To most youngsters, Chinese brush and ink are merely tools for writing the Chinese character 'fu'(which means prosperity),which are usually pasted upside down during the Chinese New Year festival season.
However, they do not know that these brushes, made of bamboo and animal hair, together with the jet black Chinese ink, have a long history of about five thousand years ago. These brushes has also helped many early immigrants of Singapore to express their homesickness.
Most of the early immigrants who patronize the letter writer are females, many of whom were amahs. Most of them were semi-literate and some were even illiterate.Therefore, they need the service of the letter men to let their families know how they were getting on and to find out how things were in their family.
Besides writing letters, the letter writer also wrote spring couplets, invitation cards, leases, as well as marriage certificates.
In the 1970s, more and more people start to realize that education is important.More parents start sending their children to school.As more people recieving education and the society progresses, less and less people patronize the letter writer.
83 year-old Mr Yee Kan Meng who came from Xin Hui, Guangdong, was a letter writer.Mr Yee's father passed away when he was four. Mr Yee was brought up his grandfather.After completing secondary education, Mr Yee worked for a bank. However, the bank closed down in 1930s. Soon after, Sino-Japanese War broke out so Mr Yee came to Nanyang(Singapore) in 1936. Initially, he do clerical jobs. When war came to an end, Yee set up a stall and start writing letters.
"I charge one dollar for writing a letter." Mr Yee worked daily from early morning till 8 o'clock at night. His monthly income was about $250 (equivalent to S$1000-S$2000 nowadays). Mr Yee operated his stall in North Bridge Road for 3 years before he moved to Spring Street where he spent more than 20 years. Since Spring Street was demolished, Mr Yee moved to Sago Street.
"After I moved to Sago Street, business was bad. The demand of domestic letters went down 60 to 70 percent. This is because those from China are already old and so they correspond less. On the contrary, letters about his customers' plans of travelling to China to visit relatives are on the increase."
Mr Yee said that his business is at its peak during the Chinese New Year season, while the golden age of this trade was the period just after the end of World War 2. "Everybody was eager to send letters home to let their families know that they were safe and sound."
Nowadays, calligraphy has become a form of recreation for people. In the future, 'letter men' may well just a historical term.