Expediency > Quality.
In retrospect, one usually finds that many still find themselves stuck in a rigid routine of convenience over experience. The bustling metropolis of Singapore, with its rat race, constantly sees the springing up of new shopping malls and amenities which cater to a modernising population. Fast food chains and hair salons appear in abundance, coupled with the allure of matching one’s self with the trendier global stage.
Of course, separatist movements such as the minimalist and hipster subcultures tend to deviate from the norm, adding that slice of quirkiness to the place one calls home. In this context, it is comforting to see individuals who, step out of conventional methods to open up creative ventures and trail their own paths different from their predecessors.
Where do I come into this?
I am not a person who entirely believes modernisation is for the greater good nor an individual to separate totally from the norm. Instead, I am more like a person on a fence, choosing to have the best of both worlds, while sticking firmly to old roots. Yes, it is beneficial to progress and indeed being creative is important. However, the purpose is lost if we do not remember our roots. A life of convenience means nothing without experience, if you look at it generally. While I’m not a modernity freak per se, I still admire and appreciate the smaller icons which make Singapore my home. Unfortunately, these unique people will cease to exist, their trade probably erased with the threat of modernisation. Here are some of them.
1. THE HUMBLE MAMA SHOP aka “Where I buy sweets for 10cents per piece”.
This iconic feature found in almost all, if not many, void decks serves as a sweet reminder of childhood that the Lost generation up to the Millennials once had. Memories of the jolly old indian uncle laughing as your eyes widen with excitement, your lips drooling at that action figure which was highly coveted by your peers. Meanwhile, your mother was selecting her freshest groceries to cook you that favourite chicken curry you were craving badly for last night. Oh how wonderful it was when the uncle decides to give you a free sweet before the both of you went home, surely leaving a smile on your face for the whole day and being the envy of your playground friends when you tell them your story of how the mama shop uncle gave you a complimentary mentos mint. Alas, this one stop centre for groceries and sundry needs is slowly being phased out, replaced by dank and dull supermarts and supermarkets where the cashiers’ expressions are sometimes as cold as ice itself. The ecstatic smile of the traditional shopkeeper will soon fade, gone from the minds of the children who will meet the stoic, grim faces of supermarket cashiers, imploring you to be quick with your change so that the queue can get moving.
2. THE LOCAL KOPITIAM aka “Where your ah kong used to eat at”.
Ah, the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans coupled with the aroma of kaya toast. The blend of taste as you feed yourself the first morsel of scrambled eggs. Your ears pick up the familiar chirping of birds while old uncles you can consider as wizards shout out the morning’s order with a sing song voice. Yes, this true Singaporean culture of coffeeshops will soon disappear into the background of the local scene, overtaken by swankier and more stylish “Viennese” coffeehouses or hipster-ish boulangeries and cafes. The unique setting of a traditional Asian culture will wither away with a picturesque view commonly found in continental Europe. While the Egg Benedict may reign in the heart of many youths today, it still hasn’t captured my heart. Therefore, I’m still sticking myself with the scrambled eggs, kaya toast and kopi siew dai, thanks.
3. THE LOCAL BARBERSHOP aka “Mummy buy you ice cream if you sit properly”.
The sound of electric razors buzzing as the fatherly uncle shaves off the massive chunk of hair which made you look like a lion. You cringe as your beautiful mane is now at one with the floor. The uncle makes small talk, trying to calm you down while your squirm in your seat, usually with the offer of an ice cream or sweet after the haircut. The droning of your mother as she dictates the style your hair must conform to – mother knows best, as they say. This iconic scene is typical of many Singaporeans of yesteryear. Try asking your dad, he must surely have gone through this. The cheerful uncle who never refuses a visit by a passing man looking for a shave, trim or haircut. The end usually resulting in the customer looking as if he was a Sean Connery from a Bond film or perhaps a G.I. Joe flick. In any case, this special landmark is gradually making way for more trendy and up-to-date hairstyling salons and specialist haberdasheries with a vengeance to make you look like something out of a fashion magazine while robbing you blind and tearing a large hole in your pocket, while calling it art. To those who prefer this, I respect your decisions. Me? I’ll side with the barbershop uncles with their trusty straight razors and their delicate fingers. At least they don’t seem to look as bloodthirsty as Sweeney Todd the hairstylist.
4. THE STREETSIDE COBBLER aka “Where your dad repairs shoes without burning a hole”.
This person is instantly recognisable by his makeshift table at the side or corner of the street alongside the striking scent of glue and sound of heels being knocked into place. The roadside cobbler, an logo of a determined Singapore is very much a dying trade in today’s modern society, where disposable items reign supreme. Long gone were the times whereby sensible people bought footwear which were supposed to last a lifetime. When worn down, the humble cobbler became their ally and friend, repairing and touching up their coveted possession with a delicate and personal touch. These people could also provide a nice shoe finish, applying kiwi to it and furnishing it with a gleaming, new look sometimes even better than first bought. Although such services are now offered by certain shoe shops domestically, nothing beats the service of a street cobbler where experience, quality and affordabiltiy are rolled into one. You might be surprised to find that some cobblers actually repair branded items.
I appreciate what the past has given. I also appreciate what has yet to come. However, to lose a precious gem in a city that rapidly accelerates the wheel of modernisation at the expense of its past is extremely lamentable. Indeed, land scarcity is a problem, but it doesn’t necessarily mean incorporation of values and culture into modernity cannot be done. To erode a century’s worth of culture in 3 decades is no joking matter. It is just sad that the upcoming generation of locals will grow up with less of a childhood than their predecessors. And we wonder why they are so attention seeking and socially reclusive.
Change. Appreciate. Converse & Conserve.
– The Fox.
Edwin Koo, The New York Times