- Remembering the Samsui Women: Migration and Social Memory in Singapore and China by Kelvin E.Y. Low
Kelvin E.Y. Low’s book gives us a timely treatise on the Samsui women—peasant women from the Samsui area of the coastal Chinese province of Guangdong who immigrated to Singapore in the early twentieth century. The study takes up the issues of social and collective memory through the complex lens of labour migration in Asia. Low further shows how these migrant histories of hardship and labour have been instrumentalized for postcolonial nation building.
As a sociologist, Low situates his work in the field of memory studies; he is particularly preoccupied with how memory and migration produce national identity. By focusing on this highly visible group in Singapore’s historiography, one that has been the subject of an outsized number of social memory texts, Low is able to use highly detailed textual and cultural analysis to consider how their personal histories have been “inscribed in the broader memory canvas of Singapore’s historical development in its pre- and post-independence contexts.” Indeed, his main argument is for “entangled memories,” the contextualization of memories from multiple perspectives and political, historical, and geographical scales. Thus, Remembering the Samsui Women considers the transnational, national, and intimate scales of the women’s life stories and further conceptualizes these narratives’ relationship to the construction of a collective history and the contemporary moment. This pluralization of the past is very much in line with recent counter-histories of Singapore—like Loh Kah Seng’s microhistory Squatters to Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore (2013) and Thum Ping Tjin’s work on post-World War II political history—that are only just gaining traction in the field.
The book is organized into six chapters as Low first gives us the historical and transnational contexts of the Samsui women’s migration patterns and lays out his theoretical frameworks before going into in-depth analyses of popular representations of the women. Arguably, the most significant sections of his study are those that document his fieldwork, done in various public housing estates from 2006 to 2010. There Low allows the Samsui women themselves to tell their stories and lets their memories “connect the past to the present through both personal and collective acts of remembering.” The women’s voices dominate these chapters as they recollect their journeys from China to Singapore and their everyday working lives in the new city state. Low is careful to note that he made great efforts to acknowledge these women’s individual lives and experiences, beyond appropriating them as “merely ‘memory subjects/objects,’ as transient researchers or interested individuals such as reporters have [End Page 538] done.” It is this respect and care for his subjects that enables these sections to act as the heart of the study.
This monograph will be of great interest to scholars of gendered minority histories, especially ones of labour, migration, and postcolonial nation building. Indeed, Low’s attempt to move from the large, overarching geopolitical and economic contexts of the Samsui women to their cultural reproductions and further to their intimate histories is admirable for its ambition and breadth. Nevertheless, this means that certain sections of the book encompass subjects that deserve entire studies of their own. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Low’s final chapter, on the selective amnesia regarding the contributions of contemporary migrant workers in Singapore vis-à-vis the Samsui women. While the latter are lionized and held up as iconic examples of Singaporean strength and tenacity, the former are ostracized and relegated to the lower echelons of contemporary Singaporean society. Low’s study points out the highly ironic contradictions in this social discourse and yet only scratches the surface of the problematic racist regulations and representations of the migrant worker population in twenty-first-century Singapore—a politics of forgetting that poses no small challenge to Low’s exploration of the politics of remembering.