I grew up in Penang Street and lived next to a rattan furniture shop. Tourists loved to visit the shop and many were fond of the rattan balls displayed in the front. Today, the shop has been taken over by an Indian tailor. Rattan-making like any other old trades are struggling due to the declining demands from consumers today.
Time has changed. Some old trades no longer exist while some have evolved such as the traditional laundry shop or dhoby shop. As my grandmother used to own a dhoby shop, I still remember vividly how the clothes were hand-washed using long bars of soap rather than detergent, and charcoal irons were used to press the clothes. Today we see the coin-operated laundry service taking over these traditional laundry shops.
I also miss those hawkers with yoke on their shoulder. It was a common scene to see Indian hawkers selling foods like “kuih talam” and “laksa” plying regularly along the streets of George Town when I was young. We don’t see hawker in yoke anymore and it is hard for me to find such authentic taste of those foods elsewhere.
In fact, “nasi kandar”, a popular Indian Muslim specialty started this way before “nasi kandar” shops were set up nationwide. Another food trader is the “roti man” in his tricycle selling breads especially the famous kaya and butter buns. We can still see this today and of course, I still love a savoury bite of those buns.
On a metal trade, who could ever think sharpening blunt knives could earn a living in the past? This trade is usually seen in the market, using traditional grinders over the electric-powered ones. However, you won’t find this trade in the city anymore because people can now sharpen their knives at home.
Some old trades like the making of wooden signboards, joss sticks, ancestral tablets, batik, songkok, traditional costumes and calligraphy are considered our rich cultural heritage. They help boost tourism because tourists love to see their elaborate and meticulous craftsmanship, and their work of art is still much needed today.
For the ladies in their 40’s onwards, they may remember a cosmetic, “bedak sejuk” or “cooling powder” made from broken rice. My mother still pampers her face with the powder because like all ladies in her age, she believes this cooling powder can make the skin smooth and fair.
The making of this powder is tedious. Bare hands are used to wash the rice and dry them under the sun. But today, machines are used and surprisingly, there is still demand for this cooling powder in the market.
Another trade that never seems to be out of sight is paper oblation craft. This trade is seen mostly during Chinese cultural festivals, such as Ching Beng (prayer day to ancestors) and the Hungry Ghost Festival. In the past, we only see limited paper items like bungalows, cars, shirts and shoes. But today, you can see paper iPads, iPhones and more.
All in all, some old trades are lost or dying while others continue to thrive and evolve to keep up with the times.
Words & Photos by Francis Yip