Samfu



Samfu (also spelt as samfoo) is the Cantonese term for an everyday attire that was popular with the Chinese in South China, Hong Kong and Singapore right up until the mid-20th century. Known as shanku in Mandarin, the two-piece outfit comprises an upper garment called a sam (meaning “shirt” or “blouse”) and a pair of trousers referred to as fu.1 Some rural people in China still wear the samfu today.2

Description
The sam is an upper garment with an overlap at the front that is secured with loops and toggles. The edges of the garment are outlined with bias-cut bands to prevent them from fraying.3 The fu is a pair of loose trousers with a wide waistband that is secured around the waist with a belt or cord. After the fu has been secured in place, the excess cloth around the waistline area is tucked in under the belt. Strips of cloth are also fastened around the ankles to prevent the bottoms of the trousers from flapping.4


The samfu can be made from a variety of materials. In the past, rural folk wore samfu made from hardwearing materials such as hemp and cotton that were usually dyed in sombre colours of black and blue.5 On the other hand, the wealthy had samfus made from more luxurious materials such as silk, satin and brocade.6

The samfu was traditionally made with handwoven cloth produced by family members using backstrap looms. As this was a slow and laborious process, much care was taken to cut the cloth as economically as possible for use in making a samfu.7

 
Historical background
In 19th-century Singapore, most of the Chinese population wore some form of samfu. Coolies would usually wear the loose-fitting fu with a long-sleeved sam, a jacket with a rounded neckline or alone without any top.8 The samfu was also the distinctive ‘uniform’ of domestic servants such as the Cantonese amahs or majies, and the Samsui women who worked at construction sites. The majies were usually dressed in white cotton sam paired with black silk or satin fu when they were at work. During festive occasions, they might wear a more brightly coloured sam.9 The Samsui women usually wore black samfus made of coarse cotton that could withstand rough wear.10


During the 19th century, the samfu was a loose-fitting outfit with a sam that featured two side slits that went up to the waistline to allow for easy movement, and a hemline that extended to the knee or lower. The sam also had a standing collar with a centre front opening, secured with Chinese knotted buttons, which ran across the right chest of the wearer and down the right hand seam. The hems of the collar, sleeves, slits and hemline were typically trimmed with patterned bands.11

By the 20th century, the samfu had become shorter and more fitted with a narrow neckband.12 In the 1950s, the sam typically had a stiff mandarin collar with short cap sleeves or no sleeves at all. The asymmetrical front opening was retained and secured with Chinese knots and press studs. The sam had become more body hugging with a nipped-in waist, side slits and a hemline that fell to the hip level.13 The fu had evolved into a pair of loose, straight trousers of ankle length that was secured in place by drawstrings. The fu was usually made of the same fabric as the sam to give the impression of a unified outfit.14

With the widespread availability of mass-produced fabrics by the mid-20th century, the production of the samfu was no longer confined to the home. People could now purchase their samfu outfits at the markets or get them custom-made by tailors.15 In the 1960s, the samfu was a common work attire for Chinese women in Singapore as it allowed them ease of movement while at the same time safeguarding their modesty.16

Modern varieties
While the full samfu outfit is rarely seen in Singapore today, modern versions of the sam remain popular. These contemporary sams, which come in a variety of styles, colours and materials, are often paired with Western-style skirts or trousers. It is also common for these modern tops to blend traditional elements of the sam (such as the mandarin collar) with Western fashion styles (like the halter-top cut) in order to appeal to a younger generation. Like the cheongsam, the modern versions of the sam are usually worn during Chinese festive occasions as a marker of Chinese identity.17



Author
Stephanie Ho



References

1. Garrett, V. M. (1987). Traditional Chinese clothing in Hong Kong and South China, 1840–1980. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, p. 3. (Call no.: R 391.009512 GAR-[CUS])
2. Garrett, V. M. (2007). Chinese dress: From the Qing dynasty to the present. Singapore: Periplus Edition, p. 160. (Call no.: R 391.00951 GAR-[CUS])
3. Garrett, V. M. (1987). Traditional Chinese clothing in Hong Kong and South China, 1840–1980. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, p. 5. (Call no.: R 391.009512 GAR-[CUS])
4. Garrett, V. M. (1994). Chinese clothing: An illustrated guide. Hong Kong, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 79.(Call no.: R 391.00951 GAR-[CUS])
5. Garrett, V. M. (2007). Chinese dress: From the Qing dynasty to the present. Singapore: Periplus Edition, p. 158. (Call no.: R 391.00951 GAR-[CUS])
6. Ang, M. W. (2000). Costumes of Singapore. In K. M. Chavalit & M. Phromsuthirak (Eds.), Costumes in ASEAN. Bangkok: The National ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information of Thailand, p. 202. (Call no.: RSING 391.00959 COS-[CUS])
7. Garrett, V. M. (1994). Chinese clothing: An illustrated guide. Hong Kong, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 79. (Call no.: R 391.00951 GAR-[CUS])
8. Ang, M. W. (2000). Costumes of Singapore. In K. M. Chavalit & M. Phromsuthirak (Eds.), Costumes in ASEAN. Bangkok: The National ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information of Thailand, p. 194. (Call no.: RSING 391.00959 COS-[CUS])
9. Ang, M. W. (2000). Costumes of Singapore. In K. M. Chavalit & M. Phromsuthirak (Eds.), Costumes in ASEAN. Bangkok: The National ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information of Thailand, p. 211. (Call no.: RSING 391.00959 COS-[CUS])
10. Ang, M. W. (2000). Costumes of Singapore. In K. M. Chavalit & M. Phromsuthirak (Eds.), Costumes in ASEAN. Bangkok: The National ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information of Thailand, p. 212. (Call no.: RSING 391.00959 COS-[CUS])
11. Ang, M. W. (2000). Costumes of Singapore. In K. M. Chavalit & M. Phromsuthirak (Eds.), Costumes in ASEAN. Bangkok: The National ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information of Thailand, p. 212. (Call no.: RSING 391.00959 COS-[CUS])
12. Garrett, V. M. (2007). Chinese dress: From the Qing dynasty to the present. Singapore: Periplus Edition, p. 202. (Call no.: R 391.00951 GAR-[CUS])
13. Ang, M. W. (2000). Costumes of Singapore. In K. M. Chavalit & M. Phromsuthirak (Eds.), Costumes in ASEAN. Bangkok: The National ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information of Thailand, p. 215. (Call no.: RSING 391.00959 COS-[CUS])
14. Ang, M. W. (2000). Costumes of Singapore. In K. M. Chavalit & M. Phromsuthirak (Eds.), Costumes in ASEAN. Bangkok: The National ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information of Thailand, p. 216. (Call no.: RSING 391.00959 COS-[CUS])
15. Garrett, V. M. (1994). Chinese clothing: An illustrated guide. Hong Kong, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 109. (Call no.: R 391.00951 GAR-[CUS])
16. Lee, C. L. (2010). Chinese dress in Singapore. In J. Dhamijia (Ed.), Encyclopedia of world dress and fashion (Vol. 4). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 417. (Not available in NLB holdings)
17. Cheah, U-H. (2008, January 26). Traditional outfit goes contemporaryThe Business Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 25 September 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Chinese costumes
Ethnic Communities
Chinese
Heritage and Culture