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URA re-evaluates decision on Chinatown shophouse mural depicting samsui woman smoking after public outcry

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is reconsidering its stance on a controversial Chinatown mural depicting a young samsui woman smoking. The mural has garnered both support and criticism, prompting the URA to delay any changes until a thorough review is completed.



The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is reconsidering its stance on a controversial mural in Chinatown, following significant public feedback. The mural, which portrays a young samsui woman smoking, has drawn both support and criticism, prompting the URA to delay any required changes until a thorough review is completed.

Earlier, the agency under the Ministry of National Development, headed by Minister Desmond Lee, had directed the landlord of the conserved shophouse at 297 South Bridge Road to remove the cigarette from the mural, or else their license would allegedly be denied in less than a month and forced to shut down.

This directive was issued because the mural was painted without prior approval, which is mandatory for any artwork on conserved buildings. The URA had initially rejected the mural proposal after consultation with local stakeholders and relevant agencies, citing that the depiction of smoking contradicted Singapore’s anti-smoking policy.

The URA stated, “After consultation with local stakeholders and relevant agencies, the proposal was not supported as the depiction of smoking on the unauthorised mural is not aligned with Singapore’s anti-smoking policy.”

The URA emphasized the need for proper approval processes, stating, “All proposals for murals on conserved buildings must be submitted to both the building owner and URA for approval before works can begin.”

However, the URA has now decided to re-evaluate its position due to recent public feedback.

In an email update dated 21 June to the landlord, who is represented by Shepherd Asset Management, and seen by Straits Times, the URA stated that it had “taken note of additional feedback regarding the mural.”

The URA requested that the landlord “delay any works to the mural until the review is completed.” The email did not provide a timeline for the review.

The mural’s controversy came to light when the artist, Mr Dunston, shared his experience on Instagram two days ago.

His post quickly went viral, receiving over 3,000 likes and numerous supportive comments by Saturday morning. In his post, Mr Dunston mentioned he was instructed to “get rid of the cigarette” by 3 July and was considering alternatives that might be acceptable to the URA.

Mr Dunston also disclosed that the URA’s initial directive was based on a complaint from a member of the public, who described the mural as “offensive” and “disrespectful” to samsui women. The complainant further remarked that the woman in the mural resembled a “prostitute” rather than a “hardworking samsui woman.”

In response to the complaint, Mr Dunston wrote, “To the member of the public that leveled this criticism, I’d like to say that sex workers are very hard working people, and should be treated with as much respect as anyone else. You should ask your Mom about it. Also, if I offended you with this depiction of a Samsui woman, trying to enjoy herself for 2 little minutes between grind after grind, then I couldn’t be more pleased about it. You’re literally my target demographic.”

Many commenters on Mr Dunston’s Instagram post questioned why the URA acted based on a single complaint. Given the overwhelming support for the mural in the comments, the URA’s decision appears even more questionable.

Indiesg_tours, which runs tours, wrote, “We run tours in the district, and this is one of our guests’ favorites. It helps us tell the story of the Samsui women. Many of them came here young (like in your art), and they did backbreaking work, with their only respite being their laced ciggies. What a shame to have to change it.”

Samuel Goh commented, “Write back to URA and ask them to explain clearly which part of this woman depicts a prostitute, and if any part of the drawing is illegal in the state – including smoking. If nothing is illegal, why should it be changed or removed? And if nothing is illegal and they are threatening you to remove it, is that even legal?”

Anthony Soon wrote, “What you painted is factual. As a young boy, I witnessed how strong these ladies were back then. Drinking black coffee from condensed milk cans, eating biscuits, and smoking were the simple ‘luxuries’ they enjoyed during their rest periods. Whoever complained to URA was probably not even born then. Even more ridiculous was the URA person who asked for the mural to be modified. He should be sacked, in my opinion.”

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The artist reminds me of how our leaders have lost touch with reality and refused to listen to feedback from whom they are supposed to serve. Does the artist realized that these feedbacks are from people whom his painting is supposed to impressed upon.  Look, it is not just the cigarette, in the painting apart from the samsui red head band and cloth, the woman do not even look like a samsui woman. From a simple research, I have not found any samsui woman having such perfect complexion with makeup. The woman sits on a chair, I have only seen… Read more »

Does the URA have nothing better to do? If the mural is historically accurate and tourists / visitors like it. What is the harm? Just because somebody who might be a “false flag” decided to vehemently complain about it. So it has to be taken down? Well, since the pledge asks to build a “democratic society” why not go around and survey people who are around the area and find out what they think about it. Since the URA has that much free to be such busybodies regarding a harmless mural, I’m sure they have time and resources to conduct… Read more »

A picture speaks a thousand words. The fact that the art(subjected to interpretation) became a national talking point and divided the people should be deeply reflected upon as a nation. If you see a prostitute, you are not wrong. She let down her values(left hand) and chose trade(right hand) because of economic circumstances imposed on her.
There are millions of such women in the world today.

To me Mr. Dunston would have been more artistic & credible if he had portrayed a night-soil carrier with his cheroot (these workers used to go to those kampongs twice a day to collect the excrement in buckets and most of them with a cheroot sticking out their mouths to mask the smelly shits). Bet nobody will dispute that! Anyone here? lol

The lone member of the public who complained must be somebody URA deemed important, otherwise why would URA responded oh so swiftly. Perhaps it was some VVIP’s wife?

I believe the mural depicts the old Singapore. Thus, one that shows a samsui woman puffing away on rolled cigarettes is a fact of history.

Why the discomfort? Really, creating a buzz when there was no need too.

If seeing a samsui woman smoking a cigarette would encourage more to take up smoking, then we might as well censor any scenes on TV or at the cinemas showing actors smoking a cigarette.

I mean, … all this melodrama, because supposedly, some~one was offended, sufficiently offended to involve the almighty URA !!!

That supposed individual and the URA, … should go dive into what’s left of the oil spillage !!!

Have a life URA…..

Why the need to paint her smoking? She can be drinking coffee to milk cans. Or eating from tinkat!

Much Ado About Nothing.

One complaint…??
This “one complainant” must be next to God… to move the halls of

Just like “…a police report was made..” and voi-la and the police took action.. !!
Amazing people… I want o know who these people are… their faces, their names, their ages..
Can SPH do an interview.. ???

Ha! Ha!.. like when snow falls on Nassim Hill…

Is this art? I’m fairly certain that it is but I’m not sure what message Mr Dunston has given us here. I think he started down that road but never got there. Art, in any form, is something you do for yourself. If others like and understand it good. If not it is unimportant.

Actually another reason why women smoked in that period in time is because there was no flushing toilets. The stench must have been unbearable. DL must not be reactive. He must allow history to be depicted as it is. If a picture or an event is offensive to you, you don’t have to look at it and you don’t need to attend it. Allow others to enjoy it. Some Singaporeans are so, so petty.