in touch with. After they retired, they would occasionally visit temples in Lantau Island together. On one occasion, Cheung’s friends took her to the hospital when she had a fever.
Cheung has been suffering from cataracts lately and struggles to walk long distances, even with her walking stick. Her best friend Luo Wu-nui suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and now lives in a nursing home. They rarely get to see each other and it seems the sisterhood is more vulnerable than before.
Still, Cheung is used to living independently and has relied on herself for many years. She is resourceful and proud of her achievements. After she came to Hong Kong, her job changed from looking after children and the elderly, to being a cook in a family. At the beginning, she did not regard herself as a good cook. Therefore whenever the family ordered caterers to cook for dinner parties, she would go to the kitchen and watch the professional chefs at work.
“Some people would not bother observing, so they did not acquire [the skill]…but I am not like them. I spent time to learn,” she says.
Because of her independent and reliable personality, Cheung’s employer, who she served for more than 30 years, gave her free rein to cook whatever she wanted and almost never made comments about her cooking. Yet she still recalls in great detail that there was one dish of fried minced pork with bean sprouts and chives that failed to satisfy her employer. Even after all these years, she can not forget this failure.
Cheung is proud of being trusted by the family, who invited her to emigrate to Canada with them in 1997. She turned down the offer and opted to retire as she says she was too tired to adapt to a new environment.
Having lived independently for so many years, Cheung intends to look after herself for as long as she can. She has occasional visits from younger relatives in the Mainland whom she helped to support with money and goods through the years. But the last thing she wants is to have to rely on others.
She has no regrets about the decisions she has made in her life and although her health has been deteriorating lately, she retains an optimistic attitude towards life and even death. “What I think about every day is to die peacefully and not to burden anyone [when I die],” she says. “There is no point being devastated; why don’t we be happy?”
Edited by Henry Lee