The ‘Kongsi Women’ were a tribe of women who worked and lived on construction sites and were responsible for building many of Kuala Lumpur’s iconic buildings. Photo courtesy KLAF 2018.
Making up more than 60% of construction sites in the post-Merdeka era, these women were instrumental in developing the built landscape of our nation’s capital. The following is a passage written by Maya Tan for the book, ‘The Merdeka Interviews’ by Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong.
Amidst the male-dominant discourse surrounding the building of a new nation, women were a formidable army of reserve labour. Living in kongsis, or shared living quarters, they worked on-site in industries such as mining and construction and were recruited as outsourced support in the domestic services.
On the construction site, however, the kongsi women, also known as lai sui mui (meaning ‘mud girls’ in Cantonese on account of the buckets of mud-like liquid concrete that they carried), were a unique tribe of female labourers making up about 60% of total workers on a site. Working ten or more hours a day, with only two days of leave per year, the women worked tirelessly, carrying buckets or balancing pans on their head of premixed concrete and other materials, laying turf, polishing floors and more.
” These girls carried concrete on head pans or in pans on a bamboo rod over their shoulders. I estimated at one stage that many of those girls handling the concrete would walk actually almost as far as five miles a day carrying half a ton of concrete, which is a considerable amount of work. But then at night, they would go back to their kongsis and get dressed up to go out, and you’d see them come out of their kongsis, and you couldn’t believe they were the same girls. They were beautiful, slim, and there was no indication that they had been carrying concrete for two miles, half a ton all day.” – Ronald Pratt, Architect (Subang Airport)
As most of the work was done outdoors, the women wore protective clothing—nun-like hoods, and a standard outfit of black samfu (a loose Chinese blouse-and-trousers ensemble) with ultra-long sleeves which doubled as gloves — so that they would not get burned by the sun. Food and accommodation were provided for them at the women-only kongsis, and they did not have to do any domestic work.
By far the most outstanding aspect of the lai sui mui was the fact that their (often) diminutive physiques belied an Amazonian strength and stamina. Whenever a lai sui mui had a day off, a male worker would sometimes step in, but was often unable to complete the amount of tasks the lai sui mui would usually complete in a day, or as quickly.
“And one mustn’t forget the enormous contribution that the female labour played. On the Parliament building, I think we had a thousand people working on the site and I suppose six hundred of those would have been women. Most of them often were just girls, hardworking and cheerful girls. The buildings couldn’t have gone on without them.” – Ivor Shipley, Architect (Parliament House)
By night, the lai sui mui would transform from worker bee to Queen bee. Shedding their black, shapeless outfits, they would get dressed to go out in the evenings, revealing fair skin, shiny hair and statuesque bodies. They were also present at many of the parties or celebrations and socialised with the architects, engineers and other crew members.
At the launch ceremonies of buildings, the lai sui mui would invite their families to show off their work. Their pride in their work completed the circle in their fierce, loyal and tireless work ethic, without which, the built environment of the brand new Malaysia would probably have suffered.
Video produced by Maya Tan for KLAF 2018
‘The Merdeka Interviews’ by Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong is available at major bookstores in Malaysia and www.pamonlinestore.com
Read more about ‘The Merdeka Interviews’ by Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong: