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 Like many of the trades that added life and colour to our world, it has since been replaced by the grey of the economy of the new age; remembered only by a few, whose memories will soon fade.