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  • Andrew Hillier

A Japanese Amah

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

The following blog tells the story of a uniquely transnational amah called Tuk-San. [1]

Tuk-San was a Japanese woman who travelled with the Hillier family between China and England at the turn of the twentieth century.

‘I came to Europe from Peking for the first time at the age of six months in the company of my mother, my brother and [two] sisters, a Japanese ‘Amah’ and two Chinese servants’. With these words, the painter, Tristram Hillier, began his entertaining memoir, Leda and the Goose. [2] It was 1906 and his father, Guy Hillier, was the long-standing agent of the Hongkong Bank in Peking, responsible for negotiating and administering the principal loans to the Qing regime. [3] Having lost his sight through glaucoma, he had despatched his wife, Ada, and family to England. [4] Over the next fifteen years, they would see him on only a handful of occasions. With Ada suffering from persistent ill-health, it was the amah, Tuk-San, ‘the little brown Japanese nurse, who had helped bring each of us children into the world’, who would mainly look after Tristram and his three elder siblings.

She was, wrote Tristram, ‘the real influence in my life then and for many years later… and meant more to me …than my own mother’. ‘[She] stood about four feet six in the elastic-sided boots that she wore in all circumstances and climates; she remained faithful to her native kimono but she combined it with the most various headgear which had been discarded by my mother or bought in the village shop, and though she never learned more than a rudimentary pidgin-English her scolding tongue could quell both servants and tradesmen, and she was undoubtedly the organising power behind the whole family. She had a wholesome contempt for all my German governesses, which she was at no pains to disguise, so that …it was Tuk-San who ruled in the nursery, and I learned more of Japanese folk-lore and fairy tales in those days than anything else.’

But who was Tuk-San and how had she first met the family? The answer is that we know almost nothing about her background, nor her age nor even her full name. We don’t know how she came to be in Peking in the mid-1890s when Tristram’s parents Guy and Ada married, and had their first two children, Winifred and Maurice. Like Guy, Tuk-San was a Roman Catholic convert, and, like him, extremely devout – they may have first met at the Catholic Cathedral in Peking, where he worshipped, alternatively, she may have converted as a result of his influence. We do not know whether she maintained contact with her family, and very little of the eight or so years she spent with the Hilliers in Peking, save that, by good fortune, they had left the city shortly before the Siege of the Legations (1900). Guy had returned briefly to Europe, searching in vain for treatment for his glaucoma, whilst Ada took Winifred, Maurice and Tuk-San to live with relations – the Drummond family – in their lavish mansion in Shanghai, although they also at some point, holidayed in Nagasaki. [5] With Guy and Ada re-united in Peking after the Siege, two more children were born, Madeleine and Tristram, before Ada and the four children left for England.

Figure 1: The four Hillier children, Madeleine, Winifred, Maurice, and Tristram, Taken in England in about 1908-1909. Hillier Archive

With Guy earning handsomely, the family was comfortably off, living in a large house in the Sussex countryside. Tristram, as the baby of the family (born in 1905), enjoyed an idyllic, if somewhat eccentric, existence, in which Tuk-San provided the principal source of affection. When it was time for him to go to primary school, she stayed on to run the household and she was there when Guy came to Europe in 1911 on business and managed to squeeze in a short visit to his family – one, memorably, if a shade unreliably described by Tristram. The following year, for reasons which are not clear, Ada, and three of the children – Maurice remained at boarding school – together with Tuk-San set off for Peking via the Trans-Siberian Express – a major operation in which Tuk-San again had to take charge. If the idea was to see whether Guy and Ada could resume life together, it did not succeed. The following year, they made the same journey home. [6] The family would only see Guy once more, when in the height of the War, hearing that Ada was dying, he returned for a brief visit to England. She struggled on for another year. However, the death of their son, Maurice, at the Front hastened her end and she died in October 1917. Tristram was twelve and about to go to the prestigious Roman Catholic public school run by the Benedictines at Downside Abbey in Somerset.

Soon afterwards, with what seems like extraordinary heartlessness, Guy instructed his solicitors to sell the house in Sussex and pay off Tuk-San. Save for attending Mass and becoming friends with some local nuns, she had probably few opportunities to make friends in England. Nonetheless, it was a huge wrench to return to Japan, and no easy undertaking given the dangers of war-time travel and it almost definitely entailed sailing the long way round via the Cape of Good Hope. For Tristram, Tuk-San’s departure was ‘the final disintegration of the family’. [7]

Figure 2. Tuk-San and Tristram Hillier, 1922, Peking. Hillier Archive

However, Tristram would meet his beloved amah once again, when he went to Peking in 1922 and joined his father and sister Madeleine, who had been scooped up in a whirlwind romance and got married. Immediately pregnant, she summoned Tuk-San to attend her during her confinement and no doubt to stay on for some time afterwards. The snapshots, taken at the time, show the strong affection between Tuk-San and Tristram. Sadly Madeleine (like Tristram), suffered from the lack of parental affection and her life soon began to fall apart. At some point, Tuk-San left and, with that, fades from the family story. But her influence on Tristram and his three siblings is undeniable. It still springs fresh from the pages of his memoir, without which, her story would have gone untold. First posted on Ayahs and Amahs, Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain 1780-1945

[1] Feature image: Tuk-San, date unknown, Nagasaki? Copyright: Anna-Clare Hillier. Hillier Archive. We are extremely grateful to Tristram Hillier’s youngest daughter, Anna-Clare Hillier, for allowing us to use these photographs [2] Tristram Hillier, Leda and the Goose: An Autobiography (Longmans, Green & Co, 1954), 1-2. [3] For Guy Hillier’s career see Andrew Hillier, Mediating Empire: An English Family in China 1817– 1927 (Folkestone: Renaissance Books, 2020). [4] For the shipping entry, see the North China Herald, 16 March 1906, 614. As was often, but not invariably, the case, the entry did not mention ‘native’ servants. [5] See shipping entries, NCH, 14 March 1900, p.480 and 16 September 1900, 630. The family including Tuk-San also spent much of 1902 with the Drummonds in Shanghai when Guy Hillier chaired the discussions for implementing the Boxer Indemnity. [6] Leda and the Goose, 8-9; 10-15. [7] Leda and the Goose, 29-32.

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