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Chapter closes for 77-year-old shop

Customers of Kaiming Enterprises, which has been selling stationery since 1939, are sad to see the store go at the end of the month

In no-nonsense Bras Basah Complex, home to old-school Chinese bookstores and printing shops patronised by students from nearby art schools, one of its oldest tenants is calling it a day.

The stalwart is located on the third floor of the mall, with a sign stretched across its shopfront in English characters: "Kaiming Enterprises", which means "to enlighten" in Chinese.

Inside the 800 sq ft space, haphazard wooden boxes display the shop's wares - nostalgic stationery items that evoke a simpler, decidedly non-digital age.

There are vintage items such as ink erasers and yellow wooden rulers as well as quaint, defunct relics such as a telephone index (a fancy address book popular in the 1980s that you flip to different alphabetical tabs by pressing a button).

When The Sunday Times visited, there was also a fingerprint ink set, which banks used in the past for documentation purposes.

  • Stationery shops with long history

  • LONG HWEE STORE

    Address: 01-351 Block 162, Mei Ling Street

    Tel: 6474-6061

    Opened in 1969, it sells vintage items such as typewriter correction paper, tape writers and refill ink for stamp pads.

    In recent years, it has also stocked newer items such as colourful files, soft toys and fashion accessories.

    It is run by Madam Ker Mei Lian, 69, who lives in the same block. She says: "It's hard to make money from my business. I'm doing it mainly to pass the time."

    Although she has stopped ordering items that do not sell well, she keeps unsold stock in the shop.

    "You never know," she says. "Someone might still want to buy them."

    Her shop sees about 50 customers daily.

    "Few people use stationery now. Most people use computers and mobile phones."

    She plans to retire in two years and will close the shop then.

    "To be honest, there is no other route for me to go. For now, I just don't want to let go of this shop because I have been running it for so long."


    USC SOLUTIONS

    Address: 02-03 Henderson Industrial Park, 203A Henderson Road

    Tel: 6278-3110

    The company was started in 1958 by the late Mr M.Y. Moochhala, a businessman from India, under the name, United Stationery.

    It sold pens, paper, files, as well as architectural stationery such as specialised rulers and drafting supplies.

    In 2000, its business model was revamped because its owners felt traditional stationery was becoming obsolete.

    A year later, the company was rebranded under its current name.

    It now sells machines such as large-format printers, scanners and digital cutters, capable of creating giant banners and stickers.

    It has an 80 per cent market share in outdoor wide-format graphics printing in Singapore.

    It still sells office equipment and paper, but these account for only five per cent of its business.

    The company is headed by Mr Moochhala's son, Mr A.M. Moochhala, 45.


    EVERGREEN STATIONERY

    This company has nine outlets - in One Raffles Place, Great World City, Suntec City Mall, Square 2, Parkway Parade, Changi City Point, Paya Lebar Square, Bukit Merah and Galaxis @ One North.

    Registered in 1973, the chain employs more than 50 people and sells items such as files, ink cartridges, labelling products and office equipment.

    In 2008, it started selling its products online and its Web business has seen double-digit growth every year.

    Says Mr Lim Phek Jin, 50, its head of retail: "Our consumers' preference and buying habits have changed. Many now enjoy the convenience of online shopping because this is something they can do at any time.

    "Our prices online are generally lower than those in our physical stores because our online products are stored in a warehouse, where the rent is cheaper."

    Last year, the company started boosting its presence on mobile platforms such as messaging app WeChat.

Kaiming has been around for 77 years and is believed to be one of the oldest stationery shops in Singapore.

Because of dwindling business and an elderly owner who wants to retire, its rusted metal grilles will be shuttered for good at the end of the month.

Although its decline comes as no surprise - it mirrors the phasing out of traditional stationery supplies in an increasingly paperless age - the news is greeted with sadness by regular customers.

One of them is accountant Kelly Tan, 35, who buys items such as rulers, staplers and ring files when she visits the store once every few months. She has been patronising the shop for the past five years.

"The shop has a lot of character and many of the items cannot be found elsewhere," she says. "But I am also glad that the owner is retiring and can finally take a break."

Kaiming's remaining stock is being sold at up to half price. Only 20 per cent of its inventory is left. Unsold items will be donated to charity.

The shop's last day of operation is Feb 29. According to its Facebook page, it is open from 11am to 5pm (Monday to Friday) and from 11am to 2pm on Saturday.

Kaiming's managing director is Mr David Kwok, who is in his 70s. The shop was started by his father in 1939 in a shophouse in Cross Street, where China Square Central now stands.

The late Mr Kwok Tien Pui was a secondary school mathematics teacher who wanted the shop to serve students in the area.

The shop sold stationery - some were created in-house, while others were sourced from other suppliers - as well as reference books in Chinese.

But just before the Japanese Occupation in 1942, the family destroyed most of the books for fear of being labelled communists or anti-Japanese.

The camera-shy Mr Kwok Jr recalls: "My father said the books were burnt in a bonfire in the back lane behind the shop. It was a painful decision, but he was scared that if the Japanese soldiers marked us, life would be difficult."

He is the fourth of six children. When he was in his teens, he hung out at the shop with his siblings, doing his homework and helping out.

For example, he divided paste glue - which was delivered to the shop in big drums - into smaller bottles. He also assembled geometry sets, comprising set squares, rulers and technical drawing instruments.

In the 1980s, the shop was demolished to make way for redevelopment. It then moved to its current premises at Bras Basah Complex.

In its heyday, it employed nine shop assistantsand supplied stationery to other shops in Singapore and Malaysia. It also had a factory in Geylang that assembled its own files for sale.

Mr Kwok, who has completed tertiary education, took over the business when his father retired in 1983.

He said: "Even though business was good, my siblings were not interested because of the long hours. I thought it would be a waste to give up on my father's shop."

However, in the 1990s, demand for its stationery started declining. He brought in newer products, he says, but they did not sell well.

"If a product is not popular, I stop bringing it in. But for the stock I already have, I keep it in the shop, just in case someone wants to buy it."

Some items such as ink erasers have been in the shop for more than 10 years.

One by one, he let go of his assistants. Since last year, only Mr Kwok and his wife, Ann, in her 60s, run the shop. They live in the Ghim Moh area and have one child - a 25-year-old daughter who works in marketing and is not keen on continuing the business. Now, Mr Kwok says business has dwindled to about 10 walk-in customers a day.

The final straw came about six months ago, when a fire broke out at a printer where some of its files were manufactured. A significant amount of stock was destroyed.

He says: "It would be too costly to replace everything. It is also time I retire, so I decided to call it quits."

Kaiming's closure marks the end of an era, but it is not alone as other single-concept stores have also suffered with the rise of more diversified retail options.

Mr Amos Tan, 38, who lectures in marketing and retail management at Singapore Polytechnic, says: "If people want stationery, they might buy it from a lifestyle store, where they can also shop for bags, keychains and accessories for their mobile phone."

The stationery industry is a victim of the ubiquitous mobile phone.

As associate professor of marketing Ang Swee Hoon, 54, from the National University of Singapore Business School, puts it: "For consumers nowadays, the mobile phone is the quintessential Swiss army knife and has replaced the function of most stationery items."

Looking ahead, Mr Kwok is not sure how enjoyable his retirement would be. He says: "I like to keep busy. But I know it is over for this shop."

Would he have done anything differently? "No. My goal was to keep my father's shop alive. I have done my best."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'Chapter closes for 77-year-old shop'. Print Edition | Subscribe