They sailed through choppy waters to Singapore in large, overcrowded junks, often with hundreds of passengers on each vessel jostling for space.
There was little food and drink on board, and disease spread rapidly. Some, tragically, did not survive the journey.
To allow younger generations of Singaporeans to understand the struggles and challenges the immigrants endured on their perilous journey, the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations' upcoming exhibition will feature a rocking platform in a dark mock-up cabin.
The exhibition is one of eight projects that the federation is organising as part of Singapore's bicentennial to add to the "reflective experience for Singaporeans throughout 2019", said its president Tan Aik Hock yesterday.
Called New World, New Life, the exhibition with the mock-up cabin details the journey of Singapore's early settlers and communities. It will be held at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre from Nov 19 to April 28 next year. Admission is free.
The federation said the eight projects, collectively themed Unsung Heroes, are meant to expose younger Singaporeans to the experiences of their forefathers.
Mr Tan said: "We are looking forward to commemorating the nation's bicentennial milestone with our diverse and vibrant programmes that will appeal to all age groups.
"We are definitely hopeful that the legacies of our forefathers will continue to thrive so long as our future generations continue to build upon the foundations of the last."
The projects include heritage trails, talks and seminars, theatre performances, literary awards, community service outreach, and the publication of an English version of the book, A General History Of The Chinese In Singapore.
The heritage trails, to be conducted in March and October next year, will feature infrastructure and monuments built by Indian labourers and Samsui women during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Samsui women, who flocked to Singapore from China in the mid-1930s, helped construct buildings such as the former Asia Insurance Building (Ascott Raffles Place today) and the Bank of China building near it. Amateur historian and heritage volunteer Chia Bee Lian, 63, said the women were also the labourers who helped construct the former Supreme Court - part of the National Gallery today.
The federation said it will also be launching a biographical database of Chinese personalities here with the National Library Board and the National University of Singapore's Department of Chinese Studies, as a reflective attempt "to understand the full essence and complexity of the relationships" among the pioneers.
Mr Kua Bak Lim, chairman of the federation's research committee, which initiated the database project, said: "It will be an important database for researchers and those interested in Singapore's history. They don't have to go through reams of information to establish these old networks and connections."