Nestled among the rows of hardware shops in People’s Park Complex, the sound of knives being sharpened and a constant whirring from the machinery might lead you to take notice of an unassuming shop, Pow Li. “I have worked here for 49 years, next year, it will be 50,” mentioned Madam Lee Hwee Chin. It is truly impressive to see a 73-year-old woman moving around with boundless energy.
“I took over the knife sharpening business from my parents when I was 23. Do I love it? I do it to make a living when I was younger; nothing much has changed. Who will love doing so much work,” she said with a smile. As I took a look around the small and dusty shop, it is hard to imagine working here for a day, let alone half a decade. “Sorry if this place is a bit of a mess, I have not had the time to clean it up,” she mentioned.
“I am probably one of the last few knife sharpeners in Singapore already. No one will take over this business. Who will want to do this kind of manual labour?” she quipped. Picking up a knife to sharpen, she shuffled her way to the stone grinder before starting the machine. She runs the blade against the edge of the disc and sparks began to emit from the machine. “No need to be scared, I am so used to it already, it’s like second nature,” she said while running the blade along the grinder. As I bid my farewell to her, she thanked me for visiting her this afternoon, “Very long, never see young people come here already.”
Kelvin looks nothing like someone in his fifties with his ponytail and laid back outfit; perhaps, the grey roots might give you a hint about his age. Sitting down and relaxing in his armed chair, he enjoys his time in solace and away from the bustling crowd of Chinatown. “I took over the business from my mother about 30 to 40 years ago, and I have always been doing this ever since ,” the veteran in the field of key making mentioned.
“Many things change in key making these days. There’s more advanced technology now, especially with car keys and transponders, which require chips and electronic materials. Something that I will take a long time to do as I do not have that knowledge. It’s better to find other people out there who will do the job much faster than me, but old keys, I still can do,” said Kelvin. He then brought me to view some of the latest key making devices that he operates, which works electronically, unlike the manual ones that he used to run.
I was curious as many people that have stayed long in their respective trades, more often than not, fall in love with it inadvertently. However, this was not the case for Kelvin at all. “I hate it. I am too old to try anything new since I know how to do this from young, I use this to earn money. I don’t like this at all, but I need to earn money, no choice,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, albeit with a smile. “If I have children, I will ask them to focus on the latest key making ways, but I don’t, so it is a dying trade for sure,” Kelvin mentioned. It is a poignant reminder that technology is indeed surpassing the need for traditional methods these days Although it is a step forward into the future, the footprints in the past seem to be vanishing with time.
The city of Singapore is filled with an impressive spread of skyscrapers, most notably in the Downtown area. Amidst these high-rise architectural marvels, lies a humble unit occupying the space of a shophouse along Neil Road: Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop. I took my first furtive steps into the shop filled with hand-carved Taoist effigies of different shapes and sizes before being greeted by Mr Ng Yeow Hua. He is currently managing this 123-year-old business, which is also the last remaining shop in Singapore to hand carve Taoist effigies.
“This business was passed down from generations above. My mother is not young anymore, so I help to manage this business now,” he mentioned before meticulously drilling and carving an effigy. “These effigies are made from wood and processes such as drilling and painting are involved in creating patterns on them. Now, there are still demand for these effigies, especially from religious establishments such as temples.They still approach us for help from time to time,” he explained further before switching his gaze back to the effigy as he carried on making intricate details on it. I was in awe at the boundless amount of Taoist idols lining up the shelves in the shop. It is indeed hard to believe that some of these were created from decades ago.
“My children will help out in the shop when they are not working on weekends. The rich history that we have may make them continue this trade, but you rarely find such shops dedicated to this field of work nowadays. I enjoy my work, I am used to this. But for the future, we don’t know what will happen,” he said.
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