A mui tsai (妹仔) is a female servant in China. They are usually sold as young children into rich or noble households, and performed domestic chores. The slavery system has a long history in Chinese society. In ancient China, criminals were sold into slavery and their descendants were also subjected to the conditions of slavery. During the Qing Dynasty, slavery was abolished and later, the “Mui Tsai” system emerged. The difference was that the descendants of mui tsais were not considered to be property of the master.
The Mui Tsai system was already prevalent in Hong Kong when it became a British colony in 1841. The practice was allowed to continue on the basis that it was “traditional Chinese culture”, despite existing British anti-slavery laws. In 1879, the Chief Justice of the Hong Kong Supreme Court wrote that the Mui Tsai system was no different from slavery. Yet the British government refused to take action out of fear that it would destabilize Hong Kong society. In 1917, a case about a missing mui tsai once again brought the spotlight on their legal status. The colonial government brushed it aside, but by 1920, the tradition was increasingly scrutinized. Foreigners in Hong Kong were demanding action from the government, while influential Chinese individuals opposed any action.
In traditional Chinese society, the Mui Tsai system is viewed as charitable. Mui tsais usually came from poor families or were orphans. At their owner’s homes, they were provided with food and housing. They were eligible to be released upon marriage (of course, their marriage was decided by their owners). Proponents of the system pointed out that when Guangdong abolished their Mui Tsai system, many of the former servants were left homeless and had to live in worse conditions. Supporters of the system were mainly from the upper echelons of society, who kept mui tsais in their own homes. They formed an organization called 防範虐婢會 (Society to Prevent Abuse of Servants). They lobbied against the abolition of the Mui Tsai system and instead, suggested that action be taken to prevent owners from abusing their servants.
Opponents of the Mui Tsai system argued that it essentially amounted to slavery because the mui tsais had no wages, no contract and no freedom. They were considered property of their owners. They were often treated cruelly, subjected to abuse and/or rape, and had little legal protection. They could be traded by their owners, resulting in some mui tsais being forced into prostitution. Opponents of the system tended to be from religious organizations and those educated with Western values. They formed their own organization called 反對蓄婢會 (Society Against Keeping of Servants). They issued a declaration criticizing the Mui Tsai system as a violation of human rights. They denounced the argument that the system is charitable, saying that charity should not change the status of the receiver and that givers of charity should not ask for anything in return. The organization set up centres to help mui tsais and persuaded them to fight for their own rights.
The colonial government finally could not resist the mounting pressure against the Mui Tsai system. In 1923, they enacted the Female Domestic Service Ordinance (家庭女役則例). The law invalidated existing mui tsai sale contracts and barred further trading of mui tsais. All mui tsais had to be registered and be given wages. Also, to prevent exploitation of young children, employment of domestic workers under age ten was not allowed. Although the law was passed, the government was still slow to enforce it. It was not until 1938, after several amendments to the act, that the issue of the Mui Tsai system was completely resolved.