Pay­ing trib­ute to the un­sung hero­ines

Chi­nese women who left the main­land faced un­told suf­fer­ing

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By ZHAOXU

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.

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