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Interview: Chong Tze Chien

The Finger Players’ new family-friendly play looks at the trials and tribulations that samsui women faced back in the day. Huiyun Chen finds out more

Photo: Tuckys Photography
Chong Tze Chien

People joke that our national bird is the crane because so many of them can be found in construction sites around the country. But before the crane came the Samsui women, and they’re the unsung heroes that theatre company The Finger Players are paying tribute to in their upcoming play. Titled Samsui Women: One Brick at a Time and starring a cast of actors and puppets, it’s commissioned by the Esplanade as part of the Feed Your Imagination series.

The play centres on the resilient Swee Leng, and the story follows her from her childhood in the province of Sanshui in China to her life as a samsui woman in Singapore. We find out more from Chong Tze Chien, the artistic director of The Finger Players.

'They’re the last of their generation and you will not see them again, so we just wanted to commemorate and celebrate them.'

How did the concept of the play – to feature Samsui women and the Bukit Ho Swee fire – come about?

Bukit Ho Swee and the samsui women are both such famous parts of our history, so I decided to link them together. When the fire broke in 1961, there was a mad rush to build new homes. We also saw the last of the samsui women in the ’60s. They were old and modern technology had taken over, so their role was not deemed as important in the construction industry.

Why samsui women and not another group of immigrant workers like the coolie workers?

[I’m inspired by] the resilience of these women who chartered the path in such unusual ways. They’re the last of their generation and you will not see them again, so we just wanted to commemorate and celebrate them. We also want to tell their story to the younger ones, who may not have any knowledge of them.

What were some of the most challenging aspects of staging the play?

There are few recorded documents so research took some time. No one knew why they wore red and blue, for instance, or how the hat came about. I had to rely on some academic essays floating around online. 

Tell us about Swee Leng.

Her relationship with her mother, a single parent, has instilled in her a strong spirit of independence. Due to certain circumstances, she decides to run away with Ah Teng.

What are some highlights or special features that the audience can look forward to?

It’s a fun and entertaining production with an innovative set – we used giant LEGO-like blocks to illustrate the way these samsui women built the city skyline. Also, the actors made the puppets in their own image, from scratch.

How does the use of puppets change the dynamics of the performance?

I think with puppets, children and the young at heart will be very drawn towards them as they’re endearing to look at. It’s almost magic on stage as you see these inanimate objects come to life. 

Meet the Iron Ladies

Swee Leng

Swee Leng

The protagonist in the production, whom we first see as a little girl in the small district of Sanshui in South China. Her relationship with her mother, a single parent, has instilled in her a strong spirit of independence. Due to certain circumstances, she decides to run away with Ah Teng. The men on the construction sites frequently taunt her.

Ah Teng

Ah Teng

Swee Leng’s best friend, played by Ellison Yuyang Tan, who followed Swee to Nanyang to run away from a failed marriage and an abusive husband.

Ah Mui

Ah Mui

Befriended by Swee Leng and Ah Ting on the ship to Nanyang, Ah Mui, played by Jasmine Xie Huilin, subsequently becomes a samsui woman as well.

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