Sunday 21 October 2012

Singapore's last street barbers

Once a common sight in back alleys, they will soon enter pages of history
By Janice Tai and Goh Shi Ting, The Straits Times, 19 Oct 2012

THEY were once a common sight in Singapore's back alleys.

With their makeshift awnings and distinctive reclining chairs, street barbers did brisk business offering fuss-free trims.

These days, however, they are a dying breed, soon to be relegated to the dusty pages of history.

Four street barbers believed to be the last in Singapore will soon hang up their scissors, clippers and razor blades - and call it a day.

Mr Lee Yoon Tong, 74, has been cutting hair for 50 years and earned enough to pay for an overseas university education for his two daughters, who are now in their 40s and working as a teacher and a banker. "One studied in Melbourne, the other one in A-da-le," he said.

While he struggled to pronounce the name of the Australian city Adelaide, Mr Lee is articulate when it comes to his trade, which has seen its fair share of ups and downs.

He moved to the streets around 13 years ago when he could not afford the escalating cost of renting a shophouse. Soon, like the three other remaining street barbers, he will pack away the time-worn tools of his trade once and for all.

All four have been in the business for most of their lives and had seen the end coming.

Even if they found others interested in succeeding them, they would not be able to hand over to the next generation as the trade is technically illegal. They are not allowed to operate due to hygiene reasons.

"I'm allowed to stay here only because I know the boss of the shop in front which used to be a medicinal hall and I buy herbs from him," said Mr Goh, 73, another of the street barbers, who did not want to give his full name for fear of being identified.

"If the authorities find me an eyesore, they will chase me away."

Most of the barbers ply their trade in the back alleys of Tanjong Pagar and Chinatown.

The sunset industry is still enjoying brisk business, mainly due to the loyal following of elderly men or migrant workers seeking cheap, hassle-free trims.

The barbers charge between $4 and $8 for a haircut and shave. Most of them get an average of 10 customers a day, with more coming on weekends and festive seasons like Chinese New Year.

As there is no way of making appointments, customers can wait up to an hour for their turn. Each cut takes about 20 minutes.

Mr Koh Kow Yee, 82, has a unique queue system.

When customers come in, he shouts out their numbers in the line and they head out for coffee nearby before returning a while later to reclaim their places.

For the last 60 years, Mr Koh has slugged it out as a street barber in the back lanes of Sembawang, Chinatown and Little India.

After decades of being at the mercy of the sun and the rain, he traded his makeshift awning and wooden roof for a proper storefront at the back of a shophouse in Kelantan Lane two years ago.

"My friend offered the space to me for free," he said.

"Now, it's more cooling with the fan and I got access to water."

While he still has most of his tools from yesteryear, he now uses an electric razor instead of a manual clipper because there is electricity in the shop.

But others still stick to the manual clipper, including Mr Tan Boon Kee.

"The electric ones are too heavy and may get stolen if I leave them around overnight," said the 67-year-old street barber.

The four street barbers picked up their skills by working as apprentices in the early days, although they said others were self-taught.

As well as operating from fixed locations, some were also called to homes in the past.

Following the mass development of public flats by the Housing Board in the 1960s, they were often seen and heard along the corridors of HDB blocks, crying out "cut hair" in various dialects.

Mr Loh Yong Han, 19, has fond memories of the days in the 1990s when a street barber would drop by his four-room flat in Bukit Panjang every month to cut his hair, as well as that of his father and grandfather.

The barber would come ready with his tools, hairdressing cloth and shaving cream while the family provided the stools.

Today, Mr Loh goes to a neighbourhood salon for trendier haircuts.

When The Straits Times visited a street barber in Chinatown on Monday, Mr Loh was also there.

He stood, transfixed at the scene of the barber tending to his customer.

"I happened to pass by, and when I saw the street barber, all my childhood memories came back. I didn't know they still exist," he said.

"It's a pity that soon the handful will stop work; they are so much a part of our history."

Telling their tale before it's too late
THE four street barbers were tracked down as part of a project that aims to document the trade before it disappears for good.

The National Heritage Board asked hairdressing students from the Institute of Technical Education to help conduct interviews with the old-timers.

Their findings, plus videos of classic tools of the trade such as reclining chairs, will be put into a documentary available for public viewing by the end of the year. The two-month project was the brainchild of Mr Alvin Tan, the board's director of heritage institutions.

"It is important to make the appreciation of heritage relevant to youth through real-life examples," he said.

"We wanted to show them that the trade has been around for decades and hopefully strike a chord with our younger generation."

Giving haircuts fit for towkays
By Goh Shi Ting, The Straits Times, 19 Oct 2012

FROM shop to street, the setting may have changed for barber Lee Yoon Tong, but his mission remains - to give his customers a striking, clean haircut.

The 74-year-old had to give up his Chinatown shopfront 13 years ago when the rent rose from $400 to $3,000, making it unaffordable for his small business. Not wanting to give up his long-time trade though, he sold two of his three barber chairs and kept the last one to set up a makeshift stall at a nearby back alley.

"I kept the one that didn't look nice, and sold the two good ones for $300 each. Now, I heard the chairs can fetch about $2,000," said the affable Mr Lee. "Well, things like this happen, and the important thing is to take life easy."

His easy disposition and principled ways are what draw his customers back. Besides his regulars, his customers include children, curious Caucasians and a white-collar worker whose wife can tell if his hair was not cut by "Uncle".

"Nowadays, the young people think that it is art with their hair looking one side longer than the other, or with 'holes' in them," said Mr Lee, adding that unkempt hair reflects a lack of discipline.

He added: "In the past, mothers brought out the cane to get their children to get a proper haircut. But now, the parents bring in the law when the teachers try to cut the students' hair."

Mr Lee attends to about six to 10 customers a day and is busiest on Saturdays, when office workers visit him after their half-day work. He earns about $800 a month. Working hours are from 10am to 4pm. When he is not working, he takes care of his three grandchildren at a private apartment in Pandan Valley where he lives with his wife.

Even though he does not need the money, Mr Lee wants to continue working to be active.

Despite it being more of a leisure activity for him, Mr Lee is determined to give the modern salons a run for their money.

"They give you a haircut in 10 minutes and customers cannot complain when it's lousy," he said. "I take a longer time and take extra care to make sure that you get a good, decent haircut befitting a big towkay," he declared.

He cuts a lonesome figure now
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 19 Oct 2012

IN ITS heyday in the 1950s, there were close to 20 street barbers vying for customers in a bustling side lane in Bugis, aptly dubbed "Barber Street".

Today, 67-year-old Mr Tan Boon Kee cuts a lonesome figure as the sole remaining barber who continues to ply his trade there.

A second mirror next to the one that Mr Tan uses now is a visible reminder of its previous occupant; the other remaining Chinese barber next to him gave up the trade when he fell ill three years ago.

But the grandfather of seven can still be found hard at work in one corner of the lane from morning to dusk. He has been snipping away at tufts of hair at his makeshift shop for the last 20 years, rain or shine.

Yet there are signs the lane will soon lose all ties to its once colourful historical past. Age is fast catching on with Mr Tan and the slim-built man no longer operates six days a week. He rests on Wednesdays and Sundays now. His makeshift shop is open between 9am and 6pm for the other days.

"I am growing older and no longer have the energy to stand for long periods of time," said Mr Tan, who is illiterate.

For a haircut and shave, he charges $6. Twenty years ago, it was $4. Mr Tan takes home over $1,000 a month. When he was younger and able to work longer hours, he used to earn up to $1,800 a month.

His regular customers are mostly elderly men who come from all parts of Singapore. Mr Yan Hock Lee, 76, went all the way from his home in Mount Vernon to get a haircut on Monday. "He is very fast and you don't have to tell him which part to cut," said the former salesman. Sweat tricked down the nape of Mr Tan's neck as he deftly cut his customer's hair with a manual clipper. "It is not an easy life but I get to enjoy the freedom of being my own boss," he said with a wry smile.

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