Samsui women were Cantonese and Hakka immigrants from three districts in Sanshui county of Guangdong (Kwantung) province in Southern China namely, Sanshui (Sam Sui), Shun De (Shun Tak) and Dong Guan (Tong Koon). San Shui means "three waters", a reference to three rivers that flow there, namely the West River, North River and Sui River which are branches of the river Zhu Jian. The Samsui women had their name derived from their place of origin, the Sam Sui district of Sanshui county. They were usually spinsters who arrived in Singapore with the earliest of immigrants in the 1820s. Adorned with their trademark red "hat", they performed menial jobs in the early construction industry.
A local custom in the Sanshui community was women holding the responsibilities of both child-minder as well as bread-winner. Instead of being married into a life of hardship, a group of Samsui women opted for the freedom of singlehood and travelled to Nanyang (Southeast Asia) to seek their fortunes. About 2,000 Samsui women were believed to have come to Singapore in the early 20th century, and this continued until 1949 when emigration from China was declared illegal here.
The Samsui women were a proud and independent lot. Prostitution, opium peddling and various vices were common with other women mired in poverty. However, Samsui women chose to be engaged in hard labour with little pay instead of being lured into vices even if they paid more. They found employment in tin mines, rubber estates, on construction sites and as amahs or "domestic servants". They were hired extensively at construction sites in the 1950s. They carried rocks, dug holes and conducted menial work that defied their small physical stature.
They wore a red head dress which became their trademark feature. The red head dress was a square piece of blood-red cloth folded in a way that it sat like a fairly large rectangular roof on their heads. Their hair was combed into a bun or "pigtail" or towchang and tucked under the red cap. The towchang was a mark of their spinsterhood. They dressed in a stiffly starched black samfoo (sometimes spelt samfu), a tunic-and-trouser suit, protected by an apron. The sandals they wore were pieces of rubber cut out from used tyres and fashioned on their own with a strap.
Most lived in cramped shophouses in Chinatown on Upper Chin Chew Street, Upper Nanking Street and Eu Tong Sen Street. Awaking before dawn, they prepared their breakfast-cum-lunch before assembling with other Samsui women to go to work everyday. They were taken in lorries to construction sites or they walked to the place themselves. Their meals were sparse with cooked rice, some bean cheese and a bit of pickled or fresh vegetable everyday. This was usually followed with a cigarette of Chinese tobacco. After work they went home with a few pieces of wood to use for their cooking. In the evenings they would chit-chat with other Samsui women. This was their daily routine until they retired.
The Samsui women formed associations and sisterhoods to support each other, becoming a close knit and distinct community. Unfortunately, it also meant that they remained insular, associated with only their own kind, were wary of strangers and had a reputation of being fierce and aggressive. Their dialect is not unlike Cantonese, although some consider it Hakka, but it is spoken with a heavy accent that is difficult to pick up and is seldom understood by other Chinese.
The Samsui women saved money for retirement and for trips back to China to visit relatives. They communicated with their families through letter writers and faithfully sent money back. Although some finally retired in China, many became too old to travel. With few family ties in China, the remnant stayed on with less than 100 Samsui women left in Singapore today. Most of them are in their 80s and 90s. They earn a living picking up cardboard and remain very poor. The Sam Sui Wai Kun Association is an one of the few association that looks into the needs of the Sam Sui women. They provided free travel for seven Samsui women in 1996 to see their hometown, relatives and pay respects to their ancestral graves in China for one last time before they died.
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
Chan, K. S. (1999, November 6). Multiple storeys their story.The Straits Times, Life!, p. 4.
Chan, K. S. (1993, May 7) . Samsui women, rickshaw pullers pioneered 'tyre' shoes'. The Straits Times.
Lim, A. (1996, October 27). Samsui women return after emotional trip to China to meet friends and relatives. The Straits Times, Home, p. 31.
Memorial statue for Samsui women. (1995, December 15). The Straits Times, News Focus, p. 2.
Samsui women. (1977). Goodwood Journal, 4th Qtr., 13, 29.
(Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
Samsui women. (2006). In T. Koh, et al. (Eds.), Singapore: The encyclopedia (p.457). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore's heritage: Through places of historical interest (p. 44). Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM)
Yeo, S. C. (1984). Singapore Memento (pp. 42-43). Singapore: FEP International.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 YEO)
National Heritage Board. (n.d.). Archives & artefacts online, Singapore. Retrieved on January 14, 2003, from www.a2o.com.sg
Wong, C. M. (1996, May 4). 7 Samsui women get free trip to China. The Straits Times, Life!, p. 5.
The information in this article is valid as at 2006 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.
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