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Review

Chinese Servants in the West: Florence Baillie-Grohman’s “The Yellow and White Agony”

By Terry Abraham

November 4, 2013

Review By Patrica Roy

W.A. Baillie-Grohman is known to British Columbians for his aborted plan to build a canal in the East Kootenay and his stories of big game hunting, notably Fifteen Years’ Sport and Life in the Hunting Grounds of Western America and British Columbia, published in London in 1900. Less well known is that book’s chapter on the servant problem – a chapter written by his wife, Florence Baillie-Grohman. Florence, who lived in British Columbia from 1887 to 1893, brought from England the idea that proper middle- and upper-class homes required at least one domestic servant. One day, when both her Chinese servant and her child’s English nurse were on holiday, the doorbell rang. Expecting a friend, she answered it before removing her apron. When she discovered that her visitor was the new admiral, she pretended to be the maid and said that Mrs. Baillie-Grohman was not at home! In British Columbia, the serving class, then so prominent in England, barely existed. Like her contemporaries, Florence was forced to depend on Chinese men. 

She tells of the determination of some Chinese servants to stick to a routine once it has been established and of occasional criminality. Sometimes she is condescending, discussing their timidity, their unnatural fear of the “debil” and of being photographed, and, of course, their pidgin English. Yet, Florence Baillie-Grohman wisely points out that one could judge neither all Chinese nor all employers by the behaviour of some. She relates that Chinese servants gossiped about their mistresses and that those with reputations as bad employers were unable to hire them. On the whole, she believed that, in contrast to the average white help, the Chinese servant did twice the work, was cleanly, sober, and “fairly honest” (21).

In introducing Florence Baillie-Grohman’s chapter, Terry Abraham draws on examples from throughout the Pacific Northwest to show that her experiences were not unique. Perhaps even more than Baillie-Grohman he appreciates the importance of the Chinese servants who, “by freeing men and women from domestic chores … played an incalculable role in the development of the West” (2). Extensive quotations from contemporary sources give immediacy to his story and illustrate the ambivalence of attitudes towards the Chinese. Abraham cites complaints of incompetent servants and of their habit of leaving unsatisfactory jobs with little or no notice. Resentful of having to bake an elaborate cake, one Chinese cook decorated it with icing that read: “I leave tomorrow” (15). Although Abraham suggests that the Chinese initially secured domestic service positions because of their low wages, they soon gained a reputation for superior work and “loyalty, reciprocity and righteousness” (3). Consequently, they could sometimes demand higher wages than white servants.

Baillie Grohman did not explain the word “Agony” in the title. Abraham only remarks that the word is “telling” in that the feeling occurs “on both sides of the racial divide” (6). He correctly notes that few nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants left written records and that domestic servants were even less likely to do so, possibly because some worked as servants only for brief periods before finding other careers. Fortunately, some grandchildren are attempting to recover that history. Abraham exploits a few of these sources; alas, for students of British Columbia, all are American. Nevertheless, by reprinting Baillie-Grohman’s essay and by setting it in a broad Pacific Northwest context (indeed, the border scarcely appears in his introduction), Abraham has provided a valuable service in reminding us that not all Caucasians saw Chinese in stereotypes and that, when Caucasians and Chinese got to know each other, a feeling of friendship and mutual benefit – not agony – could evolve.