Day in a Life: Roti Man

27 February 2017

Once a common sight in residential areas, the roti man is a Malaysian cultural icon, but the threat of small profit margins and changing food demands push the profession further into obscurity. We follow one roti man on his typical day.

There’s nothing quite as nostalgic as the sound of a roti man’s horn, the tooting evoking memories of a childhood most Malaysians share: rushing out to flag down the roti man, loose change jingling in your pocket as you excitedly make your way to the motorbike.

The roti man is a seller who goes around the neighbourhood on a motorbike selling a variety of packaged breads and snacks, all bundled and dangling (almost haphazardly) around the bike. It was a common sight 20 to 30 years ago, where almost everyone bought their bread loaves from the roti man, but these days, not so much. Urbanisation and gentrification have diminished the role, with supermarkets and hypermarkets offering a wider selection at lower prices.

Nazre has been a roti man for five to six years now. Although he initially had some reservations about the job, Nazre tells us he really enjoys being the neighbourhood roti man, despite the extremely long hours and harsh Malaysian climate. He’s also grateful for all his regular customers, many of whom he calls friends. When we meet Nazre, we observe him chatting and laughing with his customers, even finding the time to ask one about her new job.

“Before I started working as a roti man, I never expected people to be so warm and welcoming. Everyone is so nice and friendly. That’s the thing that surprised me the most about this job,” Nazre shares.

A typical day for a roti man is long and gruelling. It starts at 5am with the collection of the days’ stock before each item is then meticulously arranged around the bike. Nazre tells us he would have to be on his route by 6.30am, early enough to catch the morning crowd – ranging from parents and school children to factory and office workers ­– as they start their day. Nazre takes a lunch break at around noon, restocks if he needs to, and goes back on the route by 3pm. The day usually ends at 10pm, sometimes later. Most roti men we speak to tell us they work seven days a week, 16 hours a day. The heat and rain are almost always a challenge for them.

“It’s a tough job. But when I see the happy faces of children after buying their favourite toy or snack, it brings me joy. It’s the people that keeps me on this bike,” says Nazre.

The plight of the roti man has become a common narrative in a developing country like Malaysia ­– in with the new, out with the old. Small profit margins coupled with the increasing presence of established hypermarkets, all working against them. On a good day, a roti man can make about RM50, but with a seasonal demand that is heavily affected by school holidays and festive seasons, their income is highly volatile. Moreover, the changing food demands of the Malaysian public, which went from a simple red bean- or coconut-filled bun to more sophisticated pastries, have left the role of the roti man in a precarious position.

Still, the roti man’s horn toots on.

Text and photos by Chris Lim
Video by Samuel Lam

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