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Travelling hawkers or itinerant hawkers travelled from house-to-house or door-to-door to sell their goods. In Singapore's early days, it was a common sight to see traders carrying their paraphernalia and moving about either on foot or on some mode of transport in search of buyers.
As the number of five-foot-way traders increased, the five-foot-ways proved too cramped to work in as competition among the traders increased. To keep their businesses going, some traders began travelling on foot, hawking their services and goods. These included roadside entertainers, merchandise sellers, gem stone sellers and food vendors. Others peddled their goods using vehicles like a bicycle or a cart.
Traders on foot
The simplest travelling hawkers carried their items in a bag which they carried in a piece of cloth slung over their backs and would spread out their wares to whoever beckoned them. This included travelling hawkers who sold beauty accessories for women and children and those who sold an assortments of titbits. Some barbers carried their equipment in an old briefcase-style case and travelled around shouting their services. The tinsmith similarly travelled from door to door to repair cooking utensils. Travelling roadside entertainers such as snake charmers and monkey trainers made their animals perform shows along the street for money. For better support, others carried their wares on a bamboo stick which was balanced over their shoulders. Travelling hawkers like the almanac seller strung all his almanacs along the bamboo stick. On other occasions, the bamboo stick had two large baskets on its either end into which all their goods were placed. Equal amount of weight was placed on both sides of the bamboo stick. The travelling hawker then masterfully balanced this heavy stick with all its goods and carried them, at times even over large distances. Such travelling hawkers were usually food vendors and travelling cookshops such as those selling satay or laksa were popular in the early days. Others sold an assortment of things like canes, shoes, silk fabrics, jewellery, confectionery and curios of different kinds.
Traders with vehicles
Some used a cart on wheels, filled it with goods and pushed it slowly along the streets in search of buyers. This included the sugar candy man, the ice-cream seller and the drinks seller. Others would use the bicycle. The travelling milkmen tied their tins of milk to a bicycle and cycled through the streets to supply fresh milk directly to their customers. Car-washers in old Singapore would ride a bicycle with a pail strapped behind. They would wash the cars of those who required their car washing service and sometimes even wax them. The "cinema on wheels" or the miniature movie show was mounted on wheels and the owner of the "cinema on wheels" would cycle along the streets. This was popular with children and for five cents or 20 cents, the children could watch a 50 ft. film or a 200 ft. film respectively.
With economic progress and increasing concern for hygiene, the government built hawker centres so that travelling hawkers could set up more permanent stalls there. By 1993, itinerant peddlers were encouraged to rent hawker stalls from the government and were given until March 1996 to leave behind what was by then an illegal trade.
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
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(Call no.: SING 779.9658870095957 FIV)
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List of Images
Ong C. S., Tan B. L. (Eds.). (1985). Five-foot-way traders (pp. 21,29,36,47,73,79, 80, 83,91,93,99, 100). Singapore: Archives and Oral History Department.
(Call no.: SING 779.9658870095957 FIV)
The information in this article is valid as at 2002 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.