But there were always exceptions. And one of them, that grew increasingly problematic in the 20th century, was the mui tsai system. Poor parents would quite often engage in the practice of selling one or more children to feed themselves and their remaining offspring. Much more often than not, these sold children would be girls. They were sold as servants, or mui tsai, and would grow up as such in a wealthier person's family. If the girl was attractive, she would often become a concubine in that household, and there were many instances of sexual abuse. If she misbehaved, she would be sold to someone else, or even to a brothel. Obviously this system had a great deal of room for abuse, and was very similar to a form a slavery.
But the British accepted it and its practice unchallenged, until the 1920s (although it continued until the Second World War). Major problems began after WW I when the wife of a military officer started a movement in Britain to ban the practice in Hong Kong - it found a great deal of support. The movement also gained momentum in Hong Kong, even amongst more liberal Chinese.
But what brought about the interest of this original military wife, a Lady Ward? It was a test case in 1920 brought the issue to a head: a man who discovered two mui tsai girls (10 and 13) on the streets of Wanchai gave them sweets and took them away; he later was arrested and accused of kidnapping. The defending lawyer was a man named Alabaster. Let me share with you some of the proceedings (taken from Carl T. Smith's excellent essay: The Chinese Church, Labour and Elites and the Mui Tsai Question in the 1920s):
Mr. Alabaster claimed the two women who owned the girls did not have lawful care of them because 'they were bought to serve, and they were sold as slaves and slavery has been abolished (in Britain and its colonies) and it is not lawful".But they were slaves, in the end, and modern morality completely vindicates the later decisions to forbid mui tsai ownership. It took a huge amount of pressure brought to bear from the Home Government to the colonial authorities in Hong Kong to finally bring the despicable practice to an end.
On being examined by the Chief Justice one of the mistresses gave evidence that one of the girls had been sold by her elder brother as she had no parents. The Chief Justice asked, "Then as put by the learned Counsel for the defence, she is your slave?"
The witness replied, "I do not know what you mean by slave. Once the girl is sold to me she is my property. It is the custom among the Chinese to buy servants."
Mr. Alabaster thanked the Chief Justice that the answer to his question had made it so clear the girl was a slave.
His Lordship then asked Mr. Alabaster, "What is a slave?"
He replied, "I contend that a person who is bought by a master and may be sold by a master, who receives no wages, except clothes and food in exchange for work is a slave."
Mr. Alabaster admitted that the sale of a child might be legal in China, but once it was brought tot he Colony, it had the right to freedom.
The Chief Justice referred to the Proclamation of Captain Eliot to the Chinese of Hong Kong in 1841 that stated Britain would respect the religious ceremonies and social customs of the Chinese. The Supreme Court usually took into account the question of Chinese custom. If the point in law raised by Mr. Alabaster were to be sustained by a Full Court it would have most serious consequences.
The question was not settled by the court but it provoked public discussion as to whether the mui tsai system was a form of slavery.