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Three provision shops which have evolved with the times

While old-school provision shops are a dying breed, some among them are still surviving

Viewers who watched Singapore film-maker Royston Tan's Channel 8 telemovie, The Provision Shop, last week might find lots to reminisce about.

The nostalgic portrayal of a traditional, mom- and-pop shop was filmed at Tee Seng Store, a 60-year-old shop in Rosyth Road. The old-fashioned store still has a zinc roof.

But quaint as they are, provision shops are becoming an endangered species in Singapore. The cruel reality is that they have been losing business steadily to hypermarts, minimarts and supermarkets.

In 1986, the number of businesses registered with the Singapore Provision Shop Friendly Association was 1,262, but that figure is a mere 110 today.

Mr Goo Kem Suaa, 80, head of the association, thinks that provision shops will eventually be "eliminated" from the retail scene.

The reasons include high rents and a lack of successors. Well-educated children of provision shop owners usually choose not to continue the family business, he adds.

While supermarket chains are convenient and efficient, Mr Goo laments the loss of ren qing wei (human warmth in Chinese) associated with traditional provision shops.

For example, some shops used to extend credit to customers to pay their children's school fees.

Like other former provision shop owners, Mr Goo recalls sending crates of free soft drinks to customers during Chinese New Year.

But there are some provision shops that are forging new paths.

The Sunday Times checks out long-standing provision shops to find out their history and what they are doing to keep abreast of the competition.

Where quinoa shares space with wooden clogs


Mr Rodney Goh. PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

At Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co in Tiong Bahru, you can buy quinoa, white wine vinegar, bottled jalapeno peppers, Korean sea salt and noodles for Vietnamese pho.

These cosmopolitan foodstuffs are sold alongside traditional local wares, such as cha kiak (wooden clogs) and sapu lidi (brooms made of twigs) - items stocked at the provision shop since it started in 1938.

Older folks still need the personal touch. I know what kind of soap powder they use, what brand of rice they eat. Some have knee problems... We'll get what they want and take it to their car.

MR RODNEY GOH, owner of Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co in Tiong Bahru, on being mindful of his regulars who are mostly seniors

In this gentrified neighbourhood, the third-generation owner Rodney Goh, 61, has kept pace with the changing profile of his customers as Western, Vietnamese, mainland Chinese and Filipino residents moved in over the years.

He is sensitive to changes in demand, no matter how specific. For example, a few months ago, he began to stock more of a particular brand of iced lemon tea favoured by construction workers who worked nearby.

While he caters to new customers, he remains mindful of his regulars, who are mostly seniors used to personalised service at old- style provision shops.

"Older folks still need the personal touch. I know what kind of soap powder they use, what brand of rice they eat. Some have knee problems and don't like to walk so much. We'll get what they want and take it to their car," he says.

Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co still does deliveries, like provision shops used to do, within a 5km radius. His wife and a worker help out in the shop.

Part of the 1,100 sq ft property, which he owns, has been converted into a music studio for piano lessons, a business run by the eldest of his three children.

As a young man, he worked in a bank for eight years, where he came into contact with many business owners. Drawn to their dynamism, Mr Goh, who has five siblings, decided to go into business and started helming the store at the age of 28.

As the eldest son, he also felt he needed to help his parents as his late father was in poor health at the time.

The shop's heyday was in the 1980s, when it supplied ships with essential items and saw about 200 customers daily.

Now, Mr Goh says, business is quieter, but "still profitable".

The shop's location opposite Tiong Bahru Market is vital. His customers often buy fresh produce such as vegetables, fish and pork from the wet market, then pop over to buy "dry stuff" at his store.

"We complement each other. As long as the wet market is here, I have business," he says.

He adds that if the wet market ceases operations or if major supermarket chains move in next door, he will have to close shop and maybe rent out the space.

Otherwise, he will continue the business. "I'm still healthy and I still want to work, otherwise I'll feel bored."

The next new product on his shelves? Rice with a lower glycaemic index than usual, which he reckons will go down well with health-conscious customers.

VIDEO: Take a walk through the shop and see what Mr Rodney Goh has in stock http://str.sg/45F8


Staying traditional to reflect store's history


Mr Ramasamy Thevarvadivelu. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

You can see why tourists love taking pictures of provision shop ARV Stores in Changi Road.

Established in 1956, it is an old-school provision shop seldom seen in Singapore these days.

It's not like a supermarket. If it looks changed, people will not know it was Gurunathan Store.

MR RAMASAMY THEVAR VADIVELU, on why his provision shop sticks to an old-school look even after a move and a name change

Pails of spice powders and sacks of dried goods such as onions and potatoes are on the floor, sold by weight.

Shelves are lined with canned goods such as tins of ghee and Milo, while packets of snacks hang overhead from metal hooks fixed on wooden beams.

In the air, the scent of curry powder, turmeric and garam masala lingers.

The store was founded by the uncle of the current owner, Mr Ramasamy Thevar Vadivelu, 80.

It moved to its location from the present-day Joo Chiat Complex around 1980. It used to be known as Gurunathan Store, before it changed its name about nine years ago.

The older name now shares the same signboard as the current name. In fact, it is in a bigger, shocking pink font.

This is because Mr Vadivelu values the shop's history. He has kept the look of the shop mostly unchanged over the years and also its opening hours. For the past 60 years, he has been starting work at 5am and knocking off at about 7pm.

He says in Tamil: "It's not like a supermarket. If it looks changed, people will not know it was Gurunathan Store. After my son takes over, he can modernise it."

He did make one concession to the times, though. He abolished the traditional tin-can pulley system for collecting payment about 10 years ago, when money was stolen from it.

Born in Tamil Nadu, India, Mr Vadivelu is a Singapore permanent resident. His wife and three children live in India. His youngest child, Mr V. Vivekraja, 23, looks after the family's business interests there, which include two stores. His wife takes cares of the family's farmland and property.

Mr Vadivelu, who flies to India regularly to visit his family, has, for the past 12 years, hired a store manager, Mr Somasundaram Mariappan, 38, to help him.

Mr Mariappan, who was his boss' translator during the interview, says business has declined over the years, while rent has almost doubled.

Customers are mostly elderly regulars. One of them is housewife Kismet Jan Mohd Hussain Khan, 69, who first came to the store as a nine-year-old child accompanying her grandmother.

Now, she occasionally brings her three-year-old twin grandsons here, too.

She goes to the shop a couple of times a month to buy food such as coriander powder, cooking oil and raisins.

"They know you, whatever items you want, you can get here. The prices are lower than those at shopping centres, where they will not reserve items for you," she says.


Family-run mart with vegetables, healthy fare


Teo Chuan Kee Minimart stocks household goods and foodstuff as well as fresh vegetables. ST PHOTO: VENESSA LEE

Unlike most provision shop owners whose children are unwilling to join the business, Mr Teo Koon Hwee, 70, has four family members working with him at Teo Chuan Kee Minimart in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4. They are his wife; the eldest of their three sons, Derrick, 43; Derrick's wife; as well as another son, Benson, 42.

The brightly lit, air-conditioned shop is modern and clean, but it was originally set up as a zinc- roofed store in the Thomson Road area by Mr Teo's grandfather more than 100 years ago.

In the 1980s, the store was moved to its present location at the bottom of a low block of flats in Ang Mo Kio.

Its goods spill outside the shop, with shelves displaying bread, tidbits and dishwashing liquid lining its exterior.

Derrick, who is part of the fourth generation working in the store, remembers helping out at the provision shop as a Primary 4 pupil, arranging goods on the shelves. After national service, at the age of 21, he joined the family business.

The shop has changed with the times, he says, installing air-conditioning and bright lighting so it is more like a minimart than a sundries store.

While traditional provision shops are evocative of old Singapore, Derrick says: "Nostalgia is one thing, but if there is no airconditioning, who will come in?"

To meet the demands of health- conscious customers, the store stocks items such as red rice, wholemeal wraps and preserved kelp.

About six years ago, it started carrying fresh vegetables for sale. It also has a refrigerated section stocking perishables such as butter and fishcake.

Derrick says his three teenage children will probably not take over the business, what with its long hours, stiff competition and narrow profits.

His father, Mr Teo, says "business used to be better".

He adds: "There may be customers, but we earn less because of the intense competition and rising costs."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Mom-and-pop stores keep up'. Print Edition | Subscribe