Wednesday, 27 September 2023

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An old man and his tin can vases

By Andrew Loh

Tucked away in a little corner in the courtyard in front of the Chinese temple at Waterloo Street, an old man sits and works patiently on his vases—vases made out of discarded aluminium cans.

Under the umbrella which shields him from the rather hot Tuesday afternoon sun, he waits for passing customers, hoping to make a few sales today.

As I watch him, I wonder what is going through his mind, as he twists together strands of tin foils he has cut out from the tin cans he collected to make his vases.

I stand up and walk over to his makeshift stall.

He is at first oblivious to my presence, as he concentrates on his work. I squat down to take a closer look at his vases, all neatly displayed in front of him. “These are really beautiful”, I say to him. He smiles and tells me that it takes him several hours to make just one.

I notice that they are made from Coca Cola, Tiger Beer, Guinness Stout and various other soft drink cans. Perhaps he senses that I do not really know what they are (which is quite true), so he explains: “They are vases. See here, you can put flowers in them.” Indeed, with the flowers in them, they do look rather appealing and attractive.

“How much is this one?”, I ask him as I hold up one of those medium-sized vases. “Five dollars,” he says. I survey his collection, finding it hard to decide which to buy. In the end, I choose the Tiger Beer one because of the colour—blue—it looks the best to me.

I hand him a ten dollar note. While he looks for change, I ask if it is ok for me to take pictures of his cans. “Yes, sure,” he says, adding that the local media has been here before. “They interviewed you?” I say. I was curious. But he just smiles and says nothing.

“Did you learn this from someone?” I ask him. “No lah,” he replies in Hokkien. “This is my own creation,” and grins proudly.

In my head, several questions are itching to be asked—how old is he? How long has he been doing this? How is business? Does he have problems with the authorities who may consider this illegal hawking?

“I am 80 years old and have been doing this for almost three years already,” he answers. “It’s hard to make a living but I get by.”

“How many do you sell a day?”

“About 2 or 3.”

“Do tourists buy from you? Or locals?”

“Mostly locals, Chinese who come to the temple.”

“It’s quite hot to be here the whole day. How long do you stay each day?”

“I come here in the morning and I leave in the afternoon.”

“But what happens if it rains?”

“Rain how to sell?” he laughs.

“You don’t have a licence for this, right?”

“No lah.”

“What happens when the ti-gu (health inspectors) come? Do they come often?”

“Yah, sometimes they come two or three times a week. Sometimes they ask me to pack up. If they do, I pack up lor. Give them face lah. But sometimes they also leave me alone.”

I find out that he has a daughter and that he used to do “some small business” before he started making vases out of tin cans.

“I have a friend who offered me a shop space in Pasir Panjang without rent for one year. But I prefer to stay here because the shop isn’t at a good location. I don’t know how business will be over there”, he says.

“You’ve been here almost three years. I guess you’re more familiar with the place here too”.


As we chat, passersby look curiously at us. A lady stops and looks at his vases. “Buy one lah,” he urges the lady in his gentle, soft manner. She seems interested at first but then walks away.

“Not easy to sell, huh?” I say.

“There was one time some ladies bargained with me. They say how can I sell one for five dollars. They wanted one dollar for each vase. How to survive if I sell one vase for one dollar? One meal nowadays already cost $5!”

“Yah, it would be hard to survive on that,” I replied. “Especially when you invest so much time and effort for each vase you make. And you don’t sell that many either.”

He smiles.

Throughout the entire conversation, he continues to twist the strands of tin foil with his fingers—and ever so patiently, he would apply glue to them and stick them to the main “body” of the vase.

As the afternoon wears on under the hot sun, a family stops at his stall. The mother picks up one of the vases and looks at it. She says something to her daughter. I hear the father utter the word “handmade”.

The old man looks up at them and, as he did earlier, urges them to buy one.

This time, his luck is better. The mother and daughter discuss which one to buy and settle on the one with the Hello Kitty sticker. The old man smiles, takes their $10 note and gives them back $5.

I feel happy for him. It is always nice to know that your work is appreciated and that people would pay you for that too.

But more importantly, each dollar from each vase he sells perhaps gives him a little peace of mind about tomorrow – in this ever-changing, fast-paced Singapore that he lives in.

If you happen to be at Waterloo Street, do stop by his little makeshift stall. And if you can afford it, do buy one of his vases.

To me, his vases symbolise and remind me of virtues such as patience, hard work, graciousness – and beauty.

Simple the vases may be—but they are the work of the gentle hands of an affable old man.

Click on pictures to enlarge.

Read also: Why did I procrastinate? by Lilian Lee and A Stranger, My Friend by Zyberzitizen.


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