You’ve probably come across the term ‘girl boss’. Maybe you’re more familiar with boss babe or lady boss? Born in the mid-2010s, founder of fast-fashion brand Nasty Gal and #GirlBoss author Sophia Amurso popularised the term, which made its way everywhere in adverts, emblazoned across notebooks and printed on T-shirts. You know, feminism, but make it capitalist. Long before the hollow empowerment of girlboss culture in the west, there has always been a Cantonese phrase that’s knocking about. One that properly reflects the reality of being a working woman in the east: si tau por.
你可能見過「女波士」（girl boss）這個詞，或者對「boss babe」和「lady boss」更加熟悉。正是Sophia Amurso 令這個詞流行起來——她在2010年代中創立快時尚品牌 Nasty Gal ，打出 #GirlBoss 的標籤。它在廣告中無處不在，被做成筆記簿的紋章，被印在T恤上。你懂的，女性主義，但擁抱著資本主義的那種。早在西方對「girlboss」文化有著虛空的賦權之前，就一直有一個粵語詞彙，恰當反映了東方職業女性的現實：事頭婆。
Meaning lady boss or proprietress. It’s an aspirational and realistic phrase for successful women who is both feared and loved at the same time. A si tau por won’t take anybody else’s shit because she’s seen it all and experienced hardships to get to where she is, but it’s not a way of framing financial success and consumerism as goodness. It differs from the version of female success being peddled by girlboss culture that is sexist.
For chef-owner of Poon’s London and Wontoneria pop-up, Amy Poon grew up working alongside her parents, watching them work the woks and serving customers at her family’s legendary Chinese restaurants in London Chinatown in the ‘70s. The phrase reminds her of her own mother who would command men, women and children around her at her will.
Amy Poon是餐廳Poon's London和雲吞快閃店Wontoneria的大廚和老闆。自70 年代起，她就在家裡的中餐廳為父母幫手，自小看著父母翻動炒鍋、服務客人，將位於倫敦唐人街的生意打出名堂。「事頭婆」一詞令她想起了她阿媽——她會隨心所欲地指揮周圍的男人、女人和孩子。
“She’s bossy and punchy –– you definitely know she’s there,” Poon laughs. “The problem with girlboss is that it’s trying to be edgy, but in fact, it’s belittling and a complete disservice. You don’t call male workers ‘boyboss’, they’re just the boss. Whereas with si tau por it’s in a similar vein of hardworking women at the top, but it’s more about maturity, being serious and meaning business.”
When I cast my mind on who would fit the label. I think of the strong, independent women in my life. My mother who escaped the Cultural Revolution, one of China’s bloodiest eras at the age of twelve and started a new life in another country. She was the real brains behind our family Chinese takeaway business in Wales while looking after me and my brothers. Mary, who ran our local Chinese restaurant. Whenever we came in for our weekly dim sum she would run a tight ship at her 250-seater banquet hall flawlessly and my old Chinese school headteacher Wendy. A divorcee, who braced scornful comments from the community, but managed to rally together and teach the next generation of young British Chinese students. What all these women have in common is that these women in leadership roles embody the overall attitude of women being able to do anything, against all odds.
“Staff, friends and family used to call me si tau por all the time, but it was used as a term of endearment and understanding rather than mean-spirited,” says Christine Yau MBE, chairman of Chinese Community Centre and previous owner of the long-standing Cantonese restaurant Y Ming in London Chinatown that’s been opened since 1986. “Whenever you hear that phrase from people in the local community using it you can’t help but perk up your ears and smile.”
「員工、朋友同屋企人以前一直叫我事頭婆，但佢係用來表達親切同理解，而唔係刻薄嘅講法，」Christine Yau MBE 說。她是華人社區中心主席，也是1986年開業的倫敦唐人街老字號粵菜館 Y Ming的前任老闆。「每次社區有人嗌呢句，我都會豎起耳仔，忍唔住笑。」
There’s a long history of East and South East Asian female figures in TV and film portrayed as the si tau por, dai ga cher (big sister) and dragon lady. The dai ga cher and dragon lady is a fierce, cruel Asian broad, and sometimes she’s even out to kill. They differ slightly in meaning, but have similar overlapping characteristics and qualities and are often inextricably used.
Take the trailblazing actress Anna May Wong for example, she was the first Asian-American Hollywood actress in the 1920s and was tired of being typecast as wilting butterflies that were submissive and hypersexualised romantic interests and steely dragon ladies. Later on, Lucy Liu and Michelle Yeoh, some of Hollywood’s biggest East Asian stars in the 90s and 00s, had to fight sexualisation while bringing more than one dimensional stereotype character to their roles. For Yeoh, In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, she brought warmth and tenderness to her ferocious wuxia fighter Yu Shu Lien. Slowly changing the narrative that plagued Anna May Wong all those years ago.
“Away from the cold, crafty, domineering, mysterious and gang-related elements, there is still quite a lot of nurturing within these terms,” Poon explains. “It’s not about being blood-related, but it feeds into the matriarchal society that people don't always associate with the Chinese.”
No one knows for sure where or when the si tau por phrase was coined. Pop culture plays a huge part, but some say the origin story derived from royalty and Queen Elizabeth II. When Hong Kong was ceded to the British for 156 years many locals would nickname the queen as the boss.
“Technically, the Queen is the si tau por because she is the one ruling over several countries, head of the state and commander-in-chief,” Yau explains. “Whether it’s an empire, a big corporation or a small neighbourhood market stall, it applies to any woman that has authority over anyone or a business.”
There are negative connotations tied up with this phrase such as being angry, loud and impatient, but that boils down to an individual’s character and behaviour. But, despite the bossy, hardened and scary façade, a si tau por is a big softie underneath the steely exterior. A heartwarming, caring and loving older woman in her 40s and older, that always went out of her way to help and protect those closest to her.
“I wonder if it’s become a slightly anachronistic phrase and it’s time to rewrite the rules. In my mother’s generation, you had to have one strong person to lead and it was about the brave few that broke away to fight for their voice and their corner,” Poon says. “Whereas now, it’s changing. People are more connected, learning and growing more powerful together rather than going at it alone – there’s space for everyone to be the strong boss and not necessarily a boss that’s tied up in feminism.”
Ultimately, si tau por comes from a place of love and affection of the person in charge of the establishment. As you would with a boss man at a kebab shop, the man behind the counter serving you at the corner shop or the CEO of a multimillion-pound company, there is always a si tau por, and really, she’s the one that calls the shots, making it happen.