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Jul 27, 2019

Singapore's last street barbers

Once a common sight in back alleys, they will soon enter pages of history.

By Janice Tand and Goh Shi Ting

[Source:  The Straits Times, 19 October 2012]

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

With these 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 ramaining 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 medical 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 over-night," 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.

When the Straits Times visited a street barber in Chinatown on 8 Ocobter, 2012, 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."

Archived photos of barbers in backlanes with courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Childhood memories of visiting the barbers

I was not born bald.  Since a child, my haircut was done by my mother.  Then she would bring me to a Chinese barber shop in the kampong whenever my hair grown longer.  I did not have choice for the hair style I wanted.  Usually short hair like a China man.  Even during schooldays, I did not follow the fashion like the Beatle's hairstyle which was popular at that time.

Once, my classmate recommended me to have haircut at an Indian barber which have "extra service" to massage my head.

I had the first experience at the Indian barber and it was unforgettable.  After cutting my hair, he slapped on my back to massage.  He then used both hands to twist my head to the left and right and I could hear the cracking sound of my neck to break it.  I really had a fright because my head could drop if he used too much strength to twist my head.

For many years now, I kept my head bald for my reasons here .
I was curious to find out why monks do not keep hair on their heads.

The answer:  "Monks with hair would make them compare and how what better fashionable hairstyle to have.  Such thoughts would not help them to practice emptiness in thoughts".

No worries.  Keep your crowning glory to enjoy your hairstyle and preferred fashion to make you beautiful and admired.  Else barbers will not have business to make a living.



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