Travel back in time with heritage-rich Singapore shops

These heritage shops, the oldest of which is an 89-year-old tea shop, offer glimpses of the past

They smell musty, the walls look weathered and the furnishings are worn out.

Stepping into these shops that sell antique clocks, old, rare stamp sets and traditional tea leaves is like entering a time warp.

Unlike the current wave of retro-chic establishments which deliberately fashion their interior design after bygone eras, these shops are the real deal and the atmosphere of the past is still very much alive in them.

They have, after all, borne witness to – and survived – the changing times in our young nation: war, independence, a baby boom and economic growth punctuated by the occasional recession.

Their clientele includes seniors who have patronised them through the decades and younger customers who pop into these shops to immerse themselves in the vibe of yesteryear.

Artist Teo Boon Kim, who stumbled upon Pek Sin Choon tea shop in Chinatown 10 years ago, waxes lyrical about the taste of Chinese teas.

The 89-year-old tea shop reminds him of his boyhood when his parents took him to hawker stalls to eat bak kut teh (pork rib soup) paired with tea.

Mr Teo, now 34, says: “Going to the tea shop is like stepping into a traditional tea house.

“But more than that, it has a very friendly atmosphere where I can chat with the owner and share and learn about finer teas. It feels a little nostalgic.”

SundayLife! picks out some of these heritage gems.

stlife@sph.com.sg


Pek Sin Choon

36 Mosque Street, tel: 6323-3238, open: 8am to 7pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday

A rattan stand at the door of this 89-year-old tea enterprise holds a filled porcelain teapot wrapped in batik and some cups. Occasionally, a passer-by stops and pours himself a cup of steaming hot Chinese tea.

This harks back to the old days when people travelled long distances on foot. When they reached a temple or shop, they would quench their thirst with free tea that was set aside in a corner, says Mr Kenry Peh, the 44-year-old grandson of the shop's late founder, Mr Peh Kim Aw.

He tops up the 2-litre kettle five times a day, which contains tea brewed with leaves that the store packs for the day - such as pan-roasted Longjing or fermented dark Pu Erh.

To mix tea leaves, he uses the family's treasured bamboo tea basket, which dates back to the 1940s and was carried by his great-grandmother from Anxi, China, to Singapore.

He learnt the skills of the trade from his grandfather, who died in 1976.

As a schoolboy at the shop - called Pek as a variation of the family's surname and Sin Choon to indicate a new beginning - Mr Peh recalls trying to sprint past the marble table in the shop - then located along New Market Road - to avoid his grandfather's "blind tea tastings", he says.

When he could not escape, the elder Peh would watch, eagle-eyed, as his grandson tasted the tea with his eyes shut.

"A correct answer and he would give me 5 cents as a reward. If I got it wrong, he would rap me on the head," says Mr Peh, who joined the business full-time in 1993 after national service.

His grandfather, after all, had a refined palate for tea. When he started the business in 1925 along George Street, he noticed coolies were chugging pork rib soup as a tonic and sometimes paired it with oolong tea.

The elder Mr Peh decided to concoct his own version, mixed with different varieties of tea and reroasted for a stronger aroma and darker colour.

In the 1950s, the savvy businessman sold his blended product at five times the price of typical tea leaves, calling it the Unknown Fragrance Tea, and gave free samples door-to-door.

The business has moved thrice - its current location is in Mosque Street - but has kept its furnishings intact. The only thing that has changed, says Mr Peh, are the labels on tea packets, which have printed descriptions rather than those written by brushstroke.

Tea packets are handpacked by Mr Peh's female relatives - the same way as it was done in days past. Why not use machinery, which would be cheaper than paying wages? He wants to preserve the personal touch, Mr Peh explains.

The shop gets about 10 walk-in customers daily and supplies to restaurants.

The future of the business, says Mr Peh, lies in whether the younger generation will drink Chinese tea regularly and he plans to take a health angle in selling it.

He explains: "I try to make it educational and that tea promotes a healthier lifestyle, with no colouring or chemicals."

But for now, Mr Peh, who has six children aged between two and 16, would just say "please come in, try something" and hopefully spark some interest.


Cheong Ann Watch Maker

4 Lim Tua Tow Road, tel: 6286-3826, open: 10am to 8pm (Monday to Wednesday, Friday and Saturday), 10am to 5pm (Thursday), closed on Sunday

Owner David Lim gets irritated with customers who come in asking for a "statement piece". He once encountered a young couple looking for an antique clock; they said they had splurged $80,000 on their home decor.

Mr Lim, 54, says: "Some people who buy art and antiques do it to show they are successful, but it is pointless to display a 300-year-old clock when the owners don't understand what they bought."

The couple eventually left without a purchase, but it did not matter to Mr Lim. "My business is about passion because I try to enjoy as many types of clocks I can. I don't care if I don't make money."

His 67-year-old shop in Serangoon is crammed floor to ceiling with antique clocks, with some dating back to the 1800s from countries such as France, Germany, Japan and China.

Often, one would hear gentle chimes from the clocks and Mr Lim would reel off their names, such as the Westminster and Whittington.

The Westminster chime is the most famous and is commonly associated with the Victoria Clock Tower of the House of Parliament in London. Whittington chimes originally rang in the church of Saint Mary le Bow in Cheapside, London, in the 16th century.

Mr Lim estimates his stock to be in the "thousands". Prices range from $300 to high five-figure sums. The collection - culled from previous clock owners, karang guni men and antiques collectors - was started by his father, Mr Lim Gee Lam, 85.

The elder Mr Lim had picked up his skills at a watch repair shop, and went on to set up a servicing and repair business for clocks, watches and gramophones when he was 16.

His eldest son, Mr David Lim, took over the business 12 years ago, but had worked in the shop since he was in secondary school. "I love moving mechanical items and enjoy taking apart and putting together a clock - it's like playing with a jigsaw puzzle," he says.

He adds that the antiques trade had experienced a boom in the 1980s when Western expatriates flooded into Singapore to work. "They sparked an interest in antiques. Locals then knew only about Peranakan items."

Today, Mr Lim, who is married with three children in their 20s, does steady business with collectors and art and history buffs.

His youngest child, Sean, 21, a national serviceman, shares the family's passion. He says: "I like to experiment with a clock's inner workings. It's satisfying to make a broken clock tick again."

He has set up a Facebook page to promote the business and has plans to expand it to include dealing in vintage furniture as well, to capitalise on the current trend.


Jamal Kazura Aromatics

728 North Bridge Road, tel: 6293-2350, open: 9am to 6pm (Monday to Friday), 9am to 1pm (Saturday), closed on Sunday

When haj pilgrims stopped in Singapore on their way to Mecca in the 1900s, they would dab on alcohol-free perfume to mask unpleasant odours in the tropical climate.

This, for the late Mohamed Hanifa Kazura, who peddled citronella and eucalyptus oils from a cart along Jalan Sultan in the 1930s, made for a fantastic business opportunity.

So, he decided to blend perfume oils, such as rose, bergamot and jasmine, and bottled them in small quanties.

"He was very shrewd to spot a business opening, and since Jalan Sultan was near the former seaport at Beach Road, haj pilgrims could stop and buy his perfumes," says his son, Mr Jamal Kazura, 66.

His father left South Chennai in India for Riau Island in Indonesia in 1930, then came to Singapore in 1933.

He earned enough to start a shop in North Bridge Road in the 1950s, which still stands today - its wooden shelves, stands and tables are from its latest renovation in the 1980s.

A money-changing booth was also added then, says Mr Jamal, as many tourists visit the shop, forming nearly 70 per cent of the clientele.

The shop also offers personalised scents. While it is a given that most women prefer floral notes and men go for the whiffs of spice and musk, it is still interesting to see what each shopper favours, says Mr Jamal.

"Scent is like music, some people prefer rock, others like classical or jazz," he says.

He blends the scents with imported oils: ginger and nutmeg from Indonesia, geranium from China, jasmine from Egypt, saffron from Spain, rose from Bulgaria, sandalwood from India and frankincense from Yemen and Oman.

Given the subjective nature of scent, he gets opinions from his wife Rozana, 54; and their four children, aged 21 to 38. Mr Jamal's father, who died in 1979, used to do the same.

"He would summon me and ask me to smell a new scent, tell him if I liked it, what it reminded me of," he recalls. One of the shop's bestsellers - the Raja Jasmin - was made this way.

However, he now wants to water down the scents - as lighter, less-is-more fragrances become more popular internationally.

"People used to eat very spicy, strong-tasting foods, so our scents had very strong notes as well. Now, taste is more watered down and we want to develop scents that reflect that," he explains.

The 60 to 70 available scents go for between $6 and $150 and he gets more than 100 customers a day.

Mr Jamal, who has seen shops in the vicinity evolve from those peddling haj products such as tasbih (prayer beads) to modern-day toy shops, says he is trying to attract younger people to his old-school scents.

"Youngsters now seem to like food-related scents such as strawberry, chocolate and ice cream, so I'm trying to see how I can appeal to their tastes," he says.


Lek Lim Nonya Cake Confectionery

Block 84, Bedok North Street 4, 01-21, tel: 6449-0815, open: 6.30am to 6pm (Monday to Saturday), 6.30am to 2pm (Sunday)

The baby boom years of the 1970s were the best for the Nonya cake business. Many parents threw first-month celebrations for their babies, so orders for ang ku kueh (red glutinous rice flour cakes filled with mung bean or peanuts) flooded in, says Mr Gavan Sing, 33.

He is the grandson of founder Leck Peng Kwang, who started operating from a home kitchen in 1968 in Chai Chee, and moved to the current Bedok location in 1978.

Ang ku kueh is moulded to resemble a tortoise shell, tortoises being a symbol of longevity and blessings for the Chinese.

The Teochew family came upon the art of Peranakan dessert-making by a stroke of luck: the late Mr Leck had failed miserably in a business venture when a Peranakan woman offered to help. She taught Mr Leck and his wife to churn out classics such as kueh salat (glutinous rice cake topped with pandan- flavoured coconut jam) and kueh lapis (layered cake). The identity of the couple's wealthy benefactor is shrouded in mystery.

If this family lore holds true, it is a rare show of friendship. Mr Sing says: "At that time, particularly for young Peranakan girls, their domestic skills were their most important attribute, so it is remarkable she freely imparted those skills to my grandparents."

He went full-time into the business three years ago, after a career in the oil and gas industry. This was after his parents, Mr Sing Eng Hok and Madam Chia Kiat Hong, relinquished the family business to retire.

Mr Sing, who has two younger sisters, learnt the craft of making kueh as a young boy.

While the type of shops in the neighbourhood has changed - a retro-chic cafe and tuition centre now stand where a hardware store and seamstress' business used to be - his snacks are still made from recipes taught by the unknown Peranakan woman.

There are some tweaks, thanks to Mr Sing's mother. The kueh lapis, for example, has 10 layers instead of the conventional nine. This was done to make the dessert taller, as Madam Chia favoured strips of kueh of consistent thickness, rather than the conventional version which has a thicker base layer.

Their kueh also bears more eye-catching hues: Madam Chia prefers brighter colours such as yellow, green and blue, rather than pale colours such as white and light purple.

Mr Sing now rises at 4am daily to make these kueh from scratch. Business is good - he gets about 100 walk-in customers daily. His goal is to make Nonya kueh a key element of local food culture again.

Says Mr Sing, who is married with three children aged six months to three: "Mothers used to take their children out and offer Nonya kueh as a treat if the kids behaved, so these kids grew up with an attachment to the dessert. But the younger generation has not been raised under this 'system', so there is less attachment.

"By continuing the business, I want to share the kueh with as many people as possible."


CS Philatelic Agency

3 Coleman Street, 04-29 Peninsula Hotel & Shopping Centre, tel: 6337-1859, website: www.cs.com.sg, open: 10.30am to 6pm (Monday to Friday), 2 to 6pm (Saturday), 3 to 5.30pm (Sunday)

Avid stamp collector Tan Chun Lim, 69, gets excited by printing slip-ups on some of his favourite pieces.

Peering at rows of stamps he tenderly stows in clear plastic albums, he points out a 1974 stub featuring Singapore's family planning campaign.

Mr Tan claims that the original Plan Your Family Small stamp came with gender symbols to represent the male and female, but his stub has the female version missing. He says the 35-cent stamp is worth about $1,200 today, as local stamps rarely sport errors. Stamps with errors can be much more valuable than those without, especially when they are rare.

His interest started as a primary school boy in the 1950s when his penpals from Britain and Australia sent him letters. He would then gingerly cut out the stamp stubs. As an adult, Mr Tan worked with SingPost for 18 years.

He learned much about the culture of different countries from his collection. "What is printed on stamps shows what was important to that society at the time," he expains.

It also reflects changing political systems. After the Japanese occupied Singapore in 1942, there was little time to print new stamps, so rubber stamps were used to ink over existing stamps. The following year, the Japanese printed new stamps, using typical Malayan landscapes of rubber and pineapple plantations.

Mr Tan's shop houses his massive collection, which he estimates to be in the millions. They come from countries such as Chile, Romania, Egypt, Spain, Mexico, India and Russia. His stock also comes from stamp collectors, dealers and auctions.

In 1973, he set up shop at the now-defunct Colombo Court, and moved the business to its present location in 1984.

While cataloguing his collection can be a nightmare, Mr Tan says he has no problem knowing exactly where to find a particular stamp if he has to. He tags each series of stamps with a handwritten note bearing its country of origin, date, price and number. The number corresponds to a drawer holding musty albums with the requested stamps behind clear film.

Mr Tan is also the proud owner of the Penny Black, the world's first postage stamps issued in Britain in 1840. Ranging in price from "a few hundred to a thousand dollars", the tiny stub features the profile of the then-Princess Victoria on a black background, and is worth a penny.

As the originator of stamps, the English are the only ones who do not print the name of their country on the stubs - their versions feature just the Queen's profile, explains Mr Tan, who doles out trivia to customers on demand.

Married with two sons aged 33 and 41, neither of whom are interested in taking over his business, he says: "I'm not sure about the future of the shop. I'm not young anymore, but as long as I can see my stamps each day, I'm very happy."