Meet the Researchers: Dr Kelvin Low

17 November, 2014

Dr Kelvin Low (Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology) recently published Remembering the Samsui Women: Migration and Social Memory in Singapore and China (2014, UBC Press). The book is an illuminating study of the connection between memory and nation, including the politics of what is remembered and what is forgotten.

In the early twentieth century, thousands of women from the Samsui area of Guangdong, China migrated to Singapore during a period of economic and natural calamity, leaving their families behind. In their new country, many found work in the construction industry, with others working in households or factories where they were called hong tou jin, translated literally as “red-head-scarf,” after the headgear that protected them from the sun.

In Singapore, the women have been celebrated as pioneering figures for their hard work and resilience, and in China for the sacrifices they made for their families. In this interview, Dr Low discusses some of his inspirations, the book’s research process and challenges, surprising findings, and more.

What inspired you to research the migratory experiences and memories, as well as Singapore’s constructed social memory, of the Samsui women?

I am broadly interested in how migratory flows and other related mobilities are experienced, both in the country of origin and destination/s, and at different levels and scales of analysis.  In the case of the Samsui women, they have been featured as pioneering figures through such media as art, literature, and popular history books and others in the past few decades. Usually depicted as paragons of resilience, strength and thrift, what we know of them is typically characterised through attention placed on their distinct livery, and how they are often remembered as never-married migrants. I found these portrayals to be both intriguing and limited, and was thus interested to learn more about the circumstances under which they emigrated, their aspirations in leaving home in search of a livelihood elsewhere, and their varied experiences as (adoptive) mothers and daughters-in-laws; in short, their individual biographies embedded within the larger social milieu. Furthermore, I wanted to interrogate how social memory has been undertaken in reflecting upon these women’s lives – how do processes of remembering and forgetting transpire, what are the politics of memory-making, and how these are all tied to constructions of the nation in both local and transnational contexts.


Photo: Choo Yut Shing

Could you talk about your research process? What was the most challenging aspect of conducting interviews and finding the archival material?

I conducted fieldwork as a volunteer with different elderly groups, archival research in Singapore and Hong Kong, narrative interviews with different groups of respondents as well as events-based analyses, and also examined secondary data in its various forms running the range from ministerial speeches, anecdotal sources, artistic works, to school textbooks, museum exhibitions, and many others.

One challenging aspect was having to conduct narrative interviews in different languages – English, Mandarin, and Cantonese – and then to transcribe them for closer analysis. The process of archival research was also fairly demanding as I was ferreting relevant media reports in microfiche form published both in English and Mandarin over the span of a few decades. Much time was thus required to scrutinise the different newspapers published locally and abroad.

Photo: Choo Yut Shing

What were the most surprising or noteworthy findings you uncovered, and what makes them so?

One interesting observation was how both the Chinese (China) and Singapore contexts memorialised the Samsui women in similar ways by employing parallel motifs, thereby demonstrating the utility of social memory  in transnational frames of remembrance that are apposite in these two contexts. Ideological motivations for selective remembering could therefore be further teased out through such analyses of entangled memory-making.

Did you come across any modern or historical parallels to the Samsui women outside of Singapore? Are Samsui women the only female migrant workers who have been elevated to icon status by their government?

In asking the question of why is it that the Samsui women and not other migrant groups have been continuously venerated, I compared their experiences and memory texts of these women with those of other migrant groups – both of their times (Cantonese amahs who migrated from South China) and in the contemporary context (foreign construction workers) – and suggested that states adopt both inclusionary and exclusionary approaches in managing and remembering migrants through legislative instruments and memory-making avenues. Different migrant communities are therefore managed in terms of their conscripted value as pioneers, or as transient migrant-labour for socio-economic employment.

Photo: William Cho

What research are you currently working on? What other projects do you have in mind for the future? Do any expand on the theories or research on migration, heritage production, historiography, and social memory in Remembering the Samsui Women?

I have been conducting research on Nepali Gurkha families and their migratory lifeworlds in the UK, Singapore, Nepal, and Hong Kong, by analysing issues revolving citizenship rights, senses of belonging, diasporic connections, and the different cycles and stages of migration. Based on my long-standing interest in sensory studies, another ongoing project delineates a sensory history of Asia where I analyse through sociocultural perspectives, different sense-modalities and what they mean in cross-cultural contexts, the links between senses and morality, and other related themes.

Remembering the Samsui Women is available here and will be published in paperback in 2015.

Interviewed by Rachel Amtzis, November 17, 2014