Yishun father-daughter duo share passion for cobbling

He makes most things himself. From his cobbling pushcart and tools down to his daily-worn wooden clogs, made from used sake barrels and canvas straps from old backpacks.

He even has a solar panel to generate electricity for his mini fluorescent light and speakers for his compact disc player.

Mr Yamaguchi Taro, 67, has been a street cobbler for more than 20 years.

He is among those featured in the Everyday Stars campaign aimed at celebrating Singaporeans.

Dressed in a white long-sleeved shirt, grey-haired Mr Yamaguchi used to be a regular sight at the old Yishun bus interchange.

Now, he is stationed adjacent to the public toilet at the new bus interchange, a spot he moved to just a month ago.

He says in Mandarin: "When people want to locate me, they just look for the toilet."

Such practicality is apparent in Mr Yamaguchi , who was born and bred in Singapore.

He got his surname from his biological father, who was a Japanese soldier here during World War II. After the war, his dad returned to Japan.

His mother, a Cantonese-speaking Singaporean, remarried and Mr Yamaguchi was left in the care of his maternal grandmother from the age of six.

He says: "I grew up in a very poor family. My stepfather smoked opium and didn't work, so I didn't have the opportunity to go to school."

Despite that, he taught himself to speak, read and write Japanese.

He also speaks a smattering of other languages including English, Malay and Thai, and dialects like Cantonese and Hokkien.

Apprentice

At 12, he became a shoe-making apprentice and years later, left to set up his own business. With the help of two partners, they could then churn out 40 slippers a day.

But the business folded and he found himself as an apprentice in carpentry.

Soon, he was his own boss again, making furniture and carvings for a living.

At 27, he met his wife through a friend. Months later, they got married and she bore him three children - two girls and a boy.

But his furniture business went downhill. Then in his 40s, Mr Yamaguchi , the sole breadwinner, dived into cobbling to raise his family.

"Cobbling is easy to pick up as I have experience in shoe-making," he says.

The grandfather of two spends up to 10 hours daily mending about 30 pairs of shoes a day at his stall, earning on average of $1,000 a month.

He even works on weekends.

The only time he takes a holiday is during Chinese New Year, when he would go overseas for two weeks.

He says: "I don't feel tired. I have always been working like this."

Mr Yamaguchi 's eldest daughter, Yoko, 40, says she has not seen anyone as diligent as her dad.

She says: "He's a very disciplined man. He's punctual and doesn't make excuses.

"He has never failed to give my mother the same amount of money every day.

"When he doesn't earn enough to make up that amount, he would take from the money he had put aside to buy material.

"Even when he gets sick, he would see a doctor and go back to work."

She adds: "He's very thrifty. He would rather walk in the rain to save 50 cents for a bowl of fish ball noodles."

Mr Yamaguchi hopes to expand his cobbling business by training people to open up more stalls.

For a start, he has helped his daughter - who worked at his stall for two years - open a stall outside Northpoint Shopping Centre in Yishun.

He says: "The takings from my stall are enough for my pay but not for my daughter's pay. When she has her own stall, she has more income."

No, I'm not my dad's China girlfriend

When she first started to learn the cobbling trade from her father, she got blisters on her fingers and went home crying.

Countless cuts at the same spots saw her hands calloused by the manual labour.

Once, a needle pierced through her finger. Her dad pulled it out without any fuss and told her to return to work.

Undaunted, Ms Yamaguchi Yoko, 40, persevered. Now, the eldest daughter of street cobbler Yamaguchi Taro, 67, has her own stall.

The pair are among those featured in the Everyday Stars campaign aimed at celebrating Singaporeans.

Her stall, a cosier homemade version of her dad's set-up at Yishun bus interchange, is right next to the POPStation outside the Northpoint Shopping Centre.

The former hotel employee and property agent ventured into cobbling in 2013.

"My dad is getting older and weaker. My siblings don't want to learn this trade, making him very sad," said the mother of two young kids .

"I have no other way to repay him but to learn his trade and pass it on."

Ms Yamaguchi helped out at her father's stall for close to two years before setting up her own four months ago, with help from dad and a set of cobbling tools from him.

"People thought I was my dad's maid or worse, his China girlfriend," she exclaims in jest.

Flexing her biceps, she showed this reporter her bulging muscles.

"I was slender but not muscular. I got these over the last two years," she says.

Long hours

Ms Yamaguchi works eight hours a day - from noon to 8pm - without any meal breaks and only two toilet breaks.

"My parents have been supportive. My mum looks after my kids when I work, my dad offers me a joint venture with him. So my divorce has been worth it," she says.

Every once in a while, she would take out her spectacles and wipe her eyes with a tissue paper.

Her down-to-earth attitude is a stark contrast from her former self - she used to spend up to $6,000 a month when she was a property agent.

She says: "I'd go clubbing with my colleagues and we took turns to pick up the tab.

"Someone would buy a branded bag and I would also get one too to show off."

Now, she realises that she can survive even with an unstable income of less than $1,000 a month.

She says: "There are days when I could be sitting here for 10 hours and earn only 50 cents for belt punching. Never in my life have I worked the whole day for 50 cents."

The plucky and spirited woman dreams of becoming a businesswoman who owns a global cobbling empire.

Ms Yamaguchi says: "I hope to make cobbling a respectable profession. You need skills to do it well and not everyone can do this. It took me two years to learn how to handsew a pair of shoes efficiently."

Her philosophy in life?

"Your life is a lesson," she says.

"I don't go for facials. I can't enhance my beauty but I can stop it from deteriorating further. What's important for me is beauty sleep, drinking lots of water and being happy always."

chaihyn@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on August 16, 2015.
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