The charcoal shop

11 04 2016

I was reminded of the charcoal shop, a sight I would come across every now and again in my childhood, when I stumbled upon one on the old streets of Ipoh about five years ago.

Occupying the ground unit of an old shophouse and with walls and floors darkened in varying degrees by carbon dust, the shop bore many similarities with the ones that I remember; the only clues of the time and the place were in the more modern looking implements used to sort, weigh and pack the charcoal and the sacks and bags that the charcoal was being packed into.

The charcoal shop -this one seen in Ipoh in 2010, was once a common sight in Singapore.

The charcoal shop, this one spotted in Ipoh in late 2010, was once a common sight in Singapore. The shop has since stopped operating.

Shops such these were commonplace in days when charcoal fired just about anything. From stoves and clothing irons in homes, to the ovens and furnaces of commercial establishments, the reach of charcoal then exceeded beyond that of gas and electricity. Demand fell with resettlement and redevelopment, electricity and gas were more suited for use in the public housing units the population was being moved into, and the use of charcoal was reduced to the occasional barbecue, and to the rare occasions when the charcoal stove would be dusted off for the making of festive snacks. From a high of 300 shops, the numbers were reduced to about a hundred by the time 1980 had arrived. Those that did survive, were to disappear over the two decades that followed.

The shop's interior.

The shop’s interior.

Besides the supply of charcoal for domestic use, trade in charcoal in Singapore also extended to a thriving import and export business. Based initially in the Rochor area, the trade moved to Kampong Arang at Tanjong Rhu when Nicoll Highway and the Merdeka Bridge were built. With the clean-up of the Kallang Basin reaching their final stages in the late 1980s, the trade was to be moved once again, this time to Lorong Halus (more information: The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay).

Little remains of the charcoal trade today. Like many of the trades that added life and colour to our world, it has since been replaced by the grey of the economy of the new age; remembered only by a few, whose memories will soon fade.



One response

11 04 2016

In my mum’s restaurant, we always used
charcoal for finishing steaks and grilled meats,
and also for my mum’s famous oxtail stew.
We had charcoal delivered every day,
but there would be times on Sunday night,
for instance, when the supply would run low
andsomeone would be sent out to get an extra
load. In my teenage years, that someone
might be me if the restaurant was roaringly
busy and the kitchen assistants were occupied.
Most shops would have closed for business,
of course, but in those days, shopkeepers
would keep one slat of the door open or one
could knock on a door or window and call
out what was needed. Another slat would be opened, or if the item was smaller than a paper sack of charcoal, a hand would be thrust out with
the desired purchase.

People didn’t turn away business in those
days and our regular provision shop, Chop
Wing Sang, never turned regulars like us away.
In fact, it would even keep on hand some of the cannedand bottled foods that we used in the restaurant and might sometimes run short of.

Such things as Heinz Baked Beans, S&W
canned asparagus, Heinz ketchup, Lea&Perrins Worcestershire sauce, s&W malt vinegar, HP sauce,
Colman’s mustard, and Heinz salad cream, Vienna sausages were hardly staples in local
households of the time, and there were few, if any, Europeans who lived in the neighbourhood. Still fewer would have even thought to turn to a
traditional Chinese provision shop for such items.

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