Mailbag

More than just a plain old provision shop

I was delighted to read the article on provision shops, Mom-and-pop Stores Keep Up (Life, July 24).

In the 1960s and 1970s, provision shops were more than just shops. They were social hubs.

I grew up in the East Coast, so Cold Storage and Fitzpatrick's supermarkest might as well have been in Malaysia.

Lian Seng Co at 1 Swan Lake Avenue, however, was a hop and a skip away from my home.

It sold almost everything kids needed for school: wooden pencils (5 cents), erasers that taught us the 26 letters of the alphabet ("X for xylophone" was the most coveted), Bic ballpoint pens (25 cents) and carbon paper for the manual typewriter (5 cents).

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It gave us somewhere to hang out when we were bored.

Check out the varieties of biscuits sold in glass jars by the kati. The new types of Walls and Magnolia popsicles sold in glass-top freezers which gave us a free gust of cold air when we opened it. Not to mention the cellophane lanterns on sale a month before the Mid-Autumn Festival. We all dreamt of getting the biggest and most expensive - the dragon.

Shopping at the provision shop gave us a headstart in housewifery. When you bought provisions regularly for your mother, you learnt to check fruits for bruises, eggs for cracks, tins for dents and bread for mould.

It also taught the neighbourhood kids the value of cultivating EQ. We knew how to greet the towkay-soh (the owner's wife), speak nicely and smile. Then she might invite us to help ourselves to a biscuit from one of her glass jars.

The provision shop was also an information centre. Our mothers learnt who in the estate gave piano lessons; whose grandmother could sew primary school uniforms for $5 and make it large enough to last two years; whose house had week-old puppies; and who had a new baby.

The provision shop owner was also the neighbourhood pharmacist. He sold Woodwards' Gripe Water for teething pains, Guinness stout for bathing a baby to get rid of heat rash, Pochai pills and Eno fruit salt for stomach upsets, Panadol tablets for fever and Axe Oil, the cure all.

I was heartbroken when my neighbourhood provision shop became a cafe in the 1990s.

Sabrina Wong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'More than just a plain old provision shop'. Print Edition | Subscribe