A bunch of keys jingle amisdt the lazy afternoon in Chinatown. Metal grinds against metal, the razor sharp wheel disk carving out new contours. Within minutes, a happy customer waltzes away with a new key in hand.
He works fast – the key maker, that is. He handles the heavy machine of snarling blades with complete ease and a gracefulness usually found in ballerinas - not one expected of a pair of big, coarse hands.
“I’ve been in this profession since 1971,” he announces proudly.
Uncle , 70, has been a key maker for 38 years. A burly man with broad shoulders and a sturdy composure, his face looks stern. His wide, flaming eyes threaten to penetrate into your very soul, while his eyebrows, accustomed to his frowning, slant upwards. He does not smile. His thick lips set in a firm, grim, straight line - and a full crown of grayish white hair neatly combed backwards.
Dressed in a simple blue collared tee tucked neatly into his grey pants, a pink highlighter screams for attention from his breast pocket. Adorned on his left hand is a simple yet stylish silver watch lined with gold in the middle that spoke of wealth - or perhaps, a treasured gift. His workplace is cluttered with at least five bunches of keys of a myriad of designs, some littering the floor, others laying obediently in front of him, waiting to be picked and carved accordingly for a new owner.
“The best crowd is between 11am to 2pm,” he tells me. “After that it remains fairly quiet.”
It is a half hour walk daily for Uncle from his 3-room flat in Waterloo Street to the coffee shop along Keong Saik Road, where his little work corner is at. He begins at 10.30am and closes at 4.30pm.
A man pulls up on his motorcycle and parks by the road. He walks up to Uncle and hands him a key. “Can you do this?” he asks. Uncle takes a look and then rummages through his bunches of keys. He picks one and fastens it to the lathing machine. A few minutes of screeching and screaming from the machine and it is done. A satisfied customer. He hands Uncle Keys $1.50.
The speed at which Uncle fashioned the key is a testament to the skill his father had handed down to him. Together with his earlier experience of working in a metal factory, it has given him a means to make a living – and to raise two children, a daughter and a son.
Uncle Keys proudly relates how he used to subscribe to correspondence courses from the States in his younger days, determined to learn the trade, despite what his father had already taught him. “I can speak English, you know?” he tells us, smiling, as he switches to the language.
Even after all these years, the passion for his job is still evident; Uncle becomes animated with enthusiasm when he speaks about his machine. He hurriedly opens his metal cabinet and hauls up a heavyweight, antique key-making machine.
“It’s from Yale,” he says, referring to the popular brand as he grins for the first time. “It must be at least 40 years old,” his face brightens as wrinkles gather in protest at the corner of his eyes. He quickly adds that “you would have to turn it to grind the key” unlike the latest ones which require less manual involvement.
Turning somewhat sombre, however, Uncle laments that key making is a dying trade in Singapore. The keys produced nowadays with sophisticated technology makes it difficult for traditional key makers to reproduce.
“Some keys are made so delicate and complicated, I can’t produce them with my old machine,” Uncle bellows, adding that “it would also be too expensive to pay for the materials and machines required” if he wanted to keep up with the times.
The machine he is currently using is from Taiwan, which has been with him for more than 20 years. “The better quality machines are ones from the States and the UK,” he says. His usually assertive voice softens and an unmistakable tenderness surfaces when he talks about his machines.
He excitedly shows us several teeth in the metal blades in his machine which are chipped. “They are too expensive to replace,” he says. “It will cost me $100 or more!”
Happily for him, he does not need to pay rent for his little corner of the walkway at the coffeeshop where he is stationed. Uncle Keys, however, pays S$30 to the coffeeshop proprietor each month for his electrical bills. His license is free but it has to be updated with a new photo annually. “It’s so troublesome to update a new photo every year! I have to take a new photograph,” he scowls sourly, his eyebrows knitted together in a disapproving frown.
He remains tight-lipped about his monthly income, but adds that it is sufficient to get by.
When asked if his children are interested in the trade, he says they are not. He also says he would not pass on the trade to anyone else, even if they were interested. He shakes his head, and does not provide any explanation.
Two more hours and Uncle is done for the day. A little later in the afternoon, his machine was locked up, the cupboards neatly closed and secured with metal chains and locks. This traditional and humble trade may be on the verge of extinction, but it will always be a unique feature of Singapore’s history