TANJUNG BUNGAH: From Parliament House to Merdeka Stadium where the nation’s independence was declared, Malaysia’s architectural wonders of the 50s, 60s and 70s took shape way before the advent of sophisticated construction machinery.
Under these circumstances, you’d be forgiven for thinking Kuala Lumpur was built by men folk but the situation on the ground was quite the opposite.
Under broad-brimmed straw hats to shield their eyes from the unforgiving sun, were women with beautiful faces and slender bodies who were amazingly strong like oxen, hauling heavy slabs of brick and timber as well as buckets of wet cement just like the men on their crew.
“Women played a critical and fundamental role in the building of then independent Malaya. That is a fact that has not been recognised enough,” Ang Chee Cheong, co-author of the book ‘The Merdeka Interviews,’ tells FMT.
He explained how he and Dr Lai Chee Kian, his co-author, were genuinely surprised when they chanced upon this morsel of historical information when researching their book.
The duo had wanted to highlight the artists, architects and engineers who helped build Parliament House, Stadium Negara, Masjid Negara and even Subang International Airport, all symbols of Malaysia’s independence.
Instead, they discovered how women made up 60% of construction crews back then.
“I wanted to put in a lot of construction pictures and noticed that there were a lot of women working,” Ang says, adding that it was quite “unusual” since women are rarely part of construction crews these days.
“It wasn’t just on one building but on many and was a common occurrence on construction sites,” he says.
“They were known as the ‘lai sui mui’s’ because they carried concrete slurry and wet cement,” Ang reveals, explaining that the term literally means ‘mud girls’ in Cantonese.
Before modern machines existed, women hand-mixed cement, then transported the heavy buckets by balancing them on their shoulders.
Weekends for rest and relaxation were unheard of. Instead, these women worked every single day of their lives, lugging wet cement, laying turf and polishing floors. They were allowed only two days off each year.
“These girls carried a cement bag on each hip up timber ramps all day long,” Ivor Shipley, the architect of Parliament House told Lai.
“When the ladies had their two days a year off, the chaps had to carry the cement and they couldn’t do it – it was impossible,” Shipley said, adding that the men could only last for half a day.
After a gruelling day of hard labour, these women were finally able to rest their tired bones in their kongsi quarters.
“The women would be in separate parts of the kongsi,” says Ang, explaining that kongsi referred to workers’ housing, which is why the women were often called Kongsi Women.
“It was quite a liberating experience as the women had their own quarters and didn’t have to do any household chores.” The mountains of soiled clothes and dusty rooms was someone else’s responsibility.
By day, they were recognisable by their straw hats and shapeless black clothing, but by night they were decked in their best, ready to party the night away in Petaling Jaya.
“You’d see them come out of their kongsis, and you couldn’t believe they were the same girls,” architect Ron Pratt told Lai.
“They were beautiful, slim and there was no indication that they had been carrying concrete for two miles, half a ton all day.”
With the economic boom, came innovation in the construction industry which saw the invention of modern machinery that took over the toughest jobs on sites. Intensive human labour, especially that of women, was no longer necessary.
Although little light has been shed on the Kongsi women and their contribution to the economy, the results of their hard work and no-nonsense attitude when on the job lives on in Malaysia’s most famous landmarks.
Gain more insight into Malaysia’s architectural history in ‘The Merdeka Interviews’.