Nian is a servant in my novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. She’s new to the Song household, the lowest in rank among the servants. Song Anyi arrives at the family home – more dead than alive following a vicious rape – and Nian becomes her amah.

chinese wet nurse
Amah. Image source:

I never had an amah although both my parents did when they were growing up in China. In my mind, an amah was a kind of miracle worker. A woman would devote her entire life to the care of her charge, even after that charge reached adulthood. What sort of a person did that?

the good amah

As Dad recalls it:

[S]ince each maid started out as a wet nurse to one of us, she became part of the family so to speak. When they eventually quit, Grandma always gave them enough money to pay for a decent casket and funeral expenses […] Each and every one of these servants was loyal and trustworthy.

They were also deeply partial. When Dad and his sister, my Guma, would fight, their amahs would join in.

[O]ur fights were nothing compared to the fights between our two nurse maids. Long after Guma and I had forgotten what the hassle [was] all about, the nurses would still be at each other’s throats.

amah nian

my debut novel
Cover image: The Dancing Girl and the Turtle

As Anyi’s amah, Nian has a wide range of tasks. She must feed and dress Anyi, clean her room and tend to her clothes. She must also nurse Anyi back to health, though Nian doesn’t know how. Not all of Anyi’s wounds are external. The men who raped her populate Anyi’s dreams. It’s impossible for her to escape her trauma and so she must relive it whenever the moon is full.

[T]he girl’s body went rigid and her eyes turned to glass. Her body jerked and her knees drew up in spasms. A low animal noise came from her throat. […] The moan rose in volume and pitch. The girl’s eyes rolled into the back of her head. She was shrieking now and a thin stream of white foam seeped out of one side of her mouth. (p17)

Terrified, Nian runs. She no longer wants to be Anyi’s amah but a servant has no choice.

Mistress Song decreed that Nian must stay with the broken girl at all times. The girl slept most of the day so Nian did too. The amah liked the feel of the sun on her face and the muffled sound of the grandfather clock downstairs eating away the hours.

But as soon as the moon waned, Nian knew the calm could not last. She listened as the broken girl talked in her sleep: to her parents, to the soldiers, to other ghosts Nian had not yet met and had no desire to know. She lit the candle every night and hoped for the best. (p19)

a scary place

Like many females of her class, Nian was sold by her parents into servitude. She was one of the lucky ones. As the historian Frederic Wakeman Jr. observed in Policing Shanghai 1927-1937:

Many of the girls and young women who worked in Shanghai brothels had originally been sold into prostitution by family members. Others had been seized by kidnappers either in the countryside or just after getting off the boat when they arrived in this strange and confusing metropolis. The kidnappers would spirit their prey off to lockups disguised as small hotels in the French Concession where they would keep the girls until they could be sold to a brothel. (p113)


boat people
Tanka. Image source:

For someone from the south like Nian, Shanghai is a strange place. She is a Tanka, an ancient people ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese. Tanka communities consist of fishing boats and houseboats, chicken coops and fishing nets, clustered together along the shore. Nian goes to the mudflats of Shanghai one night, in search of her lover.

She had been raised in a place like this, as an infant bound to her mother’s back to prevent her from rolling overboard and later, as a toddler, tied to the guy lines so that when she fell, she could eventually be hauled to safety. Nian had been taught that a boat was a haven and should be treated as such. (p164-165)

In Nian’s day, the Tanka were many.

Until the 1950s, the Tanka were much more numerous along the south Chinese coast, and about 100,000 lived around Guangzhou. Besides fishing, they made a living rowing goods and people along the waterways around Guangzhou.

But these days, most young Tanka prefer city life. And though their culture is under threat, few of the Tanka seem to mourn its passing.

Their dislocated lives left little room for nostalgia or even for remembering their folk songs, called saltwater songs. Fishing and living on boats, many said, were a means of survival, not cultural preservation.

Nian's boat
HK Museum of History. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The Hong Kong Museum of History is a treasure trove of artefacts commemorating lives past. The Folk Culture gallery focuses on the Tanka and other ethnic groups native to Hong Kong. There I saw a full-sized Tanka fishing junk, the kind on which Nian could have been born.

the bad amah

bad amah
My copy of Empire of the Sun

In Empire of the Sun, the Japanese have just attacked Pearl Harbor and simultaneously occupied Shanghai. Young Jim can’t find his English parents and must try to survive on his own. He goes to their friends, the Raymonds, for help. Instead he finds the two amahs emptying the house of its furniture. When he tries to worm his way into the house, one amah slaps him.

The front of his face seemed to have been torn from the bones. His eyes were smarting, but he stopped himself from crying. The amahs were strong, their arms toughened by a lifetime of washing clothes. […] Jim knew that they were paying him back for something he or the Raymonds had done to them. (p68)

Maybe so. The amahs might just be trying to survive. After all, Jim wasn’t their responsibility. No amah would attack her own child, right? But surely there are limits to an amah’s self-sacrifice.

As Anyi loses her grip on reality, Nian must save herself.

[Nian] leaves the apartment now whenever she likes. She doesn’t say where she’s going or when she’ll be back. She abandons me in this place with only my thoughts for company, all those voices in my head. (p248)


Black amah
“Jemima” character on 1899 cakewalk sheet music cover. Image source:

The myth of the good amah is not unlike that of the happy slave. Remember the smiling Mammie’s face that once adorned Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix? She portrayed an idealized domesticity in the antebellum South. She wanted to serve her white employers.

The good amah lives in a world where all children are precocious and all masters, kind. The good amah defends her charge to the death.

And then there’s Nian, a woman just trying to survive.