Monday, 18 February 2013

Hello, old Singapore

Archival footage, documentaries of traditional trades and interviews show Singaporeans slices of the past that are slowly vanishing
By Corrie Tan, The Sunday Times, 17 Feb 2013

In some cases, it was a last chance to see old Singapore. That is what happened in the course of the National Heritage Board's latest project, a social media blitz that includes apps, e-books and documentaries for the public to access. It started in 2011 and more projects will be launched this year.

The board's director for heritage institutions, Mr Alvin Tan, 40, spent many weekends over the past two years driving around Singapore, hunting down traditional businesses and tradesmen.

Sometimes he would find a place and get it filmed, only to find that driving past later, it had been closed, torn down or turned into something else.

For instance, after the board completed its traditional provision shops e-book, it found that one of the stores in Tiong Bahru that was featured had closed. Guan Hin Provision Shop, which opened in 1955, closed because its elderly owners, in their 70s and 80s, wanted to retire. He adds: "That was honestly quite sad and quite disheartening for us but it also, in a sense, sort of strengthened our resolve to quickly document as many of them as we can."

If tracking down these dying trades seemed difficult, getting the elderly tradesmen to put themselves in front of a camera was an even bigger challenge.

Mr Tan says with a chuckle: "When we went to interview stallholders at the wet markets, they were like, 'Where are you from?' We said, from the National Heritage Board, and they said, 'Ah? You're from the Government? What do you want? Are you checking on something?' So there was some resistance."

The team decided that students might help get the stallholders to open up. They partnered schools and educational institutions and trained students in interviewing techniques.

"All the uncles and aunties loved them," he says. The students reminded the stallholders of their grandchildren, and they started reeling off stories.

From the pioneer batch of soldiers doing national service in 1967 to a street barber under his makeshift marquee in Boon Tat Street, the board's apps, e-books and documentaries put the spotlight on corners of Singapore's past that may otherwise be soon forgotten.

One of these old-time tradesmen is Mr Ang Lu Heng, 73, who has been running a provision shop in Rosyth Road for more than 50 years. He is featured in the March 1 episode of the first season of Heritage In Episodes, a series of documentaries on traditional trades and businesses.

The second season is slated to air in April and includes episodes on a knife sharpener and a second- hand bookshop.

The board will launch A Nation Remembers, another new series of documentaries, next month, capturing important milestones in Singapore's post- Independence history such as the first National Day Parade in 1966. These clips will blend archival footage and photographs of events.

All the videos will be uploaded on, the board's YouTube channel. The public can also download e-books about void decks, wet markets and traditional provision shops from Two new e-books, on Hotel New World and traditional trades, will be launched today.

Some of the board's recent social media projects have already been given the thumbs-up by the public.

A member of the Singapore Armed Forces Veterans League wrote to the board after discovering its Battle For Singapore iPhone app, available for free download at Apple's iTunes store. With the help of the app, the league organised a trip for school children from the Kranji War Memorial to the Lim Bo Seng Memorial at the Esplanade.

Retired Colonel Lau Kee Siong, 65, said in his letter of thanks: "Our main thrust at the end of the day was that if we do not defend ourselves, no one would do it for us... a very poignant Total Defence message."

The Battle For Singapore app contains four walking trails that revolve around Singapore's World War II history. The app has been downloaded more than 6,500 times since its introduction last year.

Members of the public can download a walking guide to the Bras Basah/Bugis area. Titled Walk Singapore: Bras Basah.Bugis, it offers information about the monuments, museums and landmarks in the area.

Work on these projects started well before the recent release of the White Paper on Population, which stirred many Singaporeans with fears that many of these slices of old Singapore might vanish and never return.

Young Singaporeans are also less likely to continue their traditional family businesses. For instance, Mr Patrick Goh, 41, inherited his 72-year-old father's rattan retail business but not his skill in crafting rattan products by hand. They are featured in The Last Rattan Weaver, another video documentary.

The board's Mr Tan hopes that through these initiatives, Singaporeans will be inspired to unearth nuggets of heritage. He says: "Singapore's heritage is actually very rich. You can literally find heritage in your neighbourhood. For all you know, you might come across something that's really interesting."

Provision shop is home

Who: Mr Ang Lu Heng, 73, owner of Tee Seng Store, a traditional provision shop

Where: 31 Rosyth Road

Info: Open daily from 8am to 8pm

Tucked away in the residential sprawl just off Yio Chu Kang Road is Tee Seng Store, believed to be the only landed house on mainland Singapore that doubles as a provision shop.

The 6,000 sq ft property, run by Mr Ang Lu Heng, is packed to the brim with everything from detergent and toothpaste to chocolates and beer.

SundayLife! was at the store the morning before Chinese New Year and saw a steady stream of residents dropping in to buy the newspaper or buy a cold drink. Mr Ang says in Mandarin: "It's not always so busy. There's a lot more competition now from supermarkets."

He runs the store with his wife, who is 72. His three children are in completely different jobs after graduating from university. His daughter is a teacher and his two sons are in the IT and aircraft industries.

Mr Ang started working at the shop in 1955, after completing primary school and later inherited the business from his former employer. He and his wife still live in the rear of the one-storey bungalow. A floral curtain next to the cash register separates the bedroom and kitchen from the rest of the shop.

Hardly anything about the shop has changed since the 1950s, except for some wooden shelves that have been replaced because of wear and tear.

Over the years of working in the shop, Mr Ang has picked up a rather impressive number of languages. Apart from Mandarin and Hokkien, he banters easily in English, Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, Thai and Tamil.

He says with a grin: "You will get it if you listen long enough. And if you don't know, just ask. So you learn, bit by bit. I learnt my English here too."

These days, he enjoys the simple pleasures of his job and his semi-retired life, whether catching up with regular customers or having his grandchildren over to play.

"Life in the past was simpler," he says with a hint of wistfulness. "I don't want to retire. I'll just keep doing this until I can't do it anymore."

No market for hand-weaving

Who: Mr Patrick Goh, 41, owner of Hak Sheng & Co, which sells rattan and bamboo products

Where: Block 66 Kallang Bahru, 01-523

Info: Call 6292-0828, 6298-7342 or 6297-2155 or go to

When traditional rattan weaver Goh Kiok Seng, 72, suffered several heart attacks about 20 years ago, his son, Patrick, decided to take over the family business.

The younger Mr Goh has a great passion for cars and had wanted to join the automobile sales industry.

He says: "I have a very close relationship with my dad. I love the automobile business but I wanted to take care of my dad's business."

Mr Goh was doing national service then and he promptly asked the officers to let him book out of camp daily so that he could take care of his father and help with work. He gradually grew to love the job.

His father had started the company in 1969 in Lavender Street and moved to its current Kallang Bahru premises in 1977.

Mr Goh took over the business in 1994. Today, apart from the 800 sq ft shophouse in Kallang Bahru, where his father still lives, the company also owns a 2,400 sq ft warehouse in Tagore Lane.

The company has diversified its products and now imports bamboo products from China, Indonesia and Malaysia. Some of its top-sellers include satay skewers made of bamboo and bamboo leaves used to wrap dumplings. He also brings in bamboo wood for home decor and interior design.

And while his father can weave rattan with ease, like his grandfather, Mr Goh has not picked up that traditional skill. He says: "You really cannot survive if you still weave your products. Because overheads are so high in Singapore.

"It's not that I don't want to learn hand-weaving. But even my dad said, 'If you learn, it's only for the sake of learning. There's no market for this already'."

Mr Goh, it seems, is the only one taking up the family business - his sister works in graphic design. His wife is a procurement officer with IBM and they have a 10-year-old son who occasionally comes to help out at the warehouse, albeit just for fun.

He says with a laugh: "I just hope my son will study hard and he won't need to join my trade."

It was an emotional moment for Mr Goh and his father when the National Heritage Board approached them to be part of its documentary series - partly because the elder Mr Goh is believed to be one of the last few practising rattan weavers in Singapore, now that plastic products are taking over the market.

Mr Goh says: "It really made my dad's day. My sister and I said that his accomplishments were finally being recognised in this film."

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