The real Iron Lady

The real Iron Lady

SINGAPORE - The one-room rental flat she lives in may be a cluttered mess of cardboard and used items, but Madam Ng Moey Chye knows exactly where the navy-coloured samfoo top and its matching red headpiece is kept.

The outfit is a trademark of samsui women, who came from China to Singapore in search of a better life, and who worked as construction labourers.

Says the 81-year-old grey-haired woman, gesturing at the striking red cloth, which is held in place by tiny silver pins: "My hands are too weak these days, so I can't fold the headdress from scratch any more."

Still, the pride she has when it comes to samsui trade is evident throughout the interview.

The term "samsui women" typically refers to women who hail from Samsui city in Guangdong province, China, who came to Singapore in the early 20th century, in search of work in construction sites.

According to the Singapore Sam Sui Association, only two samsui women are still alive in Singapore. One of them is Madam Ng, who lives in Redhill Close. The other, who lives in the same block as her, declined to be interviewed.

Madam Ng explains that she was born in Singapore, but her parents were from China.

"My dad was a farmer, and my mum, a samsui woman. Together, they had more than 10 children," she says. Madam Ng, who speaks fluent Cantonese and a smattering of Mandarin and Malay, was given away and adopted as the youngest of three children in her family.

She has not gone to school, but began working at the age of 14, as a babysitter.

When she turned 18, she joined the samsui trade, in which she made $3 to $4 a day.

"In those days, that was really good money," says Madam Ng, who lived with her adoptive family at Pagoda Street in Chinatown.

"I wasn't as big and strong as some of the other women, so my main role at the construction sites was to load the baskets with bricks, cement and other materials, which the women later carried on their shoulders with the help of poles."

Samsui women like her toiled under the sun for long hours, often working from 8am to 8pm.

"They would give you a token sum once you work past 8pm, but it wasn't much," she recalls.

"The samsui women would gather at Chinatown, waiting for job offers.

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