SINGAPORE: Food guru KF Seetoh weighed in on the recent Samsui Woman mural controversy, defending the vision of the artist in a post over social media and taking the opportunity to pay his respects “to these great women folk who build such a key part of our heritage.”

Last week, Sean Dunston, an American artist based in Singapore, said in an Instagram post that he had been ordered to remove a cigarette from a woman in a mural he painted at 297 South Bridge Road.

According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the mural is not aligned with Singapore’s anti-smoking policy.

Mr Dunston also said in his post that a member of the public had given feedback on the painting, saying that they found it to be “offensive and is disrespectful to our Samsui women,” as the woman depicted in this mural “looks more like a prostitute than a hardworking Samsui woman.”


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A post shared by Sean Dunston (@seanpdunston)

The requested changes to the mural caused a debate online, with artists such as Yip Yew Chong and the gender equality advocacy group AWARE airing their views. It has also sparked concerns over the censorship of street art.

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IG screengrab/Sean Dunston

Mr Seetoh, Singapore’s leading food critic, said he once had a chance to take pictures of the last few Samsui women, immigrants from China who came to Singapore and Malaysia from the 1920s to the 1940s and worked in factories and construction sites.

For accuracy’s sake, the Makansutra founder agreed that the cigarette should be removed from the painting but also said that it should be replaced with “anghoon, the affordable roll-up tobacco smokes they are known to puff after a long day of hard work.”

“That’s the truth, it’s accurate and part of our real history. Don’t deny this country its truth. Confront it fearlessly and be proud of who we are,” he added.

He then went on to share the story from the 1980s of having taken pictures of the Samsui women for the then Straits Times Press.

One of the women had known Mr Seetoh’s father since they came from the same kampung in Chek Hum, Kaiping, Guangzhou, and remembered the older Mr Seetoh as a child.

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The woman was “rolling the anghoon” as they talked, and when he asked her about the habit, the women told him it’s “their main vice and it helps them ease off a day’s toil… proudly building our old public housing HDB blocks with their bare hands wearing those red and blue iconic headgear.”

He also appealed to the public to respect and remember these women “for who they are, not what we now want them to be.”

As for concerns over young people being influenced to smoke because of the mural, he said that they can be kept off cigarettes through good parenting and not “by photoshopping our history.”

“Don’t dictate history..facilitate the truth. It’s all we have,” he added, appealing for courage to protect the truth.

The URA has since taken note of feedback from the public and has asked the artist to delay changes to the mural while it reviews the matter. /TISG

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