Traditional cobblers



Traditional cobblers repaired footwear.1 Most cobblers were Chinese although a few Indian and Malay cobblers also plied the trade in old Singapore. Cobblers were found throughout the island and many worked along the five-foot-ways of shophouses.2 Some cobblers later made slippers and shoes, and were known as capal makers and shoe makers respectively.3

History
Traditional cobblers replaced old soles, stitched up torn slippers and replaced heels.4 They became popular after people switched from wearing clogs to modern footwear some time in the 1950s. The cobblers worked either in the open or in tiny cubicles along street pavements or five-foot-ways. They usually occupied a specific location for years although some were itinerant and cycled a cart, filled with footwear repairing tools and supplies, around housing estates.5


These cobblers charged around S$1.50 to mend a pair of shoes in the late 1970s and would make around S$300 a month. Their earnings for the day depended much on the weather.6 They used knives, hammers, nails, pincers, scissors, shoe brushes, shoe lasts, shoe polish, threads of different colours, needles and adhesive in their work. They also stocked rolls of leather, synthetic leather, varieties of vinyl soling material, and rubber pieces. The tools and supplies were kept in boxes or baskets.7

The capal maker
A capal, also known as chapal, is a leather slipper worn by Malay men as a part of their traditional dress. The cowhide leather for the slipper was imported mainly from Australia and sold locally by some Chinese shops. The capal maker would cut out an oval larger innersole and three smaller sole pieces for each foot using standard patterns from tin sheets. He then machine-stitched the leather and the thong to the soles. The three soles were glued together and hand stitched to the innersole with a white coloured waxed chord. Finally, brass nails were hammered into the heels to reinforce and make them attractive. In the early days, Malay women also wore the capal but this footwear went out of fashion with time. Nevertheless, the capal is still worn by some Malay men in Singapore today. A pair costs around S$30.8

The shoe maker
Traditional shoe makers were found mostly around Clyde Street, making different types of shoes and sandals. The shoe-making business was typically a family trade involving several generations of the family working together. The business was sustained mainly by contracts to supply shoes of a particular design to shops or emporiums. The shoe-making process resembled a production line. Each member of the family would complete a particular task, then hand over the shoes to another member to carry out the next step. The entire process of cutting and sewing to the final completed product depended very much on nimble and skilful fingers. Machines were later used to do a part of the job, before factory-line production became the norm.9

 
A dying trade
Today, some traditional cobblers can still be found in places like Chinatown and around Raffles Place. The number of traditional cobblers is dwindling as the footwear repair business is now dominated by modern shoe repair chains such as Mister Minit.10

Today’s streetside cobbler has to be a jack-of-all-trades to survive. These highly skilled cobblers make everything from capal to custom-made shoes. They can also design, construct or repair orthopaedic shoes in accordance with a foot specialist’s prescription.11



Author

Thulaja Naidu 



References
1. Dying occupations of Singapore. (1978). Singapore: Raffles Interact Club, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 331.70095957 RAF)
2. Tan, A. (2013). Community heritage series IV: Heritage along footpaths. Singapore: National Heritage Board, p. 4. Retrieved 2017, March 2 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/~/media/Roots/Images/resources/e-books/nhb_ebook_heritage_along_footpaths.pdf
3. Sullivan, M. (1993). Can survive, la: Cottage industries in high-rise Singapore. Singapore: Graham Brash, pp. 82, 91. (Call no.: RCLOS 338.634095957 SUL)
4. Dying occupations of Singapore. (1978). Singapore: Raffles Interact Club, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 331.70095957 RAF)
5. Tan, A. (2013). Community heritage series IV: Heritage along footpaths. Singapore: National Heritage Board, pp. 4–6. Retrieved 2017, March 2 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/~/media/Roots/Images/resources/e-books/nhb_ebook_heritage_along_footpaths.pdf; Dying occupations of Singapore. (1978). Singapore: Raffles Interact Club, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 331.70095957 RAF)
6. Ooi, T. (1979, July 26). He started with $4 a monthNew Nation, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Tan, A. (2013). Community heritage series IV: Heritage along footpaths. Singapore: National Heritage Board, p. 4. Retrieved 2017, March 2 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/~/media/Roots/Images/resources/e-books/nhb_ebook_heritage_along_footpaths.pdf
8. Sullivan, M. (1993). Can survive, la: Cottage industries in high-rise Singapore. Singapore: Graham Brash, pp. 82–84. (Call no.: RCLOS 338.634095957 SUL)
9. Sullivan, M. (1993). Can survive, la: Cottage industries in high-rise Singapore. Singapore: Graham Brash, p. 91. (Call no.: RCLOS 338.634095957 SUL)
10. Heritage along footpaths. (2013). Singapore: National Heritage Board, p. 6. Retrieved 2017, March 2 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/~/media/Roots/Images/resources/e-books/nhb_ebook_heritage_along_footpaths.pdf
11. Dying occupations of Singapore. (1978). Singapore: Raffles Interact Club, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 331.70095957 RAF)



The information in this article is valid as at 1998 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

Subject
Commerce and Industry>>Labour and Employment>>Vanishing Trades
Shoemakers--Singapore
Vanishing trade
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Services
Manual work--Singapore
Street vendors--Singapore