NESTLED unassumingly in an alley off Malacca’s famous Jonker Street is a narrow shoplot, with a beat up wooden door and an equally old-school signboard that simply says “Seng Huat”.
There, you will find Soo Xiu Keng, 78, and Kan Yuan Lin, 77, two friends who have been running their separate businesses side-by-side for the past 58 years. Soo is a barber, and Kan a tailor; and they each take half of the shop – which is very narrow because the house tax of the Dutch colonialists back in the day were based on the width of properties.
But despite its tiny, humble facade, the stories and history behind Seng Huat are simply amazing; and its friendly occupants are more than eager to tell you all about them.
For starters, Soo’s barber’s chair, an astounding piece of antique machinery, is over a century old – and it still works perfectly fine! It reclines, has an adjustable headrest, was imported from Singapore, and is still very, very comfortable.
So comfortable, in fact, that a wealthy Malay gentleman bought one of Soo’s two chairs several years ago for over RM10,000. “I didn’t really need it anymore as business was slowing down, and he really liked the chair. He said he wanted to relax in it at home.”
Though there isn’t much tangible heritage to Kan’s work as a tailor, the photos of a Chinese opera singer adorning the walls of the shop tell a different, altogether more fascinating story.
“I used to be an opera singer. I would perform at the Kuan Yin Festival every year,” she said with a fond smile. “And since I was a tailor, I would make all my own costumes! I still have them upstairs, but they’re all tucked away and dusty now.”
And that’s not it. Her Chinese opera career has seen her record her own CD, do voiceovers for radio shows and go on a tour of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. She even helped raise RM80,000 through a charity concert once!
The life of a professional Chinese opera singer was not for her, though, and she decided to perform only as a hobby while maintaining her tailoring business. She rarely performs now as she is losing her stamina. “I will always cherish the memories I had of being on stage,” she said.
But now, she and Soo are happy to see out their days together in their little shop, even though they know their trades are dying. While reminiscing together, they told us of how they met during a karaoke session (they still have a photo of them at the karaoke joint!) and decided 58 years ago to set up their businesses under one roof.
“Business used to be very good. This area used to be full of local businesses like ours. But now, I hardly get any locals coming here for haircuts. They prefer more trendy places,” said Soo, without a hint of resentment.
The people who do show an interest in the place now are tourists from all over the world, many of whom drop by for a haircut, or simply to take photos with her on her barber’s chair.
“Some of them even put their photos on the Internet! They say a lot of nice things, and they tell people to come visit me,” she said with a huge smile.
Despite the interest from tourists who ocassionally stumble upon their shop while wandering around Jonker Street, Soo and Kan calmly accept that their time is almost up, and their shop will be closed for good in the near future.
“I don’t have any children, so the business will die with me,” said Soo. “Even if I did have children, I don’t think they would have been interested in taking over from me.”
And after saying that, she gave us BRATs some heartfelt advice: “Young people like yourselves, you are so talented, you have such bright futures. You must make sure you do something good with your lives.”