Friday, June 05, 2015

A Bygone Era :: 紅頭巾

'Not A Heavy Burden' • ‘挑重若轻习以常’ (2014). 

Went to Blue Lotus art gallery for its exhibition on 'The Samsui Women of Chinatown: Helping Hands from Our Past'. 《三水婆牛車水:童振獅水墨水彩畫展》The 30 paintings by 76-year-old Singapore artist Tong Chin Sye (童振獅) are done in Chinese ink and colors. He has done a few portraits and specializes in painting street scenes and landscapes. This exhibition shows Chinatown streets in the early years post-1965 and samsui women. I like his paintings of samsui women best. He has been drawing them since the 1980s, depicting their lives in Singapore from the 1950s to 1970s.

About 200,000 samsui women (known as 三水婆 or 紅頭巾), clad in blue and black samfoo and trademark red headgear/headscarf, were Chinese immigrants who flocked to then-Nanyang (literally 'south seas', 南洋, referring to Malaya) in the 1920s to pre-war years. They congregated in Chinatown, buying groceries and living in the tiny squalid shophouses. Life was very tough.

Comprising mainly Cantonese and some Hakka women from Sanshui district in Foshan, Guangdong province, they worked in the brutal heat and toil of construction, and hard labor jobs, avoiding the vice trades of prostitution, opium and drugs. Most were illiterate and wanted to escape the poverty of the farms to earn a stable-enough salary. Most hoped to send enough money back to China for their families to build houses and live more comfortably. These women were thrifty, fiercely independent and endured so much hardship in Nanyang.

Like the ah-ma-cheh (or ah-sum, amah, or in Mandarin ma jie 妈姐) with their single plaits or pigtails recognizable black and white samfoo from Shunde district in Foshan, also Guangdong province, many samsui women remained single, either by choice or via abandonment or divorce, forming a close network of sisterhood and support. These networks and clan associations were highly crucial to providing help post-war and aiding their medical needs as the century turned, and they got too old and too weak to continue to work.

Samsui women were a common sight right up to post-1965 Singapore, building Capitol Theatre and Toa Payoh housing estate in the early 1970s. They worked for as long as they physically could. Then they aged, and there were none to take their place. They retired. Some returned to China. Others stayed. A few remained single, and others married. A bygone era. The tides of the construction industry shifted as other male foreign labor from other developing countries dominated the trade. Machines and technology relieved the humans of back-breaking work.

'Resting' • ‘日当午,肚空鸣’ (2014).

I'm glad to have known a few, and had the chance to hear their stories of tenacity and optimism. Two were my nannies who were well-versed with my childhood tantrums and tricks; they were also my parents' nannies. They didn't just pick up and speak fluent Baba Malay and English to please my grandparents. They also taught me precisely how to discern and speak the main standard Yue Cantonese (粵語) and Siyi (四邑) dialects of Taishanese (台山话), etc, picking out differences between sounds of the five counties in the Jiangmen prefecture in Canton, including those next door Guangxi province's Moiyen (or meixian 梅州话), and the main Gan language (赣语) and its dialects of Yulin's Bobai (玉林博白, similar to Hakka) and standard Changting Hakka (长汀客家话) of course. Absolutely fascinating. Perhaps because of them and their hard lives and love for me, the moment I understood what it means to give and do God's work, I've almost exclusively dedicated my area of charity endeavors to the elderly.

Just four years ago in 2011, there were still seven known samsui women in Singapore (她们是卢亚桂、黄旺娣、何月金、胡润心、陆带好、蔡二女和吴妹仔), and three in China (陈群、黄苏妹和李秀祝). Madam Huang Su Mei (in pinyin黄苏妹女士) returned to China at 32 years old, married and started a family. She was 105 when she passed away in her hometown of Sanshui in February 2014. As of May 2015, there are only a few known samsui women left in Singapore, of which two are Madam Ng Moey Chye (吴妹仔女士), 83 years old and Madam Wong Ah Woon (王亚运女士), 88 years old. We mustn't forget the existence of samsui women in Singapore pre and post 1965. We can only admire and honor these women's amazing strength, loyalty, pride and willpower, and try to emulate their indomitable spirit.

Public art at URA Centre: Samsui Women (1999) by Professor Liu Jilin.
The figures are "carved from solid dusky-pink granite with rough textured finishing, reflect[ing] the hardship and the perseverance of these tough women during the 1950's and 1960's."

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