Neighbour: Mr Lee
Text and photography by Therese Heng
Tucked away in a quiet corner of a back alley, set against the backdrop of the bustling cityscape, is where you will find Mr Lee Yan Tong. A permanent fixture along Amoy Street, this is where the 76-year-old has been plying his trade as a barber for the past 14 years. Walking down the alleyway is akin to taking a trip down memory lane as time seems to slow down to a meandering pace. In this day and age with everyone moving about so fast, it is rare to see someone so content with such a quiet idyllic life. Mr Lee’s genial spirit is infectious, and immediately sets one at ease as he waxed nostalgic about his life story and the obstacles he had to overcome.
Mr Lee learnt the art of cutting hair at the age of 16, after World War II, and has been honing his skills as a barber throughout the years. He initially rented out a shop space at Stanley Bridge, but was forced to move out after plans to redevelop a hawker centre around the area got in the way. He eventually moved out of his second location at Boon Tat Street as well, when the rent became too high for him to afford.
He finally set up a small space at the back alley of 23 Amoy Street and has been there ever since. One rusty reclining chair, a set of drawers and a tray of simple tools is all that he has left with him. This is a reflection of what modernisation does to small businesses like Mr Lee’s, and yet he carries the same amount of determination and optimism to press on despite his old age.
Mr Lee charges merely $6 a haircut, and yet attends to every customer with the same amount of genuine sincerity and dedication. His sturdy hands do not give away his age, as he works on every customer with poised experience. Although he does not have much, he is extremely proud of his tools. There is no technology that gets in the way, they are manual, fuss-free single function tools that have stuck with him throughout the years. His tools reflect him as a person, someone with no airs about him, who is simple and honest to a fault. He chooses to rely on what he knows best to hone his craft, and is proud of the fact that a lot of his tools are one of a kind, and that you will hardly be able to find them anywhere anymore.
Visit Mr Lee at the back alley of 23 Amoy Street, Singapore.
Read more in The U Press N˚5 (Singapore edition).