Back alley barber

Report and pictures by: 
Gavin Foo

Mr Tan Boon Kee plies his trade in a back alley behind a row of pre-war shop houses on Aliwal Street, near Arab Street. The 66-year-old is a barber, and this is his hair salon. But don’t expect any fancy service. Customers sit on an antique barber’s chair as Mr Tan uses an equally antique razor to shave their heads. No disposable blades, no high-tech electric razors. Rain or shine, Mr Tan quietly sits under his battered plywood roof, waiting for customers. Despite his age, he still puts in nine hours a day, five days a week at his “salon”, he sees about 10 patrons a day.

For just $6, a customer gets a haircut, a shave and his nose hair trimmed. Some customers have asked for a shampoo, but he doesn’t do that. Mr Tan said: “If they are happy with my service, they will come back.” His long-time friend, Mr Johnny Koh, 64, joked: “Old people don’t need to be well groomed. Any type of haircut will do.” Mr Tan’s customers are from all over the island – Some arrive on motorbikes from as far as Jurong.

Some go to him because the price is right, some are old customers who do not want a change. But all of the mask for just a simple crew cut. “Most of them are old. Young people will not want to come here,” said Mr Tan. “There is no air-con and no fan. It is so hot.” Indeed, his sparsely decorated makeshift stall doesn’t even have an electrical outlet. His hair trimmer is manually operated. The only electrical appliance is a  battery-operated radio and a table-top clock.

He is familiar with this back lane. Back in the early 1970s, he came here twice a week to visit his father, who was a barber here. There were more than 10 other barbers here then. He became a barber’s apprentice when he was 16 years old. Being a carefree youth, he moved from shop to shop whenever he felt like it. But when his father retired in 1993, he took over the stall. “There were three Chinese and five Malay barbers (at that time),” he remembered. Now he is the only one left. The others have retired or died.

Some years ago, the Government tried to clean up the back alley. Unable to find alternative locations for their stalls, the barbers sought help from their then MP, Mr Loh Meng See. Mr Loh helped them to write a letter to the authorities, which then let them continue their trade. They could work until they retired. But no new barbers were allowed to operate in the same way there. “I don’t think the authorities will chase us away. I believe they will let me work until I retire,” Mr Tan said. He now pays a monthly rent of $60.

Asked when he would retire, he replied: “I will work here for as long as I can. If I suddenly fall sick and cannot work, then I am finished.”

This article was first published in The New Paper on October 10, 2011.