Upstairs, Downstairs


Diana Hutchins Angulo

Diana Angulo, the subject of the first in this series of Portraits, had been watching
Downton Abbey, and was reminded of another aspect of her childhood in colonial China. As a result, she has jotted down some further recollections.

Oh those happy and wonderful days!

In today’s world, it is sometimes difficult to understand the close and affectionate relationship that once existed between servants and families in many homes. But as a child and as a teenager, I was delightfully cared for by an array of well-trained and dedicated domestic staff. And these people were very much a part of the fabric of our lives, just as we were a part of theirs.

This may have been particularly true in China. You have to understand the mentality of the Chinese in domestic service. They were very proud. There was great dignity.

I was quite small when my father, a career Naval officer, was stationed in Peking—we’d moved there when I was two—and we lived in a large Chinese house with three courtyards and had about eighteen in help. And I loved them all.

I’ll start with the watchman. The house was hutong, down-laned, and walled, and the watchman was stationed at the moon gate. People today will have seen pictures of moon gates, I’m sure, and the watchman was there in a little cubicle. Where he lived, what he did when he wasn’t being a watchman, I can’t tell you, but I loved that watchman. He was very attentive to me.

Then we had the Number 1 Boy—he was a steward, a butler of sorts, and he was the controller. And there were also Number 2 and Number 3. This was all rather standard in embassies and in foreign households of a certain level.

As we were dependent on fireplaces and stoves for heating (fireplaces were integral to the lifestyle), we usually had about three coolies. “Coolies” was not considered a derogatory term then. It was from a Hindi word and spelled “Kuli.” These people were very much a part of our household and very important for its efficient running. They handled the cleaning and the polishing and they would also sometimes walk the dogs.

Then we had a cook, and a chauffeur, and for the ponies there were grooms (mafoos) and Mr. Popoff, a Russian, a Cossack originally, who was a horse trainer. And of course I had a governess, Antonia Hartung, a beautiful young German woman.

We had amahs—they were known in the Chinese vernacular as “aunties.” We had a washie-washie amah who did nothing but laundry, which was all done by hand and put out on a big line in the hope that the sun would dry it. Then there was an amah who was really a personal maid. She’d help you get dressed, undressed, get your riding clothes on, get your riding clothes off. She also became your advisor and told you what to wear.

These amahs were vital!

When we left Peking I remember that my mother found jobs for all of the people who had worked for us.

In Shanghai, the superstar among our staff was Cook, known as the cuisiner, who had been trained in French households. We never knew his name and neither did any of the other people for whom he’d worked. He was simply “Cook.” He was an elegant and imposing Mandarin who spoke impeccable French. He would confer with my mother daily, jotting notes on a strange little pad as their conversation progressed. They would plan luncheons (called tiffin, a leftover from colonial India), family dinners, or dinner parties where even last-minute guests were provided for and were never a cause for drama.

This cuisiner was capable of not only cooking superb and sophisticated French fare but also simple Yankee meals: fried eggs, sunny-side up with sausages; pancakes and waffles; perfectly done hamburgers. He was something of a celebrity among the other cooks in Shanghai at that time but he never permitted any sharing of his recipes even if Mother asked. Sometimes, if pushed, he’d give a recipe but it had some small mistake in it and he would apologize saying, “J’ai oublié.” There was, however, a great amount of inter-household borrowing of silver platters and dishes. These were always returned. (Unexplainably, however, I still have a lovely tray belonging to the British Embassy in Beijing.)

My father was an an aficionado of fine cuisine and was, without question, one of Cook’s most ardent admirers. He delighted in the elaborate and splendid menus—the soups, the fish courses, the entrées (game, pheasant, partridge, roasts), and always a savory. And of course we had an extensive wine cellar. (Shanghai was renowned for well-stocked cellars and ‘tis said there were enough spirits and wines in the city to float the warships!)

Sometimes Cook gave us and our friends a purely Chinese banquet and it was a gourmet triumph. To this day my favorite dish is what we called “luncheon buns,” those lovely, delicate, steamed spring rolls.

I shall always remember one particularly delectable dessert that this remarkable man made for us. It was known as Peking Dust and it consisted of baskets made of hard candy filled with a puree of chestnuts and topped with whipped cream and spun sugar. They were a magnificent sight to behold and a real joy to the palate. When the Number 1 Boy would serve, he’d cut directly through the hard candy and lift out the puree. And it really looked exactly like Peking dust.

Cook was never referred to as a chef, though his sous-chef was called “le petit marmiton.”

Another memorable member of the staff in Shanghai was the Number 1 Houseboy, Chin. He was a master of household protocol and always very dignified but with a real sense of humor.

Though he spoke Mandarin as well as fluent Italian from years with an Italian family, Chin sometimes chose to express himself in pidgin English—the much abused argot introduced by the Chinese in the early days of the China trade in Canton. I was called “Young Missy,” my sister “Missy Babs.” He kept our Shanghai world in order with the help of Lao Kai, the Number 2 Boy. Lao served at both meals and parties and was almost a valet de chambre when my father was at home.

Of course, the indisputably most important person in our daily life was Jingpo, our amah, who, in her humorous but firm style directed the details of our lives. Dresses were selected, boots and shoes shined, hair brushed forever. Sometimes a chignon, sometimes a pageboy. My older sister Babs did not always appreciate Jingpo’s ministrations and she also resented her criticism of some of the young chaps coming to fetch us. Amah liked, however, all those gentlemen in uniform, especially those who brought flowers for my mother.

Our chauffeur, Mar, a Muslim (or a Mohammedan as we would have called him then), was a stately and quiet gentleman and a very special part of the household. He would also often serve as a butler. I remember that during the early Japanese invasions he was always able to differentiate between the Japanese and the Chinese planes.

Perhaps the most telling of all the stories about our family’s relationships with those who worked for us is a kind of postscript.

My mother had been widowed before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and initially stayed in China. I left Shanghai for the United States just before World War II and Mother was to follow shortly. Alas, she ended up being trapped there and several months later was interned along with hundreds of other expats in a Japanese camp. When she said good-bye to the remaining staff as she was leaving for the camp, Cook stepped forward, his eyes brimming with tears. He looked affectionately at Mother and said, slowly, and in his Mandarin French, “Please, I shall go in your place to the Japanese camp.”

Issue Twenty Two