The Heart and Sole of Cobbler Square

The Heart and Sole of Cobbler Square

A row of mostly elderly cobblers line up outside People’s Park Complex, hunched over in their makeshift stores, with only foldable umbrellas sparing them from heat or rain. The small community of cobblers has turned this space into a Cobbler Square of sorts. While the number of sidewalk cobblers in Singapore is steadily declining, the gathering of these tradesmen certainly increases the visibility of their trade.

Located at Exit C of Chinatown MRT Station, there is a lingering smell of grease and rubber in the air. The location is strategic, with high human traffic as a central space between People’s Park Complex, People’s Park Food Centre, and OG Building.

This unofficial Cobbler Square is located right at Exit C of Chinatown MRT Station.

This unofficial Cobbler Square is located right at Exit C of Chinatown MRT Station.

The stalls look mostly makeshift, but all that are required are a comprehensive cobbler toolkit and experienced hands.

The stalls may appear makeshift, but they all come with a comprehensive cobbler toolkit and experienced hands.

The stalls are a simple but functional setup. Each cobbler usually works from a cart, where the shoe last, toolkit, and repair materials are placed within an arm’s reach. Stools are provided for customers who prefer to wait for their shoes to be mended on the spot. The entire store can be packed onto a collapsible trolley, for easy transport and mobility at the start and end of each working day.

Cobblers became popular in the 1950s- a period when most people switched from wearing clogs to footwear. These cobblers offered shoe-repair services such as replacing worn-out soles or heels. It is often referred to as one of the five-foot-way trades, as cobblers often set up base along shophouse corridors.

A 1955 photograph of a sidewalk cobbler at work. Image courtesy of Singapore Press Holdings.

A 1955 photograph of a sidewalk cobbler at work. Image courtesy of Singapore Press Holdings.

A cobbler and his customer along a shophouse corridor in 1960. Image courtesy of Singapore Press Holdings.

A cobbler and his customer along a shophouse corridor in 1960. Image courtesy of Singapore Press Holdings.

A cobbler at work at Holland Village in 1990. Image courtesy of Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (current Singapore Tourism Board). Several cobblers can still be found near Holland Village MRT Station today.

A cobbler at work at Holland Village in 1990. Image courtesy of Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (current Singapore Tourism Board). Several cobblers can still be found near Holland Village MRT Station today.

Unfortunately like the case of most traditional trades in early Singapore, they are vanishing. Sidewalk cobblers are no longer a common sight today due to a number of factors. Firstly, these traditional cobblers now face competition from professional cobbler chain shops such as Mister Minit and Shukey Services. Secondly, with the increase in disposable income, footwear and shoes are becoming dispensable items. If they are worn out or torn today, the likelihood is that a new pair will simply be bought as a replacement. The culture of shoe repair and reuse is slowly waning just like the traditional sidewalk cobblers.

The cobbler was featured in Heritage Along Footpaths, a project by the National Heritage Board to showcase the five-foot-way trades in late 2011.

The cobbler was featured in Heritage Along Footpaths, a project by the National Heritage Board to showcase the five-foot-way trades in late 2011.

A customer patiently waits while the cobbler fixes his shoe heel.

A customer patiently waits while the cobbler fixes his shoe heel.

Passing by Cobbler Square is akin to a walk down memory lane. A comparison of photographs taken sixty years ago and today show how little this cobbler setting has changed. The cart has remained, and so has the cobbler toolkit.  Most importantly, these cobblers continue to ply their honest trade with heart and soul.

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