Neighbour: Mr Lai
Text by Charlene Chan
Photography by Jovian Lim
Back, forth, back, forth. With four deft flicks of the wrist, a slice of bread falls cleanly away from the remaining loaf. Each is exactly an inch thick, no more, no less. Every loaf produces a dozen slices without fail.
It’s almost comforting watching the bakers at Sing Hon Loong Bakery work. Years of experience has turned their movements around the shop space into some kind of dance, a steady waltz amongst metal ovens stacked one above the other. They dodge burning trays of freshly baked loaves, never easing up on the kneading, slicing, and bagging. Mr Lai, the owner of the bakery, tells me that all his bakers have been with the business for at least 10 years, with the most senior one having joined them 25 years ago.
I ask him about the two signboards above the entrance to his shop. The first—a wooden, black one with gold script—reads Ghee Leong, which Mr Lai informs me was the name of the bakery that took residence there before his uncle moved in. The second is a relatively newer one, bearing the name the bakery goes by these days.
When asked if he would oblige us with some portrait shots, Mr Lai bashfully acedes, standing in front of his shop and behind the counter where he’s spent the last 34 years working. He joined the business after he left the army, he explains, following his father’s passing and at the request of his uncle.
In the years since, Mr Lai has gotten his daily routine down to a science. He makes his way to the bakery before dawn at 4am, kicking off the morning shift and taking note of the orders for the day. This is followed by a jog, then a trip back to the shop, where he oversees the entire baking process. He doesn’t do much baking anymore, he says, but chips in with the slicing of bread where he can; while the bakery has machines to do the job, they aren’t able to produce the thick slices that customers prefer.
By noon, most of the baking from the morning shift has wrapped up, and it’s been more than eight hours since Mr Lai’s day began. He takes a lunch break, while the others cool off from the heat of the ovens by selling the remaining bread and getting ready to head home. In the evenings, Mr Lai makes yet another journey to the bakery, this time to check in on the night shift. He stays there till about 8pm—just eight hours before he’ll start the day all over again.
Visit Sing Hon Loong Bakery at 4 Whampoa Drive for a taste of freshly baked bread.
Read more in The U Press N˚13 (Singapore edition).