Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Old Provision Shop

Shopping is such a civilised activity. I mean if you can stroll, look at goods and bargain a price, chances are that you are in a good place and time not trying to evade an invading horde or being eaten by some wild jungle animal.

Civilisation begets shopping, and shopping fuels civilisation (or bankrupts one!)

Back when I was a kid in Geylang, shopping complexes did not exist. Even Yaohan at Plaza Singapura was not yet built. The nearest thing we got was the Sin Wah Chinese Emporium in Gay World. Its shelves and cabinets gleamed with glass that cast a spell on us kids. And there was aircon. Aircon then was a novel experience. There were only two places near where I lived that had aircon (besides the cinemas, that is): One, the Chinese emporium at Gay World and two, the OCBC branch at Lor 19.

Aircon novelty
As a kid I was ambivalent about air conditioning. The reason being we spent a lot of time outdoors rather than inside playing games. Sweating was the norm. Another reason was each time my mom and I visited the OCBC bank branch at the end of Lor 19, she would worry about getting a headache going from hot weather into cold. "Yau yit yau dong!" she would lament in our Cantonese dialect. So we kept our bank visits short and applied "fung yau" (medicated oil) on our foreheads afterwards. In comparison, our trips to that Chinese emporium was more leisurely as it would be at night. The aircon there seemed a natural extension of the cool evening breeze outside.

Going to that Chinese emporium was both a shopping trip as well as an outing. We would normally buy our clothes, towels and sporting goods there, including underwear. My dad liked wearing those comfortable "ah pek" white tee shirts, and we boys our singlets. (Now I have taken to wearing those ah pek tees as well! Those of the '66666' brand. Very cooling and comfortable. A friend's son in NS wears them too!) My school-going sisters also got their singlet-like "pui sum" undergarments from Sin Wah Emporium.

My mom liked us to wear singlets because they kept our school shirts less soiled from sweat. So instead of changing our shirts everyday, we did it once every midweek. We thus had to take care to keep our school uniforms clean from Monday to Wednesday. For us active boys, that was a tough thing to do, what with games like hentam bola, marbles and the lot. And to make matters worse, my shirts were also starched to make them look extra smart! Needless to say, they were highly uncomfortable to wear.

As for towels, we would often buy those Good Morning white ones in blue trim. We bought our towels from Sin Wah as well as from the pasar malams (i.e. night markets). I remember these towels fraying often. They were better off as tea towels than for the face. Today, many hairdressing salons still use these cheap 'Good Morning' towels in their hair-styling business.

Pasar malams
Of course we kids loved going to the pasar malams. They were noisy and colourful. Mostly, we liked the snacks and drinks. We would have potong ice cream, kacang puteh, steamed peanuts, sern pow (iced tubes) and roasted chestnuts. There were also the hot and cold desserts like cheng tern, red bean soup, kueh tutu, and fake bird's nest drink. This drink was always very cold (it was kept in a metal tub) and so was very enjoyable. There were also snacks like fried banana and bean fritters, muahchee and mak ah tong (malt candy pulled onto a short stick).

Pasar malams in those days were street affairs with goods and merchanise displayed on canvas sheets over ground, like what Sungei Road Market is today. For light, the vendors would use a pump kerosene lamp. This lamp could get glaringly bright, its mesh bulb mesmerising. It's hotness always reminded me of the sun and I often imagined it exploding into a million pieces like in some sci-fi movie. For that reason, I would never stand too close to one.

At the pasar malams, besides towels, my mom would pick out clothes for us kids as well. With the towels, she would complain that they colour-run. Other things we bought were slippers and second-hand records. I remember clearly stalls selling sarongs for men. Even Chinese men wore sarongs in those days. They were more airy than most pants (except perhaps the ah pek drawstring blue-striped cotton ones!)

The night market stalls were also great for buying small items like sewing needles, shaving blades, nail clippers and that particular thing called a tongue scraper. We have been using tongue scrapers since young, so it was quite amusing to see it being employed in toothbrushes only now.

Neighbourhood provision shop
When it came to sundry goods we didn't go to a supermart. Sure, there was Fitzpatricks and Cold Storage, but they were not exactly your neighbourhood NTUC. Besides, there was a provision shop downstairs where we lived and where we could buy almost anything except perhaps temple joss materials. For joss stuff, there were a couple of specialty shops along Geylang Road between Lor 17 and Lor 19. You can still find such shops near Lor 27. I don't know why but there are many temples in Geylang still. Perhaps the many clan associations there kept traditions alive.

The provision shop below my home was run by a couple and their son. I don't recall their shop name now (see below for update!) but their signboard looked positively ancient with carved letters painted in gold. The shop was setup in typical fashion with goods to the side and a little aisle in-between. The proprietor's desk was at the back of the shop. The shelves inside were made of dark wood and were very neat. Most visible were the sacks of rice, beans and flour...and the drink crates, sauce bottles and very large biscuit jars. A rack with brooms and mops stood by the side at the front. In those days, rice was packed in huge 90/180 katie (approx 55/110 kg) gunny sacks. They were offloaded in this form from the tongkangs at Boat Quay into one of the many godowns there. Or they would be ferried to the distributor shops on the backs of lorries straightaway.

Labourers or coolies would use hand-hooks to load and off-load them, often on their backs threading up and down a narrow plank. Parents used to point at the coolies to remind their kids: "If you don't study hard, you'll end up working as a coolie just like them!" The coolies' work was literally back-breaking!

Back then, those long rice-sack laden lorries had wooden sideboards that were painted with the company's name in red and in Chinese. These sideboards had huge black iron hinges and could be let down during loading/unloading. You could still see some of them today despite the many Toyota Hiace trucks.

At the provision shops, these rice sacks were displayed with the top open. A stake or cardboard would be stuck in to show  price and type. A typical shop would have at least four sacks. You simply indicate how much you want to the provision shop proprietor and he would weigh and wrap it up for you. In those days, rice was packed in brown paper bags and secured with plant cord - the very same string that was used when tapowing (packing) Fried Hokkien Mee. This cord was later replaced by raffia string.

Long bar soap
Another thing that was quite unique shopping at a provision shop was that you could buy your preferred length of soap. General purpose soap used to come in a long bar. Simply indicate how much you need and the proprietor will hack it off for you. You could wash clothes with this soap or as my dad liked, wash his greasy hands after fixing his car. I must say it was very effective in removing grease! (The soap was made by Lam Soon and called Labour. And very good for removing stains, it seems. It is still used by dry cleaning shops even today!)

Yes, besides chopped-up soap, almost anything that can be weighed or packed in odd quantities could be bought from a provision shop. Biscuits, coffee, dried shrimp, mushrooms, red/green beans, etc. It was kind of nice to be able to buy stuff that way. You need not overstock your kitchen pantry all the time. But importantly, you can have a conversation with the proprietor. These days, when we enter a mini-mart, it's just Pick, Pay and Leave. When going to a provision shop, the first thing we did was approach the proprietor. We would ask him if he had this or that. He would always serve us with a smile and inquire about our day or what we planned to cook up. He would be pretty savvy with our routine too, like how often you bought your sanitary napkins, cotton wool roll or bottle of cooking oil.

As an errand boy, I would be tasked to buy sanitary napkins for my family. Womenfolk were secretive about having their periods back then. The proprietor would always be discreet and wrap them shy items in newspapers to preserve their anonymity. But then again, that itself can be a tell-tale sign!

Refillable insecticide
Other things we bought from that provision shop were pails, brooms, and scrub brushes. I remember buying  those black or brown bristled brushes often as we usually wore them out pretty quick. There was also that short broom made completely of plant stalks great for sweeping water off floors (a "sapu lidi") Both of these brushes were handy when we had to clean our bathroom and rear spiral staircase. Those staircase steps were pretty rough and if left unattended, algae would grow amok on them. Another thing we could buy in refills was Ridsect insecticide. We didn't have them in spray cans back then; we hand-pumped instead. We could refill our hand-pumps at the provision shop  where the insect-killing liquid was kept in a kerosene tin. The proprietor would use a small metal siphon pump to fill it up for you. Neat, wasn't it? No worries about damaging the ozone layer with harmful fluorocarbons!

Pulley money bin
One mechanical thing I liked in our neighbourhood provision shop was the money "tung" or bin. It's often a recycled Milo tin hung slightly above head height with a pulley system from the ceiling. To put in money just pull it down and release; a counterweight would bring it back up again. It was a very convenient and secure way to keep monies collected from paying customers. Most of the time, the proprietor place this tung near the front of his shop and another one near his desk at the back. Each acted as a counterbalance for the other. Or there would be a counterweight in the centre.

A news central
Many of our neighbours also patronised this provision shop below our home turning it into a kind of 'news central'. It wasn't so much gossip as who/how everyone was getting on. For me, every post-exam time, the proprietor would ask my mom how I fared. I would be shy but my mom was proud of my achievements. I often did well but was a reluctant student. It means I preferred to be doing something else most of the time!

On school days, school kids who were home early but were latched out would sit outside the provision shop on a stool-bench to wait for their moms to return. The proprietor would help keep a safe eye on them.

As a focal point for the community, and the only place with a telephone, this provision shop also became an utility post. Neighbours who didn't have a phone line would use the shop's usually in the event of an emergency. The proprietor didn't mind; it was simply the right thing to do in those days. Before we got our phone, our g-cheong-fun maker neighbour was our phone reference. Peopled called her to get to us. She would shout out up to us from her open shop rear. "Leong soh, din wah!" (Mdm Leong, telephone!) I had also used her phone a couple of times when uncertain about school excursion matters. My mom would at times make me leave 20 cents beside the phone after a call. She said we shouldn't take advantage of people's kindness.

Phones back then were the rotary type; not many homes had them. At other times, this provision shop would help accept mail parcels on our behalf if we weren't home.

An iconic item in this provision shop was its freezer-fridge, you know, the stainless steel double-door sort with see-through glass and a freezer compartment below. The proprietor kept soft drinks, stout and beer, ice and butter in it. The ice were not kept in cube trays but zinc boxes the size of a small shoe box. I was often sent to buy ice when guests dropped by our home and we needed to serve up cold soft drinks (Yay! We kids would celebrate!) Or when my dad needed it for his stout. Once back home the ice would be ice-picked to smaller bits.

More than just a shop
So you see, the old provision shop is more than just a minimart. It is a social place, a friendly place, a place with ties to what went on in the neighbourhood. It's also a place of comfort and security. Provision shops also made deliveries, something we didn't need because we lived upstairs. Our shop below would make deliveries on a grandfather bike or in their blue beat-up Datsun pickup. This type of pickup (a Datsun model 520) remained popular in Singapore for over three decades - used by almost by everyone in any business. Quite an incredible market leader!

Last of its kind
It was with these reflections in mind that I decided to drop by what could jolly well be the last Chinese provision shop in Geylang and Singapore, something I'd learnt from the folks at the Singapore Memory Project (a group run by our National Library). The proprietor of that shop was a Mr Teo. He cut a portly grandfather figure. And as expected, he was very friendly and hospitable. He was very happy that I showed an interest in his shop. Looking around, the shop was indeed old and original. It didn't look like the provision shop below my old home but it was a provision shop nonetheless.

A few things in that shop were reminiscent: 1. The alcove. This feature was quite common back then. It served as an additional storage space and also sleeping quarters for the shop's helpers. The idea of alcoves was quite prevalent back then, even my home had one. We were a big family and the alcove came in handy when we had to share home with my grandma's family.

2. The bamboo ladder. Mr Teo said this kind of ladder needed no nails to make.  I believe him. I've studied Furniture Design before and nail-less and glue-less furniture was something the Chinese were very good at. An old neighbour of mine used a few of these ladders before. They ran a sweets and snacks distribution business and their shop was set up like a warehouse with walls lined to the ceiling with storage cubicles. So, having ladders was a necessity. I've climbed a few in my time and could still remember the straining 'ack-ack' sound it made when someone put weight on it. Bamboo is a smooth, hard, cool and flexible material that was commonly used back then. At home, we had a couple of dual-purpose bamboo chair-stools. When flipped on its side, the chair became a baby-feeding seat. It was bought when my second youngest sister was born in 1965. I believe it was called the Mother & Child chair. A factory in Kallang still makes or imports them.

3. The very large daching. Mr Teo showed me a very large daching his men had used to weigh huge sacks of rice in the past. He said the sacks of rice weighed some 160 kg each... the maximum weight this daching could handle or indicate on its rod. It was about 3-4 feet in length and weighed some 3 kg by itself. But he couldn't recall where his workers had left the weights. Back then, before compression-type weighing scales became common, people at wet markets used dachings all the time. So did the proprietors of Chinese medicine shops. But theirs was smaller and daintier. You don't need a big daching to weigh herbs! Goldsmiths also used them to weigh gold items!

4. The green door. Past Mr Teo's desk, we came upon a pair of green doors. They were old and crinkly from  years of repainting, but it was the color that piqued my interest. The shade was a kind of green that was commonly found on shopfront boardings in those days. The other two but less popular colors were gun-grey and sky-blue. Quite a few shops in Tiong Bahru were painted gun-grey (especially the laundry shops). Red was used mostly on temples and joss material shops.

5. The wire mesh. This wire mesh I saw ran round the top part of Mr Teo's shop, right above the boardings as a kind of ventilation grating. Its design is old-school. I recognised it because shops used to hang stuff from it: bags, lanterns, brushes, hoses, etc. It doubled as a hanging storage space.

6. A liquor cabinet. The glass cupboard behind Mr Teo's desk was lined with many types of liquor. Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, Hennessy, etc. It's like a trophy cabinet and is typical. Bars and restaurants used to buy liquor from the provision shops then. Same with families when deciding to bring a bottle to a relative's wedding.

A very civil experience
The visit to Mr Teo's shop was indeed a trip down memory lane. It made me realise that shopping does fuel civilisation; well, at least shopping at a provision shop does. We were less 'shelf' conscious and more civil. It was what neighbourhood shops were all about then, especially provision shops such as Mr Teo's.

Note: I later learned from a neighbour in Oct 2013 across the street from where I lived that the provision shop was called Tan Hiap Heng. The son was called Ah An. In Cantonese, I recall the shop being called "chan hip seng"). 

Geylang Lor 36 - last old provision shop in the area (2015)
Photo credit: zhaobao (SPH)

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