Preserving Memories of Chinatown’s Dying Trades 为牛车水消失的行业保留记忆
Vegetable Sellers at Sago Lane 沙莪巷的菜摊
Mr and Mrs Kang have been running their Sago Lane vegetable stall for more than 60 years
At a dollar a bundle, their vegetables are a bargain.
Located at Exit C of Chinatown MRT Station, there is a lingering smell of grease and rubber in the air.
A long-time cobbler in Chinatown, Mr. Kwek, who is in his 60s.
Mdm. Lee in her 60s, has been operating her knife and scissor sharpening trade in Chinatown for more than 40 years.
Mr. Lee, a 75-year barber, has groomed his loyal customers for more than 50 years.
Picture (1): Mr. and Mr.s Kang have been running their Sago Lane vegetable stall for more than 60 years
Hawking was a traditional way of making ends meet. There is a sense of familiarity and belonging in Sago Lane, for Mr. and Mrs. Kang. Selling vegetables has been their way of life for 60 years. I can see that this way of life is passing. Yet, without their vegetable stall, Sago Lane would somehow seem unnaturally bereft of a comforting sight.
Picture (2):At a dollar a bundle, their vegetables are a bargain
There are still many elderly people like Mr. and Mrs. Kang struggling to earn a living on the streets because they really do not have many assets to support them. Much of the problem stems from the sad fact that the majority of them have long worked in the past before state-backed retirement benefits became mandatory. At a dollar a bundle, their vegetables are a bargain.
Street Cobbler At People’s Park Complex (Cobbler Square) 珍珠坊的补鞋匠
Picture (3): Located at Exit C of Chinatown MRT Station, there is a lingering smell of grease and rubber in the air
Located at Exit C of Chinatown MRT Station, there is a lingering smell of grease and rubber in the air. Passing by Cobbler’s Square is akin to a walk down memory lane. The cart has remained, and so has the cobbler’s toolkit. Most importantly, these cobblers continue to ply their honest trade with heart and soul.
A long-time cobbler in Chinatown is Mr. Kwek who is in his 60s. Why did Mr. Kwek choose this trade? He says the main draw is the freedom it accords him. He used to work 16-hour shifts as a hawker. After 40 years of slicing, steaming and serving fish noodles, it became too much for him. His day as a cobbler typically begins at 10am and ends around 7pm. Will you keep doing this until you retire? I asked. He gave a bark of laughter. He said if he doesn’t work, there’d be no money for him to live on.
Picture (4): A long-time cobbler in Chinatown, Mr. Kwek, who is in his 60s
Selecting rubber soles from the table before him, Mr. Kwek started to work on some shoes. It was not an easy living, he told me as he opened up a can of glue. As a hawker selling fish noodles since age 16 he would earn up to $120 a month. Back then, that was a lot of money.
Now, he earns about $100 daily, on average—it’s just enough to get by. However Mr. Kwek believes one should not be overly obsessed with money and often introduces customers to other cobblers to help them earn more money. Such a simple life Mr. Kwek leads. Yet how many of us in this busy metropolis can lead such a life? I pondered.
Knife And Scissor Sharpener at People’s Park Complex 珍珠坊的磨刀师傅
Picture (5): Mdm. Lee in her 60s, has been operating her knife and scissor sharpening trade in Chinatown for more than 40 years
Mdm. Lee in her 60s, has been operating her knife and scissor sharpening trade in Chinatown for more than 40 years. Standing at a distance, I could hear a shrill, but tuneful whistle reverberate around the corner of second level at People’s Park Complex. I then saw Mdm. Lee holding each knife in two hands carefully passing it back and forth, a craftsman of a dying trade.
During the time of Mdm. Lee’s father, knife grinding was a prevalent trade—since it was expensive to buy a new pair of scissors or a knife. It was also a belief that scissors become more seasoned and worked better when sharpened. People therefore preferred to have their knives and scissors sharpened rather than buy new ones. Mdm Lee officially took over the business from her father in 1970.
I really think Mdm. Lee’s job is hard work. With so many scissors to be sharpened and everyone wanting it to be done quickly, Mdm. Lee has to work from morning till night, on her feet. She cannot complete the job sitting down because, to slide the blade, she needs to use force.
Back-Alley Barber At Amoy Street 厦门街后巷的理发师傅
Picture (6): Mr. Lee, a 75-year barber, has groomed his loyal customers for more than 50 years
Mr. Lee, a 75-year barber, has groomed his loyal customers for more than 50 years.Back alley barbers are rare sight indeed. On this street, a lone, rusty barber’s chair sits, sheltered from rain and shine by a canvas sheet. A small cupboard holds old-fashioned tools-a manual clipper and strip of leather.
后巷的理发师已经被逐渐淘汰。厦门街的巷子有一张生锈的理发椅，小橱柜摆放着老式工具 – 传统的手推剪和皮革条。帆布帐篷为小档口遮阳挡雨。
Mr. Lee has been a barber for 50 years! Trading in nostalgia, he has sold two of his three barber chairs. The last chair has remained embedded in precisely the same spot in those five decades. Mr. Lee still enjoys brisk business, mainly due to the loyal following of elderly men and migrant workers seeking cheap, hassle-free trims.
When he first learnt his trade in his teens, Mr. Lee was taught to be kind and develop a relationship with customers: to listen to their needs and count on his skills for the rest. He was told that if he followed these simple principles, he would have all the customers he needed to support him. Mr. Lee knows he does not have to be an excellent barber to continue to have good business. If the customers feel a rapport with you, you could be operating in an alley without a proper shop front, but people would still come.
I find the juxtaposition of Mr. Lee’s shabby street shelter in the foreground with the financial buildings in the background a big reminder of how far the country has progressed.
When Singapore underwent massive industrialization, old buildings were torn down to give way to high-rise, modern buildings. With better technology and a higher standard of living, roadside barbers were replaced by more modern and sophisticated salons. Soon stalls like Mr. Lee will become only a memory.
Chinatown has changed a lot over the decades and I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with it…it was mine and not mine. Wherever I go around Chinatown, I see glimpses of events from years ago – playing out in front of me in an endless loop. It’s only when you go to a place you thought you know very well and see how it’s changed that you have a real sense of the passing of time.
As I languish in the past, trying to pull apart my imagination from the bits and pieces of our actual reality, I am left thinking only of the present. Time has been manipulated so that the present will never again feel as authentic as the past. It no longer belongs to us; we are all in a constant state of playing catch up as time moves forward at lightening speed. In turn, we crave the authentic, superimposing the familiar filter of nostalgia to cope with our ever-changing environment. When the object is gone, one forgets and then you retrieve, but only through the bittersweet lens of nostalgia.