When I entered Limpeh Barbershop -- a small gentlemen's barbershop situated in a small corner of an HDB estate in Bedok North -- I saw two barbers meticulously styling the hair of two customers on a barber chair, while two more customers wait for their turn.
But one thing that stood out to me was not the fact that such a hipster concept was brought to the heartlands.
The intriguing thing about this charmingly minute barbershop is that one of the barbers (an industry largely helmed by men, if you didn't know) who was creating a sick fade on a customer's hair was actually a pint-sized lady.
And what's more surprising is that fresh-faced Siti Rafidah isn't just an apprentice or barber at Limpeh.
In fact, the 26-year-old is actually the owner of the barbershop.
Final year project at NAFA
Fondly known as Fidd, her journey into the barbering industry was purely accidental.
Her first taste of the barbering world happened in 2013 when she was still a final-year student pursuing a diploma in graphic design at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).
Fidd was doing some research for her final year project which required her to understand the barbershop scene.
As part of her research, she approached the owner of DeepCuts Barber's and told him that she wanted to learn how to cut hair.
Back then, she never thought of pursuing a career in this industry.
Rather, she just wanted to pick up the skill, mainly for her final year project and partly for the fun of it.
Kept it a secret from her family
She began to grow and hone her passion for barbering for a while, but chose to work as a graphic designer at a design firm upon graduation so that her diploma "wouldn't go to waste".
But that didn't last long, as she quit her job after six months and began to freelance as a barber doing house calls:
"To me, cutting hair for different people was way more interesting than churning out designs every day. You get to hear a different story everyday and you feel like you're a part of their life."
While she was happily pursuing her passion, she also had to keep it a secret from her family.
Whenever she got home late from her haircutting gigs, she would pass it off as doing "extra" design work because she simply didn't want to let her family's perception get in the way of her career.
Fortunately for her, Fidd's family eventually encouraged her to follow her dreams.
"I told my mother first (about becoming a barber) and she accepted it. She actually scolded me and said 'why didn't you tell me earlier?'"
When her family finally found out about her job, she stopped doing house calls and began cutting her loyal customers' hair along the corridor of her HDB home.
"Hensem like your limpeh"
With the blessings of her loyal customers and family, Fidd opened Limpeh Barbershop in 2015.
Limpeh means "my father" in Hokkien, and is also sometimes used by the speaker to refer to himself as a means of self-elevation.
It may sound like a peculiar name for a barbershop, but it dates back to the time when she was working on her final year project to design a logo for a pomade (a scented ointment for dressing the hair).
Fidd decided to use the colloquial and humorous tagline: "Hensem (handsome) like your limpeh".
A woman in a male-dominated industry
Unfortunately, things weren't going so great for her at first.
As a female in a male-dominated industry, she had -- and still has -- naysayers who doubted her skills just because she is a woman.
On bad days, she would get just one to two customers per day, which meant that her finances weren't stable.
"Back then, I often thought to myself, why am I still doing this when I could be working in a design firm and earning a full-time salary?"
It doesn't come as a surprise that she has once thought of giving up on her shop.
However, she took the negative stereotypes in her stride and decided to walk the talk to prove them all wrong.
"It's ok if they think that just because I'm a female, I don't know how to cut hair. I just have to prove myself and let them judge me by my work."
During Limpeh's earlier days, Fidd had to work seven days a week as she was her one and only employee.
Now, she has a total of five apprentices and barbers holding the fort with her.
Despite being the boss of her own barber shop, she prefers to introduce herself as a barber, so customers would recognise her for her skills instead of her title.
Given S$50 tip on a slow day
She fondly remembers one particular customer who had helped her to come to her senses and land right back on her feet again.
It was one of her slower business days and he happened to be her second customer of the day.
Coincidentally, he too was a young entrepreneur and they began to hold a conversation:
"He asked me about my business and I told him that honestly, it wasn't doing really well. He told me not to give up and look forward. What touched me was that back then, my rate was S$15, but he gave me a S$50 tip."
Fortunately, her hard work paid off and she no longer has just a handful of customers per day.
Instead, she sheepishly told us after much prompting that nowadays, customers need to book her a week in advance.
Another reason why she has never given up is, as cliche as it sounds, because of her customers.
Fidd considers herself lucky to have a true-blue base of regular customers who would occasionally pop by with food for the barbers.
"There are days where we don't eat because we simply do not have the time. Then suddenly, they (customers) will come in with food for us. It's really the sweetest thing ever."
Giving back to community
Ever since she started Limpeh, Fidd knew that she wanted to do charity work at least once a year with her fellow barbers.
That's when she joined the Blade Trade Syndicate, a group of barbers in Singapore who aim to use their skills to give back to the society, in 2016.
Over two weekends in 2018, Fidd and the other barbers organised a charity drive to collect traditional Malay clothing to give away to the less fortunate so they too could celebrate Hari Raya like any other family.
Fidd remembers fondly of how an elderly woman was pushing a trolley full of clothes to her shop on one rainy Sunday.
At the end of the charity drive, she was faced with a happy problem -- more than half of her shop was filled with "thousands" of donated clothes:
"We were afraid that we didn't have enough space because clothes were piling up every hour. The positive response wasn't something that I had expected from the community."
[video width="464" height="848" mp4="https://static.mothership.sg/1/2018/10/videolimpeh.mp4"][/video]
But even if the charity drive took some of her time, effort and resources, she's more than happy to do this regularly:
"Even if I do something small like just cutting hair for free for the needy, at least I'm doing something for the community."
Opening a cafe beside the barbershop?
If you had asked Fidd five years ago if she would have ever seen herself as an owner of a barbershop, she would have said no because she has always thought of herself as a rolling stone that gathers no moss.
Now, however, she cannot see herself without her barber shop because she jokingly said:
"I have no choice, I cannot back out already! This is my business."
But she sees herself going nowhere but forward with Limpeh.
For example, in the interest of her growing pool of customers, she hopes to open a cafe alongside her barbershop so that they can grab a bite while waiting for their turn.
But that idea is still in the works.
For now, she hopes her journey will help to encourage more women to venture into a male-dominated industry if they're willing to put all their heart into it:
"We are not lesser than them. We can always learn, accept what we are and don't fall for stereotypes."
Top image by Fasiha Nazren