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Yesterday Once More
Walking past a string of hardware shops, fronted by workmen wielding power tools surrounded by nuts, bolts, wire and rope, a passerby might easily miss Pow Li. Tucked away in the back corner of People's Park Complex, the shopfront is inconspicuous, save for the sound of a relentless grinding and a faint whiff of something burning coming from within.
In the back of the shop, Madam Lee Hwee Chin, a small and unassuming woman who turns 70 this year, is bent over a stone grinder. Her wiry arms are sturdy as she expertly runs the sharp edges of a cleaver against the screeching edge of a furiously rotating stone disc. She is unfazed by the burst of red hot sparks spurting from the grinder.
"You can't wear gloves! You need your bare fingers to feel if the blade is smooth and sharp enough," Madam Lee explains. "After so many years, I don't feel the heat or the sharpness of the blades anymore."
Over 40 years in the business have left her with rough and calloused fingers. "I don't even have fingerprints anymore! Look at my thumbs. I always have problems at Customs when I travel."
Pow Li was started by her father, and she began helping out when she was in her 20s, eventually taking over when her father retired. "It takes about three years to learn the trade, but I would say it takes at least 10 years to really master it," she muses. "I ruined so many knives and shears when I was young! Customers always complained to my father and I had to sometimes pay them back," she laughs.
Knife sharpening is a two-step process. First, Madam Lee takes it to the grinder to smoothen the sides, removing any friction-causing unevenness in texture. She also ensures that the blade tapers in thickness towards the contact edge. The blade is dipped into a waiting bucket of water in between grinds, to prevent heat damage. Next, she manually grinds the tapered end on a block of stone to sharpen it.
The stone grinder she uses is the original built by her father when he opened the shop. It stands on taller legs than store-bought grinders, allowing the user to stand more comfortably without having to stoop as low.
Through the years, Pow Li has sharpened the blades of knives, shears and scissors of hawkers, fruit sellers, hairdressers and tailors from all corners of the island. "There are very few of us in this line of work today as it is difficult to learn. So my business has been kept afloat over the years by my regulars," she says.
"It is a humble trade. But the most satisfying thing for me is taking a blade that was previously thought to be unsalvageable and transforming it again into tip-top shape and delighting its owner."
When asked about plans for the future, she shakes her head. "I haven't thought about the future yet. We'll take it one step at a time."
ON SOLID GROUNDS
Lam Yeo Coffee Powder stands facing the frenetic waves of traffic along Balestier Road. Passing cars stir up the dust outside its shopfront, a relic from a Singapore of old, when a generation of coffee drinkers brewed their morning cuppa in a sock-like strainer rather than a Nespresso machine.
Lam Yeo is Hokkien for "Nanyang" and since the late 1950s, it has been trading in Nanyang-style coffee beans and grounds on the very same premises.
Time seems to stand still the moment you step into the shop. Burlap sacks of coffee beans pile up against plywood shelves sagging under the weight of coffee pots, strainers and cups. In the middle of the shop floor, three prized traditional hand-grinders glint atop containers of coffee beans, browned to varying degrees. The grinders have been there since the shop's humble beginnings and were originally bought from a Singaporean manufacturer, Zhi Min Zao, which has now ceased operations.
Lam Yeo is still owned by the same Tan family, and run by the second generation. Tan Boon Heong has been in the business almost his entire life, helping his father since he was 12. His father, an assistant editor at the now-defunct Nanyang Siang Pau, went into the coffee business in 1959, which explains the name Lam Yeo. Like most tradespeople of his generation, Mr Tan has little patience to talk about his father or the coffee business. Instead, he ignores questions and focuses on grinding beans for the steady stream of customers who pop into the shop.
His wife, the soft-spoken Mrs Tan, is also hesitant to speak, but eventually opens up after some gentle prodding.
She says that Lam Yeo buys raw beans from the surrounding regions, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. The shop offers both Robusta and Arabica varieties. The beans are roasted, then hand-ground, in store for customers to varying fineness.
They are not short of loyal customers, some of whom have been buying from them since the very beginning. "We used to sell our beans wholesale to coffee shops but it became too competitive. Now we rely on loyal customers who have been coming to us for decades," says Mrs Tan. While regulars have helped to sustain the business in the face of competition from new coffee chains and roasters, Mrs Tan admits that if the family had not bought their shophouse decades ago, Lam Yeo might have shuttered its doors years ago.
Although Lam Yeo is a throwback to the past, old and new co-exist harmoniously in a little corner of the shop, where gourmet beans from Africa and South America sit next to a contemporary German coffee grinder by Mahlkönig. Says Mrs Tan: "My son started to diversify the business by bringing in beans from overseas after seeing the demand for this grow." Her son, Tan Peck Hoe, now in his 40s, has been working in the shop for over two decades. He too, declined to be interviewed. Prices for coffee beans from the region typically range from about $15-20 per kg, while the prices from outside the region tend to range from $32-40 per kg. While regular customers gravitate towards the traditional beans, Mrs Tan says some customers have also started coming especially for the newer ranges.
When asked about the future of the store, she laughs. "We're just happy to keep going for now and we're thankful that our business is stable thanks to our old regulars. It's up to our son to see what he wants to do next."
Whenever the craving for soft white bread, wrapped around slabs of cold butter and kaya, strikes, those in the know head straight to Whampoa Drive, where neat rows of downy loaves line the cooling racks outside Sing Hon Loong Bakery.
Owner Lai Cher Peng, 55, has been running the business for 35 years. He had just finished his National Service in 1982 when he joined his father at the bakery's original premises in Upper Serangoon. Mr Lai eventually took over the business and merged it with his uncle's bakery, which stood on the shop's current site. Sing Hon Loong in its present form was thus established.
Mr Lai has a team of about 20 staff, many of whom have worked with him for decades. His most senior baker has been churning out loaves during the night shift since 1989. Mr Lai estimates he currently sells over 200 loaves a day, with his signature bake being the crustless Nanyang-style white loaf. But he also sells variations including french loaves, raisin bread, cream buns and sugar twists. "If you ask me which one to buy though, I would recommend my favourite: the french loaf! It's very crusty and tasty", says Mr Lai with a toothy grin.
When asked what happens to the crusts trimmed from his bestselling white loaves, Mr Lai explains that they are sent to a fish farm in Lim Chu Kang as fish food. "They have been getting crusts from me for over 30 years! That's why every Chinese New Year, they give my employees beer as a thank you!"
Sing Hon Loong's business comprises regular clients from the food industry. It supplies loaves to popular kaya toast chains such as Fun Toast and Killiney Kopitiam. "We also used to supply to 30 Ya Kun outlets. But this meant supplying them over 1,000 loaves a day. We eventually couldn't keep up with this demand", says Mr Lai, citing a recent knee operation and the imminent retirement of one of his senior bakers as the reasons.
Taxi drivers and night shift workers in the area count among the most loyal customers of this 24-hour bakery. Says Mr Lai: "The only time we close our doors is during Chinese New Year. Because of this, we have built up a loyal customer base - many have been coming for more than 30 years."
While many bakery chains and cafes have opened in recent years, Mr Lai remains convinced that his traditional style of baking has kept him in the business. "You can count on the fingers of one hand how many traditional bakers there are left," he says. "We have used the same ovens for the last 35 years. We used to buy these machines in Singapore but many of these manufacturers have closed down over the years… But I think this is what makes us different from the newer bakeries." Each of his three-tiered ovens can bake about 140 loaves. They produce three such batches on a typical day, with workers baking through the day and night.
Though Mr Lai has no plans to retire soon, he also admits that he has not thought about the future. "I don't have any children and I don't have anyone who wants to take over the business. Because most of my staff are over 60 years old, I am always on the lookout for bakers to hire but it's not easy. My ovens are so hot! They make it hard to find young people who want to learn the trade."
A SAUCY STORY
For local Chinese food connoisseurs, supermarket soy sauce is for plebeians. As far as they are concerned, the go-to brand is Kwong Woh Hing - not just because it's artisanal, it's also a rare family-owned soya sauce maker in Singapore that's still following traditional brewing styles.
It's also hard to find, because its second-generation owner Simon Woo refuses to stock his products in supermarkets or wet markets. "I prefer the boutique style of retail; most of my customers are familiar with our quality and our slightly premium pricing."
Making soy sauce is a long and tedious process that takes more than a year to bear fruit. First, the soy bean has to undergo the "koji" or "maturing" period, followed by brine fermentation under the hot sun, which takes several months under careful supervision. The beans are exposed to the sun periodically yet covered to protect it from rain and bird droppings. When the beans transform into a semi-liquid state -- or "mature mash' -- they take on a unique flavour depending on the recipe. Only when the beans are fully fermented is the soy sauce separated from the solids, refined and bottled for sale.
With modern technology, many factories have opted for faster processes that cut time and labour costs, but Mr Woo insists on the traditional method that he learnt from his father. The senior Mr Woo came to Singapore from Heshan, Guangxi. He became an apprentice in a soy sauce factory, learnt the skills and started his own factory in 1943. His son took over the company with the intention of brewing the sauce just as his father did in the early days.
Rather than sell his products in supermarkets, he promotes them at food exhibitions, food events and road shows, and through direct sales from his own office. Was he ever tempted to go the commercial route? "Yes, but I cannot let my regulars down. They can differentiate good from bad, so I just have to carry on." While the connoisseurs go for his premium products, the company also offers a range of traditional products that are easier on the pocket.
With his wife and three sons helping out in the business, his repertoire has grown. "I've started to drink vinegar on a regular basis, so I developed a range of non-pasteurised vinegars for myself, and subsequently for my customers too." At the moment, he uses six different grains and fruits to brew his own vinegar.
On the other hand, holding on to tradition has its own challenges: The current factory will be returned to the government in three years' time. Negotiations with the relevant authorities started a while ago. He was asked to modernise to increase output and revenue, but stood his ground. "We went through several rounds of discussions; first with the officers and eventually with the big bosses.
I had to explain to them that I'm doing more than just producing soy sauce. This is culture; the art of soy sauce making, the heritage of my family business." In the end, the authorities relented and agreed to provide him with an equivalent plot of land measuring 1,000 sq m or more in Bedok. The catch: he would be paying three times his current rent.
However, Mr Woo is optimistic; with his wife and three sons he's taking the future in his stride. "I'm glad my sons share my sentiments when it comes to the trade; and I'm sure my regulars would not face a day without using my soy sauce one way or another." ~ David Yip