KUALA LUMPUR : Sparks flew as Yip Yoke Lin, 74, held the Chinese chef knife she was sharpening at a 30-degree angle off the bench grinder.
After running the blade a few times with the grinder, she tested her work by gingerly running her thumb along the edge.
“This is the ‘rough’ portion. Once it’s satisfactory, then I’ll put it on the workbench and whet the blade with those sharpening stones,” she said.
Her elder sister, Yip Ah Moy, 84, bent from age, was already doing the same thing with another customer’s knife, drawing the blade across the stone in smooth motions from the handle end of the blade to the tip.
Occasionally, Yip Ah Moy would stop and dip her sharpening stone in a bucket of water placed next to her bench to wash away the swarf (waste material) and re-lubricate her stone.
In the background, trendy music played in the cafes and open-concept food court at REXKL’s ground floor, a former cinema turned arts and culture hub along Jalan Sultan in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown area.
Occasionally, curious visitors would wander over to the Yip sisters’ corner to watch them work, while some dropped by to hand over one or a few kitchen knives for them to sharpen.
STARTING OUT BY THE ROADSIDE
The tool sharpening business was started by the sisters’ father back in the late 1940s in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, along Petaling Street.
In fact, Yip Ah Moy recalled that her father first set up shop in front of the Fung Wong Chinese confectionery maker, a Petaling Street institution which has lasted for four generations.
Yip Ah Moy said the business had always been based around the Petaling Street area, and they recently moved into REXKL when the new proprietors allowed them a small space to continue their craft.
They also operate out of a morning market in Cheras.
“Our customers did not just come from the nearby shops, but also from other parts of the town looking for us to sharpen their tools,” she said.
Some were running food businesses, while others were tailors and cobblers.
“Even people who cut the smoked rubber sheets last time, they’d come to look for us as well,” said Yip Yoke Lin.
Learning the craft was a matter of trial and error for the sisters.
“We learned from our father,” said Yip Ah Moy, adding that she began sharpening knives alongside their late father in her late teens.
“How did we learn? He would pass us a simple knife to sharpen. After that, he would test how well we had sharpened the blade by cutting some items.”
“If it didn’t cut well, or we had to push to cut through, like kitchen knives, then that means we didn’t sharpen it properly,” Yip Ah Moy added.
The Yips’ work set-up is simple – the bench grinder and a workbench each, where a small plank is propped at a slanted angle, with a small catch to hold the sharpening stone in place.
Each sister has her own work process.
Yip Ah Moy prefers to immerse her sharpening stones in the water to lubricate them and wash off the swarf, while Yip Yoke Lin scoops up water with her hand and drips it over the blade she is polishing every once in a while.
“The electric bench grinder is the newest piece of equipment. We also used bench grinders in the past, but those were pedal-powered which you had to sit on,” Yip Yoke Lin said.
BUSINESS IS NEVER CERTAIN
Feast or famine would be the appropriate description for the Yips’ sharpening business.
“Business is never certain. Sometimes, we can sit the whole day and get no customers. And then you have days like today, we’ve been working non-stop since we opened up at 2pm,” she said.
At one point, Yip Ah Moy finally took a break from work to tuck into her lunch – a packet of chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls), with her sister helping to pour the packet of chilli sauce all over the dish.
After completing an order, each knife would be individually wrapped in newspaper and either lady would write the job’s price with a marker.
“Prices depend on the size of the knives or the tool like scissors. We can do knives from RM10 (US$2.43) to RM15, especially for the bigger, heavier knives.
“Scissors, too, up to RM15 for the large ones which tailors use,” she said.
While there were now fewer people making or ordering tailor-made clothes, Yip Yoke Lin said weeks in the run-up to the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and Hari Raya Aidilfitri were busy for them.
“Many tailors are sending their scissors for sharpening as our Malay compatriots get ready for the fasting month and Hari Raya after,” she said.
While the sign on one pillar states that the Yip sisters work at REXKL on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, they usually come to their Jalan Sultan spot whenever there is demand for their services.
“Otherwise, we usually work at the morning market in Cheras, and whenever people call us up because they have implements to sharpen,” Yip Yoke Lin said.
CHILDREN NOT KEEN TO TAKE OVER
The two ladies said their children did not take up the family business, and they understood their choice.
“It’s a pity, but you can’t raise a family with a spouse and two children on the money you earn from this line. It’s a sunset job.”
“For us, we do it to keep busy, and also to earn our spending money,” Yip Yoke Lin explained.
They also had to compete with the home sharpening kits.
“Those work well enough if you just need a knife to prepare your ingredients, so the owners don’t need to look for someone to sharpen their knives,” Yip Ah Moy remarked.
“Then at the same time, there are also people who just buy new knives after their current one goes dull!” she laughed.
“But actually, there are still people who do this for a living, younger than us, but they work on higher-end, more expensive blades, so the fees are also much higher,” the younger Yip sister added.