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Samsui Women
- Hong Tou Jin (红头巾)

By Cecilia Chew

This is my sharing from the wonderful experience of street mural photography session at Chinatown yesterday.  Although there are many beautiful shots of murals, my favourite shots are those of  the Samsui women – Why? Because I have seen them in Chinatown, when I was a little girl. 

Samsui women were the heroines of yester-years that Singapore needed. Their struggles were real. Many worked well into their 70s. These ladies were once the backbone of our developing infrastructure, just like our current foreign workers who are building our country today.

Why do we call them  ‘Samsui’ women?

A large numbers of Samsui women arrived into Singapore mainly from the Sanshui district of China's Canton province around mid 1930s.  It is estimated that approximately  2,000 of these ‘samsui’ women.  They had to pay recruiters  to help them arrange for transport and accommodation in Singapore. For such an arrangement, the ‘samsui’ women took on debts that took

around a year, to pay off. Many of them left China in the prime of their youth, between 18 and 20, and had to rely on fellow ‘samsui’ women to get by, when they first arrived. They stayed in cramped lodgings within shop houses, with as many as 4 women sharing a small room which was subdivided into cubicles.

Most of these women went on to find work as general labourers in construction sites, carrying building materials and digging soil.  Some found work as domestic helpers, where they were known as ‘amahs’, in wealthy families. As a child growing up, I spent majority of my time with my cousins, in their somewhat palatial home. They had an ‘amah’.  She devoted her time to all of our physical needs i.e. getting us out of bed in the morning,  making us take naps in the afternoon, preparing all our daily meals  & making sure we brushed our teeth, washed up and took our baths.  We call her Ah Zer.  After finishing her chores for the day, she sometimes relaxed playing mahjong, with my mother and aunty when they need a another person to make it 4, the number to play the game..  Ah Zer, remained single and was well respected by all of us, and passed away in my aunty’s home. We were the only family she had known and grown to love in her lifetime in Singapore.

The significance of the  Red headdress  -

Samsui women wear a very prominent distinct red headdress from which also known as “hong tou jin”  -- 红头巾 (red headdress).  The bright red enabled them to be visible in the busy and dangerous construction sites.  Their simple clothing which comprised a set of dark-coloured blouse and trousers (usually black or blue)  is known as the ‘samfoo’ which did not stain easily.

I am so glad that we have the street mural of the ‘samsui’ women to remind us  of their contributions towards infra structure of our country,  Singapore, which we love and proud of.


Posted on 9 March 2022

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