Clog makers

Clogs were the preferred form of footwear in Singapore before World War II. Clog shops were commonly found in Temple Street in Chinatown, Sultan Street and Fraser Street.1

Clog making was a common skill among Chinese immigrants in Singapore. Clog makers initially catered only to the Chinese community, but soon such footwear also became popular with other communities. Clogs were considered sturdy and durable on any surface. The heels and soles of the clogs, connected by a bridge, are the same height. The surface is flat so that the sole of the foot rests squarely on the base so as to maximise the wearer’s walking capacity and comfort.2 Before the advent of plastic, clog makers used either rubber or leather covers to fit the clogs.3

Clogs were preferred by women who needed to work on wet surfaces, particularly when washing clothes, working in the kitchen or going to the bathroom.4 This was because clogs would not slip, and water could be prevented from seeping onto the feet. Vendors working in wet markets also preferred them, as the high wooden base kept their feet away from the wet and dirty floors. Early clogs were hand-painted with two coats of paint: red for women and green for men. Over time, the clogs were lacquered in other colours, including black and yellow.5 Floral designs were also painted on the surface of clogs for women. Even children had miniature versions of such footwear.6 Clog makers were often seen hawking their wares with the clogs placed in baskets tied to two ends of a bamboo pole.7

Clog work
Clogs were made using a thick chopping board, a chopper, a paring knife for nails and a hammer.8 The clog maker had to first obtain wood from suppliers in Malaysia or Indonesia. He would then cut the wood to make roughly cut soles. Next, the raw ends were nimbly shaved off with a sharp pen-knife to give it a smooth finish. The soles would be stacked up on the shelves in his shop. As time passed, clog makers simply purchased the soles from wholesalers. These wholesale merchants made the soles with machines and supplied them to clog makers in bulk.9

A buyer would first select a pair of unfinished clogs according to his or her foot size. The buyer would choose between painted or unpainted soles, and specify the number of coloured plastic pieces with which the clogs were to be fitted. These vinyl strips, imported from Hong Kong, came in dazzling colours. The clog maker would then cut the pieces of plastic from a plastic sheet, usually into two large trapezoids for each pair of clogs. One end of the plastic trapezoid would be nailed nto one clog and reinforced with a small strip that was again nailed into the clog. The clog maker would then check the fit of the buyer’s foot. Based on the fit, he would nail the other end of the trapezoidal plastic sheet into the other side of the clog, again reinforcing it with a small strip. The maker would quickly measure the second clog against the first by placing his hand inside the strap. He then nailed the plastic sheet into the second clog. The tag ends of the plastic were finally cut off with a large meat cleaver.10

The introduction and increasing popularity of shoes and modern footwear, suited to every need and taste, left little room for business for clog makers. People began to find clogs noisy and cumbersome.11 At the same time, clog making, initially a hand-made process, succumbed to partial mechanisation.12 Today, clogs are more commonly bought by tourists as souvenirs.13

Remembering Clog : Largest Clog Stomping Wave
In order to bring back old memories for the seniors in the constituency, on 5 September 2015, Bukit Batok East Constituency organised a Cha Kiak (clog) Walkathon event which saw participants walking with clogs from Yusof Ishak Secondary School to Bukit Batok East Ave 4. At the end of the event, 205 people did a wave, stomping on the ground with their clogs.14

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. “Clogs Are Out but Mr Lau Holds His Own,” New Nation, 25 May 1976, 4 (From NewspaperSG); “The Clogmaker of Chinatown,” Goodwood Journal 2nd Qtr (1976): 35. (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCHJ)
2. “Clogs Are Out but Mr Lau Holds His Own”; “Clogmaker of Chinatown,” 35.
3. “Clogs More Popular with Women Than with Men,” Straits Times, 28 August 1938, 6; J. C. Tan, “Make a Million with a Clog Machine Here,” Straits Times, 25 September 1955, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Margaret Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”: Cottage Industries in High-Rise Singapore (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1993), 85–87. (Call no. RCLOS 338.634095957 SUL)
4. “Clogs Are Out but Mr Lau Holds His Own”; “Rich and Poor Alike Wear Clogs,” Straits Times, 28 August 1938, 32 (From NewspaperSG); “Clogmaker of Chinatown,” 35.
5. “Clogmaker of Chinatown,” 35; Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 85.
6. “Clogmaker of Chinatown,” 35.
7. Archives and Oral History Department, Singapore, Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community (Singapore: Times Books International, 1983), 148. (Call no. RSING 779.995957 CHI) 
8. “Clogmaker of Chinatown,” 35.
9. “The Art of Making Clogs,” Straits Times, 1 March 1988, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 86–87.
10. “Art of Making Clogs”; Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 85.
11. “Clogmaker of Chinatown,” 35.
12. “Rich and Poor Alike Wear Clogs”; Leong Weng Kam, “Clog-Making Is Another Declining Business,” Straits Times, 13 April 1979, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Singapore souvenir Items a Hit,” New Nation, 15 January 1977, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Largest Clog Stomping Wave,” Singapore Book of Records (SBOR), 5 September 2015.

Further resource
Ophelia Ooi, My Grandmother’s Clogs (Singapore: EPB Publishers, 1995). (Call no. JRSING 428.6 OOI)

List of images
Archives and Oral History Department, Singapore, Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community (Singapore: Times Books International, 1983), 148. (Call no. RSING 779.995957 CHI) 

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore – Wooden Clogs / Clog Makers, 1980s, photograph, National Archives of Singapore (Media-Image no. 19990002703 – 0095)

The information in this article is valid as at September 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.


Skilled labor--Singapore
Vanishing trade