We put the spotlight on vanishing trades in Singapore that keep old school traditions and artisanal techniques alive.
Tourists identify Singapore as a modern city filled with breathtaking skyscrapers and futuristic buildings. But those living in Singapore will know it’s the perfect balance of both old and new. Case in point: vanishing trades in Singapore. Believe it or not, there are still some old school trades (though on the brink of extinction) honing their craft. It’s up to us to preserve our heritage and keep these businesses alive. So the next time you spot a karang guni man or ice cream uncle, make sure to support them!
Vanishing trades in Singapore that keep traditions alive
1. Mama shops
Ah, remember the good old days when we’d use our pocket money to buy old school tidbits from the nearby mama shop? Simpler times, indeed. A mama or mamak shop is a humble provision shop on the ground floor of a HDB flat (void deck). Aside from snacks, it stocks basic groceries such as eggs, drinks, bread, canned goods, spice mixes, laundry detergent, and the like. But we won’t say that encountering a mama shop is a rare occurrence today – you’ll still find many at void decks, along shophouses and even in Little India.
2. Karang guni men
The distinct bell sounds of the karang guni man unlock a core memory whenever we hear it around our HDB flats. Also known as the rag-and-bone man, karang guni translates to ‘gunny sack’ in Malay. During different parts of the day, karang guni men (and women) go around blocks to collect stacks of old newspapers, metal scraps, aluminium cans and cardboards. They give you a small monetary amount for every kilogram collected and resell the items to scrap companies. But it’s a rare occurrence to see them nowadays, as the scrap industry took a hit during the pandemic.
3. Kacang puteh peddlers
We munch on these snacks during parties or festivals like Chinese New Year and Deepavali. But did you know that kacang puteh was sold outside cinemas in the past? Peddlers would sell a range of savoury peanuts, murukku, fried flat and green beans, chickpeas, and even crackers.
Fast forward to today, and you’ll find one of the most prominent kacang puteh sellers outside Peace Centre at 1 Sophia Road. His small cart carries about 20 varieties of savoury and sweet nuts, murukku and even steamed peanuts and chickpeas. This third-generation kacang puteh seller also caters for parties and weddings.
4. Neighbourhood bakeries
We see new and cool bakeries opening all the time but nothing beats the sight (and smell) of our neighbourhood bakery. Simple yet oh-so-earnest. Hot dog buns, rainbow sprinkle doughnuts and the iconic waffles slathered with kaya or peanut butter spreads… we can go on and on. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of traditional bakeries right here.
5. Street cobblers
These cobblers don’t need a great set-up – just a makeshift space to hone their shoe repair skills. Get customised service with some personal touch at pocket-friendly prices. Change a broken heel, spruce up your soles or polish your favourite pair of boots at one of these cobblers in Singapore. There’s Khoo Cobbler at #01-32 Smith Street, Cobbler Aunty Kuang at Blk 629 Ang Mo Kio Ave 4 and Yee’s Cobbler at Simei MRT.
6. Parrot astrologer
From tarot card reading to dream intepretation, we love all things cosmic here. And with the multiple types of fortune tellers available, we reckon Singapore does too. One of them is parrot astrology, an ancient Indian tradition. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.
Parrot astrologers use a green parakeet to help them with their reading. The parakeet picks a few fortune cards (usually from the Indian cosmic system) to give readings related to health, career, marriage, wealth and so on. Presently, parrot astrologers are hard to come by (truly a vanishing trade in Singapore) but we hear there’s one practising her craft at Albert Mall.
7. Spice traders
These days, we simply grab a bag of pre-mixed spices at the nearest supermarket. But our parents and grandparents used to get them fresh at the wet market. Containers of blended shallots, ginger, garlic, and dried chillies were mixed right in front of you depending on your choice of curry.
While we rarely see this around, one individual took over his father’s spice store and recently catapulted it to fame. Yup, we’re talking about the viral Jeya Spices at Block 294 Yishun Street 22. Today, Jeya Seelan brings his popular spice mixes to supermarkets like NTUC FairPrice. Then, there’s Anthony The Spice Maker, a veteran in his craft who has been blending spices for black pepper stir-frys, BBQ seafood, satay, sambal asam fish and Singapore chilli crab since 1986.
8. Old-school coffee grinders
With new cafe openings happening every month and franchises hitting our shores, it’s no wonder that traditional coffee powder grinders are taking a step back. But there’s just something about the roasting and grinding your coffee beans the local way. It’s good to swap out your soy latte for a kopi c every now and then.
Lucky for us, traditional-style coffee roasters are still around. Roasters such as Lam Yeo Specialty Coffee, Yang Seah, Kim Guan Guan Singapore Traditional Coffee, and Ho Tit Coffee Powder Factory keep the tradition alive by offering freshly-ground Singaporean kopi and gourmet coffee blends.
9. Traditional ice cream hawkers
Part of our childhood in Singapore involved bugging our parents to get us ice cream from the “ice cream uncle” after a sweaty session at the playground. And boy, did it beat the heat. These uncles drive around in a bike with a side car filled with blocks of our favourite flavours. Think everything from raspberry ripple to durian to chocolate chip on rainbow bread, between two wafer crisps or in a cone or cup. They’ve become quite a hit among tourists – you’ll find a few situated along Orchard Road – but some of them also drive around neighbourhoods during peak after-school and work hours.
As we evolve, we may get carried away with the modernity (read: convenience) of getting things instantly. But if we don’t continue to patronise these vanishing trades in Singapore, they’ll be gone for good. So, the next time you come across such traditional businesses, do your part by supporting them.