Note: This article on cobbler Uncle Kwok is a prelude to the articles we will be featuring as part of our tentatively titled, “Wisdom From The Streets”, series in a week or two on TOC.
There he is, smoking, pleasurably and placidly. He’s in his own world momentarily, and seems to enjoy the rain. He is unperturbed by it.
He draws on his cigarette, sheltered by the umbrellas which form a protective shield for him from the downpour. Plastic stools, red and grey, are stationed beside him. They are for his customers, he said to me. He sits on a shorter, wooden stool.
Uncle Kwok is a cobbler – and has been one for the last two years. He is one of the regular cobblers stationed in Chinatown. He would be there from 9.30a.m. to 7.30p.m., seven days a week, rain or shine.
At 58-years old, his scrawny and shriveled frame, his dark complexion and the wrinkles on his face reveal the years of toil in his life. His hair is cropped short with sprouts of white interspersed with varying shades of black and grey. His eyes are accentuated by eyelids beautifully carved just below his eyebrows.
As I approach him, his apparent apprehensiveness turns into curiosity as I identify myself as a journalist (well, a citizen journalist). Uncle Kwok has temporarily stopped work because of the rain. It prevents the glue which he uses to fix the shoes from drying, he explains to me.
He cycles daily to work from his house in Harbour Road, which explains his robust health.
“I save more money by cycling to work!” he said excitedly, his voice booming in my ears.
When asked about his monthly income, he said it was still quite alright for him. Though business has dropped since last year, he manages to get by with his rather steady stream of regular customers. He takes home about $1,000 or so each month, during the current economic recession. When times were better, he could easily pocket close to S$2,000 a month, he said.
Uncle Kwok lives with his 66-year old brother, a retiree, in a one room flat at Harbour Road. He remits money home to his wife and two children – a daughter, 22, and a son, 20. They live in Indonesia and the Phillippines. He would send them a total of S$510 each time, unless his income for a particular month does not permit him to. His wife is an Indonesian whom he met more than thirty years ago whilst on a business trip.
His voice grows louder, laced with excitement, as he recounts his younger days.
“I’ve worked in so many professions before!” he exclaimed. Uncle Kwok’s first job was working as a fish ball noodle seller at roadside stalls which was ubiquitous in Singapore in the 1960s. He was thirteen then. His excitement – and pride – in telling me how he learned how to make fish balls was evident. “I was paid only $30 a month back then!” he said.
“You could buy a bowl of noodles so cheaply! One Jin （斤）for ten cents, two Jin （斤）for fifteen cents! The food was so good! We all sat by the roadsides to eat!” Uncle Kwok said in Chinese, eyes widened with passion. “Now I can’t find such delicious food anymore.”
His career ranges from being a fish ball noodle seller, to working as a coolie for the PSA, to his current occupation as a cobbler. Endowed with a set of skillful hands was his gift.
The rain finally stops.
As a customer approaches, Uncle Kwok turns to me. “Here, I’ll show you how to repair this pair of shoes,” he offered graciously.
“In everything you do, you must be sincere,” he reminds me, “and do the task to the best of your ability.”
Uncle Kwok quickly slips on his S$1.20 red glasses he had bought from CK Tang, and gets to work. His eyes narrowed, his nimble and calloused hands lead the way. As he focuses on the job, he explains that the cutting of the plastic that is used to stick onto the base of the shoe is very important. The key, Uncle Kwok explains, is in the varying degrees of slicing the plastic base that gives such perfection and quality, making it more comfortable for the customer as well. The angle of positioning the cutting tool varies from 10 to 30 to 45 degrees to give a sleek touch that looks neat.
Our chat soon turns to his family. He misses his wife’s cooking, he says. To Uncle Kwok, his family is above all the money he could ever make. He makes it a point to return to visit them at least three to four times a year, each time for a week. Visiting his family during Chinese New Year is a must, he said.
“My son is very handsome! He can even beat some actors”, Uncle Kwok proclaims. His son is currently working as a property agent whilst awaiting entry to the university. “Ah, but he’s so shy. He returns home straight after work. It’s only when I want to go out that he will accompany me. Girls chase him, but he is too shy,” he chuckled.
His daughter is currently enrolled in an Indonesian University.
“All I want for my children is a good life for them. I leave it to them to decide everything,” Uncle Kwok tells me. “They are sensible children.”
“I got to continue to work hard so that they can have a good education,” he said, as he cheerfully greeted the next customer. “I have to feed my family.”