Wednesday 10 July 2019

Chinese women working with UK ships in 20C

British maritime labour history is largely a history of white and BAME men, and possibly 1 per cent white women. 
Women of other backgrounds, including Chinese, Yemeni, and African women are almost entirely absent. This is a brief introduction to Chinese women's relationship with sea mobility and British seafaring.

Adam Williams, his Chinese amah, and mother Anne at one of Hong Kong's many bays, 1956.
Chinese women accessed the sea and mobility because of their work. 
Image courtesy of


Q. Why the absence of Chinese, South Asian, Afro-Caribbean and African-origin women working on ships
A. The answer is that shipping companies deliberately excluded such women, despite their potential for being very cheap labour indeed, as both female and non-white. It's not that such women didn't want to go to sea.

Despite extensive research in shipping company and National Union of Seamen archives I have not found any  records of such women. Nor have I found discussions about excluding/including them. Reluctantly, I have to conclude that in the UK in 20C there were no BAME seafaring women. it seems extraordinary. 
I've had a lot of conversations with seafarers. From that I understand that the two main reason for this racialised and gendered exclusion are likely to have been on these grounds: 

1. PASSENGER ATTITUDES. Bedroom stewardess was the main job open to women until the 1970s. Companies probably believed that BAME women wouldn't have been acceptable to white lady passengers in the intense intimacy of a cabin. 

Yet such an objection doesn't seem quite plausible. White European women living in countries such as Singapore, Shanghai, Malaya, and Hong Kong readily employed Chinese servants, especially amahs (children's nurses, even wet nurses) in their homes. 
So it may be that actually the reason for the exclusion is about  the need for stewarding staff - as warders -  to subtly wield authority, to be a female-oriented part of the hegemonic and gendered control of passenger-inmates. 
Bedroom stewardesses and stewardesses had to, to some extent, regulate the passengers in their patch - for example ensuring they didn't request too much room service, and that they attended lifeboat drills.
It may be that shipping lines thought elite white passengers wouldn't accept such regulatory pressure from 'lower' status BAME women.

Also there were not enough Chinese or Indian female passengers to justify employers taking on women servants of the same nationality to look after them during the voyage. Cash-strapped shipping companies only do what they have to do, and employ specific staff only when it pays to do so. 
(This 'appropriateness' type of justification was later used in 1970s legal battles for equality. The concept of 'Genuine Occupational Qualification' was articulated, famously in a case where a gentlemen's tailoring firm remained men-only on the grounds that women should not measure male customers for trousers.) 
2.  UNION. The seafarers' union is likely to have opposed BAME women, on the grounds that white men, white women and BAME men - in that order - were more entitled to any available jobs. 


The main non-British women I have found working on ships have been:

 A. Europeans. Portuguese matrons or auxiliary nurses for migrants, pre WW2. They were employed by the shipping lines, usually Royal Mail and Blue Funnel, whose ships took some passengers of Portuguese background to Brazil. a former Portuguese colony. 
Crew agreements (registers of personnel aboard each voyage) show some of these women workers have British surnames. This suggests that local shipping agents in Portugal - say Lisbon - would have sought bilingual women, probably Portuguese women who were the wives and daughters of British men living there. 

Children were an increasing presence on ships after WW2. Their nannies, including ayahs and amahs, attended as part of their working day. Image from Tim Roberts' story,

B. Ayahs. 阿媽. Children's nurses - especially from India, Ceylon and non-mainland China. They were employed by the traveller's family, not by the shipping line. They therefore travelled as passengers although they worked all the voyage long. This included the usual nursing, dressing, playing with their charges, plus attending at children's sittings for meals on ship, such as the tea party pictured above.
There are records of Indian ayahs aboard, but few of Chinese or Japanese amahs. 
(For a brief summary of amahs' role on land see 'A Lifetime of Labour: Cantonese Amahs In Singapore', 

C. Gash Jennies, in port. These Chinese women in British colonies worked briefly on British ships in ports such as Hong Kong. 
Affectionate, if patronising, bonds existed between officers and well-organised teams of women who routinely serviced moored ships, doing women's work. 

The most famous 'Jenny', who died aged 92 in 2009, led  a gang who: 
took ''over the domestic economy and husbandry of each vessel. They washed and ironed, cleaned ship, chipped rust and painted, attended as buoy jumpers, and, dressed in their best, waited with grace and charm upon guests at cocktail parties.

Captains and first lieutenants would find fresh flowers in their cabins and newspapers delivered daily ...[jenny earned] by selling soft drinks to the ships' companies and scavenging every item of scrap and gash which could be found on board.' 

Could have been in...

1. Galleys and laundries. It never happened. But it wouldn't have been too abnormal for Chinese women living in the UK,  to be employed in jobs that didn't involve passenger contact, such as laundry and galley work. 
It would have been especially 'natural' for employers to take on those women who were part of British culture because of their family connections with British seamen, as in the Portuguese example above
(By the early 20th century Hong Kong-origin Cantonese men were routinely employed in the laundries of some shipping lines.)  And British women to do such work were so hard to get that in the 1930s shipping companies took on criminalised young women from penal institutions. 
One reason for women not being taken on for such backstage work may have been cultural resistance from the community. Chinese people in the UK possibly did not think it desirable for Chinese women work away from home for months on ships. Their shipboard position would have been lowly, and perhaps morally compromised.  

Amah holding Linga in HongKong, c 1919.
Image via
2. Ship's nurseries. From the 1930s major passenger ships had nurseries, staffed by one nursery stewardess. 
From the 1950s a hierarchy emerged, as was traditional in grand houses: a high-status 'children's nurse' supervised the nursery stewardess, who had a more maid-like status, for example cleaning up spills. 
It would not have been odd if Chinese women did this work on ship. In fact they were never employed in this capacity on UK ships. There was no transition from land-based amah to professional travelling amah, as there was with Indian ayahs.

Male counterparts

The UK history of Chinese men working on ships is as yet barely known, although this is now being addressed by some Heritage Lottery Funded projects. And perhaps men's history, in this case, is anyway not very helpful to understanding Chinese women's maritime history. It was so different.  
Any researcher wanting to go further in exploring men might try these sources, for starters:
A. 1915 crew agreements on line show brief details of Chinese seafaring men in WW1: 
To search you look up the seafarer by surname. So, for example, when I inserted the common name 'Ching' I found a firemen, carpenter, and steward. See

B. One of the recent digitally-available interviews with/about Chinese seafaring men includes this: Yew Chang (1919-2012). Pictured. From Hong Kong, he was a merchant seafarer from c1938 to the early 1950s. Initially in the engine room then a cook, he worked for the Netherlands company Shell, later Royal Dutch Shell group. Many Chinese seafarers in the UK worked for Blue Funnel.
In war BAME men were among those seafarers who were held in camps abroad. In WW2. Yew Chang was 'detained' in Calcutta for two years, and 'sent to repair damaged aircraft'.  
The British Chinese Heritage Centre has made available two interviews with him: and

C.You could try searching the records of the London School of  Nautical Cookery, currently held in the National Maritime Museum Archive, London, at SAH/63.They may include Chinese men, because cooking was one of the jobs Chinese men did on ships, especailly when Chinese food became more popular in the UK.
I recently looked through to find references to women of any ethnicity. The few female applicants were usually told there was no point in training, as no shipping company would take on women cooks.


I am grateful to Sha Zhou for inspiring this blog entry. Sha is at King's College, London, and looking for the history of amahs on ships as part of her Ph.D work on The Life Experience of Chinese Female Migrants in Britain after 1945.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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