GEORGE TOWN: A centenarian, believed to be the last living ma jie (amah) in Malaysia, is in search of her real identity and hopes to reunite with her family in China.
The 105-year-old, who was part of the legacy of housekeepers known for keeping their hair in a long plait and donning white blouses and black pants, remembers her Cantonese name to be Ngan Dou Tai.
She lost her identity card decades ago and because of her old age, her worn-out fingerprints cannot be scanned anymore.
Tan Swee Ban, the founder of Peace and Harmony Home where Ngan now resides, said National Registration Department officers told them that to retrieve her identity card, she was required to either get her full legal name or the six digits of her old identity card number.
“Before she came to our home, she had been helping out at a temple along Burma Road since the 1970s.
“There is a photo of Ngan in her ma jie clothes taken by the monks in the temple,” said Tan, 56.
Despite her age, Tan said Ngan still walks around, chats merrily with other home residents, helps to sweep the floor and relishes her favourite dish – braised chicken feet.
“Her annual health report shows that she is in the pink of health with her cholesterol level that’s a bit high.
“Due to her old age, Ngan has slight memory loss and behaves like a child at times,” he added.
Tan said they hope that Ngan’s family and friends who may have information about her will come forward.
“We want to help her find her identity and hopefully, send her back to her hometown,” he said.
Those with information to share can call Tan at 010-396 9681.
Ngan’s lineage as a ma jie dates back to 17th-century China when silk was considered the world’s most luxurious fabric.
Few knew at the time that silk threads came from silkworm cocoons because the production of silk floss was a closely guarded secret in an industry run only by women – the ma jie (literally, mother-sister).
Going against the grain of a male-dominated society then, the ma jie took a vow of celibacy and kept the economic power they enjoyed as silk floss producers to themselves.
But in the 1920s, the silk industry collapsed with the creation of synthetic fabrics.
This led the ma jie to change occupations, and they left China by the thousands and became domestic helpers in well-to-do families throughout Hong Kong and South-East Asia.
They became multi-tasking governesses or female butlers, renowned for their loyalty and dedication to the master of the household.
Many people today still have fond memories of being raised under the care of the ma jie.
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