Samsui women



Samsui women, also known as hong tou jin (红头巾; Mandarin for “red headscarf”) after their trademark red headgear,1 were female immigrants mainly from the Sanshui (“Samsui” in Cantonese; meaning “three waters”) district of Canton (Guangdong today) province in southern China. Other areas where they came from include Shunde and Dongguan, also in Canton province, as well as places outside of Canton like Fujian and Chao’an, although samsui women from these regions were much fewer. Samsui women started arriving in Singapore in large numbers in the mid-1930s and many found work as general labourers in the construction industry.2 A large number of these women chose to remain single and lived together in shared accommodations. There are few samsui women left in Singapore today, as most have either passed away or returned to China.3 They are often depicted in popular culture as thrifty and resilient individuals who helped to build up the country’s infrastructure.4

Background
In 1928, the British colonial authorities introduced the Immigration Restriction Ordinance, with one of the aims being the improvement of the sex ratio in Singapore, as the Chinese population was overwhelmingly male at the time. Quotas were subsequently placed on the number of Chinese male immigrants allowed into Singapore. During the 1930s, the Great Depression hit Singapore, causing widespread unemployment. To control the unemployment level, the British introduced the Aliens Ordinance at the beginning of 1933. Under this law, further limits were placed on the number of male immigrants allowed entry into Singapore, but no such restrictions were placed on females. These immigration policies opened the door for female immigrants such as the samsui women to come to Singapore.5

Conditions in the Samsui district and the nearby areas like Dongguan and Shunde were relatively poorer compared with other regions in China, and families living there were in desperate need of money. With restrictions placed on the number of males allowed to seek work in the British colonies, many samsui women left their hometown while in their teens to seek employment overseas. They relied on recruiters known as sui hak (literally “water guest” in Cantonese) to help them find work abroad and make travel arrangements. To pay these recruiters for their services, many samsui women took on debt that took around a year to pay off. As many as 2,000 samsui women – those who laboured in construction sites – were believed to have come to Singapore. They arrived mostly in the mid-1930s, although some came later, between the end of the Japanese Occupation in 1945 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.6 Samsui women were part of the wave of Chinese female migrants, numbering about 200,000, who came to Singapore between 1934 and 1938.7

Life in Singapore
Having arrived in Singapore, the women made their way to the Chinatown neighbourhood located between South Bridge Road and New Bridge Road where many of their fellow samsui migrants stayed. They lived in rooms above shophouses that lined streets such as Upper Chin Chew, Upper Nankin and Eu Tong Sen. A room was further subdivided into cubicles, with at least four women sharing one single room. Rent in the 1930s to 1940s ranged from 80 cents to $1.20 a month.8

Some of the women found employment as labourers in tin mines and rubber estates; others became domestic servants (known as amahs) in wealthy households. Most were hired as general labourers on construction sites to carry building materials and clear debris – these women became referred to as samsui women.9 A typical workday involved waking up before dawn to prepare their breakfast-cum-lunch and then assembling with other samsui women to go to work. Their meals were sparse and usually consisted of cooked rice, some bean cheese and a bit of pickled or fresh vegetables. In the 1930s, samsui women would go to Upper Chin Chew Street (which they called tau fu kai, Cantonese for “beancurd street”, after the beancurd shops in the area) to find work on an ad-hoc basis, for which they were usually paid 50 to 60 cents a day. They generally made their way to work on foot to save money. In later years, they were taken in lorries to construction sites that were situated further away.10

Samsui women usually began their workday at 8 am. The work was physically demanding: They dug soil and carried earth, debris and building materials in buckets hung from shoulder poles. After a short lunch break, they sometimes gathered wood to bring home as fuel for cooking. Work ended at about 5 pm or 6 pm, after which the women went home to prepare their dinner. In the evenings, they would chit-chat with other samsui women along the five-foot-way corridors outside the shophouses where they stayed. Many also relaxed by smoking cigarettes before going to bed.11


Description
Samsui women wore a red, or sometimes blue, headdress that became their trademark feature. The headdress was a square piece of cloth starched stiff and folded into a square-shaped hat. The colour red was used because it was eye-catching and thus reduced the chances of accidents occurring at the construction site. Besides sheltering the women from the sun, the hat was also used to store items such as cigarettes, matches and money.12 Those who wore the blue version were usually from the Sun Yap area in China. The blue headgear was also worn during a period of mourning, after which the samsui women switched back to their original red one.13 They
 usually dressed in dark-blue or black samfu (sometimes spelt as samfoo), which comprised a set of blouse and trousers. The dark colours ensured that the clothes would not stain easily. The footwear they typically wore were pieces of rubber cut out from used tyres, which they made into sandals by adding straps.14

Samsui women were very thrifty, as their main purpose for coming to Singapore was to earn money to send back to their families in China. From sharing accommodations to repairing damaged clothes themselves, samsui women were determined to save every cent they earned. One of few things they spent on was hiring professional letter writers to communicate with their families back in China.15 They also had a reputation for being fierce, aggressive, wary of strangers and tending to only associate with fellow samsui women. They mainly belonged to the Cantonese dialect group, but the dialect was spoken with a heavy accent.16

Most samsui women did not marry while they were in Singapore. They would sometimes plait their hair in a towchang (pigtail) as a symbol of their spinster status.17 Many of them traded their youth to find work in Singapore so as to support their families back home. In any case, their chances of getting married were slim, since many were already 18 to 20 years old when they arrived in Singapore, which at the time was considered to be past the ideal age for marriage. Yet, there were instances of marriage if they found someone suitable, although they hardly married men outside their Samsui community. Contrary to expectations that samsui women were single due to their fiercely independent character, a number of samsui women had been married before they arrived in Singapore. However, these early marriages prematurely ended either with the death of their husbands or through abandonment.18

Later years

After gaining independence in 1965, Singapore embarked on a path of accelerated economic development that ensured a steady stream of employment for samsui women. Samsui women continued to toil at construction sites right up to the 1980s, when most of the construction jobs they did were replaced with machinery. Urban redevelopment also led to the demolition of many of the shophouses in Chinatown where the samsui women stayed. Many of them were subsequently relocated to Housing and Development Board estates in Bukit Merah and Tiong Bahru.19

Most samsui women worked for as long as they could – usually well into their 70s. They continued to send money back to China and saved what little they could for their retirement. Some of them visited China after retirement and settled down there, but others stayed on in Singapore because they had grown accustomed to their living environment.20


As of 2014, there are only two samsui women known to be living in Singapore. One of them, Ng Moey Chye, who is in her 80s, lives alone in a one-room rental flat in Redhill Close. She survives on her meagre savings in the Central Provident Fund and earns extra money by gathering scrap cardboard. Her independent streak was apparent when she had to be persuaded to sign up for government welfare schemes despite her tight finances.21 Another samsui woman, Wong Ah Woon, who is nearing her 90s, lives by herself in a one-room rental flat in Geylang Bahru. She gets by with financial support from her son and grandchildren.22

Remembering samsui women
The Sam Sui Wai Kun is one of the few organisations that look into the needs of the samsui women. The clan association consists of members with ancestry that can be traced to the Samsui region.23 In 1996, the association provided free travel for a group of seven samsui women to visit their hometown and pay respects to their ancestral graves in China.24


Over the years, samsui women have become a popular cultural icon, with T-shirts, collectible figures and dolls depicting these women being sold.25 Popular interest in samsui women began when the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now known as MediaCorp) aired a new Chinese-language drama series in May 1986 titled Hong Tou Jin (“Samsui Women” in English), which chronicled the lives of these women. The show was hugely popular with audiences.26


Despite the fact that the samsui women are no longer seen at construction sites in the new millennium, the contributions of the samsui women towards building the nation’s infrastructure are not forgotten. They have been honoured in myriad ways: Not only have samsui women been the subject for art exhibitions, plays, books, television serials, they have also been memorialised in public sculpture and participated in the national-day parade.27

In January 2004, when it was reported that the annual reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s eve for a group of ageing samsui women would be discontinued due to the lack of corporate sponsors, many organisations and individuals immediately responded to ensure that the reunion dinner would continue to take place.28



Author
Koh Qi Rui Vincent



References
1. Low, K. E. Y. (2014). Remembering the samsui women: Migration and social memory in Singapore and China. Vancouver, B. C.: UBC Press, pp. 3–4. (Call no.: RSING 305.420959570904 LOW)
2. Samuel, D. S. (2010). Singapore’s heritage: Through places of historical interest. Singapore: Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, p. 53. (Call No.: RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS]); Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 5, 7. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/; Low, K. E. Y. (2014). Remembering the samsui women: Migration and social memory in Singapore and China. Vancouver, B. C.: UBC Press, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 305.420959570904 LOW); Lim, L. C. (2002). Samsui women: Women with a will stronger than iron. In Si, J. Down memory lane in clogs: Growing up in Chinatown (pp. 225–235). Singapore: Asiapac books, pp. 226–227. (Call no.: SING 920.72 SI)
3. Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 457. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
4. Low, K. E. Y. (2014). Remembering the samsui women: Migration and social memory in Singapore and China. Vancouver, B. C.: UBC Press, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 305.420959570904 LOW)
5. Low, K. E. Y. (2014). Remembering the samsui women: Migration and social memory in Singapore and China. Vancouver, B. C.: UBC Press, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 305.420959570904 LOW); Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, p. 5. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/
6. Low, K. E. Y. (2014). Remembering the samsui women: Migration and social memory in Singapore and China. Vancouver, B. C.: UBC Press, p. 5. (Call no.: RSING 305.420959570904 LOW); Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 5–7. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/
7. Tang, C. H. (1960). The Cantonese women building labourers: A study of a group of samsui women in the building trade [Research paper]. Singapore: University of Malaya, p. 2.
8. Samuel, D. S. (2010). Singapore’s heritage: Through places of historical interest. Singapore: Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, p. 53. (Call No.: RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS]); Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 9–10. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/
9. Yeo, S. C. (1984). Singapore memento. Singapore: FEP International, pp. 42–43. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 YEO-[HIS])
10. Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 9–12. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/; Chan, K. S. (1999, November 6). Multiple storeys their story. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Savage, V. R., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2013). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 75.
11. Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 11–12. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/
12. Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 11–12, 26. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/; Low, K. E. Y. (2014). Remembering the samsui women: Migration and social memory in Singapore and China. Vancouver, B. C.: UBC Press, p. 158. (Call no.: RSING 305.420959570904 LOW)
13. Lim, L. C. (2002). Samsui women: Women with a will stronger than iron. In Si, J. Down memory lane in clogs: Growing up in Chinatown (pp. 225–235). Singapore: Asiapac books, p. 226. (Call no.: SING 920.72 SI)
14. Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 11–12, 26. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/; Low, K. E. Y. (2014). Remembering the samsui women: Migration and social memory in Singapore and China. Vancouver, B. C.: UBC Press, p. 158. (Call no.: RSING 305.420959570904 LOW); Chan, K. S. (1993, May 7). Samsui women, rickshaw pullers pioneered ‘tyre’ shoes. The Straits Times, p. 39. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 12–13. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/
16. Goodwood Park Hotel. (1977). Getting around on three wheels. Goodwood journal, 4th Qtr, 13, 29 (13). (Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ); Khoo, J., & Wai, R. (1979, November 5). Samsui women bear burden of respect. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Yeo, S. C. (1984). Singapore memento. Singapore: FEP International, p. 42. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 YEO -[HIS])
18. Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, p. 13. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/; Low, A. (1986, December 23). Samsui women make estate their enclave. The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Aw Yeong, B. (2014, January 5). The real iron lady. The New Paper. Retrieved from Factiva.
19. Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 15–16. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/
20. Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, pp. 15–16. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/
21. Aw Yeong, B. (2014, January 5). The real iron lady. The New Paper. Retrieved from Factiva; Toh, Y. C. (2014, September 21). 200 pairs of scissors, knives and more… The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
22. Maryam Mokhtar. (2014, February 22). She helped to build SGH, old TTSH – step by back-breaking step. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
23. Memorial statue for samsui women. (1995, December 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Wong, C. M. (1996, May 4). 7 samsui women get free trip to China. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lim, A. (1996, October 27). Samsui women return after emotional trip to China to meet friends and relatives. The Straits Times, p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Gee, J. (2008). Migrants past and present: Samsui women and migrant workers in Singapore, p. 1. Retrieved from Issuu website: http://issuu.com/dishoom/docs/samsuiessay/
26. Koh, S. T. (1986, May 5). Renewed interest in the pioneers of building industry. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Many stayed single to seek fortunes here. (2014, January 5). The New Paper. Retrieved from Factiva; Leong, W. K. (1986, May 2). The ‘heroines’ who wouldn’t talk. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Leong, W. K. (1986, June 19). Samsui Women tops most-watched list. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Teh, H. L. (2001, May 4). MediaCorp defers IPO for about two years. The Business Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Koh, T. T. B., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 457. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Singapore Public Art (n.d.). Samsui women. Retrieved from Singapore Public Art website: http://www.publicart.sg/?q=Liu-Jilin-Samsui-Women; Kaur, H. (2003, March 17). School organises art exhibition. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, S. Y. (1997, June 6). Students discover loneliness of samsui women. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yeong, B. A. (2008, August 17). Secret heroes among us. The Straits Times, p. 65. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yap, G. (2006, October 26).From a crude bad habit to an inspiring kids’ story. Today, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Cheong, J. (2008, January 10).Fringe benefits. The Straits Times, p. 51. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Teh, J. L. (2008, February 14). Posters bring back memories for samsui women. The New Paper, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Seah, M. (2012, September 4). Past present: Why period shows will always be popular. Today. Retrieved from Factiva; Boo, K. (2005, July 28). Wave, it’s the samsui women. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Ng, S. Y. (2004, January 20). Lonely Chinese New Year for samsui women. Today, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ng, S. Y. (2004, January 21). Out of the blue, a lifeline and dinner invitations. Today, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.




Further resources
Chew, M.-L. (1978, May 25). The samsui por. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


Koh, S. T. (1986, May 5). Tales of three tough women. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Tan, S. S. (1997, July 4). The lure of the gritty samsui woman. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Wee, M. (1960, January 11). Work all day, then home to cook. The Singapore Free Press, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.




The information in this article is valid as at 2 December 2014 and correct as far as we can 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
Heritage and Culture
Personalities
Ethnic Communities
Singapore--History--1819-1867
Business, finance and industry>>Economics>>Labour economics
Blue collar workers--Singapore
Labour and employment
Commerce and Industry>>Labour and Employment>>Coolies
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Unskilled labor--Singapore

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