Like the more commonly known samsui women, who were female labourers who migrated to Singapore from China to work during the 1930s and 40s, and upon whose backs much of the country’s infrastructure was built, Mdm Khor Khim Tin toiled as a construction worker for close to 30 years. Her story is one of extraordinary grit and resilience against the backdrop of Singapore’s development, spanning from World War II to the rapid industrialisation of the 1970s.
At 86, Mdm Khor Khim Tin is jovial and sprightly, fond of playing Candy Crush on her iPad and eager to keep up with the happenings in her grandchildren’s lives. Her cheery, grandmotherly exterior, however, belies an iron will forged through years of sacrifice and perseverance.
When she was still an infant, Mdm Khor’s father left their hometown in China to work as a coolie in Singapore. When his correspondence slowed before stopping altogether, and he failed to return home after a few years, Mdm Khor’s grandmother grew worried. She instructed Mdm Khor’s mother to move the family to Singapore to search for him.
This was how Mdm Khor, then five years old, ended up in Singapore with her mother and siblings. Simply paying for the boat journey caused the family significant financial hardship. “My mother withdrew all her savings, but even that wasn’t enough. We had to borrow more from our relatives in China,” she said.
After arriving in Singapore, they eventually managed to track down Mdm Khor’s father – who, to their shock and distress, had become addicted to alcohol and opium, spending most of his days at opium dens before going out to drink afterwards. Due to his struggles, he was only able to hold down odd jobs, and could barely afford to look after himself, let alone a wife and young children. “We didn’t know he had been having a tough time,” she said.
Mdm Khor’s mother had no option but to find work to supplement the family’s income. With the little money she managed to scrimp together, her mother sought out her father’s boss for help with renting lodgings for the family. Mdm Khor, then only a young girl herself, helped to look after her siblings while her mother worked.
Thanks to her mother’s efforts, the family’s fortunes improved somewhat within a few years. In 1941, when Mdm Khor was nine, the family moved to Pulau Ubin, where her mother had found a job at one of the island’s (now closed) granite quarries. The island was then home to a few thousand inhabitants, most of whom worked at the quarries or as fishermen. (Pulau Ubin is itself a derivative of the original name, Pulau Batu Jubin (Malay for “Island of Granite Stones”).
Labourers at one of the five quarries on Pulau Ubin in 1962. Photo from the Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, National Archives of Singapore
“She [my mother] worked hard and managed to save up enough money to register me for primary school,” recalled Mdm Khor. “I was so excited and happy that I could go to school.”
Unfortunately, her education turned out to be short-lived: The Japanese occupation of Singapore began the next year, in 1942, and her time at school came to an abrupt halt. “That [war] stopped me from being the privileged one,” she lamented.
Mdm Khor contributed to the war effort by helping to build underground bomb shelters for young women and girls to hide from Japanese soldiers. “The men dug up the ground to form the shelter, and the women and girls would carry the soil out. We also had to carry wood and planks to help form the structural support for the shelter,” she said.
“I remember once, when we were building the shelters, an old auntie who was helping out got a wooden splinter in her finger. She asked me to help her get a needle to dig the splinter out,” she said. “On my way out, I slipped and cut my right heel on a sharp shard of granite. It bled non-stop.”
As the war progressed, times got even harder. Mdm Khor’s father passed away during the war, and by the time it had ended, her mother was in ill health, leaving her unable to work. As the eldest child, the responsibility of providing for the family fell to Mdm Khor. “I had to take over the task of supporting the family, bringing back money, and helping to raise my six siblings,” she said. She was barely 13 at the time.
With seven dependants to support, Mdm Khor took over her mother’s old job as a labourer in the quarry, as well as a second job as a tapper in a rubber plantation. Her days became a punishing schedule of back-breaking work that had to be done day in, day out.
“Every day, I would get up at 2.00am to prepare my meal for the day. I had to walk two kilometres to the rubber plantation near our home, and then start tapping and harvesting the latex by 3.00am,” she said. “It was incredibly dark out in the rubber plantation, but I was only given a single kerosene lamp and my tapping tools. I was so scared as people had told me ghost stories about the plantation! But I just had to grit my teeth and do it, since my siblings were still quite young then.”
At 6.00 am, a truck would come to pick her up and take her to her job at the quarry. By 6.30 am, she and the rest of the quarry workers had to be ready to start work.
“Every day, the male quarry workers would be rostered to different sections of the quarry and use TNT [an explosive] to blow up the rocks. The female workers would use shovels to collect the smaller chunks of granite, put them into baskets, and carry the baskets to be placed into trolleys. Once the trolleys were full, we would load them onto a loading truck. This went on till 5.00 pm, 30 days a month,” she said.
“During those days, life really wasn’t easy,” she said, grinning ruefully. “Work started before sunrise and ended only at sunset. My daily wages only came up to 20 cents – five cents from the rubber plantation and 15 cents from the quarry. I used the money to pay for food and necessities for the family.”
Mdm Khor married when she was 19 and continued to work at the quarry right up till 1970, when her sister told her about a job opening at a construction site on the mainland, near Orchard Road. By then, she had been working as a labourer for the majority of her 38 years.
“At the time I only knew it was for the construction of a hotel – it’s where the Holiday Inn is today. I immediately accepted the job because the wages were higher and I had my family to support,” she said. For convenience, the family – Mdm Khor, her husband, and their children – moved from Pulau Ubin to the mainland.
Mdm Khor (furthest left, standing) with her mother (seated), eldest son (standing), and her first and second daughters, circa mid to late 1950s. Photo courtesy of Mdm Khor
Mdm Khor with her husband and firstborn, circa the early 1950s. Photo courtesy of Mdm Khor
At the construction site, Mdm Khor was tasked with manually mixing and transporting paste for bricklaying. First, she would transport sand and cement from the site’s storage area to the main working station using a wheelbarrow, and then mix them with water in a large pail to form a paste.
She then had to scoop the paste into two smaller pails and transport them around the site with a bamboo pole, delivering the paste to construction workers who would use it to lay tiles and bricks. As the construction work progressed, Mdm Khor had to walk up several storeys to reach the men working on the higher floors.
Labouring on the hotel took several years. When it was finally completed in 1976, Mdm Khor moved on to work on a land reclamation site in Changi – the ground on which Changi Airport would be built. “When we first saw it, it was a swamp land,” she said.
Much like her previous jobs, she worked at the Changi site from dawn to dusk. “We started at 6.00 am and ended at 6.00 pm,” she said. “For the first nine months, we had to cut down trees and remove their roots from the swamp. This was really tough because most of the trees had roots that went very deep. After that, we filled up the swamp with granite and cement.”
By that time, Mdm Khor was in her mid-40s, and years of hard labour had taken their toll on her health. However, with her youngest son still in school, she pressed on for the sake of her family. “I could feel my whole body giving way, but I had to work to support my youngest son to go to university,” she said.
Unable to cope with the physical demands of construction work any longer, she took on work as a housekeeper instead, but her legs never fully recovered from the strain. Today, she walks with a slight limp and requires the support of a cane.
Mdm Khor today. With the years of labour behind her, she enjoys going out for meals with her family. Photo by Adam Chan
Given her decades of hard work and sacrifice, Mdm Khor is very proud to have played a part in – quite literally – building Singapore into the modern metropolis it is today. When she was in her 60s, she made a few visits to her hometown in China, and found it dated compared to the skyscrapers, shopping malls and high-rise flats in Singapore.
“I feel very proud and happy seeing how Singapore has transformed over the years into what it is today. A small little country, but very well known around the world,” she remarked.
Mdm Khor’s role in nation-building, however, is only one part of her story. As a daughter, wife, and mother, she worked quietly against great odds in the hope of giving her relatives a life more comfortable than her own. It’s a contribution no less worthy of recognition, and one made possible only by deep love.
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign