The Samsui women of today
John Gee
Tue, Jan 15, 2008
The Straits Times
SAMSUI women have a small but distinct niche in Singapore's history. Their broad red hats and blue-black samfoo marked them out as they went back and forth to work on the island's building sites.

Since the last working Samsui women retired, their image has become a fixture in Singapore's perception of how it transformed itself into a modern city.

They are eulogised in drama serials; there are Samsui women T-shirts, collectible figures and dolls on sale at the Chinatown Heritage Centre; and when the Dim Sum Dollies performed The History Of Singapore at the Esplanade last July, one segment was devoted to Samsui women.

The Samsui women are seen to represent values that present-

day Singaporean society regards highly. With their reputation for resilience and hard work, they embody the spirit that has gone into the making of modern Singapore, and are sometimes held up as an inspiring example for younger generations accustomed to a less arduous life.

Samsui women themselves have had little say in how their contemporary image was shaped. The women's social circumstances meant that they recorded little of their own views and experiences. Few could read or write and, until recently, other people took no great interest in their lives and memories.

Samsui women worked hard because they had to. Nation-

building was not on their minds when they set out to work in Singapore's construction industry; making a living was. Many who came were in their teens. Most came alone. As they stepped onto the Singapore pier in the 1930s after months at sea in grim and often perilous conditions, the road ahead must have seemed daunting indeed.

Yet decades later, thousands of women continue to leave their families behind to seek jobs in Singapore. Many are employed as domestic workers.

There are similarities as well as significant differences between these two groups of women.

Lowly jobs

LIKE most migrants who came to Singapore before 1950, Samsui women were from southern China, so they found some familiar institutions and customs when they arrived. They lived among people who, like themselves, mostly spoke Cantonese. Many of their immediate neighbours were also from the Samsui district.

Today's foreign domestic workers, by contrast, come mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Myanmar. They number about 170,000 in Singapore today, and are among the country's 650,000 migrant workers.

Both groups have faced the consequences of doing work that the better-off regard as lowly and unskilled.

While respected by employers as dependable workers, Samsui women were not regarded so positively by society at large in the 1930s and 1940s. Former Samsui worker Wong Ah Tai, now in her 90s and living in an old folks' home, said she felt people used to look down on them 'because, after all, we carry mud'.

Likewise, foreign workers today face varying attitudes, with some people crediting them for their hard work and dedication, and some denigrating their intelligence, honesty and other values.

In both cases, the 'pull' factor of jobs in Singapore drew in people subjected to the 'push' factor of poor economic conditions in their places of origin.

The Samsui women came from a rural area to the west of Guangzhou, where three rivers, or 'three waters' (Samsui in Cantonese), flowed into one. It was a region of grinding poverty, where life was made more wretched by natural disasters such as the catastrophic flood that washed away many homes and livelihoods in 1915.

The economic growth of Singapore attracted a steady flow of men from southern China until the early 1930s, when the Depression hit Singapore hard. In 1933, the colonial administration introduced the Aliens Ordinance to restrict Chinese immigration by limiting male entry, but left the door open to female migrants. And it was through this doorway that the Samsui women walked.

Eventually, well over 1,000, perhaps as many as 2,000, women came to Singapore to work in the construction industry in those years.

The experience of going into debt to pay for the journey to Singapore and of repaying it from their earnings is also common among both groups of workers.

Samsui women often had to work for more than a year to pay off their debts, while modern domestic workers usually repay their debts in six to nine months.

But there is a difference: Once she was in Singapore, a Samsui woman could go from one employer to another without penalty. But a modern domestic worker who wishes to transfer to another employer needs the consent of her existing one in most circumstances and ends up paying the equivalent of 11/2 to four months' salary to her agency to make the change.

Work comes first

THE most fundamental similarity between the two groups of women is in the commitment that both have made towards their families.

Most Samsui women gave up the prospect of marriage and children and lived very simply in order to save money to support relatives who they might never see again after they left home. They lived frugal lives, sharing accommodation and eating simple food. Whether it meant walking to or from work, gathering the wood for cooking from around building sites or repairing their clothes themselves, their lives were marked by their determination to save every cent they could.

Similarly, modern domestic workers are careful in their spending when they go out, and sometimes endure unreasonable and exploitative treatment simply because they do not want to risk losing their source of income.

Young single women who come to Singapore as domestic workers may see their chances of finding a husband and having children slip away with the passing years. Married women miss seeing their children grow up and may not be there when they are needed. Many mothers lavish love and care on other people's children during their years in Singapore while their own children miss them and feel emotionally deprived.

The personal sacrifice is enormous.

Changing political conditions also led to vast differences in the experiences of the two groups of migrant women. Singapore was still under British rule when the original Samsui women came, and it was expected that most migrants who were admitted would settle here. The authorities were not concerned much with what they did once they passed quarantine.

At independence, Singapore was hard-pressed to create jobs for all its citizens who needed them, so it operated a very restrictive policy towards foreign unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Only after the economic take-off of the 1970s transformed the country's prospects did it open the doors to foreign migrant workers, but sensitivities about community relations prompted the government to want their presence to be temporary.

Male construction workers and female domestic workers are allowed into Singapore on work passes that must be renewed every two years. They are not permitted to marry locals or raise families here, or to settle permanently.

So while Samsui women could easily settle in Singapore once their useful work lives were over, today's work-permit holders have to leave the country within two weeks of the cancellation of their permits.

A room of their own

SAMSUI women took on work that was available every day because of economic necessity, not because they were compelled to work by contract. They had days or part-days off when work was not available. They usually laboured for around nine hours a day, not the 15 or so that is quite common for domestic workers today.

Once the working day was over, a Samsui woman's time was her own. She would go home and prepare and eat her evening meal. Afterwards, she might sit and talk with other women outside the houses where they stayed. There was enough space on the five-foot way outside the shophouses for other people to walk past them. The traffic of the working day had thinned out, and the air had cooled a little. Many smoked cigarettes as they whiled away an hour or so before going up to bed.

Samsui women came and went as they chose outside working hours: There was no one to lock them up in case they 'fell into bad company'. Their ability to reject a bad employer and the presence of fellow workers on-site no doubt protected them from physical and sexual abuse.

Working together and sharing accommodation, Samsui women provided support for each other, though living in close quarters and sometimes competing for work could also lead to friction.

Conversation, sympathy in difficult times and the chance for young women to learn from the more experienced all made it a little easier to cope with difficult circumstances.

Whatever else they had to bear, Samsui women were not forced to endure the debilitating, morale-rotting isolation of some of today's domestic workers, whose employers try to isolate them from the outside world and deny them the right to go out, meet friends and know a few hours when their lives are their own.

Perhaps a recognition that the motivations of foreign domestic workers and the sacrifices that they make are similar to those of the now-respected Samsui women could help to bring about greater consideration for these modern migrants.

John Gee is a freelance writer and president of Transient Workers Count Too, an advocacy group for migrant workers.

A longer version of this essay was written in conjunction with an ongoing exhibition of photographs of Samsui women at bus stops around Singapore, part of the M1 Singapore Fringe art festival (www.singaporefringe.com).


  Space surge may slow Orchard Rd rent rises
  Loan-shark alert: Have you seen these men?
  $2.3m boost for cellphone software creators
  Govt to check hotel conversions islandwide
  Ogilvy & Mather tops ad agency rankings again
  The Samsui women of today
  Taiwan says 'we deal'
  Scrap retirement age? Mindset change needed
  300 million people in China living in poverty
  Shanghai to hear residents' views on rail extension