Ayahs & Amahs
making their way
Listen to the stories and follow the journeys of some of the women who left their homes and took up work as amahs and ayahs in Singapore and Australia.
The National Archives of Singapore hold a series of oral history interviews with Chinese women who worked as amahs between the 1930s and the 1980s. The interviews, originally recorded in Cantonese and translated into English by our project team, provide rich insights into the lives of the women.
In the following video, two former amahs reflect on their decision to migrate from southern China to Singapore for work.
Press play to hear their stories.
Wong ChUn Sung
This map follows the travels of Wong Chun Sung, from her arrival in Sydney in 1941, until her eventual departure from the country over ten years later. We have reconstructed her story from a file held at the National Archives of Australia. It illustrates not only her mobility as a worker but also her tenacity in the context of exploitative employers and the oppressive reach of Immigration Department officials.
Scroll Across to See the passport
Upon her arrival in Australia in 1941, Wong Chun Sung’s passport was taken from her and held by the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom. The passport should have been returned to Wong when she left for Hong Kong in 1952. However, to this day it remains in a folder in the National Archives office in Sydney. It offers rich insights into Wong’s life and her journeys across the Asia Pacific region.
On 24 July 1838, the Emerald Isle arrived from Calcutta into Port Adelaide, bearing the Gleeson family and their Indian servants. One of these servants was Mary Baker née Thomas, an Anglo-Indian woman who was a ‘governess’ for the Gleeson children.
In 1928, The Home magazine relayed the story of a ‘John S----' who arrived from Calcutta aboard the Emerald Isle in 1838, accompanied by his wife, children, and two ayahs. The parallels between this story and the details of the Gleeson family’s arrival from India are hard to ignore. Was Mary Baker one of the two purposeful ayahs making new lives in this story?
‘Mary Baker’, Photograph, c. 1838 | Personal Collection of Jack Cross. Reproduced with permission of Jill Cross.
Source | K.D. Starr, ‘The Brood of the Ayah’, The Home, 1 August 1928, pp. 41-78.
Mrs Browne's Servants
In 1818, a retinue of household servants arrived in the colony of New South Wales from Calcutta. They had travelled with their mistress, Sophia Browne, the wife of an Anglo-Indian merchant. Among them were three female servants: Thomassee (or Tamassee), Bucktin and Paree. Thomassee described herself as a ‘ladies dresser’ and needleworker, and the two others were described as ‘slave girls’. All of them were orphans.
In 1819 in colonial Sydney, a magistrates’ court heard the depositions of nine of Sophia Browne’s domestic servants. They claimed they had been mistreated by their employers and were seeking to return to India. Thomassee was one of those workers. Her testimony of the abuse she received leaves us with one of the earliest voices of a travelling ayah in Australian history.
The servants won their case and were provided their passage home.
Press PLAY to hear Thomassee's testimony.
Pearbux worked for the Browne family in Sydney in 1821, two years after their other servants had successfully sued for their return to India. Pearbux wrote that year to a former employer in Calcutta complaining of being treated as a slave and asking him to help her to return to India. She was successful. Her letter remains as probably the earliest writing that we have from an Indian ayah in Australia.
Hover over the image to read the letter.
'Letter from Pearbux to George Chisholm', 1821 | New South Wales State Archives, Colonial Secretary; NRS 900, Petitions to the Governor from convicts for mitigation of sentences, 1810-1826. [4/1862] p38a.