Greeting every customer that walks in with a twinkle in his eye, Arif shuffles along the bookshelves to attend to his customer’s needs. He has worked at Basheer Graphic Books for about 25 years, ever since the store’s beginnings. “No no, I was not interested in working here at first, but after I join the family trade, I soon started to love this job,” Arif said.
With the advent of online bookstores and e-books in recent years, it is a struggle for the bookstore to keep up with them. “Since five or six years ago, business has not been that good, and you can see it,” Arif sighed as he pointed to the large stock of prints piled up at the top of the cabinet. “But one thing is for sure, some people still love prints because of the touch it gives, it’s one of a kind, and can never be replicated by digital products,” he mentioned.
“The future, we don’t know, honestly, but we will still be here because we love this,” Arif smiled. As I took a look around, there were still students and people who are interested in the artistic sphere streaming in to browse the books. It will be sad to see this store fading among the digitalised world, and the history that will go along with it.
Tucked away in the corner of Bras Basah Complex, Mr Kok Seng Whatt has been working at Nanya for more than 30 years, attending to the many enquiries about scroll-making, framing and calligraphy. He peeked out of his shop with a curious look before inviting me in as he spoke with a mix of Hokkien and Chinese. “I have been here for more than 30 years, and bit by bit, the number of people in this line of trade started to decline,” he mentioned.
Scroll-making materials and drawings were piled onto his cramped desk with pottery and ancient Chinese ornaments. “Yes, I still have customers but not much, perhaps one or two a day, sometimes, people from China will be here to ask me about scroll-making,” he said as he pulled out a client’s work to show. It was intriguing to see that a scroll which looked so flimsy, had such an intricate making process involving three steps of meticulous artistry. “Looks easy? I took 30 years to find this easy,” he laughed at how stunned I was by the process.
“I love this job, if you don’t love this trade, you cannot survive for such a long time,” he said as he took a bite of the fish crackers from the table. “It is difficult to find a new generation to take over this business, like my son, he shows no interest in these fine art, and there is no appreciation for the details,” he mentioned. Taking a glimpse around the cramped non-air conditioned shop, it is indeed hard to imagine any millennials taking over this business as it is a far cry from the ambitions that we hold close to our heart.
Across the hustle and bustle of the Central Business District under the sweltering heat at a small alley along Boon Tat St is one Mr Lee Yong Tong. “I have been cutting hair here for 53 years, they call me the number one in Boon Tat St,” he said with a smile. Operating just under a canvas sheet and with a barber’s chair, it seems like a fragment of the olden days of Singapore.
“I have been living here since the times of Japanese Occupation, and I have always had a passion for hair-cutting, so I decided to make it a business. I do not want to move into shops like the ones you see now, because the rental is so expensive. I make enough to be happy and to live my life the way I love it. Don’t need to be rich. I just need to be happy,” he mentioned as he reminisced about the old times.
He took out a photobook done by a student from Laselle College of Arts featuring his makeshift salon and his hairdressing services. “That’s me. A lot of people know me as the roadside barber, perhaps the last one in Singapore, I don’t know,” he pointed to some of the pictures while exchanging greetings with the nearby shop-owners who happened to listen to our conversation.
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