TOC’s Special Focus Week:
As Labour Day approaches on May 1st, TOC honours our elderly and senior citizens and brings you stories of them who make a living on the streets of Singapore.


Deborah Choo

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


Read also: Gentle under the warmth of the sun by Andrew Loh & Deborah Choo.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
You May Also Like

【冠状病毒19】6月21日新增262例确诊 九起社区病例

根据卫生部文告,截至本月21日中午12时,本地新增262例冠状病毒19确诊。 新增病患大多为住宿舍工作准证持有者。今增九起社区病例,其中就包括三名本地公民或永久居民,另六名则是工作证件持有者。 本地累计确诊病例已增至4万2095例。当局仍在搜集病例详情并将在晚些时候公布。

近10年最低季度增长 我国今年次季经济增长仅0.1巴仙

根据贸工部今日公布预估数据,新加坡经济在第二季度(2Q19)表现不如预期,增长仅0.1巴仙,比上季度的1.1巴仙更低。 这也远低于彭博社的1.1巴仙预测。这是十年来最低的季度增长,2009年第二季时经济萎缩1.2巴仙。 经季节性调整按环比折年率计算,从上季度的3.8巴仙增长,下跌了3.4巴仙。 基于电子和精确工程领域产值萎缩,制造业紧缩3.8巴仙。在公共领域项目的支撑下,建筑业扩张2.2巴仙,略低于第一季的2.7巴仙。 至于服务业增长1.2巴仙,和前一季度持平,金融与保险、其他服务领域以及信息与通讯领域取得增长。 新加坡华侨银行财务与策略主管Selena Ling,告诉《海峡时报》:“看来技术性衰退的风险正在增加。” 技术性衰退是指连续两个季度放缓。 不仅是制造业,她也关注上述放缓情况对劳动市场的冲击,服务业出现软化,显示消费者信心受抑制和看紧他们的钱包。 新加坡金管局长孟文能在上月指出,基于中美贸易关系紧张打击投资、贸易和制造领域,政府已下修增长预测至1.5-2.5巴仙之间。 马来亚银行金英证券研究部(Maybank Kim…

PV chief Lim Tean wants DPM Heng to explain why 48% of foreigners who work in S’pore are S-Pass and Employment pass holders

On Sunday (23 Aug), Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Finance Minister Heng…

Double standards in ban

The issue of work passes is a contentious one in Singapore. There…