A tribute to samsui women in ink and watercolour

Watercolourist Tong Chin Sye with Toiling For Our Loved Ones, his largest work at the exhibition.
Watercolourist Tong Chin Sye with Toiling For Our Loved Ones, his largest work at the exhibition.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Veteran watercolourist Tong Chin Sye pays tribute to samsui women in his latest show featuring 30 works, done mainly in Chinese ink and watercolour in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

They show the women, in their trademark navycoloured samfoo top and red headpiece, toiling at construction sites or resting after a hard day's work.

The exhibition, which opened at Blue Lotus Fine Art gallery last Saturday, runs till May 30.

Samsui women came here to work as construction workers from the early 20th century up to the early 1970s. They were mostly single young women who hailed from Samsui city in Guangdong province, China. During the construction boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were as many as 20,000 of them here.

Most returned to their hometown or died here. The few who remain here are in their late 80s or early 90s and living alone in rental flats in Redhill or Chinatown.

Artist Tong, 75, a graduate of the now-defunct Singapore Academy of Arts in 1960, says his interest in them started in the 1980s, when he met a retired samsui woman in Chinatown who agreed to be his model for a fee.

"I started painting her portraits in oil in her navyblue samfoo and red headgear and later even took her to construction sites where she showed me her different postures at work and when she took time off to rest or have a quick meal," he recalls.

A former graphic artist who has been a full-time painter since 1970, Tong explains he was attracted by their unique dressing, which reminds him of the colourful costumes of China's minority tribes.

"And when I saw their rough hands, tanned skin and wrinkles on their faces, I saw the hardships they endured and wanted to capture them on canvas," he says.

After painting them in oil and also watercolour, Tong feels Chinese ink and colour suit them best as the medium is a traditional Chinese one.

He painted them on different paper sizes, mainly of them in groups at work. The largest in the exhibition, titled Toiling For Our Loved Ones, measures 380cm by 137cm. It took him about two weeks to paint, but nearly four years to complete. It has a price tag of $100,000.

He explains: "I finished the painting in 1989 and wanted to write a poem in praise of their contributions to Singapore. Then I realised my Chinese calligraphy wasn't good enough and had to spend the next four years perfecting my writing till 1993, when I was confident to do so."

Tong, married with two grown-up children and a former part-time lecturer in Western art at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, hopes to show more of Singapore's past in his paintings.

"I hope that through my paintings on samsui women and Chinatown in the show, viewers will get a better appreciation of those women who helped build Singapore in the early years," he adds.

wengkam@sph.com.sg