Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Karung Guni: The Rag and Bone Men

A karung guni cart

The practice of Karung guni is common in Singapore. Its practitioners are a modern form of rag and bone men that visit residences door-to-door. They can either walk along corridors (if that particular HDB estate has a covered carpark) or for certain HDB estates where the carpark is right under the HDB blocks, walk through the carpark downstairs honking a horn. However, around landed properties, they may drive around in a lorry with a horn attached to it, instead of going door-to-door. They make visits in carts, collecting old newspapers and other unwanted items. These will be resold at specialized markets and eventually recycled or reused. "Karung guni" is a Malay phrase for gunny sack, which was used in the past to hold the newspapers. The karung guni men would haul the heavy sacks on their backs as they walked their rounds to do the collection. Today, most of them use a hand truck instead.

These people can be distinguished by their use of horns or (rarely) hand bell and shouts of "karung guni, poh zhua gu sa kor, pai leh-lio, dian si ki..." ("Rag and bone, newspapers and old clothes, spoilt radios, televisions" in Singlish and Hokkien) when making their rounds. Depending on the person, a nominal fee is paid for the quantity of newspapers or unwanted items sold.

The karung guni industry is made highly profitable due to the dense urban nature of Singapore, where hundreds of public housing Housing Development Board apartment units are located in one block, with often a dozen blocks in each housing estate. This gives the karung guni men large access to sources of scrap. There are reported stories of rag-to-riches, karung guni men who have become millionaires just from the karung guni business. Today, however, competition is usually too great.

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After 4pm and over the next two hours before the karung guni man called it a day, elderly cardboard collectors began trickling in from the two roads that lead to the collection point. Bathed in the golden rays of the evening sun, the old folks pushed their cartful of flattened cardboard slowly forward with a doggedness that belied their frail and scrawny appearance.

There were both men and women plying their trade. Their shriveled skin, withered arms and grey hair are telling signs of their advanced age.

Ah Lan, whose husband is an amputee, is 86; auntie Aw, who came all the way from Whampoa to Toa Payoh to sell her cardboard, is 77; another white-haired woman who is all skin and bones, spoke of attending a briefing for the “Pioneer Generation” on the coming Saturday; and there’s 70-something uncle Lee, who is hard of hearing and had to be repeatedly reminded of an approaching lunch event organized by a group of good Samaritans.


On 2 September, the local Shin Min Daily News picked up the story of a Chinatown cardboard collector that first appeared online (watch video).

The 67-year-old woman, who has been collecting cardboard in Chinatown for around 18 years, lamented that more Chinese nationals have been competing with her for discarded cardboard of late, drawing up “turfs” that are off limits to her and even threatened to hit her. These foreign cardboard collectors, according to the old lady, appeared to be less than 60 years old.

Karung gunis who buy cardboard from scavengers said that the foreign cardboard collectors hold other low paying jobs and are moonlighting for extra income. Some may not even have a work permit (“阿嫂投诉: 中国‘加龙古尼’ 抢纸皮还要打我,” Shin Min Daily News, 2 Sep 2014). Clashes between locals and foreigners in the rag-and-bone trade are nothing new.

Karung Guni

Kah-rung goo-nee, ˈkɑrʊŋ ˈɡuniː/ n. [Mal., Ind. karong, karung coarse matting sack, bag, bale (Horne) + Ind. guni (Echols & Shadily, Ind.–Eng.), Jav. goni, guni gunny sack, jute (Horne); or Hind. & Mahratti गोन् gōn, गोनी gōnī < Skt. गोनी gōnī a sack, torn or ragged clothes (Monier-Williams); > Eng. gunny a coarse material used chiefly for sacking and made from the fibres of jute or (in some parts) from sunn-hemp; a sack of this material] Also karang guni. Junk, trash, rag-and-bone items.

The karang guni or rag-and-bone items incur my mother’s wrath. Singapore’s karung guni folk are the unsung heroes [title].. The sight of an old lady struggling to push her load of recyclable material elicits sympathy among passers-by. I see the old lady as a karung guni or rag-and-bone trader. She plies a trade that many shun. She and her karung guni trade perform some important functions in society. The karung guni folk fill an environmental niche. Since the early days, they have been the country’s recycling backbone. Without their backbreaking toil to balance an increasingly affluent throwaway society, we would be incinerating and land-filling a lot more rubbish. Our karung guni folk work not for the sake of recycling. Their motivation is to earn a decent living by selling the recyclables. The work is very hard and the income can be irregular, but the buying and selling of used products afford the worker a livelihood. Many younger Singaporeans squirm at the thought of picking up other peoples’ discards and pushing a trolley load through a busy street.

The karung guni is therefore an unrecognised group of steely entrepreneurs. As society develops and its people lead increasingly structured lives, the karung guni may one day become just another old story. Informal recycling by the rag-and-bone folk is progressively replaced by institutionalised recycling programmes. Although the aim of resource conservation remains unchanged, which is good, I am deeply saddened by the absence of the economic and social significance epitomised by our karung guni men and women.

Joint govt effort to better unclutter lives of hoarders

Several government agencies have come together to deal more effectively with the growing problem of elderly people who clutter their flats with numerous items they hoard.

They collect cardboard boxes, plastic bags, canned food, newspapers and umbrellas and, in the worst cases, stack them up from floor to ceiling, making it impossible to move around freely inside their flat.

The Sunday Times understands that those involved in the new task force, led by the Ministry of National Development, are the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Social and Family Development, the police, the Housing Board (HDB), Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), National Environment Agency (NEA) and People's Association.

Hoarders: They can't bring themselves to throw stuff away
Common problem in small rental flats MPs say issue hard to eradicate, with neighbours unaware as hoarders pose no disturbances

GETTING inside Mr Oh Chuan Ho's one-room rental home (right) in Marsiling Road is a real squeeze. The 33 sq m space is packed with five years' worth of junk.

On the right are bags, whose contents he is not even aware of as they belong to his partner. Stacked in the home are brochures, used containers, and even an empty hamster cage. Mr Oh, 55, has lived with his 71-year-old partner in the flat for the past 13 years.

But it was only about five years ago that, to his discomfort, she started collecting everything that people gave her.

No jump in sales for karung guni men
Photo caption: Mr Lim Teck Seng, a rag-and-bone man, standing atop a pile of cardboard boxes that he collected. More foreign workers have been muscling into the trade here. -- ST PHOTO: SAMUEL HE

THE spring cleaning done ahead of the Chinese New Year used to mean good pickings for the rag-and-bone man. But they have fallen on hard times as foreign workers scavenging for throwaways are muscling in on their turf - going door to door, paying residents for items such as newspapers and electronics, which they resell to second-hand dealers.

Some of these foreigners hold day jobs here and moonlight as rag-and-bone men, but Indonesians, for example, have also been known to come here on social visit passes to do such work. Local rag-and-bone men such as Poh Tian Cai, 75, have had their incomes reduced as a result. For the past 30 years, he has plied his trade in Katong, using his bicycle outfitted with a carriage in front to collect recyclables, but times have become harder in the past two years.

'I am old now and cannot move as fast. Some nights, I see young men with baskets on their bicycles - about 50 of them a week - taking my cardboard boxes and stealing my rice bowl,' he said.

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25 years a cardboard collector

tired - cardboard collector - resting - public

She works 16 to 17 hours a day and earns barely $10. At night, she sleeps on cardboard under a carpark ramp.

Passers-by would think she is single, lonely, poor and homeless. But in reality, Madam Ye, who is in her 70s, has a husband, four children, a grandchild and a HDB flat in Sembawang.

Why does she collect cardboard and sleep in a carpark then? She told Youth.SG in Mandarin: "This is how I get by. I don't want to be a burden to people, I don't want to be waiting for my children's next pay cheque or take for granted that they will give me an allowance."

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When Cardboard Is Gold

I keep that $2 note in my wallet's coin compartment. This way, I'll not spend it by accident

Sure, the amount is small change by today's standards. Yet, this $2 note holds special meaning for me.

It was earned through sweat, and very nearly tears, and it reminds me of how, for some people, money is earned with much difficulty.

Toiling in the sun, picking up things that people discard, that is how they make a living.

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Have you ever Spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?

This is where the road ends for the collectors. They have been coming here for years. The middle man will collect, weigh and pay the collectors. And then a disposal truck would come and ferry the boxes away

While I often chat with them when I meet them, I haven't gone so far up the value chain to know the middle man and the whole set-up. I was most happy to join a group of young Singaporeans from Youth Corp on a project they initiated - to get first hand insight into the lives of elderly cardboard collectors: what motivated them to do what they do; and the challenges they face. The youngsters devoted their weekends over a 2-month period to befriend the cardboard aunties and uncles on the streets in the Jalan Besar area, and spent time talking to them to understand what they are going through in life.

They shared with me that they were surprised by their own findings! The normal perception that all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially is not really true. There will be some who do this as their main source of income. Some do so to supplement what they have. Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home. They do this to remain independent, so that they can have dignity and not have to ask their families for help.

For members of the public, the simplest thing that one can do for these people is to talk to them to understand them. More often than not, people make judgements without finding out the facts of the matter, in this instance, the stigma surrounding cardboard collectors. But of course, for those who genuinely need financial help because they are unable to find other jobs to supplement their income from cardboard collecting, the government will do what it can to help these people. If you know of individuals who need help, do let us know.

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Collecting Cardboards from "a form of exercise" to "protecting our environment"

Saw 70 year old Mdm Lim from Blk 235 struggling to move 32kg of old newspaper for recycling. Good thing we ran into her and helped her with the load. Found out that with her bad knees and unsteady gait, she actually fell and had a slight bruise on her forehead just before we came across her. Fortunately she wasn't severely injured. Asked why she expended so much efforts to recycle these items, she insisted she wanted to do her part "to protect our environment." Her single-mindedness towards a worthy cause is deserving of a salute! Advised her to not over exert and to let us know in future when she needed help with these items. Thank you, Mdm Lim, for being an inspiration and a role model!

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Helping Elderly Cardboard Collectors in Singapore
Have you ever Spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?
Hazards being a Cardboard Picker
Collecting Cardboards "form of exercise" & "protecting our environment"
When Cardboard Is Gold
Buskers, Tissue Paper Peddlers, & Street Walkers
Karung Guni: The Rag and Bone Men
'Tissue and Cardboard' Sellers
Plight Of The Tissue Peddlers
Buskers, TissuePaper Peddlers, & StreetWalkers
Golden Year For The Elderlies
Support for the Needy and Elderly
1,000 street homeless found in Singapore
The Surprising Truth About The Homeless In Singapore
The Poor & Homeless in Singapore
Tent Village: Singapore’s nomad families