Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Straits Times : Keeping alive a vanishing trade

National Heritage Board exhibition to showcase 18 old-style provision shops

The Straits Times
11 September 2011
By Kezia Toh

Mr Goh Wee at his provision shop Hup Seng in Tiong Bahru. He says his customers buy fewer things now than before - a bottle of soft drink, compared with sacks of rice and milk powder in the past. -- ST PHOTO: TERRENCE LIM

They were a fixture in the old days: pulley tins that provision shop owners used to keep spare change.

These days, however, cash is usually kept under lock and key - a sign of the changing times.

Mr T.T. Lin from Tian Kee provision shop in Dakota Crescent near Mountbatten is one of those who have taken this precaution.

'As more people move in and the usual crowd disappears, the level of trust between neighbours goes down, which is why we need to guard against thieves,' he said.

The 80-year-old has been running his provision store in the sleepy neighbourhood for more than 50 years.

Changes such as these, along with the dwindling number of such neighbourhood shops that were once a familiar sight in any residential landscape, spurred the National Heritage Board (NHB) to embark on a project to document them.

Part of the board's Community Heritage Series, which captures important elements of heartland heritage, the research project will cover 18 old-style provision shops.

They include one established in the late 1920s in Joo Chiat Road and another in the 1930s in Changi Road.

These 18 were chosen because they have remained relatively unchanged over the years.

The project aims to capture this vanishing trade for the next generation of Singaporeans. A travelling exhibition based on archive materials and newspaper reports and featuring photographs and collectibles will go to community clubs, libraries and schools in December.

The Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association now has fewer than 150 members, compared with about 1,200 in the 1970s.

Customers have deserted them for supermarket chains, convenience stores and minimarts, which offer a greater variety of products and comfort shopping in an air- conditioned environment.

Those who continue to patronise the provision shops buy fewer things, said shop owners.

Said Mr Goh Wee, owner of Hup Seng provision shop in Tiong Bahru: 'Even if I have 100 customers a day, so what? They used to buy sacks of rice and milk powder, but these days, they come in just for a bottle of soft drink. Small things.'

But some still doggedly persist in running their business.

Mr Lin is barely able to cover the cost of his rented space, which is about $1,000 a month. His four children - in their 40s and 50s - also tell him not to labour any more.

But for him, this is not hard work. 'For me, a happy retirement is like this, where I can chat with my neighbours when they come to the store, so that I don't feel lonely,' he said.

Cultural studies academic Liew Kai Khiun, also a committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society, praised NHB's move, but said that it would not help traditional provision shops stay relevant.

'Devoid of their historical functions and contexts, these shops would merely be reduced to tourist and educational exhibits of a bygone era.'

He added that it is more about the spirit of these shops - which foster neighbourliness and community, as compared to more impersonal retail outlets that are homogenising the social landscape.

He has suggested that the Government offer tax incentives and cheaper rent to these shops in the heartland, to keep the culture going.

Former president of the Singapore Heritage Society Kevin Tan is keen for the exhibition to be a family event.

He said: 'Provision shops are a part of community life because it is in the neighbourhood, so families should get together and go, instead of it being a school excursion.'

And most of the time, people treasure only what is disappearing.

'It is like with the KTM railway's closure - people become curious because that sense of loss is more immediate,' he said.


'This trade is dying out'

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

Time seems to have stood still at Guan Hin provision shop in Tiong Bahru.

Cans of food line the floor-to-ceiling wall shelves with sliding glass doors. A vintage Smith electric clock and even a non-working rotary Bakelite telephone sit in a corner of the 56-year-old store.

Owners Ng Heng Lin, 82, and his wife Tan Koy Eng, 74, have seen business slow to a trickle in recent years.

While they used to have 100 customers a day in the 1980s, business has since halved. They can still cover the cost of running the business, since they own the shop space.

So the pair are still clinging on to the shop and do not mind the long hours - the store is open daily from the late afternoon to the wee hours of the morning.

Madam Tan said: 'I will work for as long as I am able to, because staying at home just to eat and sleep is much worse.'

Keeping active is a priority for both, that is why they enjoy the dynamic nature of buying and selling.

But the couple are resigned to the shop shutting its doors for good once they retire. Their three children are university graduates and do not wish to take over.

'I know that young people do not want to take this up because they would want to have their own professional careers, which is why this trade is dying out.'

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