A Cobbler on High Street
Seated under a faded umbrella on a corner where the foot of Fort Canning Hill meets High Street, is a traditional tradesman with lots of soul. Mr Peik Chai Tiam, a sidewalk cobbler, has been mending soles for approximately 70 years. His nimble hands belie his over-80 years of age. As a youth, Mr Peik worked as a shop apprentice, where he quickly picked up the ropes of shoe repair. He is a recognisable face outside High Street Plaza, his base for the past ten years.
High Street was one of the first paved roads in Singapore. It was built in 1821 by convict labour, who had contributed to many of the earliest buildings and road infrastructure in Singapore. Ching Huei, a heritage researcher at the National Heritage Board, highlighted the contributions of convict labour in the development of early Singapore in a 2013 interview. “They built the St Andrew’s Cathedral and the former Government House (Istana), and also transport infrastructure such as roads and bridges, including High Street and Cavenagh Bridge,” he said.
Mr Peik has witnessed the transformation of the streetscape at High Street, where two-storey shophouses that lined up the entire street were torn down for taller development. He had worked at several of the shops facing the former Supreme Court, which is today’s National Gallery Singapore. On his typical workday from 9am to 3pm, Mr Peik waits for customers with his simple setup and cobbler toolkit.
The cobbler trade picked up in the 1950s when people began to switch from wearing clogs to covered footwear. Many cobblers offered basic shoe repair services such as replacing worn out soles or heels. Like other traditional five-foot-way trades, these cobblers often set up their carts along shophouse corridors or along sidewalks.
In this age where footwear is a dispensable commodity, people seek to replace worn out shoes with new pairs. The shoe mending culture has waned alongside traditional trades, but a handful of these tradesmen are still keeping their crafts alive. Other than the unofficial Cobbler Square outside People’s Park Complex, traditional cobblers can still be seen outside malls or along sidewalks around Singapore.