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Jul 10, 2010

Blog on Clogs

The banner on the stage of The Plaza, National Library Building from afar, I was attracted by a colourful picture of a pair of wooden clogs.

The event, "Colouring Lives, Painting Futures" was bustling with young students, volunteers and participants on Sunday, July 4, 2010.


I was undecided whether to use the blog topic title as "Down Memory Lane in Clogs" or "Colouring Lives, Painting Futures". Both titles reflect an inter-generational bond, the old and the young, the modern and the traditional ways of life. For a candid choice of simple words for "Blog on Clogs" as the title.

Incidentally, "Down Memory Lane in Clogs, Growing up in Chinatown" is the title of a book written by Si Jing.

Both footwear blogs are related to "When You Have No Shoes (2)" and "The Chinese Clogs - Cha Gia" posted by Victor Koo and Victor Yue respectively.

Most modern, well-groomed, young ladies and young gentlemen are trendy, fashion-conscious today.

If you have worn the Chinese clogs in Singapore in the past, please share your experience with us this blog on clogs. These clogs were made for walking, not boots!

In Singapore in the 1960s, the wooden clogs are common footwear among men and women, young and old. The wooden clogs are not confined to Singaporean Chinese only. They were worn by all races for convenience and inexpensive. The wooden clogs are suitable during the flood on monsoon days in the past. (Remember the recent flash floods at Orchard Road?)

I was wearing these clogs during my young days at Bukit Ho Swee kampung. These clogs were uncomfortable and noisy though.

Thanks to blogger friend James Kwok who reminds him of the Clickety-Clack Song "Four Little Heels" sung by Brian Hyland.

In the photo above, the clogs sold by the vendor are not painted with fanciful stuff. These handmade, no-frill wooden clogs with no commercial brands.

Photo of the book on a pair of cute clogs which Miss Charmaine Tan, a student of Nanyang Technological University, presented me the souvenir with compliments. The clogs, not the book :)

What a better way to describe Si Jing's book "Down Memory Lane in Clogs" as a first person experience and memories than to rewrite the blog or reinvent the wheels. The excerpt here:

Half a century ago, people's lives were wretchedly impoverished, and few could afford expensive leather, beaded or embroidered slippers. At that time, low-cost rubber slippers had yet to be produced, so the masses could only wear cheap wooden clogs on the street...

At that time, clogs were a necessity in every household. It was the case even in wealthy families, where clogs, if not part of proper street wear, would at least be worn while cooking in the kitchen, or going to the toilet or bathroom...

The clog trade flourished during those times, and a forest of clog shops sprang up along the streets. There would be several stores along any one street. I remember a store opposite People's Park Market on New Bridge Road, which opened branch after branch of clog shops. Opposite the Irom Market on South Bridge Road, among the row of shop houses where the Golden Dragon Store used to be, another clog shop set up business in the corner shop house. If you crossed a narrow lange and walked another few steps, you would reach yet another one. So you can see how the clog industry was proliferating then.

At that time, the Cantonese called buying clogs "nailing clogs" - a term which nailed the meaning precisely, since clogs had to be hammered and nailed before they were ready for wear.

...The "walls" below the shop's ceiling were all actually tall tiers of wooden racks. More racks, as tall as a man, took up much of the floor space. On the racks, colourful and dazzling clogs were displayed together with plain, unpainted ones. Some of the clogs already had straps nailed on, and they came with a complete range of colours and sizes for customers to choose from or try on. Some of the prettier clogs with flower motifs were strung up and hung at the storefront. They were charming decorations and helped to attract customers to the store.

Clogs came in separate designs for men and women. Those with a rounded front and rounded heel-end were for men. They were monochrome, lacking in variety, and couldn't compare to women's clogs, which were much sleeker. Most commonly sold were the cheap red clogs. If you wanted to save even more money, you could buy plain clogs in their original, unpainted condition, with straps made from coarse rubber tyres. But women who were more vain preferred to splurge a little more on a pair of clogs with hand-painted flowers. Together with floral straps, these were certainly much prettier.

The first thing about buying clogs is to pick those of heavy wood quality and free of decay. Straps came originally in white rubber but were painted over with a bright coat of colour - these were called painted covers. Thick painted covers were of good quality, but these were expensive. Thin ones were cheaper but tore easily.

After a customer had picked the clog and strap (or painted cover), the master would press the strap onto the wooden clog. At the same time, he placed a small and narrow rubber strip on top of it. Then he took up a little hammer and knocked in a few nails swiftly and deftly, at a fixed spot at the side of the clog. He would then curve the strap in a semicircle over to the other side of the clog and gently hammer in a couple of little nails, before letting customers walk a few steps in the clog. If the customer was dissatisfied and wanted the strap tightened or loosened, it was easily done. The "uncle" could simply pull out the lightly-hammered nails with a pair of pliers and adjust the strap. After he finished the nailing, he still had to use a sharp blade to trim off the excess length of strap, before the mission was accomplished.

I still recall the two or three clog stores along the rows of shop houses at Temple Street, near South Bridge Road. The stores were directly facing the long stretch of wall on the side of the Sri Mariamman Temple. Employees from these shops made frequent use of the empty space at the foot of the wall to sun and dry newly painted clogs. Under the sunlight, the rows of wooden racks packed with clogs of all hues shimmered brilliantly, adding a splash of colour and beauty to the otherwise rather dull and dilapidated street scene. It also left an indelible mark on the minds of passerby.

Business was most brisk at year-end

The peak season for clog sales came at the end of the lunar calendar year. Starting from the 12th (and last) month, more and more people began to get their clogs nailed in preparation for the Lunar New Year. According to an old custom, you should discard the old on the Eve and welcome the new. Then, wearing your new shoes or clogs, you should go out on the streets and step on villians and evil spirits. Once you did that, you would be able to overcome obstacles and sail smoothly through the coming year. For large families, it wasn't unusual to purchase over 10 pairs of clogs at one go. But there was no need for the whole family to troop down to the store. Just one representatives would pop down to the store, bearing some old clogs as samples. The master would then cup his fingers and slot them beneath the straps of these old clogs, gauging their width. With that one simple test, he would be able to nail the clogs to the exact same fit. During that period, clog stores would open for business before seven in the morning. The customers streamed in and out ceaselessly, and often, workers had to toil past midnight before they could get any rest. Because the year-end business was too overwhelming, the masters and their assistants had to start preparing way ahead, in order to cope. This they did by spending what free time they had during the regular season nailing a large quantity of straps onto the clogs. When it came to peak season, these premade clogs would be trotted out for customers who were less picky and couldn't spare the time to wait for their clogs to be measured and nailed.

...Those who have worn clogs know very well the good and bad about them. The good being that clogs are thick and high, so there's no fear of water splashing on your feet, and that makes it convenient to work on wet ground surfaces. It's not easy to fall and slip either. The bad part, however, is the fact that clatter noisily wherever you walk. Furthermore, the thick and heavy front and heels of clogs knock against the ground and wall corners all thoo easily, causing the shiny paint coat to crack, and the ugly plain wood beneath to be exposed. If you happened to be just the slightest bit careless when wearing new high clogs, you would stumble and twist your ankle. And when you walked on streets riddled with puddles, the clogs would send muddy water splashing, leaving exasperating stains on the hems of your trousers and bluses.

On rainy days in the market, lots of people often stepped on the heels of others' clogs, and such encounters were disastrous. The ones in front would trip and crash onto the ground, sending their baskets flying. Their trousers would be ripped and muddled, their kneecaps bloodied, and their clogs ruined. Strings of curses would explode from their mouths even as they limped to the nearest clog stores with a ruined clog in hand, to get a new one nailed. Later on, although new and more durable straps in transparent colours replaced the old paint covers, the many disadvantages of clogs still resulted in its diminishing popularity.

After the end of the war, most people switched to slippers, and clogs were worn only at home or when going to the market. But most hawkers on the street or in markets, as well as coolie labourers, still wore them. Subsequently, even when factories began to manufacture clogs in large quantities, they couldn't compete with the light Japanese slippers and cheap plastic flip-flops that had begun to emerge on the market. The clog industry finally went downhills.

During the 1960s, there were still two little clog shops on Temple Street. Later, only one was left operating in half a store-space beside Zhi Bao goldsmith situated by the entrance of a nightsoil alley. I have known that clog-nailer "uncle" since young; from the time when was was a young lad to an old man, from when he was still a store assistant to when he became the boss. When hordes of Western tourists swarmed into Chinatown and saw, for the first time, handcrafted clogs being nailed manually, they thought it a novel and amusing sight. One by one, they took out their cameras and clicked away merrily. But the flurry of flashlights blined the master hard at work, annoying him to no end. From then on, the first thing he did before starting work each day was to erect a sign, with large words painted in bold black ink, declaring: No Photos Allowed. Now, even this one remaining clog shop has vanished.

The clog closet installation presented by NTU "Challenge ur Limits" (CURL).

With the vanishing trades of clog-nailing, the young participants had the opportunity to experiment with creative and fun to paint and nail the clogs; to learn and to play.

A participant using an electronic blower to dry the painted clogs.

With an innovative themes and creative concept for volunteerism,
"CURL" called "Challenge ur Limits".

[Each and everyone of the clogs on the installation is personally designed by the less fortunate in our society.

Through clog painting and a series of activities, they challenge them to complete tasks which they did not perform well previously on lacked confidence in doing so.

Inspired by heritage, we have transformed otherwise lacklustre wooden footwear traditionally worn by Straits-Chinese from the 1950s to the 1970s, into the colourful artworks on display. By doing so, we hope to bring across the message that should each and everyone of us be willing to consider the less fortunate in new perspective and actively acknowledge their roles in the society, we can look beyong the apparent "drabness" and help bring out the best in them.

We have also deliberately included some wornout clogs at the bottom of the closet installation as a reminder of the current state of the less fortunate in our society.]

The photos below may not appear every clog a perfect pair , as rejected or "imperfect" clogs, as no man is perfect.

"A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault". ~ John Henry Newman












[Rejection and isolation need not be the only words associated with them. By committing ourselves to volunteerism, we can help usher the less fortunate back to society. Much like how worn-out clogs can be transformed to look like the colourful and seemingly pristine ones at the top rack of the closet, beneficiaries of volunteerism can also be given a new lease of life.]

The text-printed information above within [brackets] were displayed at the public event by NTU WSC as shown in the poster beside the clog closet installation.

Well Done, young NTU Welfare Services Club (WSC) active volunteers! Strive on for a meaningful community "Colouring LIVES, painting FUTURES" to create an inclusive society for a future and our nation. Keep it up!

Related Posts

Thanks to blogger friend Lam Chun See of "Good Morning Yesterday" blog: "My Memories of Chinatown (Part 3)" by Simon Chu Chun Sing.

The following from Miss Sim Hui Hwang's email dated 15 Aug, 2010. Thanks to Miss Sim's email reproduced below:

Thanks very much, Mr Seah. I went into your blog to check it out and was drawn to the story on clogs. I have not heard this Four Little Heels song before and when I clicked on it, oh was I transported to a another realm, so sweet and balmy it is. I have enjoyed myself thoroughly and learnt who Brian Hyland is, and the clog business, all in one.

In fact, when I was very very little, I thought I had the chance to slip into a pair of oversized clogs belonging to a some folks living at this village house in Cha Sua - yes, this was a place located along Jalan Hock Chye at Upper Serangoon Road. My father used to work there and I recalled walking in the courtyard of this Mazu temple and someone asking me to put on a pair of cha kiak as the yard in the kitchen area was often wet and slippery.

I did not know how to walk in them as the toe area was carved to dip down and I imagined I would lunge forward if I didn't walk with care. True enough, I slipped and fell, landing on my bottoms. Thereafter, I had a phobia of wearing cha kiak. No, cha kiak is not for me.

Curiously, I happened to catch sight of this man who was dragging his cha kiak around. As usual, being the head of the family, he sauntered around in a manner to frighten little ones like me. He would often come into the temple to take his lunch of Teochew muay and fried bean curd sticks. I discovered that he had six toes on his left foot and the last toe could not be squeezed into a normal clog. I got to see the extra toe 'kiapped' (wedged) outside the gigantic red cha kiak, pared down through constant wear. Ah... Mr Seah, that's my memory of cha kiak.

Warm regards
hui hwang

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12 Comments:

Blogger Ivan Chew said...

Nice post re: the clog trade. It's true that every household had them -- from the rich to the not-so-well-off. I suppose the really, really poor went without any footwear.

July 11, 2010 at 10:20 AM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Thanks James for sharing with us his insightful thoughts on clogs as a common footwear in the kampong days of Singapore. I believe the "kiak kiak" sound of clogs would still be a familiar and perhaps heartwarming sound to older Singaporeans.

NTU WSC CURL's event involving clogs and their beneficiaries is a timely way of reminiscing the kampong days of Singapore and bringing to life the familiar sound of "kiak, kiak".

July 11, 2010 at 11:12 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

They were cheap, waterproof and environmentally friendly, i.e. biodegradable - the wooden part, not the plastic strap. However, they were noisy and uncool. But these were the least of concerns for the old foggies of the by-gone era. Thank you for a great post, Thimbuktu.

July 11, 2010 at 6:26 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Hi Ivan, Cheryl and Victor, thank you for your input to share the respective individual memories and experiences. The collective memories from everyone will see us more from a wider perspective. Welcome your comments and thanks to everyone.

July 11, 2010 at 8:34 PM  
Blogger unk Dicko said...

I remember we had 2 different sets of clogs for our family use.One was always for the kitchen/dining area and a separate set for the bathroom and latrine.
Other than that, we never wore clogs outside the home...much too cumbersome and going clikety-clack were somewhat noisy.
But they were so much a part of our life back then.

July 12, 2010 at 9:04 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Thanks Unk Dicko. Appreciate James Kwok for reminding the "Four Little Heels" (The Clickety Clack Song) by Brian Hyland to share on the clog blog. Cheers!

July 12, 2010 at 11:36 PM  
Blogger Lam Chun See said...

In the months just after I starting blogging, my old friend Simon Chu, who grew up in Chinatown wrote a number of articles about growing up there. In one of them, he described about people moving about in 'char kia'. You can read his account here.

July 13, 2010 at 10:15 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Thanks Chun See for alerting me the related post by Simon Chu's blog topic "My Memories of Chinatown (Part 3)" at "Good Morning Yesterday".

Without these helpful and convenient collective links here, pockets of gems stuff would otherwise be scattered all over the place. Much appreciated.

July 14, 2010 at 2:03 AM  
Blogger PChew said...

Wooden clogs reminded me of my home at Joo Chiat Road. Every morning the 'click clock' noise acted as an alarm clock for me. The noise started at about 5.00 am as housewives walked to Joo Chiat
Market had to pass my house.
Thank you James for the nostalgic memory.

July 16, 2010 at 3:42 AM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Thank you for the childhood remembrance and nostalgic memories, Philips.

With the change of time, the "clickety-clack" sound of the clogs and the cock-a-doodle-dooing of the roosters in the morning are now replaced by the modern alarm clocks.

July 18, 2010 at 9:28 AM  
Blogger shellen said...

Hi James,
im doing a project of fading tradition, and I would like to focus on wooden clogs which you had an entry on it. Hope to be able to get more information from you. Please contact me at pooh_tea@hotmail.com. Thanks!!

February 2, 2011 at 11:44 PM  
Blogger shellen said...

Hi James,
im doing a project of fading tradition, and I would like to focus on wooden clogs which you had an entry on it. Hope to be able to get more information from you. Please contact me at pooh_tea@hotmail.com. Thanks!!

February 2, 2011 at 11:44 PM  

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