The Legacy of Samsui Women in Singapore’s History |

Samsui women
Photo: Choo Yut Shing via Flickr

In the vibrant tapestry of Singapore’s rich cultural history, the Samsui women stand as enduring symbols of resilience, determination, and contribution. They were primarily from the district of Sanshui (三水, pronounced as “samsui” in Cantonese) in Guangdong, then known as Canton. These remarkable women left an indelible mark on Singapore’s development during the early 20th century.

The Samsui women – known as 红头巾 in Mandarin for “red headscarf” – were clad in distinctive red headgear and blue samfoo (shirt-and-pants). They were an integral part of the burgeoning construction industry, contributing significantly to the nation’s infrastructure. Beyond their undeniable physical prowess, these women were known for their strong sense of community, sisterhood, and unwavering work ethic.

Samsui women’s arrival

Although the roots of Samsui immigrants in Singapore can be traced as far back as 1841, a significant shift occurred in 1933 with the implementation of the Alien Ordinance. This ordinance imposed a cap on Chinese male immigrants due to the Great Depression that caused widespread unemployment in Singapore in the 1930s. This ordinance allowed for larger numbers of female immigrants to seek employment in Singapore.

Given the economic challenges in the Samsui district and adjacent areas like Dongguan and Shunde, families faced with financial hardships typically sent their sons abroad for work. However, with the implementation of the Alien Ordinance in Singapore, young women – mostly 18-20 years old – assumed their roles. Motivated by a deep sense of responsibility towards their families, these women chose to work overseas, enabling them to send remittances back home.

Samsui women relied on sui hak (or “water guest” in Cantonese) recruiters to arrange overseas work, often incurring a year-long debt to pay for their services. Between 1934 and 1938, about 2,000 Samsui women arrived in Singapore, joining over 200,000 other female Chinese immigrants who sought a better living here. Some came later, between the end of the Japanese Occupation (1945) and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949).

Samsui women, Majie amahs, and lotus feet ladies

Among the group of women who came to Singapore during that period were amahs, or majie, who were basically female house servants. Like the samsui women, the majority of amahs never married and were part of an anti-marriage tradition unique to the silk-producing area in the district of Shunde.

While the Samsui women were recognisable from their trademark red headwear, the amahs also had their uniform look. A typical look for a Chinese amah included a white blouse, ankle-length black trousers, and black slippers, with their hair neatly styled in a bun or a single plait. The arrival of the amahs in the 1930s literally displaced Hainanese houseboys from paid domestic work.

An amah with her employer’s children, 1942 (National Archives of Singapore)

Another distinct group of women who came to Singapore in the early 20th century were lotus feet women. Small feet were considered a symbol of beauty and femininity in Chinese culture, as well as a sign of social status. Therefore, unlike the Samsui or amah, lotus feet women weren’t involved in hard labour. The practice of foot binding was outlawed in 1912 in China, but a small number of lotus feet women could still be seen in Singapore until the late 20th century.

Woman with bound feet

The Samsui life

Upon arrival, most Samsui women settled in Chinatown, specifically between South Bridge Road and New Bridge Road. Here, they shared modestly furnished rooms above shophouses along streets like Upper Chin Chew, Upper Nankin, and Eu Tong Sen. Each room will occupy at least four women, and rent in 1930s to 1940s ranged from 80 cents to $1.20 a month.

The samsui woman’s headdress was a square piece of cloth that was starched stiff before being folded into a square-shaped hat. The colour red was chosen, as it was distinctively eye-catching, thereby helping to reduce work-related incidences. The headdress also shielded the women from the sun and even provided a safe and convenient storage for cigarettes, matches and money.

The women had a reputation for being fierce, aggressive, wary of strangers and tending to only associate with fellow samsui women. Most of them belonged to the Cantonese dialect group, but they speak with a heavy accent.

The women would find employment as labourers – some in tin mines and rubber estates, most on construction sites. During the 1930s, these women would seek ad-hoc employment on Upper Chin Chew Street, affectionately known as “tofu street” due to the presence of beancurd shops, earning typically 50 to 60 cents a day.

‘Samsui’ women working at a construction yard (National Museum of Singapore)

Commencing their day with a modest dawn meal, Samsui women would then walk to their assigned construction sites. From 8am, they engaged in strenuous tasks, such as excavating soil or transporting construction materials using shoulder yokes. Work typically concluded by 5 or 6pm, after which the women would convene at the five-foot ways for a simple meal and casual conversation, marking the end of the day.

The code of the Samsui

Motivated by the central objective of providing for their families in China, Samsui women displayed remarkable thriftiness during their sojourn in Singapore. They economised by sharing living quarters and adeptly mending their own clothing. An exception to their frugality was their occasional expenditure on hiring professional letter writers to communicate with their families in China. Persisting in their labour well into their 70s, numerous Samsui women conscientiously remitted money to China, reserving the remainder for their retirement.

Following independence in 1965, Singapore’s rapid economic growth ensured continuous employment for Samsui women. Their labour persisted at construction sites until the 1980s, contributing to the creation of modern landmarks like the Toa Payoh Estate and Bishan Station. When the inaugural MRT Train departed from Toa Payoh station on 7 November 1987, three Samsui women who played a role in constructing Bishan station were invited for the inaugural journey.

Samsui women on the MRT in 1987 (Image from

Nevertheless, in the 1980s, their manual construction roles yielded to automation, and the urban redevelopment initiatives resulted in the dismantling of the Chinatown shophouses they called home. Those who stayed in Singapore found themselves resettled in Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates in Bukit Merah and Tiong Bahru. Alternatively, some chose to return to China upon retirement, forging new lives in their places of origin.

Many Samsui women in Singapore didn’t marry, not because they opted to stay single, but because they already had families in their home country or were deemed too old for marriage when they started working (they arrived at ages 18-20, considered beyond the marriage age at the time). Some even adopted children while in Singapore.

The challenges faced by the Samsui women were depicted in “Samsui Women,” a 1986 TV drama series which was regarded as one of Singapore’s finest productions over the years.