Samsui women

Singapore Infopedia

by Koh, Qi Rui Vincent


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 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

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, though 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 amah) 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”, named 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 mostly travelled 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

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 (also spelt 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 a major purpose for coming to Singapore was to earn money to send back to their families in China. They saved money by means such as sharing accommodation and repairing damaged clothes themselves. One of few things they spent on was hiring professional letter writers to communicate with their families in China.15 The women also had a reputation for being fierce, aggressive, wary of strangers and tending to only associate with fellow samsui women. Most of them 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, though many did leave husbands and children back in China, and some adopted children while here.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 here 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.18

Later years

After 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 until 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 Chinatown shophouses 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. Ng 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, also lives alone 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), which chronicles the lives of these women. The show was hugely popular.26

Despite the fact that samsui women are no longer seen at construction sites in the new millennium, their contributions 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

Koh Qi Rui Vincent

1. Kelvin E. Y. Low, Remembering the Samsui Women: Migration and social Memory in Singapore and China (Vancouver, B. C.: UBC Press, 2014), 3–4. (Call no. RSING 305.420959570904 LOW)
2. Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, 2010), 53. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS]); John Gee, “Migrants Past and Present: Samsui Women and Migrant Workers in Singapore, Issuu, (2008), 5, 7; Low, Remembering the Samsui Women, 3; Lim L. C., “Samsui Women: Women with a Will Stronger than Iron,” in Si Jing, Down Memory Lane in Clogs: Growing up in Chinatown (Singapore: Asiapac books, 2002), 226–27. (Call no. RSING 920.72 SI)
3. Tommy Koh, et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 457. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
4. Low, Remembering the Samsui Women, 4.
5. Low, Remembering the Samsui Women, 3; Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 5.
6. Low, Remembering the Samsui Women, 5; Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 5–7.
7. Tang Chee Hong, “The Cantonese Women Building Labourers: A Study of a Group of Samsui Women in the Building Trade” (research paper, University of Malaya, Singapore, 1960), 2.
8. Dhoraisingam, Singapore’s Heritage, 53; Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 9–10.
9. Yeo Soh Choo, Singapore Memento, ed. Angelina Phillips and Kevin Sullivan (Singapore: FEP International, 1984), 42–43. (Call no. RSING 959.57 YEO-[HIS])
10. Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 9–12; Chan Kwee Sung, “Multiple Storeys their Story,” Straits Times, 6 November 1999, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Victor R Savage and Brenda S A Yeoh, Toponymics: A Study of Singapore Street Names (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 75. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV)
11. Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 11–12.
12. Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 11–12, 26; Low, Remembering the Samsui Women, 158.
13. Lim, “Samsui Women,” 226.
14. Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 11–12, 26; Low, Remembering the Samsui Women, 158; Chan Kwee Sung, “Samsui Women, Rickshaw Pullers Pioneered ‘Tyre’ Shoes,” Straits Times, 7 May 1993, 39. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 12–13.
16. Goodwood Park Hotel, “Getting Around on Three Wheels,” Goodwood Journal4th Qtr, 13, no. 29 (1977), 13 (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ); Janie Khoo and Ronnie Wai, “Samsui Women Bear Burden of Respect,” Straits Times, 5 November 1979, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Low, Remembering the Samsui Women, 149–55.
18. Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 13; Anne Low, “Samsui Women Make Estate their Enclave,” Straits Times, 23 December 1986, 19; Benita Aw Yeong, “The Real Iron Lady,” New Paper, 5 January 2014, 10-11. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 15–16.
20. Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 15–16.
21. Aw Yeong, “The Real Iron Lady,” 10/11; Toh Yong Chuan, “200 Pairs of Scissors, Knives and More…,” Straits Times, 21 September 2014, 2-3. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Maryam Mokhtar and Robin Chan, “She Helped to Build SGH, Old TTSH – Step by Back-Breaking Step,” Straits Times, 15 February 2014, 2-3. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Memorial Statue for Samsui Women,” Straits Times, 15 December 1995, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Wong Chee Meng, “7 Samsui Women Get Free Trip to China,”  Straits Times, 4 May 1996, 5; Allson Lim, “Samsui Women Return After Emotional Trip to China to Meet Friends and Relatives,” Straits Times, 27 October 1996, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Gee, “Migrants Past and Present,” 1.
26. Koh Siew Tin, “Renewed Interest in the Pioneers of Building Industry,” Straits Times, 5 May 1986, 9; “Many Stayed Single to Seek Fortunes Here,” New Paper, 5 January 2014, 10-11; Leong Weng Kam, “The ‘Heroines’ Who Wouldn’t Talk,” Straits Times, 2 May 1986, 6; Leong Weng Kam, “Samsui Women Tops Most-Watched List,” Straits Times, 19 June 1986, 15; Teh Hooi Ling, “MediaCorp Defers IPO for About Two Years,” Business Times, 4 May 2001, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Koh, Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 457; “Samsui Women,” Public Art Trust, accessed on 15 September 2021; Harleen Kaur, “School Organises Art Exhibition,” Straits Times, 17 March 2003, 11; Lee Sian Yuan, “Students Discover Loneliness of Samsui Women,” Straits Times, 6 June 1997, 10; Benita Aw Yeong, “Secret Heroes Among Us,” Straits Times, 17 August 2008, 65; Grace Yap, “From a Crude Bad Habit to an Inspiring Kids’ Story,” Today, 26 October 2006, 45; June Cheong, “Fringe Benefits,” Straits Times, 10 January 2008, 51; Teh Jen Lee, “Posters Bring Back Memories for Samsui Women,” New Paper, 14 January 2008, 11; May Seah, “Past Present,” Today, 4 September 2012, 40; Krist Boo, “Wave, it’s the Samsui Women,” Straits Times, 28 July 2005, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Ng Shing Yi, “Lonely Chinese New Year for Samsui Women,” Today, 20 January 2004, 1; Ng Shing Yi, “Out of the Blue, a Lifeline and Dinner Invitations,” Today, 21 January 2004, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Koh Siew Tin, “Tales of Three Tough Women,” Straits Times, 5 May 1986, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

Margaret Wee, “Work All day, Then Home to Cook,” Singapore Free Press, 11 January 1960, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Mei-Lin Chew, “The Samsui Por,” Straits Times, 25 May 1978, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

Tan Sai Siong, “The Lure of the Gritty Samsui Woman,” Straits Times, 4 July 1997, 7. (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.

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