In a culture where it is common to buy and throw things away at an increasing rate—phones, friends, furniture—Chia Chong Sin is in the business of preservation.
His work reminds us that there are more to material things than their monetary value, and that another value—sentimental value—still matters. His trade is not just about reviving old shoes, but cobbling back meaningful memories and feelings attached to our stuff (and, not least, imparting goodwill to Planet Earth).
How did he enter the trade? For a while he was doing a variety of hands-on jobs such as carpentry until he devoted himself to the art of restoring shoes. “My father said: you got nothing to do? Come work for me! So I followed him.”
When I asked how he learned his skills , he laughed without an answer. “A skill like this is not easy to learn. You cannot just learn a trade like this in one or two days. You have to do it for many years. I tried to find workers to help me, but it’s not easy to find people with experience.”
Chia is a well-known feature at Holland Village where he sets up shop under an umbrella every day— an anchor of stability in an oasis of rapid change. “There are a lot more banks here,” he observes. “Not like last time: bakeries, small shops.”
While we were talking, a young lady hobbled over with a broken heel and, not long later, another lady came by with her husband’s shoes that needed urgent rework on the sole before a business meeting the next day. Mr Chia analyzed each shoe quickly and gave a collection time. “Should we call you before we come to collect it?” they asked. “No need,” he said. “I’ll be right here. Just come by.”
The cobbler is centered in the trade of happiness. “In business, you have to have the skill. If you don’t have the skill, people don’t come back to you: they will come one time and won’t come back again. You have to know what you are doing. When I can help people with my skill, it makes them happy, and when I see that they are happy, it makes me feel happy. So, everyone is happy!”
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners and their trades around the world, sharing insights, stories and views. You can see all the posts on Instagram and Facebook @ShopkeeperStories