Knife sharpening might seem simple, but to execute it well takes skill as well as years of experience. Mdm Lee Hui Zhen of Pow Li, which specialises in sharpening knives and scissors, takes us down memory lane, back to the shop’s early years, and walks us through the difficulties of the trade and its future challenges.
Located in People’s Park Complex, Pow Li, a shop specialising in sharpening knives and scissors, was started in 1969 by Mdm Lee Hui Zhen’s late father, Mr Lee Wen Hen, who was in his late 70s. Mr Lee had been in the woodworking trade, and had learnt to sharpen blades during the course of his work. According to Mdm Lee, now 72, her father’s transition into setting up a small business sharpening knives was a natural one.
Pow Li’s location has remained unchanged since it opened in 1969. Photo by Terence C. Fong
Mdm Lee decided to become her father’s apprentice when she was 24. He was getting on in age and she wanted to relieve him of some work. At the time, she was working at an old folks’ home, performing ah mah duties and drawing a monthly wage of $100. It was her first job and it included tending to sickly and elderly patients. Mdm Lee animatedly recalled how she had to wrap the bodies of patients who had passed away and bring them to Singapore General Hospital. “Sometimes this occurred in the middle of the night and I would get chills down my spine when I had to escort the corpses to the mortuary,” Mdm Lee said laughingly as she related why the choice to join her father was an obvious one.
“During the initial period, my father was on hand to guide and help me with any problems, especially if the sharpening was not done properly. There were definitely difficulties but it was about taking the time to learn how to handle them,” Mdm Lee said, sharing what her foray into the business was like.
It was undoubtedly tiring and incurring hand injuries was a given. Mdm Lee also readily admitted that there was a time when she felt like giving up. Apart from daily lacerations and abrasions, she also had to deal with complaints from customers about her lack of skill. However, she reflected on the criticisms and realised that if she simply gave up then all her efforts would have been for nothing.
So Mdm Lee persevered and by 1980, she had taken over the running of the business from her father, who worked until he was about 80 years old. Despite having been in the business for close to five decades, Mdm Lee still feels that there are things for her to learn every day. Every blade she encounters is different and she studies each one before deciding which technique to deploy.
Mdm Lee preparing a chopper for sharpening on a grinding machine. Photo by Terence C. Fong
“Even if I deem the blade to be sharp, customers might not feel that way. Though it is simply based on their feelings, I still have to analyse what the issue might be. For instance, the misalignment of a mere millimeter for a pair of scissors blades can affect its use,” explained Mdm Lee. She further shared how some of her regular customers, such as tailors, could tell if a pair of scissors had been well-sharpened just by opening and closing its shanks.
Mdm Lee putting the finishing touches on a chopper using a wet stone, which gives the blade a razor-sharp edge. Photo by Terence C. Fong
Mdm Lee also noted that there has been a notable change in her customers’ expectations over the years. Back then, it was acceptable for her to take a few weeks to sharpen a knife, but today, even a two-hour wait would be considered as exceedingly sluggish. Mdm Lee has adapted to her customers’ evolving expectations over the years, and is now used to the quicker pace. To demonstrate, Mdm Lee picked up a chopper that she had been working on and deftly completed grinding and sharpening it against the wet stone within five minutes. She grinned at our amazement and casually remarked, “I only need to do enough to make the blade sharp, any more and it may become too thin.”
The blade is put to the test by slicing through a sheet of newspaper. Photo by Terence C. Fong
Mdm Lee has yet to find her successor. Her daughter is not interested in the trade and Mdm Lee, too, reckons that this trade may not be suitable for the younger generation. She highlighted how finding a young person who is willing and able to take on such hardship is near-impossible. “Young people today give up too easily. Besides, you cannot earn much from sharpening knives after you pay the rent and utility bills. If young people got jobs outside, they would be entitled to annual and even medical leave. I have to work here 365 days a year because if I don’t work, there is no money.”
Apart from their aversion to hard work, she added that today’s youths lack the ability to commit to anything for long. Moreover, sharpening knives does not provide an ideal working environment as the work is literally dirty – as proof she showed us the undersides of her forearms that had been coated with metal dust accumulated from grinding knives throughout the day.
Mdm Lee at her shopfront where she has worked since 1970. Photo by Terence C. Fong
Mdm Lee would willingly pass on her skills to the next generation if they were interested. “The person has to be willing and must have the patience to learn, because it is not a simple job. To sharpen a blunt blade takes a lot of time and experience, and there will be a lot failed attempts at the start,” she said of the rigours of the job.
Sadly, Pow Li’s future remains uncertain and the time will come when its shutters will be shut for good. Unless there are people willing to learn the ropes or find a way to revive the trade, the skills and knowledge that took Mdm Lee decades to acquire will eventually vanish altogether.
Written by: Terence C. Fong
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign