In the early days of Singapore, knife and scissors sharpening was a prevalent job. Knife sharpening as an art form, is a form of professional service provision. Have you heard of them before in Singapore? Do you know of their presence here in Singapore? Knife sharpeners, often known as scissors grinders, sharpened knives, scissors and other sharp metal objects. Most of the knife sharpeners were itinerant and travelled from one housing estate to another with their tools. It was expensive to buy a new pair of scissors or a knife during those days and it was also somehow a belief that scissors become more seasoned and worked better when sharpened. People therefore preferred having their knives and scissors sharpened by knife sharpeners rather than buying new ones. However, the business of sharpening knives and scissors simply became redundant over time in modern advanced technology times. People preferred buying a new pair of scissors or a knife to save themselves the hassle of going to an itinerant knife sharpener. With busier schedules, people also had no time to carry their knives and scissors to the knife sharpener. Lifestyle changes induced people into buying classier knives than retaining old ones. Knife sharpeners are therefore rarely to be found in Singapore today.
Personally, i do not know much about knife sharpening professional service in Singapore. Hence, i made a trip down to People’s Park Complex in Singapore Chinatown area, tucked away at a corner on the second floor, there was a unit where i learnt the art, history and profession of knife sharpening. The shop owner known as Madam Lee, who has been in this trade for more than 40 years, is a very kind, humble and friendly person. She was so willing to share with me her stories, how she got started in knife sharpening, her experiences and memories over her knife sharpening business.
I would like to thank Madam Lee for giving me this great opportunity to photograph, document and share the story of traditional hands-on knife sharpening, a vanishing trade in Singapore.
If you ever need a skillful professional to sharpen your knifes, scissors etc, you can find Madam Lee at her shop named Pow Li located at People’s Park Food Complex near Singapore Chinatown area. We can all help to spread the awareness of the dying trade of knife sharpening art and profession in Singapore and this traditional knife sharpening trade and business can be continued.
Mdm Lee inherited the shop business from his late father who was getting on years then. She officially took over the business in 1970. Life was tough when she first started out working in this line. Like any beginners, she started learning from stratch. She initially made a lot of mistakes and sometimes ended up having to pay customer for spoiling their scissors. So she worked hard to focus on what is required to become a professional blade sharpener. Mdm Lee finally stood out to do a good job with skills she acquired over the years. Nowadays her business is slowing down because of less tailors around who would get their scissors sharpened often. But Mdm Lee is still continuing on, simply because knife sharpening has become her passion and interest. And it is a great way to pass time for her.
Mdm Lee’s knife sharpening caters to hairstylists, seamstress, hawkers and homemakers, with her business trade spanning over 40 years who are recommended through word of mouth. They felt that she had already done a good job for their scissors. So the customers patronised her knife sharpening services often and some customers have been faithfully, patronising her shop for the past thirty to forty years or so. Some customers have retired over the years, thus they don't come often. But there are also new patrons. She is happy with the amount of customers nowadays.
Mdm Lee's quality of work belongs to the traditional hands-on type. Mdm Lee's sharpening work differentiates slightly from those technologically-advanced machines. She is in this profession for more than 40 years and she owe it all to her father's efforts and handwork. She did not consider retiring at all as she has great passion and interest in this line of work. With that, she would like to work as long as she can. With no one taking over her business, the future of her career is unknown. She has been a sharpener throughout her life, being able to meet and interact with different customers everyday and providing them with her services. That's the greatest satisfaction of her life.
There were a few things that I was able to struck a chord deeply with Mdm Lee's knife sharpening, that is the art and skill of knife sharpening. I would not be able to know the operations and business management of a knife sharpening trade / business, when she was sharpening the knifes on the grinder and honing stone. Mdm Lee’s grinder was machine / motor operated. When I saw how Mdm Lee sharpening the knifes on the sharpening / honing stone slab, splashing water on the stone slab and knife while sharpening, i watched it all these done amazingly.
According to Mdm Lee, in the past, knife sharpeners carried with them a pail of water, a grindstone and sheets of sandpaper either by trolley or by hand. They would set up shop in front or back of their own house or along the footpath. The knife sharpener would file the knife's sharp end on a whetstone or grindstone to sharpen it. He would use water in between to clean away the accumulated mass or to cool the knife that became hot due to friction. It will take about half an hour to grind a knife or a pair of scissors.
With the introduction of machines, the knife sharpener would hold the knife against his mechanised grindstone as it rotated at a constant speed. Scissors were sharpened in a similar fashion. Some sharpeners had their own shops with sophisticated machines for sharpening all types of knives and scissors. The trick of their trade was in holding the knife at an appropriate angle against the grindstone and applying the right amount of strength to sharpen it. Mdm Lee believed that mere grinding would blunt the knife easily within a very short span of time. Exerting too much strength was not considered right either, as that was believed to wear away the metal. The knife sharpener therefore had to apply the right amount of pressure consistently on a knife. The knife sharpener would instinctively know which kind or type of knife required what amount of pressure against the whetstone.
The dilemma and challenges faced by Mdm Lee today is succession and passing on of the knife sharpening trade / skills / business. The art and profession of knife sharpening may not be able to carried on into the future generations of Singapore. Youngsters nowadays prefer the latest technology using computerised and automated machines to sharpen blades. They would not favor or appreciate such traditional handcraft skills anymore. Mdm Lee would not want to waste her father's efforts and hard work and she wishes that she can continue this business smoothly until the day she retires. This would be her greatest wish. I sincerely hope that Mdm Lee would be able to pass on her art and skill of knife sharpening.
A freelance Singapore-based travel photographer / photojournalist. I seek the extraordinary, but finds beauty in the everyday. Life is interesting, capture it.
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