These people are makers and bakers, artisans and salesmen with one thing in common — they’re masters in their chosen crafts that have withstood the test of time. With more processes becoming increasingly mechanised, few trades relying on the human touch remain.
Before it’s too late, we spoke to five well-known traditional businesses in Singapore to hear their stories from the past to the present.
A cornerstone of Whampoa Drive, this old-school bakery insists on creating traditional loaves of bread by hand to preserve its characteristic lightness and fluffiness. Helmed by 56-year-old Lai Chee Peng, Sing Hon Loong has been around since the 1980s.
Having picked up the ropes of the business by learning from his father since young, Mr Lai took over the mantle at the age of 20, fresh out of National Service (NS), with the support of his two uncles. As time passed, he was left the sole owner of the business.
Not many would know, but it takes four back-breaking hours to produce a humble loaf of bread. Thus, the workers begin their day as early as 4.30am to meet the demands of the morning crowd at 10am. Afterwards, another batch of workers take over the production at 5.30pm, working till midnight.
Mr Lai shared that there was a dip in the demand for traditional bread around the 1990s when hawker centres weren’t selling this kind of bread. But since the early 2000s, business has perked up as coffee shops have shown a renewed interest in traditional bread.
There is currently a total of 15 employees at Sing Hon Loong and the average age hovers around 60. “The oldest is 70 and he’s been with me for 30 years,” added Mr Lai.
Though this increasing demand is good news, they face another problem — with the long working hours and heavy lifting involved, it’s hard to find a new generation to take over these veterans.
“Every time someone leaves, it’s a big headache,” he explained, adding that “we’re just hoping that the workers can work as long as possible”. Here’s to hoping the bakery will stay around for years to come!
Sing Hon Loong Bakery: 4 Whampoa Drive, Singapore 327715 | Opening Hours: 24 Hours Daily | Tel: +65 6256 0878 | Facebook
2. Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture
Tucked away near the road at 122 Bukit Merah lies Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture, a business founded back in the 1920s.
With the rows of rattan chairs standing guard at the storefront, it’s inevitable for passers-by to be struck by a wave of nostalgia. The rattan furniture seem reminiscent of our grandparents’ time, when these pieces would have surely been a common sight in their homes.
Working tirelessly in the store, 70-year-old Chen Foon Kee is known to be the go-to craftsman for all things rattan. Initially bound by circumstances to take over the business from his father in 1969, Mr Chen has since found a steady tempo in this line and has even roped in his wife.
He explained that rattan was a popular material back in the 1970s, well-loved for its cooling properties amidst Singapore’s climate. However, the demand has since decreased as people don’t appreciate it as much now. Nonetheless, with the bulk of his time spent on repairing rattan furniture, he makes enough to get by.
As one of the few rattan craftsmen left, Mr Chen has been featured extensively on various publications, thus raising the profile of Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture. However, he admits ruefully that the interviews do get a little repetitive — he prefers to spend his days working on his craft instead.
After speaking to Mr Chen, it was immediately apparent why the media adores him. Despite it being the first time meeting him in person, I was quickly won over by the dedication he has to his craft. Besides, his kind mannerism and jovial personality make for a winning combination.
Anyone else feel like they need a rattan chair in their life now?
Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture: 122 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Singapore 150122 | Tel: +65 6278 2388
Ice cream uncles used to be a dime a dozen years ago but nowadays it might be hard to spot even a single one around some estates. It’s the “sunset days already”, admitted Uncle Jimmy, an ice cream uncle who’s always seen at the exit of Lavender MRT station.
Uncle Jimmy is unique as he not only doles out scoops of icy refreshments but also exudes a kindness that’s hard to come by. He’s the ice cream uncle who gave out free ice cream to celebrate his birthday thrice with no strings attached!
Though he still sees a sizeable crowd even on rainy days, he explained that business is not as good as it was when he first started. In the past, there were fewer options for dessert. Now, prospective customers may opt for other options, such as the McDonald’s outlet across the road.
However, this didn’t deter him from carrying out his late wife’s suggestion to give out ice cream on his birthday. Rather than being concerned about incurring a loss, he explained that it’s his way of making someone else’s day a little better, especially since he always sees people looking stressed.
With the help of several students, Uncle Jimmy now has a Facebook page where he accepts requests to provide catering services. With over 7,000 likes on his page, he can be considered somewhat of a celebrity – a status that’s well-deserved.
Keep an eye out for him at Lavendar or perhaps get in touch with him to cater an event!
Uncle Jimmy Traditional Ice Cream On Wheels: Outside Lavender MRT Station, Singapore 208699 | Opening Hours: 1pm – 6pm (Mon to Fri) | Tel: +65 9220 0213 | Facebook
Five years ago, the possibility that her family might lose the premises of Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle pushed third-generation potter Stella Tan to give up her dreams of being a pastry chef to preserve the family business.
“I didn’t care if it’s six months or how many years or how many months; I don’t want to regret [not helping],” she explained with conviction. “I don’t want this regret to be with me for life.”
Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle has been with the Tan family since 1965 and Stella has been chipping in since a young age. Eventually, she graduated from helping out with sales and workshops to creating and selling her own products.
Now, as the studio manager, she actively uses social media and engages in various partnerships to promote the craft in the hopes of encouraging more people to try their hand at pottery.
In the past, there were several dragon kilns in Singapore but the high costs of firing them up has left Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle with the only functional one remaining.
The family hopes to make this art form affordable to everyone and thus welcomes the public to bring their own wares for firing for free. The only catch is that they have to help to tend to the fire.
“We try not to mark up our craft. We want everyone to have a piece of art at home,” explained Stella.
Fans of ang ku kueh should be no strangers to the name Ji Xiang Ang Ku Kueh, for they’re known to produce some of the best ones available in the market. The high quality is a result of their perseverance in making fresh batches every day and moulding each kueh by hand to produce a better texture.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, ang ku kueh (“Red Tortoise Cake”) refers to a steamed Chinese pastry made of soft sticky glutinous rice flour skin wrapped around a sweet filling.
The 33-year-old brand has humble origins as a home business started by Mrs Toh to supplement the family’s income. Three years later, the business outgrew their HDB flat and they opened a physical outlet at Everton Park.
They still remain there today, attracting a never-ceasing crowd eager for some chewy and delicious kuehs.
Now, Mrs Toh is joined by five other members of the Toh family. Her son, Kelvin, is a familiar face around the store as he chips in with daily operations on top of overseeing the marketing aspects.
As Kelvin explained, the family has to constantly innovate to keep up with the times while holding on to the traditional nature of the pastry.
Hence, while they still accept preorders for traditional variations like ka ta kueh, tiong ku, money kueh and ang ee, they’ve also introduced more flavours since the brand’s inception. Five new flavours have been added, bringing the total available flavours to seven. The Yam and Durian flavours were Kelvin’s idea, designed to cater to the younger generation’s palates.
On top of that, they’ve also expanded the brand’s online presence through its website and Facebook page in addition to listing their ang ku kuehs on Deliveroo and Foodpanda. But, the store remains as their primary focus.
“We’re a traditional business so we just want to keep it there, keep it lucrative and keep the tradition alive,” he explained. Buy ang ku kueh people, we can’t let this deliciousness disappear!
While these five businesses are all different in nature, they’re united in their steadfast conviction in preserving traditional trades, choosing to turn away from mechanising processes in their belief that handmade is the way to go.
Let’s hope these crafts will still remain for a long time to come because future generations deserve to enjoy them too.