If you have been following my photography blog, you will realise that i like to reminisce. I have been writing a series titled 'Vanishing Trades / Scenes in Singapore'. In one of my blog posts in late November last year, i did a documentary shoot on one of the last few remaining street barbers in Singapore who is in his 70s. Such street barbering was once a common sight in Singapore’s back-alleys. Running a business on the streets was a way of life in early Singapore. Equipped with little more than a few pairs of scissors and razors, street barbers did brisk business providing quick, fuss-free trims. They were exactly like the barbers of yester year.
These days, however, they are a dying breed, soon to be relegated to the dusty pages of history. I find it is important nowadays to make the appreciation of heritage relevant to youth through real-life examples. I have always wanted to show that such trade has been around for decades and hopefully strike a chord with our younger generation. It's a pity that soon the handful will stop work as they are so much a part of our Singapore history.
I managed to locate another last remaining roadside barbers in Singapore and his barber stand is situated behind a row of old shophouses along Aliwal Street. You can barely notice him if you do not pay special attention. The street barber, affectionately known as Uncle Tan by his customers, has been cutting hair for more than 35 years. He has been snipping away at tufts of hair at his makeshift Aliwai Street stall for the last 20 years, rain or shine. According to Uncle Barber Tan, during Singapore heyday in the 1950s, there were close to 20 street barbers vying for customers in a bustling side lane in Bugis, aptly dubbed "Barber Street". Today, Uncle Barber Tan in his late 60s cuts a lonesome figure as the sole remaining barber who continues to ply his trade there.
I would like to thank Uncle Barber Tan for giving me this great opportunity to photograph, document and share the story of street barbering, a very soon-to-be vanished trade in Singapore. Every barber has a different tale to tell of how he entered the profession.
Roadside barbers are old school.
Uncle Barber Tan’s hair ‘salon’ sits at a back alley behind a row of pre-war shops. Customers get their hair cut on an old-style barber's armchair. Barber Tan has no lack of customers, always seen with customers waiting patiently for their turn.
A simple set-up as his workplace, just a chair, mirrors, tents and his tools.
The service is a very dude-ish experience, a customer do not need to make any appointment, just need to show up. If there is a queue, you'll sit on one of the old chairs lined along the five-footway.
There are signs the back lane will soon lose all ties to its once colourful historical past of street barbers. Age is fast catching on with Mr Tan and he works for 5 days a week nowadays, except Wednesday and Sunday. His street barbering service is a steal compared to those provided by hair salons, he charges only $6 for a haircut. For $6, the service also includes the trimming of eyebrows and shaving of facial hair.
Barbers have devised ingenious methods to retain their clientele.
Investing little and earning decently seems to be ‘mantra' of street barbers. Street barbers catering for customers and reminding people of the yore days when air-conditioned hair cutting saloons or men's parlours were unheard of.
There are no magazines to browse while waiting for your turn as people are on the go.
It is the easy-on-the purse shave and hair cut that is on the top of the mind for people who come here.
I stood near Uncle Barber Tan, transfixed at the scene of him tending to his customer.
In the past, a traditional street barber had to master many skills: combing, razoring, shaving, ear-picking, cutting, dyeing, joining, patching, relaxing the muscles and stimulating the blood circulation. Such unique techniques are really rarely seen now. Only a few barbers from back in the day may be able to pull off all of these moves.
Uncle Barber Tan's sparsely decorated makeshift stall do not even have an electrical outlet. His hair trimmer is manually operated. The only electrical appliance is a battery-operated radio and a table-top clock.
Street / roadside barbers are fiercely proud of their professions and understandably so. I am sure that these pictures of Uncle Barber Tan operating his street barber stall qualify to be put under my blog series of Vanishing Trades / Scenes in Singapore because it is very likely that it would vanish one day from the face of Singapore, sooner or later.
Like these photos shown in this post, everything becomes part of a memory once they are gone. These back-alley barbers will soon become a thing of the past as people visit the modern air-conditioned hairdressers located at shopping centres and/or barbers in around our neighbourhoods. I find myself wishing Uncle Barber Tan would continue this dying trade as long as he can. So for the men and boys of Singapore, a quick trim at a back-alley barber can be a refreshing change from the corporate slickness of modern life.
Please feel free to browse my previous first blog post photo shoot on the Singapore Street Barbers To Be Remembered in November last year: