City Weekend and the 21st Century Colonialist (Updated)

In June last year, while flicking through Google reader, I came across this post on incidence of tuberculosis in Beijing. Something about it seemed a little off, see if you can spot it:

Luckily for the average expat, exposure to TB is fairly limited. Still, we can never be too cautious. “Have your ayis and drivers tested and always keep an eye out,” says Dr. Mahmoudi. “Those who pass the PPD test may have the latent form of TB which can reactivate. 

The thing that surprised me wasn’t the news about TB. The fact that it’s endemic among much of the world’s population and can lay dormant for many years must be fairly common knowledge now – I even have a friend who was very sick with the disease. No, what surprised me was the quotation from the doctor – “Have your ayis and drivers tested….” This sentence contains a couple of assumptions – that the readers of this article have ayis (maids / housekeepers) and personal drivers, and that they have the power to send these servants to the hospital to have them screened for diseases.

Beijing is the capital city of the most populous nation on the earth. Naturally it has many embassies, and embassy staff tend to be used to a life of comfort. There are also plenty of rich foreign businesspeople about, at least in certain areas of the city. Many of these may have an ayi or a driver or even both. But assuming that all your readers have servants, servants with whom they have that level of control…. Can they be serious?

Today, scrolling through Google reader again, I found that, yes, they are completely serious. Here is what I read, unedited:


Hedy Vs Beijing: How to Handle the Hired Help

from Beijing > Articles by cityweekend

Date: Jan 30th 2012 1:05p.m.
Contributed by: cityweekend

In my 10 years living in Beijing, I’ve had dozens of ayis. Whether you have a live-in ayi or hire by the hour, I am sure you too have plenty of ayi horror stories. Here’s what I’ve learned about Beijing ayis.

Beware of agencies. They will double-cross you and the ayi. Why? No regulation.

  1. Don’t hire an ayi in her 20s. She will go home, get married and get pregnant no matter how much you pay her. Tradition trumps money.
  2. Make sure drivers are not too close to your ayi—safety reasons.
  3. Don’t use Filipino ayis. Most are on tourist visas and not allowed to work in China. Plus who wants their kids to speak English with a Filipino accent?
  4. I have a great penalization system. If they make the same offense three times, I deduct ¥5 from their salary. No matter how much you beg, plead and criticize, nothing beats RMB. They learn fast when they see their money decreasing.
  5. Notorious offences are talking back, blaming others and sweeping things under the rug—literally. Sure, 85 percent of ayis are farmers, but that doesn’t put them above the law.
  6. Don’t sign a contract. If you do, you have to give them holidays off and they can sue you in labor court. I prefer trust, verbal agreements and red envelopes on the side.
  7. Slamming doors, yelling, gossiping and comparing salaries are the norm. Set strict rules or pay for it in the end.
  8. The ultimate sins are sticky fingers and abusing kids.
  9. Get a copy of her ID card and health card. Usually they are too cheap to go for a check up. If someone is touching my food and babies, I will pay for a comprehensive physical.
  10. Most ayis don’t know …


The article ended there, so I clicked on the link – – to read the rest, only to find a 404 page. Evidently the content had been posted and quickly taken down. But RSS readers don’t forget so quickly.

So, presuming this isn’t some kind of parody, and in case anyone doesn’t realise the enormity of this,  let’s take a look and see what’s wrong here.

  1. Advising readers to discriminate based on age.
  2. Advising readers to interfere with their servants’ personal lives.
  3. Advising readers to be borderline racists.
  4. This one is basically accusing Chinese people of being heartless money-driven creatures, in language last used in the 1930s.
  5. “Talking back” is an offense here? Are these ayis or slaves?
  6. Advising readers to break the law and deny their servants basic employment rights.
  7. Advising readers to treat their servants as if they are their master.
  8. Yes, but so what?
  9. Again, treating people who are just doing a job as if they are lesser creatures to you.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries westerners came to China. The country was humiliated in a series of wars and forced to buy shipments of opium from the British. Travellers from Europe and America set up concessions around the coast, treating the locals as if they were no more than uncivilized underlings, taking no interest in their language or culture, barring them from their clubs and restaurants and calling them “coolies”. In 1860, when a handful of Europeans were kidnapped, the British and French retaliated by destroying Beijing’s Old Summer Palace – probably one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in history. This may all seem like ancient history now, but for a culture as old as China it might as well be last week, and people remember.

As a foreigner in China you represent both your country and the whole of the western world, whether you like it or not. If you treat locals like animals merely because they were born into less fortunate circumstances than you, and deny them the most basic of rights, then you’ve let everyone down.

Update 9/02/2012

Apparently the article has actually appeared in print – it’s by Dr Hedy W Lee, a local celebrity of sorts. I’d say the rest of the article is even worse, but you can judge for yourself. Thanks to Michel for finding this.

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8 Responses to City Weekend and the 21st Century Colonialist (Updated)

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. Ryan says:

    I want to agree with what you’re saying, as I always love a good gut punch to the posh expats among us, but something’s stopping me. As ugly as it is, it’s pretty much all practical advice. I think pretty much all your criticisms would be better focused at the system that the advice in the original article is hoping to help with.

    I don’t have an ayi, but I have had in the past. I’m by no means a rich expat, but hiring someone to help clean up around the house hardly requires an embassy-level job. I know ESL teachers who have part-time ayis. I think it’s fair that City Weekend devote at least a bit of space to the topic.

    Granted, #2 isn’t clear to me, and #3 doesn’t make any sense at all. However, requiring a health-check of an employee that is going to be taking care of your kid and/or preparing food for your family seems completely legitimate. Assuming most employees (Chinese or otherwise) would skip out on this if left to their own devices, also seems like a safe bet. This isn’t “treating people who are just doing a job as if they are lesser creatures to you,” — if you’re working in China there’s a decent chance you had the same rule applied to you regarding a health check and documentation of your identification.

    I’m also not sure why #7 has employees treating “their servants as if they are their master” — they’re not advising their readers to change their ayi’s behavior when she’s off the clock. But expecting an employee to respect house rules while they are working, seems logical to me.

    Number 8 is huge, so I’m unsure why you glossed over it. I have a (Chinese) neighbour who had an ayi for watching her toddler. Another neighbour of mine happened to come by one afternoon to discover the ayi with her toe in the toddler’s mouth (presumably to shut it up, but I’ve really no idea). I’ve had a friend who came home to find the ayi entertaining a male visitor, wearing my friend’s clothes. I’ve heard countless stories of theft from ayis. I am assuming the CW writer simply didn’t have any practical advice to offer to ward against this, so decided to at least mention it as a warning.

    In the end, the ayi employee market suffers from the same thing much of the country does — it’s massively under-regulated. When you have a system that doesn’t offer consumers or employers any sort of protection, advice towards that is valuable. Ugly or not.

    • Of course there may be plenty of horror stories, but treating everyone as a criminal is an easy way of making the problem worse, not better. The key to this kind of work is trust, and showing someone that you have no trust for them is no way to conduct the relationship.
      As for #7, yes, reasonable house rules may stop slamming doors and yelling. Stopping gossiping and comparing salaries, however, is well out of an employer’s remit, and frankly none of their business. I don’t know if I glossed over #8, I’d say the original writer did. We know an employer or parent fears these things, but are they common? What can be done to prevent them? I expect some advice on this topic, or at least some analysis, but there appears to be none at all. For #9, yes, paying for their physical is understandable, the objection was more to the language used.
      I have to confess that I’ve (briefly) lived in a shared house where an ayi came twice a week to clean up, so I’d be a hypocrite if I said that I was morally opposed to anyone doing this job – but the important thing here is that we remember that we are guests in their country, and they are simply doing paid work for us. Regulation, while important, is not the issue here – the issue is respect, or lack of it.

      • Ryan says:

        I agree, the tone of the article is definitely reason enough to take the post down, as it reeks of classism. But the voice of the article aside, I suppose I’m just a bit more jaded towards the work ethic I’ve experienced with ayis, as I don’t take exception to it, but rather see it as practical (if not politically correct) advice.

        I think we differ on the “guest” thing. I don’t see myself as a guest (though if put to the test, I’m sure only my wife, child and visa would agree with me) — I live here, and have for some time, how can I be a guest? I think if you read the article with an eye on “ayi” equaling “Chinese”, it’s definitely going to come across as colonialist in tone. I didn’t read it that way. I didn’t read it as “us foreigners” and “them Chinese”, but as an employer hiring an employee in a field that is saturated with theft, ineptitude and corruption.

        I guess a good question to consider is: would the criticism of the article be as harsh if it had simply been a translation of an article written by a Chinese? Many of the horror stories I’ve heard of ayis have come from expats, but just as many have come from Chinese.

        I think you’re right that the article shows a lack of respect, but I think it’s not a lack of respect towards China or the Chinese, as the “colonialist” label implies, but a lack of respect to an industry that has (dozens of times, according to the article) let this writer down.

        • I also have a Chinese wife, baby and residence permit, and have lived here for about five years, but we’re both still guests in the country in the eyes of the vast majority of Chinese people – and whether we like it or not, that’s the only opinion that matters.
          If it had come from a Chinese writer then I would have found their behaviour equally disgusting, but yes, I may not have written about it. Not because there are different rules for Chinese people and foreigners, but because there’s a weight of history and culture on our shoulders, and no matter how long we, or the writer of the article live here we must always remember that everything we do will be taken as an example of the west as a whole. If we fail to treat people as equals, if we bully or import our class prejudices, then how can we be credible when we offer our opinions on Chinese people or society?

  3. michel says:

    pity i can’t find online access to the rest of the article. read it in the city-weekend (in the central folder) and it was getting even worse (if possible) and laded with contempt towards the end.
    one of the stinkiest column i’ve read in my years here…


  4. drea says:

    In regard to the TB article, unfortunately, TB is commonly spread through saliva. It’s no secret that Chinese people tend to spit much more frequently than a lot of other people and so this is a valid concern when it comes to children. At the pool where I go to swim, there are even spit buckets placed at the edge of the pool, which are largely ignored. The spread of disease is many times caused by a lack of hygiene through factors such as hand washing and proper cleaning, and of course, the spread of bodily fluids such as mucus and saliva which are hocked and spit everywhere in China’s streets. I hate to say it, but that is a perfectly good argument. Don’t forget we are given a medical check before getting a work permit for many diseases, including HIV, so checking a child care giver who may possibly spit around your child is perfectly valid. Not racist or elitist.

    Secondly, I would like to add that having an aiyi in China is a luxury even 20 year old English teachers can afford ( I am not saying they deserve them by any means and usually justify blatant slovenly behavior because they can pay someone 10-20 rmb an hour to clean up). In regards to aiyis taking care of children, there are certain cultural factors that you need to be aware of. My friend arrived back home from a business trip to find his baby covered in heat rash all over his face, body, and limbs because the aiyi refused to open a window ( no wind) or turn on the AC (bad), so the baby was sweating profusely in a 40 degree C room in the summer. Also, maltreatment is a concern you should worry about as a parent. I worked in a school where the kids were constantly hit just for getting the wrong answer. Punishment in China is very harsh on children and I do know people who have complained of this when it comes to care givers.

    • I didn’t say it was wrong or elitist to check for TB – I said it was odd to assume that your average reader has staff they have that level of control over.
      There may be many cases of maltreatment by ayis, sure, we’ve all heard stories. That doesn’t mean you are justified in assuming anyone taking care of your child will be a criminal.

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