Thursday, March 20, 2008

Our first kampong barber – Lam Chun Chew

(** this article was first posted on 9 June 2007)

My younger brother, Chun See wrote in one of his earliest articles about Our Kampong in Lorong Kinchir, off Lorong Chuan. He wrote about the barber who operated his shop across the road from our house. But Chun See was probably too young to remember that before this gentleman, there was another barber who operated in a cubicle inside a grocery shop (kek ai tiam in Hokkien) on our side of the road, just to the left of this photo.

This barber, who I addressed as Mr Low, was a short man with big round eyes with sharp eye-sight, rather skinny, but very talkative only losing his verbal skill to his thin, tall and skinny wife who always complained something. They had 2 sons and 1 daughter.

His special trade-mark was wax clearing of the ears, the job being done with deft skill, using a wax plastic scrapper, a thin reed-like loosener, and a chrome steel pincer to pick out pieces of stuffed waxes from his client’s ears, making the customer felt ‘shiok’ in the process. For safety reasons, a lighted bulb would be hung near the client’s head for the on-going task. This service had endeared many old kampong folks, including my father to this skilful barber. He had another skill that enabled him to clear sand or small particles which got in his customer’s eyes by accidents. I saw him on one occasion lift a guy’s eye-lit, picking out a sand particle using a chrome pincer deftly. While doing his job he would engage his client in small talk, usually on whose children did well or not in their studies. This was his pet topic, probably because his elder son did quite well in a Chinese language medium school (Catholic High).

His elder son, Ah Hoon was a good friend of mine. One day Ah Hoon fell sick with typhoid and the sickness persisted despite seeing many doctors. He became weaker by the day, face as pale as a white sheet of paper, thin as a stick, and not able to attend school for a long period of time. He was approaching death and both parents cried bitterly over him. By a stroke of good fortune, a new doctor was engaged to treat him and things took a turn for the better. The medicine worked well, and Ah Hoon slowly recovered to his. It brought great relief to his family. Chinese believes that patients possess good karmic relationship with certain doctors who are able to bring them good health. Ah Hoon’s parents certainly held on to this belief. Later on my friend went on to pass his senior middle three examination and subsequently got a job in the civil service. His father was so proud of his son that he would relate his son’s achievement to everyone, especially to his customers, as though his son had passed some high level imperial exam in ancient China.

In the late fifties luck smiled on barber Low. One day I saw him holding a piece of paper excitedly as he ran and leapt over a drain, announcing that he had touched big sweep, winning some ten thousand dollars, which was a big sum of money at that time. Now he felt that he should leave for a bigger and nicer place. Eventually he moved into another barber shop at Serangoon Road (3rd mile), opposite the present SCDF depot, with his younger son carrying on his trade. One day, I met Ah Hoon. He was no more with the civil service, and had become a successful renovation contractor.

Below are a couple of photos from the collection of the National Archives of Singapore showing a Chinese barber performing ear cleaning and his tools he used.

Check out a related post at here.


Victor said...

Recently, I also came across a barber shop in Joo Chiat Place which is truly a relic from past. Will blog about it when I have the time... and the mood.

Lam Chun See said...

I think the ear cleaning service is not very healthy or hygienic.

When I was older, I used to go to the Sri Dewa barber located at Thomson Rd. There used to be a row of shop houses there where the present IRAS building stands. At the end of the session, the barber would use a held held massager to give you a back and shoulders massage. Damn 'shiok'.

As for the Indian barbers, they like to give your head a quick twist so that you get a cracking sound in your neck. Feels very nice too. But I was warned by a doctor never to let them do it becos it's quite dangerous.

BTW, our overseas friends may be puzzled by the word 'shiok'. It is a local word meaning very nice or fantastic.

Anonymous said...

After leaving the kampong, I frequent Malay barber shop which is not only fast(slightly more than ten minutes), it gives you a 'modern' look hair style, providing basic service of cut-trim-shave, doing away all the unnecessary frills. I gave up on Indian barber after visiting them for a couple of time, that was because the cutting doesn't suit my taste, though I liked the twisting of neck part - shiok feeling.

Lam Chun See said...

Dr Leslie Tay has some advice about taking care of the ears. He warns against digging out the wax with sharp object.