Musings on Travel, Fashion & Fun

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Musings – A Forgotten Time

Street barbers

Looking back in time
Once a common sight at Singapore’s back alleys in the 1960s, street barbers will soon fade away into history books as Singapore’s vanishing trades. I chanced upon one of the four remaining street barbers at the back alley of Mohamed Ali Lane, and I stood transfixed, looking at the no-frills retro set-up. It was as if I stepped back 50 years in time. I was so intrigued, I set out to research on the street barbers of Singapore.

Armed with makeshift awnings, a reclining chair and mirror, street barbers used to do brisk business offering fuss-free trims during our grandfathers’ time.  Street barbers were commonly found along Barber Street, a backlane between Jalan Sultan and North Bridge Road. Armed with just a few simple tools, the services the barbers provided were all-encompassing – a haircut came with trimming of eyebrow, facial and nostril hair, as well as ear digging. All for the price of S$6 (current price; it was S$4 20 years ago. If only the rate of inflation was at that slow a pace).

Every barber has a different tale to tell of how he entered the profession. Most of them honed their skills by working as apprentices under an established barber or were self-taught. They would then start their career along the five-foot way, or be called to homes to provide haircuts. After the development of public flats by the Housing Development Board in the 1960s, street barbers were often seen along the corridors of housing blocks, crying out “cut hair” in various dialects. And to think it is an absolute luxury now getting a haircut in the comfort of our homes – how ironic!

As Singapore progressed, old buildings were torn down to give way to high-rise modern buildings. The street barbers lost their space and were gradually replaced by modern, air-conditioned hair salons. All that Singapore is left with now are four elderly street barbers, faithfully holding on to their trade, snipping away , rain or shine.

Young entrepreneurs have recently started to set up shop to preserve the art of the back alley barber, wooing then men with luxurious male grooming and dandy-looking shops – with prices more than 10 times the street barber. With the current trend being retro, I wonder wouldn’t it be even more cool to go to the real-deal street barber? It’s so much cheaper, and most of my guy friends just want a fuss-free cut anyway. Maybe I shall drag one of them (you know who you are, heh) to try a street barber soon.

The National Heritage Board interviewed street barber Mr Lee Yong Tong who has been in plying his trade for the past 50 years to document Singapore’s traditional trades. Mr Lee attends to about 6 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. Most street barbers have rest days now as they are already in their 80s. They are never lonely – their friends sit around the ‘shop’, drinking coffee and chatting the time away (they help to welcome customers too). Most of them have their own family who give them an allowance, but still want to retain their financial independence – and sanity (meaning get outta the house!).

I think Mr Lee has a great sense of humour:
“Nowadays, the young people think that it is art with their hair looking one side longer than the other, or with ‘holes’ in them…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.”

Why not go say hello to Mr Lee at the back alley of Boon Tat Street (Tanjong Pagar) and get a haircut from him today before he hangs up his scissors for good? You may not have much time left before he does that.