Carwashers



Carwashers were commonly seen in carparks throughout Singapore during the 1970s to ’80s.1 They were usually of Indian ethnicity and provided manual carwashing services for a monthly fee.2

History
As the number of car owners increased in Singapore, cleaning cars became a viable business. Carwashers were usually of Indian ethnicity and operated at carparks in public housing estates, private estates, market places and sometimes office complexes. Every carwasher had his own area in which he operated, and had an understanding among themselves to respect each other’s territorial rights. When a new neighbourhood estate was built, the nearest carwasher had the right to operate there. When work got too much they employed an assistant for S$200 to S$300 a month. Carwashers usually rode a bicycle with a pail strapped behind and wore a pair of shorts, T-shirt and rubber slippers.3


Job scope
Carwashers worked every day except Sundays and public holidays. Work was divided into two sessions. The first started from around 5 am and ended by 10 am, during which half of the cars are washed before the owners leave for work. The second session resumed at around 4 pm when car owners began to return from work. The remaining cars were washed by 7 pm.4

Carwashers set to work with a pail of water, some detergent, a brush, a piece of cloth and a feather duster. Where possible, water was obtained from the households of car owners. In public housing estates, the carwasher would go to the nearest coffeeshop to fill his pail with water for which he pays a small fee to the coffeeshop owners. To save water, the carwashers would use the same pail of water for several cars. They usually cleaned the exterior of a car only, washing the surface and scrubbing the tyres clean of grime and dirt. They then dried the car with a cloth. They cleaned the interior of the car on request. It took them around 15 minutes to wash each car, and they could wash up to 30 cars a day. Carwashers were usually paid on a monthly basis. In the 1980s, they earned from S$15 to S$25 a month per car. Sometimes they waxed and polished a car for an extra charge. This was done for an extra S$20 or so depending on the size of the car. When it rained, carwashers were relieved of their duties because cars were usually parked in the open. If it was a covered carpark, however, they had to clean the car whether it rained or not. On average, they earned about S$450 a month.5
 
Development 
Carwashing as a trade was mainly concentrated in the city centre during the 1950s to ’60s. At its peak, there were some 500 carwashers who plied their services from the carparks of Empress Place, Raffles Place, Shenton Way, Robinson Road, Collyer Quay and Fullerton Road.6 They were gradually phased out from the city centre when metered car parking was introduced in city carparks from 1959,7 and when the washing of vehicles in public carparks was banned in 1973.8 To survive, carwashers took their services to private and public housing estates.9

By the mid-’70s, there were around 2,000 people who made their living washing cars.10 However, the trade was plagued with several problems such as the coercive tactics used to impose services on car owners, territorial disputes among carwashers and the control of secret societies in some territories.11 To curb some of these issues, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) introduced a licensing scheme for carwashers in August 1975.12 Under the scheme, carwashers were required to pay a monthly licence fee of S$5 which permitted them to wash up to 50 cars per month. Licensed carwashers were also required to wear HDB-issued identification tags with their photographs affixed to prevent the illegal subletting of licences.13

Once a ubiquitous sight in the carparks of public housing estates, manual carwashing services still exists but are now offered alongside auto carwashes in petrol stations.14



Authors

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja & Gracie Lee



References
1. Guess who keeps the car clean? (1980). Goodwood Journal, 1st Qtr, 9. (Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ); Car washing in estates. (1975, June 29). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Guess who keeps the car clean? (1980). Goodwood Journal, 1st Qtr, 9, 29. (Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
3. Guess who keeps the car clean? (1980). Goodwood Journal, 1st Qtr, 9, 29. (Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
4. Guess who keeps the car clean? (1980). Goodwood Journal, 1st Qtr, 9, 29. (Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ); Wong, S. F. (1988, April 3). Neighbourhood car wash man. The Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Guess who keeps the car clean? (1980). Goodwood Journal, 1st Qtr, 9, 29. (Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ); Wong, S. F. (1988, April 3). Neighbourhood car wash man. The Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. 500 car washers seek new jobs. (1959, September 11). The Singapore Free Press, p. 3; Soh, H. (1960, October 1). It is a black day for 50 car-washers. The Singapore Free Press, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. 500 car washers seek new jobs. (1959, September 11). The Singapore Free Press, p. 3; Soh, H. (1960, October 1). It is a black day for 50 car-washers. The Singapore Free Press, p. 9; Car washers, jaga kretas and visitors. (1966, September 3). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Car washing in estates. (1975, June 29). The Straits Times, p. 10; Yeong, M. (1975, June 18). Now a call for car wash ‘pools’. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Republic of Singapore. Government gazette. Subsidiary legislation supplement. (1973, August 31). The Parking Places Rules 1973 (S 290/1973). Singapore: [s.n.], pp. 665–669. (Call no.: RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS)
9. 500 car washers seek new jobs. (1959, September 11). The Singapore Free Press, p. 3; Carwashers to petition government. (1975, June 21). New Nation, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Carwashers to petition government. (1975, June 21). New Nation, p. 3; Car washing in estates. (1975, June 29). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Wang, L. F. (1975, June 14). Parking: Big crackdown. New Nation, p. 1; A $2 hike by car washers. (1974, January 17). New Nation, p. 2; Wee, B. H. (1972, January 15). $1000 for 20 cars. New Nation, p. 3; Now car washers wear HDB tags. (1976, August 18). New Nation, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Housing and Development Board. (1976). Annual report 1975/76. Singapore: Housing and Development Board, p. 50. (Call no.: RCLOS 711.4095957 SIN-[AR])
12. Housing and Development Board. (1976). Annual report 1975/76. Singapore: Housing and Development Board, p. 50. (Call no.: RCLOS 711.4095957 SIN-[AR])
13. Now car washers wear HDB tags. (1976, August 18). New Nation, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Lee, M. (2002, August 14). They’re going manual – at some car washes. The New Paper, p. 14; Tan, D. W. (2006, August 20). Baby, you can wash my car. The Straits Times, p. 5; Lee, J. (2003, April 16). That’s snow business. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Services
Manual work--Singapore
Commerce and Industry>>Labour and Employment>>Vanishing Trades
Unskilled labor--Singapore
Vanishing trade