- Remembering the Samsui Women: Migration and Social Memory in Singapore and China by Kelvin E.Y. Low
The notion of social memory and the processes of both remembering and forgetting have now become major themes in cultural studies. However, much of this literature remains theoretical and abstract, and relatively little of it addresses issues pertinent to Asia. This volume attempts to address these two concerns through its interrogation of the theoretical literature as a route into the examination of migratory histories, and specifically of the links between China and Singapore as mediated in particular by the experiences of the well-known group of female migrants known as the Samsui women. [End Page 287] These southern Chinese women — who did indeed play a role in the literal construction of Singapore as labourers on building sites in both colonial and post-colonial times — have since been, in a sense, re-invented as pioneers, exemplary workers and figures representing what might be called the “human story” of migration — the uprooting, travelling, adaptation to the initially unfamiliar and difficult life in Singapore, and the settling into a routine of hard labour, often extending into quite old age. The Samsui women have become part of Singapore’s heritage, a term that is now much contested and debated both in scholarly and policy circles, including in the work of such international bodies as UNESCO, whose practice of designating certain historically significant buildings or places as World Heritage Sites is not innocent of a political dimension.
Nowhere is this contestation and debate more acute than in Singapore, where the constant preoccupation of the state to define its identity inevitably involves the selection of memories, exemplary people or groups of people, and sites. The book constantly moves between these levels, utilizing as its master narrative what Low calls “entangled histories” (p. 16). For the co-option of a particular migrant history, in this case that of the Samsui women, involves many elements which the author attempts to identify. These elements include the construction of a “pioneer script” (p. 34) materialized in museum presentations, literature, drama (for both stage and television), the visual arts and the political construction of particular identities and histories embodied in the “nation-building” project that dominated the early years of independence and that continues in various more disguised forms down to the present day. Such policy interventions have been almost totally concerned with the intersecting projects of political control and the definition of national identity throughout independent Singapore’s history. In a country as young as Singapore, these projects inevitably require reference to the past, and, as Low shows in this book, the assimilation of a colonial history — or perhaps better, a history taking place in colonial times — into the contemporary imagination of the nation is an ongoing concern and one that is never definitively “settled”. [End Page 288]
The book itself can thus be profitably read as a kind of dialectical movement among various levels: the memories of migrants and the national appropriation of them (or at least of those migrants who have become “heritage” or otherwise politically significant); a rereading from the perspective of social constructions of the past of the migrant experience as lived by these remarkable and resilient women; the actual ethnography of a rapidly disappearing group of now very elderly people; a deconstruction of the myths and false preconceptions surrounding both the Samsui women and other Chinese female migrants such as the ma cheh; the construction of “heritage” by media, state, museums and market (even to the extent of the manufacture and selling of Samsui dolls); the legal, economic and sociological background to female migration from South China; and the politics of heritage in Singapore. The book is rich in theoretical discussion and methodological ideas about the problems of studying memory in a sociological way, and in ethnographic discussion of the migratory experiences and contemporary lives of the Samsui women. Sometimes these issues get in the way of each other, and the reader feels that the Samsui ladies are...