SINGAPORE - Samsui women derive their name from the place of their origin, the Sam Sui county in Guangdong province in southern China.
They came to Singapore in the 1930s to 1980s, and typically wore a hat, folded from bright red cloth, as they performed construction-related tasks at sites to earn a living.
Traditionally, women in the Sam Sui community held both responsibilities of child-rearing and bringing home the bacon.
Instead of being married into a life of hardship, a group of samsui women opted for the freedom of singlehood and travelled to Nanyang (South-east Asia) to seek their fortunes.
About 2,000 of them came to Singapore in the early 20th century and this continued until 1949, when emigration from China was declared illegal here.
In 1986, MediaCorp, then the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, produced a popular drama Hong Tou Jin, named after the red hats worn by the samsui women.
Veteran actress Hong Huifang, 53, who starred in the drama, recalls filming the 24-episode series well. Says Hong in Mandarin: "I had to interview a real samsui woman as research for my role as one of the samsui women. She spoke Cantonese, and thankfully I could too."
She adds: "When I chatted with her some 20 over years ago, she was already in her 70s and 80s, and living in an old folks' home."
Hong says she got an impression that the samsui women were strong and used to rough work.
"They were very simple and down-to-earth folks. Even filming at the muddy set was tiring. I don't know how the real samsui women did it," she says.
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