Roadside barbers were barbers who operated mainly out of makeshift tents on the roadside. Roadside barbers or street barbers were began as five-foot-way traders and later set up tents and shops.
Roadside barbers were commonly found along Barber Street, a backlane between Jalan Sultan and Aliwal Street. They were also found along a cobbled lane that served as a link between Jalan Sultan and North Bridge Road. This lane was simply called the barber row. Most barbers were either Malays, Indians or Chinese. The barber shop often had a small beaten tarpaulin canopy for a roof, below which was the shop. The space between two canopies acted as a territorial boundary. The shops usually consisted of a few old-fashioned chairs, a box-like cupboard hung on the wall, a small wall mirror and a few plastic bins with water. The barber's trusted tools were the gunting, a pair of "scissors" in Malay, the ketam or "clippers" and the pisau cukor, a "razor blade". Some of the street barbers used a special chair that looked like a dentist's chair. Most barbers were usually self-taught. Sometimes though, they picked up the trade by working as an apprentice under an established barber.
The barber usually started work at 8:00 am and continued to work until dusk. When it became too dark to continue work, they packed up for the day. Roadside barbers charged around fifty cents for a haircut in the 1960s. Their earnings per day depended on the weather, as customers on a rainy day were far fewer. Their charges went up during the Chinese New Year season, as it was customary for the Chinese to begin their new year with a new hair cut. The Chinese and the Indians have a tradition of shaving a baby's head bald in the initial few weeks or months. On such occasions, the barbers usually made a home call and were paid extra for their trouble.
Roadside barbers also cleaned ears. They used a 5 cm long metal ear cleaner hooked at one end to fish out the ear wax. After that a small fluffy brush was swished around the middle ear for the final clean-up. Apart from cleaning ears, the Chinese barbers also cleaned the eyes and the nose. The tongue was cleaned with the barber's knife by scrapping it to rid of its white coating. The Malay and Indian barbers gave their customers a good massage with their strong fingers and palms on their scalps. Sometimes they added oil in the massage. They also massaged their clients' faces and kneaded their shoulders ensuring their customers went back feeling content and happy.
Roadside barbers are almost non-existent today except for an odd stall or two: like one in Katong and another put up for tourists at Clarke Quay. Barbers today work from proper shops. These barber shops, are found amongst neighbourhood shops of almost every housing estate. The present-day barbers no longer clean the ears, nose or tongues of their customers but they still use the traditional scissors, clippers and razor blades. They also use gadgets like the shaver and electric clippers which their predecessors were not equipped with. Most traditional barber shops are air-conditioned. The shops have a row of barbers' chairs. Each of these chairs face an individual long mirror fixed on the wall. One permanent feature of these shops is the barber pole that perennially keeps spinning around itself with its three colours. Their haircuts are inexpensive and very affordable which is the main reason why they remain popular.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2002 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.
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