The Samsui women of Singapore, the silent heroines who built Singapore over five decades. The immigrant construction workers from China, the synonymous red headgear workers (all female) with tough, resilient, hardworking and weather-beaten characters who are the vanishing workers of Singapore.
Samsui women came to Singapore in large numbers. As many as 200,000 are thought to have arrived between 1934 and 1938 alone. From the Sanshui District (三水區) of Guangdong, they took a vow to never marry before leaving China, and wore large red headdresses as a symbol and reminder of their vow, although exceptions have been known (with regards to the marriage thing). Most found menial employment in construction or as domestic servants and were known and respected for refusing to work as prostitutes or opium peddlers. They lived in cramped conditions with other Samsui women, helping out each other and forming tightly united cliques.
Samsui women also remained in touch with their relatives back home in China, communicating with them frequently through letters. Occasionally, they would send money to them.
A cramped communcal kitchen the Samsui women shared.
Samsui women at work:
"Some of the best workers in S'pore were these Samsui women. My late father chose some of them to work for him. I've been and seen them at their "samsui" work...very hard, even dangerous on sloping roof tops without any safety ropes ! They were always punctual for work, worked long hours and never GRUMBLED, ate simply under the hottest sun and heat. Truly...these Samsui women are legends in their days. I knew some of them through my father, all living in "ngau chieh soi "."Almost all the Samsui women who left China in boatloads to Singapore have retired or passed on. As a more traditional source of manpower in the construction industry, these Samsui women ceased to seek employment and were replaced by other younger foreign immigrants or overtaken by advanced technology and mechanisation, demand of alternative livelihoods and and the passage of history.
Recognised and honoued by the country, too.
Strong, independent women...these ladies were as close to it as Singapore will ever see or have seen. No government make-work jobs, no endless cries of "gimmedat!" or demands for legislation, no moral flimsiness. Today's people...oh, we live in a true age of leisure, not knowing what we are blessed with.