Yamaguchi Taro is a familiar sight to the many who transit at Yishun Bus Interchange. Sometimes accompanied by his daughter, Mr. Taro has been stationed at the same spot for over two decades, come rain or shine. The weathered face and callused hands of this 66-year-old are testament to the long hours and days spent at his makeshift store, where he engages with customers, both regular and new, in a mixture of languages. Mr. Taro’s shop is strewn with bits of rubber, cans of glue, an old-school, hand-cranked sewing machine, and various other knick-knacks collected over the years. We speak to the gentle-natured man to find out more about his life, his work, and what he’s learnt over the years.
Original interview was conducted in Cantonese.
Shentonista (S): How long have you been at this job?
Yamaguchi (Y): 21 Years.
S: Were you born here? Are you Singaporean?
Y: I am Singaporean. I was born here, but my dad’s Japanese.
S: What do you love most about your job and why?
Y: It’s “好靴” (Translation: a pair of good shoes)
[Perhaps Mr. Taro meant that he takes pride in seeing a pair of shoes, well-fixed, almost brand new, ready to be worn again.]
S. Is there something you wish you could change about your job/the nature of your work? What is the most difficult part of your job? If you could work as anything at all?
Y: There’s nothing that I would like to change about this job, and I am not intending to change my job anymore. My daughter will take over from me.
S: How many children do you have?
Y: I have two daughters, and the elder daughter’s the one that helps out at the store.
S. What do you wish people know about your job?
Y: Being a cobbler is not as easy as it seems.
S: What do you mean?
Y: Before I was a carpenter, I worked in the woodworking industry for about 25 years. For carpentry, if you scratch the surface of the table, it can be easily mended by sandpaper. I feel that being a cobbler is more difficult that metal smithing or woodworking, because those can be fixed. But for the soles of shoes, the moment you scratch it, you can’t mend it. The moment you damage the sole, it’s “冇得倾” (translation: no room for discussion), you have to replace it. Moreover, not all shoes can be mended.
[We witnessed this firsthand when a lady came with a pair of shoes with broken soles. Mr. Taro immediately waved her, off saying “冇得救” (translation: this cannot be saved)]
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt on this job? Any takeaways?
Y: Because I get to meet so many people, I’ve learnt so many languages.
S: How many languages do you speak?
Y: Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Mandarin, Malay, Japanese, and even Thai. English…(sheepishly) I am not very 叻 (translation: competent) but I can speak a little bit.
S: You’re 66 years old this year. When do you think you’ll retire?
Y: I’ve never thought of retiring.
S: You’ve never thought of retiring? Are you here everyday?
Y: Yes. I’m here from Monday to Sunday. I don’t take day-offs. I am here from about 2pm to 12 midnight everyday.
S: Everyday?! So how do you spend your limited time off work? What kind of hobbies/activities do you enjoy?
Y: I watch TV at home in the mornings. I am not a fan of dramas and usually watch NHK. Mostly news.
[Perhaps Mr. Taro would like to remain well-acquainted with his Japanese roots, and to keep them close to heart; he recently went to Japan over the Chinese New Year break. At this juncture, he takes out his pipe, which was a present from a friend, and lights it. We were then interrupted by a boy — someone he was obviously friendly with — and Mr. Taro hands him some money and sends him off to buy some drinks.]
S: What’s the most unexpected, thrilling or amazing thing that has happened to you at work?
Y: Nothing in particular. I’m not the sort who dwells, I just live each day as it is, and take things in my stride.
S: If you could dress any way you wanted to for work, what would you wear and why?
Y: I wear the same outfit every day — white shirt and jeans, with this pair of shoes I’ve had for 40 years. And yes, I mend it myself.
S: A uniform of sorts? Why?
Y: Yes, you can say that. It’s like my uniform. A white shirt because it doesn’t absorb heat, I’m out here all day, it gets quite hot. It’s more for practical reasons, not because I’m particularly fond of white shirts. Likewise for the jeans, they’re a hardy option. Every single pair I own are about the same.
S: If you could choose something else?
Y: Hmm, I think it’ll still be the same. I seldom wear shorts or anything fancy.
S: Do you think it’s important for men to be well-groomed and why?
Y: I think that looking neat is very important. Your hair should not look like a thief’s. (Note: Very common Cantonese saying to describe dishevelled hair). (bursts into laughter)
S: Do you think it affects how people perceive you?
Y: Definitely. It’s easier to “搵食” (Translation: find a job, make a living) if you look neat. You don’t have to dress too weird, or be too flamboyant — no need to be a superstar. Just make sure you’re clean, and look dignified.
S: Who is your current role model/hero, and why?
Y: Role models…建国一代 (Translation: Pioneer generation) Lee Kuan Yew. Without him there’ll be no Singapore and Singapore will not be so leng (靚 , translation: beautiful).
S: Any others?
Y: I’ve been out working for 48 years, and I’ve almost seen it all, the good and the bad. I don’t believe that there are heroes, nor villains, everyone’s just living their own life. And so should we. We shouldn’t be too bothered by others.
S: Any words of advice for the younger generation?
Y: To be open to suggestions.
S: Could you elaborate?
Y: Sometimes when they have strange requests, like if they want to do something weird to the sole of their shoe, I’ll still accede to it, even if I personally think it’s weird. (laughs) Different people have different tastes and opinions; you have to learn to trust their judgments. This way, you’ll also become more knowledgeable.
Even though we hardly spent any time with Mr. Taro, he sounds like a man who has seen it all. He seems to enjoy his simple life — no idealistic dreams, purely practical. And although the old man is generally reserved and unexpressive, we were all struck by his thoughtfulness: on this searing hot day, it turns out that he had sent the young boy to buy the whole team a bottle of ice-cold Coca Cola, each.
(Since the opening of the new Yishun Bus Interchange, Mr. Taro has moved his stall closer to Northpoint Mall, near to the 7-11 shop.)
This is a Shentonista project for We Need A Hero.
For more on Fred Perry, visit here.