The samsui women of Singapore

The samsui women were part of an initial group of some 2,000 women hailing mainly from the Sanshui district in Canton (Guangdong), arriving between 1934-1938 together with over 200,000 female Chinese immigrants in search of a better living. Most of these samsui women would go on to work as general labourers in the construction industry, and many would come to be characterised by the distinctive red headgear and blue or black samfoo they wore while taking on backbreaking work at construction sites across the island.

Photo of samsui women working at a construction site dating back to 1938-1939. Image from National Archives of Singapore.

Photo of samsui women working at a construction site dating back to 1938-1939. Image from National Museum of Singapore.

While the origins of samsui immigrants to Singapore dates back to as early as 1841, it was not until 1933 when the introduction of the Aliens Ordinance was introduced, that a distinct cap on Chinese Male Immigrants was enforced, paving the way for larger numbers of female immigrants to find work in Singapore.

Upon their arrival, most samsui women made their way to the Chinatown district between South Bridge Road and New Bridge Road where many fellow samsui migrants resided. They stayed in the many shophouses along the street, with at least four women sharing a single, often-spartan room.

A typical day of a samsumi women began at the break of dawn where they would have a simple meal before gathering to walk over to their respective construction sites. By 8am, they would be hard at work digging soil and earth, or carrying debris and other construction materials in buckets that hung from shoulder poles. Work usually ended at around 6pm, after which many samsui women would gather together at the five-foot ways for a simple meal to end the day.

These samsui women were probably part of the first batch of immigrants who arrived from the Sanshui district in Canton (Guangdong), here you see them working on a construction yard between 1938-1939. Image from National Museum of Singapore

These samsui women were probably part of the first batch of immigrants who arrived from the Sanshui district in Canton (Guangdong), here you see them working on a construction yard between 1938-1939. Image from National Museum of Singapore

A trademark of samsui women was the red, sometimes blue, headdress that they wore while at work. The headdress was a square piece of cloth that was starched stiff before being folded into a square-shaped hat. The colour red was chosen, as it was distinctively eye-catching, thereby helping to reduce work-related incidences. The headdress also shielded the women from the sun and even provided a safe and convenient storage for cigarettes, matches and money.

On occasions of mourning, a blue headdress was worn in place of the traditional red, while it was also known that women from the Sun Yap area in China preferred to wear the blue instead of the red on a daily basis as well.

samsui women helping in a cleanup of the former Empress Place, better known to many now as the Asian Civilisations Museum. Here you can see their distinctive red headgear and blue samfoo. Image courtesy of The National Archives of Singapore.

samsui women helping in a cleanup of the former Empress Place, better known to many now as the Asian Civilisations Museum. Here you can see their distinctive red headgear and blue samfoo. Image courtesy of The National Archives of Singapore.

Most samsui women did not marry while in Singapore, not because they took a vow of celibacy, but because many either already had families back home or were beyond the ideal age of marriage by the time they started work. Those that did marry usually did so with fellow compatriots of the samsui community.

Many samsui women worked well into their 70s, which meant that they were also involved in creating modern landmarks like the Toa Payoh Estate and Bishan Station, part the very first stretch of MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) stations that opened to the public in 1987.

REMEMBERING THE SAMSUI WOMEN

Many see the endearing traits of the samsui women as a great representation of the Singapore story, and their efforts have been recognised in numerous national and artistic interpretations over the years.

When the first MRT Train took off on 7 November 1987 from Toa Payoh station, three samsui women who helped build the Bishan station were also invited along for the journey. Many National Day Parades have also included costumes and storylines related to the samsui women, including an honorary march-past by former samsui women at the 1980 edition.

On 7 November 1987, three samsui women who worked on the construction of the Bishan MRT station, were invited for Singapore’s first MRT ride. Image from Asiaone.com

On 7 November 1987, three samsui women who worked on the construction of the Bishan MRT station, were invited for Singapore’s first MRT ride. Image from Asiaone.com

A samsui woman receiving help before heading out for a celebratory march-past at the 1980 National Day Parade. Image courtesy of The National Archives of Singapore.

A samsui woman receiving help before heading out for a celebratory march-past at the 1980 National Day Parade. Image courtesy of The National Archives of Singapore.

Well-known artists like Chua Mia Tee, Lim Tze Peng and Georgette Chen have also painted numerous artworks depicting the lives of the samsui women over the years, while in a more modern setting, theatre productions like the Dim Sum Dollies – The History of Singapore Part 1 (2007) and the upcoming Samsui Women: One Brick at a Time (2015) by The Finger Players continue to remind audiences of the legacy of the samsui women.

Statues of samsui women can also be seen outside the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) building and the Chinatown Heritage Centre along Pagoda Street.

Yet perhaps the most endearing representation of the samsui women to Singaporeans is entrenched in the hugely popular 1986 SBC TV Series Samsui Woman (红头巾) that starred Zeng Huifen and the late Huang Wenyong.

The 1986 SBC TV Series Samsui Woman (红头巾) that starred Zeng Huifen and the late Huang Wenyong.

The 1986 SBC TV Series Samsui Woman (红头巾) that starred Zeng Huifen and the late Huang Wenyong.

Lim Tze Peng’s 1976 painting Untitled (Samsui Women), depicts the subjects in the trademark red hats, panning for raw materials.

Lim Tze Peng’s 1976 painting Untitled (Samsui Women), depicts the subjects in the trademark red hats, panning for raw materials. Image from National Museum of Singapore’s Collection.

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