Feature: Savior of Shoes

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Shoes, heels and boots, you name it; they will fix it in minutes. Quiet and unassuming, the cobblers ply their trade daily both in the ‘Cobbler Square’ and in little pockets all over Singapore. It is a simple setup consisting of a foldable umbrella, the standard cobbler’s toolkit, some stools, and a trolley to transport everything. Uncle Robert Chong is one of the few remaining individuals whom I would like to call, the Savior of Shoes. The cobbler profession was once a thriving business back in the 50s when they were often referred to as member of the ‘five-foot-way trades’.

I watched Chong skilfully cut the rubber and put the worn-out heel back together; it was a skill that could only have taken years if not decades to perfect. Chong had been in the profession since 1975. Two young ladies approached Chong asking him to fix a wedge that was opening on the sides. Chong told the ladies that the wedge could not be fixed because the glue would not hold the wedge together anymore with only a split second glance. Chong’s companion told me Chong has never deceived his customers in all his years in the trade.

Chong raised two children with this occupation, one of which went on to become a school principal. I asked why did he not want to retire and “enjoy life”. Chong candidly replied, “Mending shoes makes me happy.. I will continue doing this until I die.” One day, this profession will cease to exist, but our children should know that there was a time when shoes could be fixed inexpensively and cobblers were the heroes we turn to.

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Writer’s note: The subjects in the photo has verbally consented to being photographed. While the above photos has not been watermarked, all rights belong to the photographer (me). Requests for commercial use of photos will not be entertained. For requests for editorial use, kindly email me at reueleugenetay@gmail.com. 

I Almost Published My Own Book

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Remember the time when you were young, innocent and above all things, bold? You dreamt big dreams. The world was your oyster, and you believe you can do all that you want, be all that you can be and it will come to pass? And then, the world beat the hell out of you? Last year, I thought of publishing a book about Singapore. The book would chronicle 50 nostalgic stories of places, activities and occupations of Singapore.

This project seeks to rediscover the places, occupations and activities that older generation of Singaporeans can identify with. These places, occupations and activities are nostalgic and showed Singaporean’s way of life in the past. In each of these stories, we look at their significance and learning points from the past. Eg. Cobblers – difficult trade but was a means to get their children through university, people who lived in kampongs – despite living with different ethnic groups, the ‘kampong’ or community spirit is strong, etc. This coffee table book is a platform for older Singaporeans to connect with their past and for younger Singaporeans to learn about the amicable traits of the past.

All in all, what we seek to subtly communicate with our readers through this book is that while many of these cultures iconic to Singapore may cease to exist in the future, there is a beautiful attribute to learn from each and every single one of them. In them show the immensely rich Singaporean culture, the shared experiences Singaporeans have regardless of race and language, the aspirations we have for a better tomorrow, as well as something every Singaporean (community spirit, diligence, etc) of today can learn from.

Introduction of project that was sent to SG50 Committee

I was so excited at the beginning and commenced on the project even though I did not have any concrete plan to bring it to fruition. I whipped out my camera and went places. The project took me to places and introduced me to people I wouldn’t normally speak to have I kept to my daily routines. I took photos of Singapore’s last Kampong and interviewed a former resident. I interviewed one of Singapore’s last remaining traditional ice-cream vendors. I spoke to a newspaper vendor auntie. I interviewed a stall owner and took photos of famous Lavender Food Square which has been demolished sometime last year.

Later on, I got to know about the SG50 funding campaign. I pitched for funding and after a long and arduous process of emailing back and forth, I received news that the project was approved and I would receive up to 75% funding.

By then, the initial excitement has already long but died out. While I had already established an agreement with a local publisher, I have to face a very real problem of funding the remaining 25% and manpower issues to meet the National Day deadline. After my last potential sponsoring company decided not to fund the project, I decided to pull the plug on the project.

That, together with other things happening in my life made me feel terrible. Ah, quarter life crisis. I thought that I could be a somebody in the PR industry but I am not. I thought that I could start a social enterprise but it did not come to pass. I thought that I could start a business but that did not work out (yet) either. I thought I could be a missionary/full time worker but I am nowhere close (yet). But the biggest mistake I made was letting the world beat and trample all over me, telling me “You’re done. You can’t do it. You can’t be it.You just can’t.”

But if my faith was anything, it was my saving grace.

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.

Romans 8:28

This was one of the verses I remembered since my youth. I always imagined a ‘me’ that’s 10 (or 20) years older coming to me and telling me, “Don’t worry (so much), mate. Everything will work out just fine.”

I think that if we allow our mistakes, failures or even missed opportunities define our level of success, we will be mentally crippled for sure. Who defines the standard of success anyway? Where is the yardstick to measure against so that I can determine that “I have lived a full life”? Is a self-made millionaire considered a success? What about the billionaire then? Is the cleaner then considered to have ‘failed life’?

Don’t let the world tell you what you can or cannot do, who you can be or not be. If you are defeated in your mind, you have already lost. But if there is anything we could do, it would be to ‘not give up so easily’.I personally think this is one area I need to work on as well. I will end with a quote from my favorite author.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Maybe one day I will publish a book.