Long long ago in Singapore, as one can see as well in many parts of the world, it was more a means of survival than recycling. But indeed, it was and is also recycling. Amongst many things that could be recycled, one is the cardboards used for cardboard boxes which are growing exponentially. To most shops, after taking out the contents from the boxes, they are of no use. And so they throw them away.
In the old days, it was cardboards, newspapers, magazines and any paper products that one could rummage from the garbage bins to put them together and sell to agents who bought them and resell them to the recycling companies. These people, mostly those who were illiterate and might not have the means to carry out normal work, could earn a small income using their strength and efforts as their investment. And there were also the karang-guni men who were more entrepreneur who would go from house to house crying out loudly (could well be one of the best baritone or bass!) "Kaaarrraaaang Guuu ni", followed by more offerings like they are buying all kinds of things from newspaper to spoilt TVs. They all knew where to resell what they bought from these households at a pittance. For us kids, we would be thrilled to be able to sell our read newspapers at 10 cents per kati. Somehow, the Chinese papers were bought at cheaper rate than the English papers. Almost anything can be sold, and so, we didn't throw them away.
Besides, certain bottles could be sold too. There were different prices for coloured bottles and no-coloured bottles. From the friendly neighbourhood sundry shop (we call Ket-Ai in Hokkien), they would offer something like 5 cents for a beer bottle returned. I still saw this practice in Europe some years ago. I have not come across this in Singapore these days. Karang-guni men are also becoming more selective and do not want to carry such heavy stuff that they could probably sell for a small amount. Interestingly, these days, there are people who want to buy very old liquor, of which we might have considered as too old to consume.
There are also active recycling movements which work with the big recycling companies to go from door to door to collect recyclable materials for free - either ways. To the residents these days, it was great for anyone to pick up from their doorsteps a particular day each week. To the volunteers or recycling companies, this is free and so, they probably have more to profit from. But what many might not know is that there are still people who survive through collecting such items to sell to the recycling company, bringing back some money to feed the family.
While it is rare these days, there still are such people who probably only know this trade and it keeps them alive, perhaps, on top of any aid that they might receive. In the old days, these people, doing such work could raise a family. I met an old man who would collect what was thrown away within the block of flats and patiently cart them to sell. Through such efforts he has raised his family. One day, he even proudly told me that he had a son who was doing his PhD. Alas, after I met him once with a domestic help after he had suffered a stroke (probably his children were already working and taking care of him, but then, old habits die hard), I never saw him again.
There was also another man, who probably is now in his late 70s or 80s, who still carry on this "trade". In his typical blue shirt and pants (like those one could remember seeing in the 50s of the Tng-Sua (Tang Shan) Ah Pek) and his hat (which was fashionable in the 50s and almost gone by now), he would walked the corridors of the flats to pick up what was thrown away. A few of us would offer him to come and collect our read newspapers. He was so grateful that each them he meets me, his first words would be "Kamsiah". And then, the typical Chinese greetings of yesteryears, "Jia Ba Buay?" (Have you eaten enough?). I still meet him in the lift, but his movements have been somewhat slow these days. He has become almost deaf. A full suntanned man - the skin showed - this man has seen the growing part of Singapore.
Today, there is another interesting trend in such "recycling". Collecting used cans from can-drinks became another "business". One could see locals and foreigners involved too. And another interesting demands seem to be the pulling tab of the cans. It is said that these tabs could be melted to make artificial limbs.
In Chinatown where there are various retail businesses, where the products come in cardboard boxes, the amount of such boxes being thrown away is big. There was a silent symbiosis being evolved where a few old men (and there was an old lady too, but I have not seen her for months) would wait patiently for the shops to throw the boxes away. You have thought that the shopkeepers would make a mess out of the common corridors. No, these old men would patiently clear whatever rubbish there were (such as plastic sheets) and put them into a rubbish bin, and then, flatten these boxes. One by one they worked. On a good day, there were loads. All neatly arranged, tied and packed. Waiting for the next morning to be carted to the "centre" somewhere in Chinatown to be sold.
As in business, there could be pilferage when the goods are left alone. And so, many months ago, I would find this old lady (who used to mumble to herself as she packed the cardboards) sleeping on the pile of cardboards. Each time, a quick thought would flash across my mind if she was still alive. I watched for sign of live, and then, walked on.
From time to time, one would see the old men or ladies pushing heavy make-shift carts to carry their collections to the "centre". Once I found one old lady who was fuming mad and scolding this young lady who was working in a pub. That old lady tried her best to speak in Cantonese with Mandarin while the young lady replied in Mandarin that the van that block her way (from a backlane) was not from her pub. A few of us passer-by tried to help but it did not bring her temper down. She kept complaing, "I need to bring this to the place and I have not had my meal!" It was already 1pm. And so, the few of us tried to check out the shops around there who had parked the van there, and well, illegally too. Finally, another young lady appeared and was apologising profusely in English. Ah, nothing is going to please this old lady until her cart could move on. Two of us helped her to push up a slight hump onto the road. The load on her cart was very heavy!
Muttering to herself, she moved painfully on. We stood, looked, probably sighing within ourselves, and parted.