Saturday, 26 January 2013

Cobbler square

Dying trade still drawing customers, including well-heeled, with low prices
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2013

FINGERS matted with glue and grime, seven elderly men sit, hunched forward, replacing soles and mending the linings of worn-out shoes belonging to Singapore's shuffling masses.

They work quietly amid fast- footed crowds at what has become known as Cobbler Square.

These men have been working under the shade of large beer umbrellas next to People's Park Food Centre since the 1980s.

There used to be 22 of them, but now just seven - in their 60s and 70s - remain in a sunset industry, said cobbler Poh Kay Ching, 62.

"The rest have died and this business will die too when we go," said Mr Poh, who has been at the square since 2008.

In their heyday, cobblers used to work along five-foot-ways in spots such as the old Clyde Street near Kampong Glam.

Most were Chinese although a few Indians and Malays also took up the trade.

Then, they provided essential and affordable shoe-repair services in the 1950s, when many Singaporeans switched from wearing clogs to modern footwear, said the National Heritage Board's director of heritage institutions Alvin Tan.

The square in Chinatown was a natural choice, with its regular stream of crowds passing by to get to their favourite hawker stalls and to shop at the nearby OG department store.

Although shoe-repair and key duplication chain shops such as Mister Minit and Master Fix Services initially threatened the local trade, many customers still flock to the makeshift kiosks.

Some are regulars, but most say they come because of the low prices. Replacing heels, for instance, still costs $2 - the same as 30 years ago.

Cobblers said prices have stayed the same so regulars will return. They added that their profits are dependent on the number of customers, rather than the prices they charge.

Depending on the size, a pair of shoes can also be reinforced for between $3 and $5, much cheaper than at chain stores, where prices start at about $7 for the same service. Replacing heels at these outlets can cost up to $11 or more.

Even the well-heeled patronise the cobblers' makeshift kiosks, bearing bags of brand-name footwear in need of a fix. Besides people who work in the business district, the cobblers count towkays, tai-tais, teenagers and even tourists among their clientele.

Mr Peh Soon Meng, 44, a trade compliance analyst, said he once spent $80 replacing the soles of a pair of shoes at a chain store. It would have cost him just $16 at a cobbler, with as good workmanship, he said.

"I've since been making my way to Chinatown from my office at Raffles City to drop off my shoes whenever they need repair," he said.

"The cobblers are really indispensable and an integral part of our culture. They also do a fantastic job in less than an hour."

He added that he has no qualms about sending his expensive dress shoes to a cobbler, having once repaired a pair of $300 leather shoes at Cobbler Square.

The cobblers said they do not need a licence by the authorities to operate.

They also said clustering at the square makes for better visibility and a shared customer pool, which is why they see no reason to be overly competitive with one another.

Mr Poh said his earnings - which average between $1,000 and $1,300 a month - help to supplement the income of his family in Indonesia. "If I don't work, there won't be any food on the table."

For the most part, business is brisk for Mr Poh, whose spot is less than 5m from Chinatown MRT station.

"Business has been good the past couple of years. We do well when the economy is down because people would rather repair their shoes for a few dollars than spend on new ones," he said.

The cobblers see about 30 customers and mend more than 20 pairs of shoes a day.

There are also cobblers who work to fund their pastime and leisure activities.

Take Mr Lim Wen Shen for instance. Although the 75-year-old has eight children, he prefers to be self-sufficient and earn his own pocket money.

He told The Straits Times that he uses his income to pay for trips to Japan, Thailand and China with his friends. "I don't think I will retire any time soon," he said.

"I like being independent and I don't see any need to take money from my children."

Some cobblers, such as Mr Yamaguchi Taro, have broken away from the group at the square to build up their own client base elsewhere.

The 64-year-old is a familiar face at Yishun Bus Interchange, while Mr Kwan Hoon Hang, 78, is a fixture at Toa Payoh North.

Both said they prefer serving their own customers at their respective spots, although they are in the loop of what is happening at Cobbler Square.

Mr Taro, for instance, said he exchanges tips with his peers at the square on the best suppliers to patronise.

"I used to be at the square about 20 years ago, but I don't like the idea of having to constantly compete with others for business," he said.

Mr Taro, who picked up the trade when he was 12, said he will continue mending shoes at the bus interchange for another decade or so.

It is the same for Mr Kwan.

He said: "I can't read, so I can't have an office job. I don't know the roads, so I can't drive a taxi. Since this is the only job I can do, I might as well do it well. And I won't stop until I'm tired."

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