The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and native servants.

I watched “The best Exotic Marigold Hotel” on TV and was touched by the relationship between Maggie Smith who played the wheelchair bound Muriel Donnelly and the untouchable Indian servant woman who swept her room and served her meals. It was more than hotel service. It was whites with native servants; it was a touch of the old colonial world.

It took me back to my parent’s life in Malaya. My father was a soldier serving in Johor Bahru in the mid 1960’s. Malaya was now independent and no longer a colonial possession but there was still thousands of British soldiers stationed across the peninsula and although they no longer lived as colonial rulers they still lived a protected and privileged life, with strong echoes of their old colonial world.
Soldiers adapt to their environment quickly and almost without thinking. If they are fighting they live in trenches eat combat rations and use holes in the ground as latrines. If they are at peace they adapt to the local life, take servants, employ natives, take local lovers and sail unthinkingly through their new life. But soldier’s wives are quite different. They never adapt to the same degree. My mum was working class York; she had lived in tenements with communal toilet blocks where poverty was the norm. Work was in the chocolate factories or the railway sheds and was low status low paid and bleak. Marriage to a soldier took her to married quarters in Gibraltar, Germany, throughout England and now, Malaya. As Dad moved up through the ranks, Corporal, Sgt, staff Sgt, warrant officer, so the quality of their accommodation improved and their life became more materially comfortable. In Malaya they received an allowance to employ an Amah, a native servant. It was not to this my Mum was born!
The amah was a local girl. She may have been pure Malay but I thought there was a bit of Chinese about her. She cooked and cleaned and did the laundry, went to the shops and fussed over the family as if they were her own. I can’t even remember her name. Mum was at a loss as to how to deal with a servant. It left her with little or nothing to do. She wanted to help with the washing up or putting the laundry out to dry. But the amah would be hurt by her interfering and Mum would get embarrassed.
It was one of those echoes of colonialism. Soldiers living in the barracks had cha wallahs and Indian dhobi wallahs, They didn’t even have to spit to shine their boots for there was a low caste servant for that too. Natives were so cheap and their cheapness was heavily exploited as if it was normal and natural for the white man to have such privileges. We were other ranks. Officers had allowances for more than one savant and even had servant gardeners.
How it must have stoked the firery independence of Malaya. How they must have despised the humility of it all. No wonder they were so pleased to finally see the back of the British!
Mum went to visit the amah’s family. The photograph shows Mum with two of my brothers outside the amah’s home, the amah with her three sons. The two younger boys had put on their Sunday best to meet the white people and the boy on the left looks so strong and resentful. Oh I hope they grew up fierce and strong and were able to look after their Mum into her old age.

Patrick Micheal and Mum with the amah's family in Johore Barhu - Copy


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One thought on “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and native servants.

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  1. Having been born into a British army family (R.E.) at the BMH Cyprus, then having followed my father around the world in Egypt, Germany (Monchengladbach), Malaya (Kluang), Aden, Cyprus (Famagusta) again, etc., I enjoy reading your recollections of your life as a forces kid and can well identify with most of what you share.
    However, I do feel that you do the British forces of the 1960s an injustice in applying your western view to the worker relationship, describing the locals who worked in our homes as ‘servants’ and ‘exploited’. Of course there were the inevitable and unavoidable ‘echoes of colonialism’ as you describe it, but by the 60’s, the relationship had dramatically altered from one of ‘servant’ to ’employee’ – indeed to ‘grateful employee’.
    We had a ‘Frau’ in Germany, ‘Amah’ in Malaya, ‘Ayah’ in Aden and in every other posting we ever had and like your mother, my own was embarrassed and confused as to how to ensure that her home employees never felt ‘exploited’ in any way, nor indeed taken for granted. In fact it was always a family joke that my mother would always ensure that the house was straightened and tidy before our Frau/Amah/Ayah arrived and in many ways, they were always made to feel a valued member of the family. Like yourself, I even remember our driving our Chinese Amah in Malaya home a few times when mother had loaded her with food and gifts for her family, so we also got to meet her family.
    Consequently, I’m not sure that I ever knew of any family who treated their house worker as a servant and never knew of a house worker who didn’t feel incredibly grateful for having the income from the work and who developed such a relationship with the family that there were inevitably always tears on both sides at the end of each posting.

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