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Coolies and Samsui women were responsible for much of Singapore’s development. But their labour was strenuous and work, back-breaking.

Coolies arrived in Singapore in droves from 1823, and Samsui women in mid-1930s. Both were key pillars of Singapore’s labour force, responsible for much of the infrastructure in early Singapore. Coolies worked in construction, agriculture, shipping and rickshaw pulling, while Samsui women were general labourers on construction sites. They only had sparse and simple meals for sustenance, and lived a frugal existence.

At the end of their lives, many could not afford expensive funerals and would go to death houses along Sago Lane to spend their last days. Even though many remain unnamed, they made significant contributions to Singapore.

Chinese coolies

Away from the familiarity of home, Singapore’s early pioneers struggled with food and water shortages, proper sanitation, poverty and petty crimes. They had little option but to endure and overcome the odds.

Chinese coolies were one such group of pioneers. The word coolie comes from ‘kuli’, the name of a tribe in India who were amongst the first to arrive in Singapore. In the early 1800s, Chinese coolies or singkehs (‘new arrivals’ in Hokkien) arrived in Singapore – in search of a better life and to escape poverty back in China. Little did they know that the journey to Singapore would be arduous, and their daily lives harder still.

En route to Singapore, they were often confined to tight spaces on ships, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The dead were then thrown overboard. The coolies who fell ill onboard never got hired and often died in Singapore. Those who were able bodied and survived the journey, were employed to do hard labour in mines, at ports, on construction sites or as rickshaw pullers. But they lived in overcrowded and grim conditions.

Image: Coolies were employed as rickshaw pullers, amongst other occupations. (Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Samsui women

In the 1930s, Singapore suffered the effects of the Great Depression and many were unemployed. To control the rising unemployment rate, the British placed restrictions on the number of male immigrants allowed into Singapore. They did not, however, place the same restrictions on female immigrants. As such, many Samsui women came to Singapore in the mid-1930s, from the ‘three waters’ or Samsui district of Canton province. Others came from Fujian and Chao’an.

Image: Samsui women working on a construction site. (Kouo Shang-Wei Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Samsui women were known as ‘hong tou jin’, after their trademark red head dress. These eye-catching head dresses reduced the risk of accidents at work. They also shielded the women from the sun, and was used to store cigarettes, matches or money. Samsui women usually lived in shophouses that lined Upper Chin Chew, Upper Nankin and Eu Tong Sen streets in Chinatown. They were employed as labourers for rubber estates and domestic helpers (amahs) or as labourers on construction sites. At work, they were required to carry out heavy labour like digging, carrying earth, debris or construction materials in buckets hung from shoulder poles. They often sent the money they earned here back home to China.

Image: Samsui women having a meal break. (Kouo Shang-Wei Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Death houses along Sago Lane

Chinese coolies and Samsui women led poor and frugal lives. When they became terminally ill, or believed they were nearing the end of their lives, they headed to death houses along Sago Lane. These death houses would perform funeral rites and provide a decent burial for them. A death house typically consisted of a living space with beds for those who were sick or dying on the first level, and below it was a funeral parlour.

Image: Inside a death house (1950).

Sago Lane has evolved much over the years. In the mid-1800s, Sago Lane was home to many sago factories, hence its name. The sago flour or granulated pearl sago produced was then exported to Europe and India. Sago was also used locally – in desserts, textile starch, hospital food for the sick and recovering patients.

In the early 1900s, apart from being known for its death houses and shops selling paper models, clothes, flowers and other paraphernalia used in Chinese funerals, Sago Lane was also known to be a prostitution area. In the 1970s, it was expunged to make way for newer developments.

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