The five-foot-way barber

6 12 2011

Once upon a time, in a Singapore we have long forgotten, you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid seeing someone having his hair cut on the five-foot-way. These days, the five-foot-way, sidewalk, roadside or back alley barber, as he might be known as, is less of a common sight in a Singapore that has abandoned its previous life on the streets for the more comfortable air-conditioned premises we partake of most of our daily activities in. The sidewalk barber did made a reappearance at two locations last weekend in a part of Singapore that I will from my previous interactions always associate with that Singapore they were commonly found in. This was part of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) Heritage along Footpaths initiative, which saw not just the once familiar sight of barber chairs and mirrors mounted on walls, but also the likes of cobblers, fortune-tellers and ice-ball vendors making an appearance along the five-foot-way.

Old style barbers - those along the sidewalks and in barbershops always started with the customary spray.

I myself have never had the experience of having my hair cut along a five-foot-way or in a back lane, my father preferring to take me to the more santised premises of the neighbourhood Indian barber shop with its mirror lined walls I loved to stare into and the unmistakable smell of talcum powder and hair oil. I certainly don’t remember prices that the NHB has set – 50 cents, for haircuts … remembering them to be $2 perhaps when I was able to make my own visits to the barber in the early 1970s. I do remember however that a neighbour of mine did frequent a five-foot-way barber in his old neighbourhood at Ah Hood Road at which he paid 70 cents for his monthly crop.

Closed cropped hairstyles were a standard of the sidewalk barbers.

I was never fond of the Indian barber – who on my father’s instructions never failed to give me a close-crop or a crew-cut and later in life when I could make my own choice, I preferred (as most of my peers did) to visit the Malay barber instead – one Bugs Bunny, in Toa Payoh opened at the start of the 1970s and is still right where it opened, with its decor not having changed in four decades. The Malay barbershop grew in popularity in the 1970s as they delivered crops that in line with the latest styles. Many of the popular Malay barbershops were as a matter of fact run by barbers that had come off the streets – one of the very successful chains – Sri Dewa was started by a certain Mr Ramadan bin Fahmi who had started his trade under a cherry tree in Thomson Road.

Barber chairs making a reappearance on the five-foot-way.

The barbers would be returning to the two locations this weekend (Sat 10 Dec 2011 and Sun 11 Dec 2011 – 10 am to 5 pm), the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and at the Stamford Arts Centre. Based on what a satisfied customer I met at the SAM said, be prepared for a queue which he said had already formed before the start of business at 10 am for a crop at prices which the gentlemen said “you can’t find in Singapore anymore”.

Tools of the trade being used - a comb and a pair of scissors.

Giving a shave - no longer used is a blade sharpened on a strap of leather but one with a disposable razor.


About The Heritage Along Footpaths project:

The Heritage Along Footpaths project seeks to re-introduce trades that were once common at two designated sites within the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct – the Singapore Art Museum and Stamford Arts Centre (along the mural wall facing Middle Road). At each of the sites, tradesmen that were once commonly found along alleyways or five-foot ways – namely street barbers, cobblers, fortune tellers, ice-ball sellers and kachang puteh sellers – will ply their wares at prices of the past. Research conducted on these once-common trades will also be on display for the public to learn more about Singapore’s history and heritage.

Heritage Along Footpaths is part of the NHB’s initiative to inject greater vibrancy into the Bras Basah and Bugis precinct, an area rich in the arts and heritage. Said Mr Alvin Tan, Director, Heritage Institutions & Industry Development: “Through this project, NHB hopes to re-introduce once familiar street sights and businesses in the arts and cultural district and in doing so, re-acquaint Singaporeans with trades that were once an integral part of our community heritage. It also presents the perfect opportunity for younger Singaporeans to experience first-hand the early lives of their grandparents, and, in the process, reinforce bonding across the generations who share a common history and identity.”



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One response

14 12 2011
muffyn liuliu

Who’s the barber? Any way to contact him?

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