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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.


Jul 19, 2019

Kopitiam - Great Hangout for Retirees

Nostalgia is revisited in this photograph.  Remember these traditional biscuits which used to sell them for 5 to 10 cents each.  And the old-styled cup and saucer evokes a feeling of nostalgia.
[Source:  National Library Board]

In The Straits Times, 21 January 1998, Lee Kip Lee wrote Kopi Tiam memories:

I refer to the report "East Coast goes Upper with hip businesses" (Sunday Plus, Jan 4) which had a photograph of Jin Wee kopi tiam.

It is the place to go for elderly readers who wish to make new friends of their age.

Unlike the noisy, open coffeeshops in HDB estates, Jin Wee is on the ground floor of a terrace house.  It is run by two brothers, whose wives cook the meals it serves.

One of the highlights of my two years' sojourn in Siglap was to be able to frequent it in the mornings, between 9.30 and 10.30, to have coffee and natter with other retirees at our own special round table.

Visiting Jin Wee was like walking into the privacy of one's own clubhouse where, besides the regulars, I could meet a long-lost classmates who had cycled to Jin Wee (yes, lots of old fellows cycle with impunity in Katong and Siglap) after a walk at the East Coast Park, or recognise another childhood friend, despite his stoop and grey hair.

We were a diverse group who developed a bond of friendship and tolerance which permitted one of our "members" to insist on paying for everyone's drinks every day, on the ground that they were paid for out of his four-digit lottery winnings.

There were anecdotes recalled of groups of youths in the 1930s, living in the Makepeace and Hooper roads government quarters and raring for a fight with "invaders" from Katong; and of groups of adventurous Singapore Harbour Board shipyard apprentices spending their Sundays hiking from Pasir Panjang over a ridge up to St Joseph's Church in Bukit Timah, with tins of sardines, corned beef and bread for their meal.

New look, same food at kopi-tiam near you

The Straits Times kopi-tiam check article by Mathew Pereira and Stephanie Tham on 20 June 1992.

Muslin vs machine

The neighbourhood kopi-tiam is alive and well.  But it has a new look.

Far from disappearing, it has kept up with the times by renovating its premises and offering more hawker fare.

Most coffeeshops have said good-bye to bentwood chairs and marble-top tables with spittoons under each table though some old-time shops remain, especially in the Chinatown area.

Coffeeshop along North Boat Quay c1986

The Straits Times check 25 coffeeshops in Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio, Chinatown, Whampoa, Commonwealth Crescent, Bukit Gombak, Bishan and Tampines.

Most still serve kopitiam fare.  But on bright plastic tables and chairs and with better lighting and more fans.  In place of mosaic flooring, the shops have ceramic tiles.

Their operators said they keep pace with customers' tastes.  Younger people are more fussy about cleanliness, said Mr Goh Eng Soon, 38, who runs Hoi Yin Pow Dim Eating House in Ghim Moh.

Said Mr Goh:  "The old kopitiam does not work anymore."  Nobody wants to eat at a table with a spittoon underneath and where the floors are brown with age, he said.

After he spent about $40,000 on renovations, many long-time Ghim Moh residents who had never dropped in before became regular customers.

To Mr Don Foo, 36, who owns Ming Ju Restaurant at Ghim Moh and a Clementi West coffeeshop, change was a matter of dollars and sense.

"Customers will only walk into the shop if it is clean," said Mr Foo.

The old toilets were "frightening" before the $100,000 renovation, he said.

Now the shop draws more customers.  He also collects more from sublets.  The 10 vendors to whom it is sublet used to pay $400 to $700 per stall.  Now they pay $1,000 to $3,000, he said.

Mr K. Chandra, 32, runs his father's coffeeshop, Sri Karumanan Villas Restaurant, in Hillview Avenue.  He said many operators were told that the Ministry of Environment (ENV) had given them till 1993 to renovate.

Not so, said ENV.  It said owners had been encouraged to renovate and upgrade but there had been no talk about any regulation.

Customers confirmed that cleanliness was important.  Miss Angeline Chan, a secretary in her thirties, said:  "These renovated shops do not feel greasy or slimy."

Teacher Derek Chew, 37, said: "The traditional kopitiam is different from the romanticised ones you see on TV or along Orchard Road.  They were dark, dirty and even smelly.  No one will miss that."

But unhygienic or not, some swear by breakfast at the old-style kopitiam.  It is these old faithfuls who keep the originals alive in older estates such as Balestier Road, Whampoa and Chinatown.

These continue to be informal meeting places, especially for retirees.  But even their operators say it is a matter of time before they die out too.

Mr Thiang Swee Ping, 44, is a helper at Sin Wah Coffeeshop in Chinatown.  "People now want variety.  They want an air-conditioned place.  They want a cleaner place," he said.

"This place is clean.  It is only that it is old," he noted.  Sin Wah opened in 1941.

Business was definitely down, he said, adding:  "The old customers are gone and there are not that many passers-by these days.  Soon people will be calling these new eating places kopitiam.

For kopitiam regulars, the upgrading will be sad.

Retiree Ong Beng Chooi, 84, has been a customer of Hock Seng Coffee Shop at Commonwealth Crescent for the past 20 years.

"Not only is this place familiar, the coffee is still good too.  The atmosphere here is informal, relaxed and friendly.  It would be a shame if the place was upgraded and renovated," he said.

Mr Chew Wee Jim, a 72-year-old retiree, also has fond memories.

"It's a place where the old people can just sit around and chit-chat.  We feel uncomfortable in the newer establishments," he said.

It is not only elderly retirees who will mourn the passing of the old-style kopitiam. 

Technician Anthony Yip, 28, said:  "The kopitiam atmosphere is different.  While I do not go to a kopitiam often, it will still be sad to think that I will not be able to visit one at all."

Kopi tiam keeps up with the times

The pride of Nam Chuan coffeeshop in Block 186, Toa Payoh Central, is the $20,000 Cantilever machine that dispenses 10 types of soft drinks.

Each glass is filled within three seconds, about twice as fast as conventional machines.

Its operator, Mr Ng Chiow Tong, 52, made the switch to save labour and compete with the brighter, brasher fast-food newcomers in the HDB block.

His coffeeshop gleams with Italian ceramic floor and wall tiles, more fans, lamps, lighted colour bill-boards and pennants advertising fizzy drinks.

And a new lighted sign-board replaces the old wooden one.

"My business increased by 30 per cent after I renovated the shop to attract the young and catch the MRT commuters," Mr Ng said.

His shop used to be dark, with tables and chairs arranged haphazardly and stalls crowding the front.  And the damp gunny sacks he used to absorb water seeping from his old refrigerator gave it a malodorous air.

He has gotten rid of the 300 stacked cases of bottled drinks which used to take up one fifth of his coffeeshop's space.  The cannisters for his drink-dispensing machines now only take up 1 per cent of the space, and he now uses the Public Utilities Board's piped gas.

A manager of Fraser & Neave, a major supplier of soft drinks to coffeeshops, said more ageing shops, such as those in Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio, were renovated last year.

At the 18-year-old Kian Seng Coffeeshop in Block 17, Toa Payoh Lorong 7, 62-year-old Ah Or has also thrown out his charcoal bread griller, scratched marble tables, rickety chairs and wooden crates.

In their place are drinks and ice-dispensing machines and a smokeless Japanese gas grill for toasting bread.

Ah Or - less well-known as Msr Chua Kian Seng - dug deep into his savings and borrowed for the $200,000 renovations.

Said Ah Or:  "When your customers are wearing new clothers, your shop must also look new.  Before the renovation, at the end of 1986, my place looked dirty, the mosaic tiles were chipped and the furniture was old."

New tables and chairs

The kopi tiam owner, who started from a small shop in Jalan Sultan in the early 50s, said his drinks business has improved by 40 per cent since the beginning of last year.

The new tables and plastic red chairs in neat rows add cafeteria slickness.  "We broke down the store-room, so it's brighter and more spacious," said Ah Or.  "I put in extra furniture and two more stalls.  We can now seat 110, where before we could seat only 70."

The food stalls which used to line the shop front have been pushed to the back, where a new ventilation system sucks smoke out of the shop.

Customers seem to like the change, but some stallholders find the modernisation hard to stomach.

Their coffeeshop operators have raised their rents to recover renovation costs, and bring it in line with rates charged by operators in newer towns.

Stallholders complain that the new rents eat into their profits.  Some also cry foul because they say, the operators still pay lower rent for the whole renovated coffeeshop than the newer coffeeshops.

When one coffeeshoop raised its rent for a noodles stall from $500 to over $800, most of its old stallholders left.  But then there was a scramble by new applicants for the vacated stalls.

The coffeeshop operators feel the raise is justified, as a renovated shop attracts more customers.  They also say they have to pay higher bills due to more fans, lamps and machines.

But one thing still has not changed for the evolving kopi tiam - the aroma of coffee and the chatter.

Mr Ng still serves his brew for takeaways in empty milk cans, as well as in styrofoam cups.

Cigarette butts and footprints still dirty the floor which is washed before closing time, but Mr Ng said laughingly:  "If my shop is clean the whole day, I'll be worried."

The evolution of the kopitiam in Singapore

MUM's the word for coffeeshop

Modernise. Upgrade. Mechanise.  (MUM).

Be more hygienic.  Be more efficient.  Be better managers.

Pity the coffeeshop owners whose cup runneth over with exhortation.

He had more of the same served at an exhibition on modernisation of coffeeshops.

Dishing it out to the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association  and the Kheng Keow Coffee Shop Owners' Association was Mr Teo Chong Tee, Parliamentary Secretary (Environment and Social Affairs).

Mr Teo began in reflective mood.  The coffeeshop, he said, used to be a forum where people discussed social and political issues.  It was also a meeting place where people exchanged information.  

Now, he said, most people go to a coffeeshop just to eat and drink.  And coffeeshops face stiff competition from fast-food shops and hawker centres.

Then he pitched them the MUM formula:  modernise, upgrade, mechanise ...

Whether they will depends on many factors, the main one being uncertainty.

As many as seven in 10 coffeeshops will be affected by urban renewal, according to an official of Kheng Keow Coffee Shop Owners' Association.

"Modernise?  What for?" said the owner of a coffeeshop in North Bridge Road asked whether he planned to apply the MUM formula.

The shophouse was a pre-war building which he paid nominal rent, he said.  He had no idea whether the government would acquire it.

He had once thought of renovating the place and widening the passageway to the back so he could put in more tables.  "But if I want to knock down anything, I have to pay tea money to the owner."

Besides, it might not pay as people were moving out to housing estates and nany of the new buildings that had come up in the area had their own food and drink outlets to serve office workers.

His regular customers might object to machine-brewed coffee, he said.  They wanted their coffee the way it had always been made - by hand.

And he might also have to raise prices - which could put regular customers off.  Or extend opening hours - which would worsen the problem of finding workers.

Who wants to work in a coffeeshop for $200 when they can work in an airconditioned factory for $400 or more?

None of his sons wanted to take over the business.  And his daughters were all married and working elsewhere.

What he might do, he said, was transfer the shop to someone else, and help him run it.  Or, as  both his sons lived in Ang Mo Kio, he could live with either of them and work in one of the coffeeshops there.

Mr Teo would have told him that he need not fear customers shunning his shop if it went self-service or served machine-brewed coffee because some owners who have done so report better business.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 30 October 1983]

Traditional Kopitiam fare with nostalgic memories

The old-styled cup and saucer evokes a feeling of nostalgia.  [Courtesy of the National Library Board].


Jul 6, 2019

Sweet family bonds

Phyllis Phua (seated left, in pink blouse) with her grandfather, Mr Lao Song Khong, 78, and three generations of their family.  Mr Lao sold desserts like tau suan (whose ingredients of split mung beans, sugar, potato flour and pandan leaves) when he was a teen to survive the hungry years of the 1940s.

By Phyllis Phua

[Source:  The Straits Times, 29 October 2011]

Phyllis Phua, 16, is a Secondary 4 student of Pasir Ris Secondary.  She wins $100 in shopping vouchers and an iPod Touch 8GB.

My grandfather Lao Song Khong came from China to Singapore with his mother in 1938, when he was five.  In 1946, his mother managed to get a pushcart and became a street hawker near Read Bridge at Boat Quay, selling four varieties of desserts all boiled into a sugary soup.

They woke at about 6am for breakfast before buying ingredients for the desserts.  Once home, they would prepare Teochew fried yam in sugary paste, which is rarely sold now.  They also made red bean soup, cheng tng and tau suan.

After a simple lunch, they would load the desserts onto charcoal stoves in the pushcart and trundle it down the street.

Grandpa, who was in his teens then, helped his mother serve customers and was utensils.  They sold desserts till about 10pm, before packing and folding their cart and calling it a day.

By the time they reached home, it was already nearing midnight.

Although life was difficult, they made a decent living of about $7 a day, which was enough for Grandpa, an only child, and his mother.  His father had died during World War II, so mother and son depended on each other.

He was about my age when he sold desserts but his life was clearly harder than mine.  It was tougher to earn a living in the past, when manual labour was common.

Still, Ah Gong cherishes the bedrock values and kampung spirit of those days. 

People were friendlier and warmer, he says.  Neighbours were like family, helping one another and celebrating Chinese New Year together.  Food was tastier, and furniture was more durable.

Thinking about the lessons from his simple life, he says in Teocher:  "We cannot steal, rob, bully, trick or cause harm to others for personal gain.

"We have to depend on ourselves and the morally upright.  If we see others in need, we do our best to help them."

Grandpa folded up his dessert cart at 20, when his mother died of tuberculosis.  After that, he took up odd jobs and worked in an ice cream factory, before driving taxi for 30 years.

Grandpa is now 78 and widowed.  Although he was an only child, he has raised his own loving family.

With his expert cooking skills, his family of four children and eight grandchildren have the sweet pleasure of eating his delicious desserts, which also include barley with gingko nuts and water chestnut soup.

Indeed, our family bonds are strengthened because of the times we share while enjoying the desserts of old Singapore.

Read Bridge, originally known as Merchant Bridge, was renamed in honour of prominent businessman William H Read.  The bridge crosses the Singapore River at the uppermost limit of Boat Quay.  [Source:  National Archives of Singapore].

Jul 2, 2019

Singapore - A Melting Pot

Racial harmony does not just exist among friends; at times, it extends to the family as well.

Here, correspondent Leremy Lee offers a glimpse into his mixed-race family.  In this photo, some members are dressed in different ethnic costumes while attending their Indian relative's wedding.
From left:  Miss Lynn Lee, Mr Lee's sister, who is Chinese-Indian; Ms Lina Siew, Mr Lee's Chinese-Indian cousin; and Madam Vina Kalwani, Ms Siew's mother and Mr Lee's aunt, who is an Indian.

With courtesy of The Straits Times, 14 July 2014, through a gallery of visuals, IN Crowders and staff writers show what racial harmony means to them.


Take a photograph of a typical scene in Singapore which depicts a harmonious multiracial society.

Write a caption for the photo after you have printed it.  Devote a board in your classroom for this activity.

Then, as a class, reflect on these two questions:

What impressions do you think Singaporeans will have of the photographs you have taken in 30 years' time?

What impressions would you like them to have


Encourage students to write their own captions to the photographs they have taken.

Teachers can also discuss other daily occurrences surrounding youth that they may not have noticed or have taken for granted.  You can use photographs or stories that are published daily in The Straits Times to aid your discussion.

These anecdotes or photographs can be compiled for the class noticeboard.

Race and religion in Singapore are, more often than not, intertwined - Chinese, Malays, Indians and other races co-exist cordially with Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity among some of the major religion in the country.

Singaporeans are both respectful and open enough to welcome one another or be welcomed by others into different worlds.

Here, journalist Ang Yiying captures two Chinese women offering prayers at the Sri Krishnan Temple, a Hindu place of worship at Waterloo Street, while an Indian man sits at the side.

On a little street in Singapore for worship at this blog .


Correspondent Laremy Lee catches two Youth Corps Singapore projects that benefit their community.


IN Crowder Wong Yang, 15, spotted enlarged models of a layang-layang (kite) gasing (spinning top) and capteh all races played these games in their childhood with friends from different races.


IN Crowder Eloise Lim, 15, a Year 3 student from Temasek Junior College saw Nike and Neil cycling happily at Bedok Jetty, East Coast Park.  They obliged when she asked to snap a picture of them for this paper.

When she asked for their races, however, they declined saying:  "We are from different races.  However, we won't give our races, as racial harmony means everyone should be equal."


Basic Military Training graduating recruit Abu Bakar As-Siddiq Azmi, 23, of Kestrel Company doing a back somersault in elation as his fellow recruit Muhammad Zulkifli Masod looks on, after
ground, or religion.


Former national player R. Suriamoorthy still possesses the skills from his days as a midfielder in the 1980s, as he juggles the ball on the new pitch of the National Stadium during an event last month, which brought together past and present Singapore footballers.

Football is a common sport played by boys - and girls - of different races in Singapore.

Chinese Singaporeans confident of culture and aware they differ from Chinese elsewhere.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 20 May 2017]

Singapore is not a melting pot, but a society where each race is encouraged to preserve its unique culture and traditions, and appreciate and those of others, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

No race or culture is coerced into conforming with other identities, let alone that of the majority.

In fostering such an approach for a multiracial, multi-religious society rooted in its Asian cultures, Singaporeans need the arts and cultures "to nourish our souls".

"We don't wish Singapore to be a First World economy but a third-rate society, with a people who are well off but uncouth.  We want to be a society rich in spirit, a gracious society where people are considerate and kind to one another, and as Menvius said, where we treat all elders as we treat our own parents, and other children ad our own.'


SIA air stewardesses at Singapore Turf Club for this year's Singapore Airlines international Cup and KrisFlyer International Sprint in May.

The flight attendants, who are of different races, are wearing their uniform - the iconic sarong kebaya, a traditional South-east Asian costume.