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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Dec 2, 2014

Memories of Provision Shops in Singapore

The provision shop in the rural areas in 1960s.

The place where I was born in 1948 was located at No. 608A, Havelock Road in Bukit Ho Swee, Singapore.

In this intuitive blog to turn back the clock to 66 years ago when I was born, I now visualize what happened to me as a child.   This is for brain exercise.

From the day I was born until maybe 5 or 6 years old, I could not remember about anything.  My mind was a blank to try to recollect my memories as my baby years. Nothing to think about, no memories to blog.

At that age, I needed only to eat, drink, sleep daily and to grow bigger in a natural and normal way while my mother fed me as a baby in my growing up stage.

It was amazing for me to know that I was once a baby like everyone.   There was nothing special about me as I grew up as a human person.  I was told that I was an active, chubby baby and like to smile with everyone I meet.  Everything was new and curious to me when I came into this world.

It sounds like I was kinda funny but my mother was happy to hear complimentary remarks, such as "this baby is very chubby hor", "this baby likes to smile and laugh a lot", "very friendly, not afraid of strangers" blah, blah .....

When I watch my children and other babies, it must be how I behaved as a baby too.  Every generation recycles from babies to elderlies.

I was not a "cry-baby" who disliked strangers for no reasons. At other times I amuse others by giggling or laughing, I was told.  I am sure I must have cried and wailed as loud as I could to attract the attention of everyone when I was hungry, suffered pain, urinate or to shit.  The crying stopped when job is done.

As a toddler, my mother and my elder sisters would carry me around when I was awake at home or outside the house in the nearby kampong. There was a provision shop next to my birthplace.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore

Unfortunately I do not have any photos of me as a baby in the olden days, long before smartphone cameras to post on Facebook in a popular way.  The above photo is not of me but of about 2-year-old child slung with a sarong at the back of his mother at the provision shop in the way which I was carried around by my mother.

Next to my birthplace was an old grocery shop, a small wooden building in the Bukit Ho Swee kampong where I grew up for about 6 years and moved to another part of Bukit Ho Swee.  My birthplace and the old shop owned by Ah Bee and her father were destroyed in the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961.

 The shop was owned by our neighbors and family friends.It was a family business which Ah Bee, her father and her brother runs the shop for many years.

The shop was conveniently located at Havelock Road and the family lived at the back of the shop.  The kampong folks patronise the shop for decades and their customers became neighbors and friends.

My mother used to buy provision such as rice,  sugar, cooking oil and even salt from Ah Bee's shop.  We were trusted customers and able to supply us on credit without payment in cash for each purchase at the shop.  A small "555" note book was used as a record and produced at the end of the month when my father received his salary.

Other trusted neighbors like us were given a special service on credit terms.  Similar to "credit card system" of today's banks and other financial institutions ..... but no extra interest charged on the purchases.

In a way, I grew up as a child feeding "Lifeguard" condensed milk (not instant milk powder) on credit for many years until I was old enough to feed on porridge and non-solid food.

As my family was poor and I have grown up since young from "hands to mouth", we managed to survive with my father's job as a book-keeper at Kheng Seng Chan, a import export company at Telok Ayer Street.  He was the only breadwinner in the family then.

Without banks so commonly in the early days to provide loan services on credit, neighbors willingly bid tontines to use lump sum funds to tide over hard times for children's school fees to enter the university or to attend courses for their career future; or someone at home need emergency medical treatment in hospital.

I understand that Ah Bee and her father had helped my family and many poor neighbors in the kampong to offer credit for purchases of groceries from their shops and then return their payments from their salaries at a later date.

The "kampong spirit" relationship of the shopkeepers and customers in a tightly-knit community to help one another at times of hardship of the neighbors.  Mutual help, co-operation and honesty is the essence of the "kampong spirit" for a harmonious community.  The community bonding built a trust and loyalty to develop a long term relationship with gratitude.

Please watch the "Old Times - Singapore's Provision Shops" video on YouTube and spot the nostalgic stuff in the shop.

Did you notice the old "Milo" tin with a pulley and a rope used as a "money safe-box" container?

The shops in Singapore over a century were found by Singaporeans, mostly migrants from China, India, Indonesia and other neighboring countries.

To earn a living in the early days, the enterprising businessmen with some savings as capital to open shops to venture for profit as local traders.  For non-farming occupation and activities, the craftsmen with special skills would open shops for various businesses.

The shops at the kampong were few and wide apart. The village womenfolks were busy day and night with household chores - cleaning the house, laundry for the family, cooking the meals for the family, dish-washing after the meals.

We have to remember that electrical appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, electric cookers, electronic ovens, water heaters for shower on cold days, fans or air-conditioners on hot days etc to save time and energy for convenience in every home were either not affordable except the wealthier families or because the invented appliances were not available in the market until in the mid-1980s or 1990s.

Lets take a look at the provision shops in the 1970s in the rural areas archived photos curated on this blog with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore to share our collective memories of traditional type of provision shops in Singapore in the old days.

The blinds with advertisements in front of the shop
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited the kampong shopkeepers in 1970

With urban renewal to develop many parts of Singapore in the 1970s, the kampongs in the rural areas were resettled and replaced by HDB satellite towns and housing estates.

Dwindling business in old estates where many have moved out, or having no one in the family to take over the business, have forced some shops to close down.

The old-fashioned and traditional friendly neighbourhood provision shops were affected by the modernised Singaporean lifestyle.

During the transition of the shopping experience in the old days as the younger generations of Singaporeans prefer to shop at the air-conditioned supermarkets with comfort and convenience.

There are very few traditional "kampong-type" provision shops in the older HDB housing estates stll exist today.  The shop owners were the pioneer generation Singaporeans who inherited from their parents or grandparents.

The younger generation shop owners would modify their business management methods, styles and layout of the shops as supermarket-lookalike for arrangement of the products on shelves, air-conditioned, price-tagging and fixed prices without bargaining by the customers as was common in the olden days.  New ways are now done with electronic devices to computerize the business for efficiency and improved services for customers satisfaction and delivery.

The "kampong-type" provision shop at Teban Gardens, Singapore.



Blogger Lam Chun See said...

James. Do you remember the method of recording the accounts in the 555 booklet using the traditional writing. I described it in pg 58 of my book.

December 2, 2014 at 12:08 PM  

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