“Karung guniiiiii, poh zhua gu sa kor, pai leh lio, dian si ki…”—The familiar cries, accompanied by the rhythmic honking sounds, signalled the weekly arrival of the karung guni uncle who would push his hand cart and diligently ply through corridors after corridors of the apartment blocks in my estate. Attached to his hand cart is a small weighing scale, which he would either use it to weigh a stack of newspapers or a bag of reusable items to assess their value. He will then hand over a nominal fee to the residents (or sellers) who are willing to part with their old and preloved items. I have a particularly fond memory of the karung guni uncle who frequents my estate―other than doing his weekly rounds and clearing some of the unwanted and old items in my house, he was a friendly and jovial man who would chat with my father and ask us how our day was. The karung guni uncle’s weekly visits remain close to my heart―I would even go so far as to say that I grew up watching him collect items from our house since the mid-1990s, when I moved to my current home in Queenstown.
SG50 Icon - Karang Guni
On my recent trips back to Singapore, I learnt from my parents that the karung guni uncle no longer comes by as often due a range of demand stemming factors such as recycling initiatives and charity drives, where residents recycle or donate their unwanted items instead of selling them. On one occasion when I was home, the karung guni uncle was doing his usual rounds. I overheard the conversation between my father and him. The karang guni uncle was going to retire from his job. When probed further, he remarked sombrely that it was much harder to do business these days. More importantly, age is catching up. At that instant, I felt an instant lump in my throat and wondered if karung guni men like him, who are few and far between these days, would cease to exist in our generation.
As more and more of them retire, karung guni will join the ranks of other lost trades in the very near future.
Modern recycling initiatives and charities may make our lives easier as they collect unwanted items and recyclables directly from our doorsteps, but gone are the ‘personal touch’ and sense of familiarity from the interactions we have with our local karung guni uncles. Most of these men have been in the trade for decades, so it is not surprising for residents to have made friends with them. I will miss the genuinity of the karung guni uncle when he engages in weekly conversations with my father. They will stand there for a good 20 to 30 minutes and chat about the going-ons in the neighbourhood and Singapore’s current affairs.
To me, the feeling of home is determined by familiar faces. When my neighbourhood karung guni uncle retires, my home will inevitably feel different. I wish I could place such unique childhood memories in a bubble and keep them with me for the rest of my adulthood.
Carys is a Singaporean Ph.D. student with the Research School of Management, Australian National University. When she is not doing research or teaching, Carys enjoys being outdoors, practising yoga, keeping up to date on news and current affairs, and spending time with family and friends.