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The last dhobi shop in S'pore

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 26, 2013

THE bundles of freshly washed and pressed garments, which fill the ceiling-high shelves of Singapore's last South Indian dhobi shop, are telling of the brisk business it still enjoys.

Owner Ari Valakan, 49, who took over his father's 45-year-old business, says there is still a demand for traditionally laundered clothing. His shop, P. Suppiah Laundry, handles more than 100 garment items daily.

But tight curbs on foreign workers and higher levies are hemming him in. Although he has hired a few Singaporeans, they never stay long.

"The hours are long and few have the patience to stay at the job long enough to manage different materials such as silk and sarees, which require skill to iron," says Mr Valakan, who believes he is the last South Indian dhobi man in Singapore.

It is a pity, as he believes he could open at least two new outlets, with the business experiencing a surge in interest from a younger crowd.

"Younger adults collecting laundry on their parents' behalf have come to see the convenience of sending their laundry to us," says Mr Valakan, who has a pool of 40 or so regular patrons every month.

He will be featured in the sixth and last episode of the National Heritage Board's Heritage In Episodes documentary series, which focuses on traditional trades and is aimed at connecting with the younger generation through social media.

The episode on the dhobi will be aired on the board's YouTube channel in September.

The shop in St George's Road in Bendemeer remains attractive to customers because costs are rather competitive, says Mr Valakan.

It costs $2.50 to wash and iron a blouse at his shop, while some modern laundry shops charge about $4 for washing alone. Others offer bulk discounts, in which washing, drying and folding a 10kg load costs $12.

To deal with the labour-intensive work, Mr Valakan has roped in five family members, including his wife and aunts. He needs about six people to run the shop.

While it has machines that can handle 25kg loads each time, the shop continues to employ traditional techniques that Mr Valakan learnt from his father. That includes using a blue powder to make colours brighter and irons weighing 5kg each to press garments and keep them crisp throughout the day.

These days, he has done away with steam boilers, traditionally used to soak and dislodge dirt in garments, because they are noisy and unsuitable for use in a housing estate, he explains.

Instead, clothes are soaked in a cocktail of chemicals and soap.

"We used to require a lot of manpower to wring large pieces of garments by hand and a lot of space to sun them out, but now we have machines to do that for us," he adds.

But the work is still exhausting. Every day, Mr Valakan deftly flips and folds dozens of stacks of clean shirts in bundles at his humble shop, packing them away to be ironed.

Ironing a shirt can take up to five minutes, and as long as 20 minutes for a saree.

Besides catering to residents in the neighbourhood, P. Suppiah Laundry also serves Hindu priests, who send their traditional dhotis for washing. Older generations of Indians who are used to sending their laundry to dhobis form the core group of customers.

Mr Valakan's father, Mr Tackiri Suppiah, 85, is very much attached to the business as he spends most of his time sitting at the shop watching his son run it.

Dhobis, the Hindi term for laundrymen, travelled from India to Singapore in the early 19th century. They would collect laundry from residents and wash it along the banks of the Sungei Brass Bassa, a freshwater stream now known as the Stamford Canal.

They would dry the clothes on a 2ha plot of land. This was later occupied by the Ladies Lawn Tennis Club in 1884.

In the 1980s, about 30 of them had shops across the island. Their customers were primarily members of the Indian community.

But the shutters rolled down as the dhobis either went into retirement or died, said Mr Valakan. Few want to inherit such a labour-intensive business, he said. "My sons, who are are 19 and 23, told me they aren't interested either."

But he feels that it is his responsibility to carry on the business for as long as he can.

He said: "We also have a responsibility towards our long-time customers, with whom we have become friends."

melodyz@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 26, 2013 

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