The term Samsui women (三水妇女; 三水婦女; sān shuǐ fù nǚ) broadly refers to a group of Chinese immigrants who came to Malaya and Singapore between the 1920s and 1940s in search of construction and industrial jobs. Their hard work contributed to the development of the Straits Settlements, both as colonies and later as the new nations of Singapore and Malaysia. Samsui women did manual labour similar to coolies but were more independent.
Around 3,000 Samsui women are believed to have moved to Singapore from China between 1934 and 1938. This migration continued until 1949 when emigration from China was declared illegal.
In Chinese, these women are referred to as Hong Tou Jin (红头巾; 紅頭巾; hóng tóu jīn), which means "red bandana", because of the red cloth hats they wore at work.
Coming to Singapore as cheap labourers between the 1920s and 1940s, 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 living in poverty. Their contributions to housing construction and as well as labour at hawker centres have been invaluable to Singapore's early development.
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 fewer than a hundred Samsui women left in Singapore today, all of them in their 80s and 90s. Organisations exist to raise awareness of these women's achievements and contributions to Singapore's development, and their current state. Some of these organisations also strive to provide free travel for the women back to China to visit their relatives before they die. One such organisation was the Sam Shui Wai Kuan Association that took care of the needs of Samsui women.
Portrayal in media
The travails of the Samsui women were portrayed in Samsui Women, a television 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. There was also a theatrical play by The Finger Players, called "Samsui Women: One Brick at a Time", held at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
- Thulaja, Naidu Ratnala (1999-04-17). "Samsui women". Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board. Archived from the original on 2008-04-21. Retrieved 2008-04-07.
- "The Samsui women of today". AsiaOne. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
- Koh, Jaime (2013-11-28). "Majie". Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board. Retrieved 2015-06-19.
- "Samsui Women: One Brick at a time". Retrieved 4 August 2015.