Threads of Sisterhood
First combing, together all your lives
Second combing, harmony in your marriage
Third combing, blessed with many children and grandchildren
-- The four blessings at the pre-wedding hair combing ceremony
Historically, women enjoyed little status in Chinese society. Daughters were often unwanted and were matched off in marriage at an early age. Women from poor families were often forced into arranged marriages and enslaved to her husband’s family, some ended up in abusive relationships with years of suffering.
Around the beginning of the Qin Dynasty (circa 1640s), in the Shunde area of South China, thanks to the booming silk trade, sectors of women became financially independent. Many would wear their hair in a long braid to symbolise their autonomy until their wedding, often having a say in who they would marry. Towards the end of the 19th century, as Imperial China began to crumble and instability spread, many women in the area took the initiative and performed the comb up ritual.
The comb up ceremony involved bathing with mulberry leaves and a fellow sister would braid their hair. From that day on, they could only wear a light colour tunic and dark trousers. They would take the chastity vow and have no further obligations towards their parents. They were free to travel and make their own living.
Being an early feminist was not without its drawbacks. Combed up women were not allowed to return home to die in their old age, and their relatives could choose to have nothing to do with the funeral arrangements. As a result, many sisterhood homes sprung up and the combed up women would look after each other, often considered sisters for life.
After the fall of the imperial empire in early 20th century, the silk trade was in great decline and most of the combed up women were out of work. Many travelled out of china across South East Asia and took on the jobs of nannies and domestic helpers.
This project centres around Mak Ngan Yuk (麥顏玉), an eighty seven year old woman who was my nanny and worked for my family for nearly 40 years.
She is the firstborn child in a poor rural family in south China. Denied schooling opportunities due to her gender, she became the main caregiver to her 3 year old brother and baby sister at the age of 8. She started work in the Mulberry fields from around the age of 15 but was often sent home due to her size, and she was considered too slow. Desperate to learn to read, She started paying for her own schooling with some of the money she earned; when her father found out, she was told that if she was going to spend the money on schooling, she should be paying for her younger brothers to attend instead of wasting it on herself.
In her early twenties, pressure began to mount on her to get married. As the eldest sister, she was expected to be married before her brothers could find a suitable bride. Not wanting to be forced into an arranged marriage, she performed the comb up service and left for Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper.
After several temporary jobs, she would work for only two families for the next 55 years. During which time; she kept her family alive through the great famine in 1950s, paid for all her nephews and nieces educations, built several houses in her home village for her aunts, brothers and nephews and supported several of her nephews businesses, one of which flourished into a very successful business employing over 350 workers. Yet through all this, she has retained a very simple lifestyle. After retiring ten years ago, she chose to live alone in a government studio flat instead of moving into a sisterhood house (姑婆屋) and still enjoys the autonomy of being her own person.
She is respected and loved by not only her blood relatives, whom she has sacrificed so much of her life for; but also the grown up children that she cared for over the years.
In every sense, she symbolises the last generation of comb-up women, hard working, selfless and independent.
This project combines new photographs, found photographs and several other mixed media pieces, including Chinese Ink work and two textile based work. They retrace the life of Mak’s so far and beyond. Both biographical and anthropological, her story will be the starting point to explore generations of comb up women, giving a voice to generations of unsung heroines who are might otherwise be ignored and forgotten.