Paying tribute to the unsung heroines
Chinese women who left the mainland faced untold suffering
The nineteenth and early twentieth century Chinese immigrants to Singapore deserve more than a few books for their remarkable tales of survival. Among them, there are two special groups whose experiences, although little known outside of Singapore, best embody the courage and grit of their generation.
One group is known as “mah-jie” in Cantonese, the dialect of the Chinese province of Guangdong (Canton). The word means “mum-sister”. “It is mum because these women from Shunde, in Guangdong, were mostly domestic servants for rich local families, and in this role they helped raise the children in the family; and sister because they, before leaving for Singapore, took a vow of celibacy, often as a means to escape arranged marriages,” says Sophie Soon, from the Chinese Heritage Center in Singapore.
In a sense, it was their spinsterhood that had brought them to this new land, according to the museum guide.
After taking the vow, these women were regarded as “independent” and therefore could no longer live at home with their families.
Left to fend for themselves, many of them worked in the silk industry for which Shunde was famous.
But when the industry began to decline in the 1930s, just before the Japanese invasion ofChina, many of them left for Southeast Asia, including Singapore.
They were joined there by the “Samsui women” --- forming the larger picture of female migration from China.
Known also as “hong tou jin”, Mandarin for “red headscarves”, these women from the Samsui area of Guangdong province worked as laborers in the construction industry, an industry that was traditionally almost exclusively the preserve of men.
While the mah-jie donned white tops and black trousers, these Samsui women had their own unofficial uniform — red scarves and darkblue or black outfits.
Chu Kin Fong, a local tour guide, says the color red served a purpose.
“The color red was to alert people and thus reduce the chances of accidents at the workplace,” she says.
“And, apart from sheltering them from the scorching sun in the tropical country, the starched hat could also be used to store cigarettes, matches and money.”
“Coming to Singapore — then Malaya— inthe 1920s and 1930s and working there until around the 1970s, these women, both the mahjie and the Samsui women, helped shape the country in a profoundway.
“For thosewhoknowtheir stories, these women are an integral part of the contemporary history of Singapore,” says Chu, pointing to the stone sculptures of Samsui women erected in front of the Singapore City Gallery on 45 Maxwell Road, where one can get an overview of how the city-state evolved and reinvented itself over the past 100 years.
The Gallery is located on the southeastern end of Chinatown, where early Chinese migrants used to gather.
Without relatives in Singapore, these two groups of women turned to their own small but closely-knit communities for solace.
Members of the same group often jointly rented rooms in Chinatown as living quarters.
The Samsui women, although not bound by vows of celibacy, were in many cases forced into spinsterhood duetoalack of suitablementomarry.
With their families always uppermost in their minds, these women sent home every penny they could save. However, one of the fewthings they spent their money on was on hiring professional letter writers to communicate with their loved ones back in China.
According to Chu, both groups of womenpassed into history as Singapore began its journey to becoming the rich, modern and super-clean city-state that people know today.
By the 1970s, many mah-jie had gone into retirement, replaced by domestic helpers from neighboring countries such as the Philippines.
The jobs for the Samsui women lasted a little while longer: Some of them, who were already in their 60s and 70s then, continued to toil at construction sites right up to the 1980s, when their jobs were taken over by machines.
“The stories of these women were lost before they were unearthed by a society which decided to say a belated thank-you to them,” says Chu.
“There are now organizations which help to pay for these women to visit their hometowns in China, sometimes for the first time since their arrived in Singapore and probably the only time before they die.”
While the Samsui women mostly lived in rental flats in their final years, most mah-jie lived with the families they had served.
Reflecting on the role the mah-jie played in the lives of the Singaporeans, Soon says:
“Theway that people used to refer to them says all: They were mothers first and foremost.”
For those who know their stories, these women are an integral part of the contemporary history of Singapore.” Chu Kin Fong, tour guide
Samsui women, from the Chinese province of Guangdong, worked at the construction sites of Singapore and distinguished themselves through the red scarves they wore.
From left: Mah-jie, meaning mom-sister, were domestic helpers from China; Chinatown in Singapore; Chinese immigrants on the Singapore River.