Singaporeans of a certain vintage would remember that before domestic helpers became a near-given, some had the luxury of hiring amahs - an enigmatic group of women who came from Shunde in China's Guangdong province and left an indelible mark on the families they worked for a generation or two ago.
Shunde lies an hour from Guangzhou's airport, on a drive that takes the visitor across an Arcadian patchwork of shimmering ponds and green fields, and a little family-run restaurant every kilometre or so. Fertile soil made this region rich for thousands of years, and turned Shunde into a major producer of silk. But when silk demand fell during the Depression years of the 1930s, much of the region's population left, some to as far as Hong Kong and South-east Asia.
The women of Shunde who came to Singapore found work mainly as domestic help. They took on a "uniform" recognisable by its black-and-white samfu and tied-back hair bun. Because of their fierce loyalty and devotion to their employers, they earned the affectionate Cantonese nicknames of amah (mother) or ma jie (sister). An amah stayed unmarried for life, and many even took a formal vow of spinsterhood that was considered out of step with the traditions of the time. Strong sororal bonds developed, and because they never returned to China, it was common for a group of amahs to share a small rented house after retirement, where they would live together for the rest of their lives.
Jun'an is a small town in rural Shunde famous for a pork dish. Bruce Lee's father was born there, and as a child Bruce lived in Jun'an briefly. There is a theme park in his name, but otherwise Jun'an is a laid-back agricultural community that also produces fine freshwater carp.
It is Jun'an steamed pork, however, that makes the town a worthwhile stopover. The whole pig - de-boned and marinated with five-spice powder, salt, and sugar - is spread-eagled on a pole inside a large wooden drum and steamed for an hour over charcoal. The resulting tender pork is then sliced thinly and served with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The spices intensify the porcine flavours yet remain so subtle as to be virtually untraceable, making the quality of meat paramount.
There is a saying that epitomises Shunde cooking - cu liao jing zuo miao zai jia chang - the ability to make refined home meals out of cheap ingredients. In fact, evidence points to Shunde being a key progenitor of Cantonese cuisine as a whole.
The freshwater carp that Jun'an breeds in abundance is a fixture of Shunde cooking. Houses in the region invariably have a pond out in front stocked with the fish. Come time for a meal, vegetables would be picked from the farm and a fish caught from the pond; and from these the women would conjure a feast without a morsel being wasted. Shunde frugality, and skill with humble ingredients, was renowned, and when these women became amahs in Singapore, these same qualities became a hallmark of their kitchens.