The last few remaining Cobblers in Singapore
In the Hearts of chinatown lies an enormous market. Home to various dry goods store, a wet market and a bustling food center on its top floor. Bursting with Tourist shopping for souvenirs, everyday Singaporeans shopping for daily necessities. However right at the corner, is an aisle scattered with stores that goes unnoticed. Among the second hand stores and seamstress,
resides a small cobbler’s workshop with boxes and equipments stacked to the ceiling.
The shop owner, introduced himself as Uncle Khoo was a modest hard worker.
Uncle Khoo have opened his store in Chinatown market since 1996 till today, offering all types of service revolving shoes. “If it’s something to do with shoe, I’ll probably be able to be of a help.” He said with a sheepish grin. Apart from shoe making and repairing, Uncle Khoo have been expanding his area of expertise to repairing bags as well.
Why did you picked up the skill of making shoes?
Back in the days, once you turn 13 your parents will start to push you out into the working world to help provide for the family. We had to survive with little and we didn’t had much opportunity to get to study. The only work that was available was either in the clothing industry ( Sewing and cutting fabric) or the shoe making industry. It wasn’t because I liked shoes, I learn to make, it was I had to learn to earn a living. I learnt making shoes way before I came into Singapore. But I sharpened my skills through working for the factories in Singapore.
Was there any challenges in learning the art of shoe making?
When you start out, you start as an apprentice, the shoe maker (Masters) wont teach you immediately or directly. You had to work from the start doing everything, from running errands, cleaning the workshop and even cooking for the master. You had to do all these and be hardworking. Then slowly after you’ll get to do work that is more related to shoe making. The most important lesson I learn is to forget about the bad experience and absorb the positive helpful skills. Another challenge is that making shoes require different skills and methods, I had to learn different skills from different masters, in order to learn the skills required to complete a pair of shoes.
How did you came about opening your store?
After working for years in the shoe making industry, until the point where the factories are shutting down. They couldn’t survive in Singapore anymore. The demand of local shoes dropped as the cost is much cheaper to import the shoes from China.
So when the factory folded its operations, I had to continue working so I decided to open this small store in Chinatown Market. And I’ve been here since 1996! It’s a nice area, bit expensive as it’s the heart of the city but a good place.
Are there current issues / Challenge in making shoes?
Shoes are getting more complicated to make. In these days, the shoe designers are creating a lot of shoes with very complicated steps. Customers may like it but it takes a lot of required skills to make a pair. And more resources to make it.
In Singapore, it’s harder to get the materials to make the shoes. As I don’t make in bulk sometimes it’s hard to get materials like leather to make for 1 pair of shoes. And it’s expensive. To make one pair of shoes I may only use 5% of the entire leather and the supplier don’t sell them in smaller pieces. One entire sheet of leather is not cheap you know, it can cost up to around $600. After I buy the whole leather what happens to the left over leather? Most of my customer either want custom made or repair their shoes so the materials used for each shoe demand is different.
To make a pair of shoes can take me a day or two. As I have walk in customers for shoe repairs, I have to pause and repair first and then continue with making the shoe. And my time cost may be different with the time cost with another factory staff in another country. I have to charge for the time I spend in making the shoes. So it can be a little expensive, but every price is worth as I put in effort in making it nice and durable! (Laughs)
Another challenge is that customers tend to demand a lot more sophistication in their shoes. I cannot blame them cause the factory made shoe’s designer are competing with one another and the shoes are getting more pattern! So I always tell my customer if I can I will but If I cannot I will tell you beforehand.