The term Samsui women broadly refers to a group of Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore between the 1920s and the 1940s in search of construction and industrial jobs. Their hard work contributed to Singapore's development, both as a colony and as a nation.
About 200,000 Samsui women were believed to have come to Singapore from China between 1934 and 1938, and this continued until 1949 when emigration from China was declared illegal here.
In Chinese, these women are referred to as 紅頭巾 (红头巾 in Simplified Chinese), which translates as "red bandana", a reference to the trademark red cloth hats that they wore.
Coming to Singapore as cheap labourers, Samsui women worked mainly in the construction industry and other industries that required hard labour. They also worked as domestic servants. They had a reputation of rejecting jobs involving drug (particularly opium) peddling, prostitution, or other vices, even if that meant they sometimes had to live in poverty. They made a lot of contribution to Singapore's early development mostly by building houses and some of them worked at hawker centres mending the stalls there too.
Before arriving in Singapore, most Samsui women took vows never to marry, although there have been known exceptions. 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.
There are less than a hundred Samsui women left in Singapore today, all of them in their 80s and 90s. Organizations exist to raise awareness of these women's achievements and contributions to Singapore's development, and their current state. Some of these organizations also strive to provide free travel for the women back to China to visit their relatives before they die. One such organization was the Sam Shui Wai Kuan Association that took care of the needs of the Samsui Women
Portrayal in media
The travails of the Samsui women were portrayed in Samsui Women (Chinese title '红头巾'), a TV drama series produced by Singapore Broadcasting Corporation in 1986, which has widely been considered as one of the best dramas Singapore has produced over the years.
In 2015, Channel 8 produced a documentary on the Samsui women:
- Thulaja, Naidu Ratnala (1999-04-17). "Samsui women". Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board:Infopedia.