Traditional cobblers were once a common sight in Singapore. They repaired footwear and provided shoe polishing services along the five-foot-way in front of shophouses and on street pavements.1 While most cobblers were Chinese, there were also a few Indian and Malay cobblers.2 Some cobblers offered slipper- and shoe-making services, and were known as capal makers and shoe makers respectively.3
Traditional cobblers replace old shoe soles and heels and mend torn slippers.4 Cobblers became popular after people switched from wearing clogs to modern footwear in the 1950s. They worked either in the open or in tiny cubicles along street pavements or five-foot-ways. Most worked from fixed locations while others 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, different coloured threads, 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 both the leather piece and the thong to the soles. The three layers of sole were then glued together and hand-stitched to the innersole with a white waxed chord. Finally, brass nails were hammered into the heels for reinforcement and as a decorative element. In the early days, Malay women also wore the capal but this footwear had mostly gone out of fashion. Nevertheless, the capal is still worn by some Malay men in Singapore today. A pair costs around S$30.8
The shoe maker
Found mostly around Clyde Street, traditional shoe makers made different types of shoes and sandals. The shoe-making business was typically a family trade involving several generations of the family working together. Such businesses were sustained mainly by contracts to supply shoes of a particular design to shops or emporiums. The shoe-making process resembled a production line with each member of the family carrying out a particular task, then handing over the shoes to another member to continue with 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 utilised to take over some parts of the job before factory-line production became the norm.9
A dying trade
Some traditional cobblers can still be found today in places like Chinatown and around Raffles Place. However, 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 in order to survive. These highly skilled cobblers not only provide shoe-repair services but also custom-made footwear such as capal. They can also design, construct or repair orthopedic shoes according to a prescription from a foot specialist.11
Thulaja Naidu Ratnala
1. Dying Occupations of Singapore (Singapore: Raffles Interact Club, 1978), 14. (Call no. RSING 331.70095957 RAF)
2. National Heritage Board, Community Heritage Series IV: Heritage along Footpaths (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2013), 3–6.
3. Margaret Sullivan, Can Survive, La: Cottage Industries in High-Rise Singapore (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1993), 82, 91. (Call no. RCLOS 338.634095957 SUL)
4. Dying Occupations of Singapore, 14.
5. National Heritage Board, Heritage along Footpaths, 4–6; Dying Occupations of Singapore, 14.
6. Teresa Ooi, “He Started with $4 a Month,” New Nation, 26 July 1979, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
7. National Heritage Board, Heritage along Footpaths, 4–6.
8. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 82–84.
9. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 91.
10. National Heritage Board, Heritage along Footpaths, 6.
11. Dying Occupations of Singapore, 14.
The information in this article is valid as at July 2018 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.