Roadside barbers

Roadside barbers used to be a common sight in Singapore, operating mainly out of makeshift sheds with walls of wooden planks, and wooden roofs or awnings.1 Also known as street barbers or five-foot-way barbers, they offer fuss-free trims in back alleys.2

Roadside barbers were commonly found along Singapore’s streets and back lanes.3 In the 1950s, the bustling side lane in Bugis was dubbed “Barber Street” as many barbers vied for customers there.4 They were also found along a cobbled lane that served as a link between Jalan Sultan and North Bridge Road. The lane was called the “Barber Row”.5 Most barbers were either Malays, Indians or Chinese.6 The barber shop often had a small, beaten tarpaulin canopy for a roof, below which was the shop.7 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 filled with water.8 Most barbers were usually self-taught, although some picked up the trade by working as an apprentice under an established barber.9

Job scope
Barbers usually started work in the morning and continued to work until dusk.10 When it became too dark to continue work, they packed up for the day.11 Their daily earnings depended on the weather, as rainy days saw fewer customers.12 Their charges went up during the Chinese New Year season, as it was customary for the Chinese to begin their new year with a fresh haircut.13 The Chinese 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 service.14

Roadside barbers also cleaned ears.15 They used a five-centimetre-long metal ear cleaner that had a hook 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.16 Apart from cleaning ears, Chinese barbers also used to clean the tongue and nose.17 Indian barbers gave their customers a good massage with their strong fingers and palms on their scalps.18 They also massaged their clients’ faces and shoulders.19

Roadside barbers are almost non-existent today except for an odd stall or two in locations such as Katong, Kim Keat Lane, Chinatown and Amoy Street.20 Their haircuts are inexpensive and very affordable, which is why they still attract a loyal clientele.21 These traditional barbers face stiff competition from unisex hair salons.22 Upscale barber shops offering haircuts and other grooming services have become the popular choice among men in their mid-20s to 50s.23


Thulaja Naidu

1. Boey Kim Cheng, “Hair and Now,” Straits Times, 11 June 2001, 7; Ginnie Teo, “Receding Heritage,” Straits Times, 19 July 2002, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Janice Tai and Goh Shi Ting, “Singapore’s Last Street Barbers,” Straits Times, 19 October 2012, 6; Tay Boon Chuan, “Dying Breed of Street Barbers,” New Paper, 14 December 1993, 14(From NewspaperSG)
3. Teo, Receding Heritage.” 
4. Janice Tai, “He Cuts a Lonesome Figure,” Straits Times, 19 October 2012, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Barber Row,” Goodwood Journal 1st Qtr., (1980): 19. (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
6. Raffles Institution Interact Club (Singapore), Dying Occupations of Singapore (Singapore: Raffles Interact Club, 1978), 9. (Call no. RSING 331.70095957 RAF)
7. “Barber Row,” 19; Boey, “Hair and Now”; Richard Lim, “Barbers’ Row,” New Nation, 6 May 1980, 10–11. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Barber Row,” 19.
9. Tay, “Dying Breed of Street Barbers”; Tai and Goh, “Singapore’s Last Street Barbers”; Augustine Low, “No Shortcuts for Roadside Barber Hong Yang,” Straits Times, 22 August 1986, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Barber Row,” 19; Teo, Receding Heritage.” 
11. Teo, Receding Heritage.” 
12. J. Leong, “Dying Trades in Singapore: Of Snake Charming, Roadside Barbering and Songkok Making,” Channel NewsAsia, 19 May 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 
13. “Barber Row,” 25.
14. “Barber Row,” 25.
15. “Barber Row,” 25; Teo, Receding Heritage.” 
16. “Barber Row,” 25.
17. Reena Singh, A Journey Through Singapore: Travellers' Impressions of a By-Gone Time Selected and Arranged in a Complete Narrative (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1995), 162, 164. (Call no. RSING 959.57 REE-[HIS])
18. Boey, “Hair and Now”; J. Teo, “Big Picture 2013/14 Week 32 Finalist #3,” New Paper, 7 April 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 
19. Boey, “Hair and Now.”
20. Teo, Receding Heritage”; Tai and Goh, “Singapore’s Last Street Barbers”; Leong, “Dying Trades in Singapore.”
21. Tai and Goh, “Singapore’s Last Street Barbers.”
22. Hazel Yong, “Cutting Losses.” Straits Times, 3 November 2005, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Gladys Chung, “Grooms Men,” Straits Times, 18 April 2014, 15. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 2016 and correct as far as we can 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

Vanishing trade
Street vendors--Singapore