Reversing Gender Dynamics
Both the Majies and Samsui Women left their hometowns as young women, searching for work to send money back home, vowing lifelong celibacy to be able join sisterhoods and live independently. They relied on recruiters called Sui Hak (“Water Guest” in Cantonese), to find employment and make travel arrangements, taking on debts which took a year to pay off.
The influx of these female immigrants were a result of a quota imposed by the British colonial authorities, which limited the number of male immigrants allowed into the country in a bid to control unemployment levels during the 1930s , when the Great Depression occurred.
The iron ladies from the Sanshui district of China were seen in construction sites from 1930 – 80s, wearing bright red head gear. It was eye-catching and reduced the chances of accidents, sheltered from the sun and stored items like cigarettes and money. Those wearing the blue version of the hat, were usually from SunYap, in China. Because the Samsui women fit a narrative of nation-building, epitomising the rags-to-riches economic triumph of Singapore, they’ve been written about and many souvenirs made.
In contrast - although their bravery, background and sacrifices are similar, the Majies have not been written about much, likely because their work was domestic and often in foreign households. The Majies hailed from Shunde district in China and took the sor hei hair-combing ritual as a rite-of-passage to become an adult without marrying, with vows of celibacy. They were very independent, equating marriage as a loss of freedom, compared to women from other parts of China.
Many of the Samsui women and Majies worked as long as they could, well into their 70s, ever independent and going against the tide of tradition. A powerful inspiration for today’s young women of Singapore, finding their own independence and financial freedom in the world.