Connect with us

Arts & Cultures

AWARE challenges patriarchal stereotypes in samsui woman mural saga

Singapore’s women’s rights group AWARE criticized the Urban Redevelopment Authority for “misses the point” in the smoking samsui woman mural saga by focusing on the cigarette. They argued URA’s decision, based on public feedback likening her to a prostitute, perpetuates damaging stereotypes and disrespects sex workers.



SINGAPORE: AWARE, an advocacy group for women’s rights in Singapore, has weighed in on the debate surrounding a Chinatown mural featuring a smoking samsui woman.

While emphasizing the need for respectful and authentic portrayals of samsui women in art, AWARE criticized the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for “missing the point” in the saga by focusing on the cigarette.

The group voiced concern over the URA’s decision, which based on public feedback likening the woman to a prostitute, perpetuates damaging patriarchal stereotypes and is disrespectful to sex workers.

Earlier reports indicated that URA  initially instructed the landlord of the conserved shophouse at 297 South Bridge Road to remove the cigarette from the mural.

The mural’s artist, Sean Dunston, took to Instagram to reveal that the URA had asked him to erase the cigarette from the artwork, stating that the agency had received feedback from a member of the public who claimed that the mural was “offensive and disrespectful” to samsui women.

In a Monday statement, AWARE welcomed the ongoing public discourse regarding the Chinatown mural and appreciated that the URA is considering public feedback.

AWARE acknowledged that the artist’s portrayal aimed to capture a younger samsui woman, yet the depiction diverges significantly from the historical reality of these resilient labourers.

AWARE noted that the mural’s depiction of the woman holding a cigarette in a glamorous manner did not reflect the harsh realities faced by samsui women and could perpetuate a male gaze that exoticizes female subjects, detracting from a true appreciation of their contributions.

AWARE champions artistic freedom but emphasizes the importance of engaging thoughtfully with subjects and contexts in artistic interpretations.

” We encourage a portrayal that more accurately reflects the robust and rugged spirit of the samsui women, ensuring their story is told with the respect and authenticity it deserves.”

AWARE also noted that URA’s focus on the cigarette in the mural is misguided because samsui women did indeed smoke.

They are more concerned that the URA justified its decision by citing public feedback that the woman looked like a prostitute, which supports damaging, patriarchal stereotypes about how women should act and look, and is disrespectful to sex workers.

“Art should make us think, reflect, and understand our past better,” the group concluded.

Artist defends samsui woman smoking mural, opposes subjective censorship

On 23 June, Yip Yew Chong, a prominent Singaporean mural artist, opposed labelling the smoking samsui woman mural as ‘offensive,’ noting that samsui women commonly smoked and had diverse personalities.

He believed viewers have the right to dislike artwork and express their opinions but disagreed with calls for censorship based on subjective interpretations, such as claiming the mural resembles a prostitute due to the samsui woman’s smoking gesture and posture.

He noted that the mural does not promote vulgarity, degradation, or incite hatred towards any community, race, or religion.

“Smoking, though unhealthy and discouraged, is not illegal. When shown in context of a Samsui woman taking a smoke break as they did in their real life, is by no means promoting smoking.”

While acknowledging art’s community impact, Mr. Yip stressed balancing artistic freedom with societal norms.

He also advocates for a diverse and vibrant street mural scene in Singapore. He supports the exploration of various themes and styles beyond his preference for local culture and realism.

URA re-evaluates its decision after public outcry

The mural’s controversy came to light when the artist, Mr Dunston, shared his experience on Instagram on 19 June.

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.”

Commenting on Mr Dunston’s Instagram post, a netizen shared that her grandmother was a samsui woman who bravely carried bricks, raised five children single-handedly, smoked, and lived until the age of 86.

He reassured Mr Dunston that his role as an artist is to bring attention to the truth, “and now just paint a rubber ducky, everyone will remember the truth and spread the funny story even stronger than the original cigarette.”

Another comment shared that his grandmother was a Samsui woman who smoked like a chimney.

“So yeah, this mural is accurate – even down to the jade bracelet! Love it.”

A netizen criticized the feedback, suggesting that whoever gave it sexualized the Samsui woman. She shared similar sentiments with others, noting the mural’s historical accuracy and questioning the sensitivity of those offended.

As reported by The Straits Times on 21 June, the URA has now decided to re-evaluate its position due to recent public feedback.

In an email update to the landlord, who is represented by Shepherd Asset Management, 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.

Share this post via:
Continue Reading
Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

, …… the chatter and banter continues, with another entity drawn in to the “much ado about a cigarette”, … which showcases the stigma and shitstorm stemming from a ciggie, … can generate and incite !!!

How ridiculously and singaporelarly mundane and moronic !!!

where is the jessie rotten chee bye now?

I am not a fan of AWARE.
In this aspect, I thank AWARE for standing for contributors of the society. Singaporean need to grow up, Sex workers are making their decent living, stop stereotype them. And it is legal in Singapore as long as license fees are paid to the government.

Speaking as a man, it looks like I just got womansplained. Since the AWARE has used “cigarette” and “sex workers” as a point of departure to riff on gender politics, I thought I’d develop my own tangential thought. The post-feminist sexual empowerment idea has gone beyond hook-up culture. It seems some young women, have convinced themselves that they can do better than getting sloshed and kneeling in front of a ‘sugar daddy’. There are older men who will provide them with cash &/or take care of their expenses. They may also, ironically,treat them better than the young men who are… Read more »

Don’t like the true history depicted by the artist?

Wait for the Pioneer Generation Leader’s memorial completion and go see all the embellished success stories!
Everything will be Papillon clean and sanitised there.