Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Straits Times : The business of 'keeping provision shops alive'

NHB project to document heartland culture will cover 18 old-style shops

The Straits Times
8 September 2011
By Kezia Toh
Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru, which opened in 1955, is run by Madam Tan and her husband. They used to have 100 customers a day in the 1980s, but their business has halved. -- PHOTO: HAN FEI
EIGHT owners of traditional provision shops recently had an unusual request from 'customers' - an interview.

The request came from staff of a research firm appointed by the National Heritage Board (NHB), which is documenting this slice of Singaporean life as part of its Community Heritage Series.

The project will cover 18 old-style provision shops, including one established in the late 1920s in Joo Chiat Road and another in the 1930s in Changi Road.

The researchers will also dig into the archives and old newspaper reports, and use information from the Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association.

Said Mr Alvin Tan, director of heritage institutions and industry development at NHB: 'We want to document our heartland heritage for the future generation of Singaporeans who may not be familiar with this, so that they can relate when their parents share memories from the past.'

Modern-day supermarkets, convenience stores and minimarts are threatening to bring down the shutters on the old operators. One telling fact - the Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association now has fewer than 150 members, compared with about 1,200 in the 1970s.

Its secretary Tan Bock Heng, 72, used to run a provision shop in Jalan Sultan, but closed it in 1995 when the landlord took over the space.

He said: 'After my generation, traditional provision shops will disappear and we know it. Even if we were to promote ourselves to draw customers, where would we get the funds to do that?'

At one old-time outlet, Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru, owner Ng Heng Lin, 82, said he and his wife Tan Koy Eng, 74, will continue as long as they can.

They had 100 customers a day in the 1980s, but business has halved since then.

Madam Tan noted that while customers used to buy cans of dried food by the box, they now opt for just a few cans.

Their three children, all university graduates, do not want to take over the shop, which opened in 1955.

NHB plans to curate an exhibition based on the research findings, photographs and collectibles donated by shop owners and the association. The exhibition will be held in community clubs, libraries and schools in December.

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