All quiet at once-chirpy Balestier bird shop

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 30, 2013

Once upon a time, if you wanted to buy an eagle, you would head to Ann Soon Hong Bird Shop.

But the Balestier establishment - believed to be the oldest bird shop in Singapore - has shut its doors after a 60-year run.

The family business closed last month after avian flu and a lack of interest in songbirds took their toll.

It is a quiet end for the shop, which until the 1980s, was an exotic pet business and had TV stars like Chew Chor Meng as patrons.

Owner Jenny Teo, 60, blamed the regional flu outbreak for its closure.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) suspended imports of live birds from traditional sources like Indonesia in late 2003.

Madam Teo could once sell songbirds like the mata puteh, or oriental white-eye, for as little as $6. But in recent years, she had to import birds from far-flung places such as Europe.

"People would say, 'Huh? A songbird for $150?' and then leave without buying," she said.

Nowadays, songbirds such as mata puteh cost more than $100, and some can even fetch a four-figure sum.

Another problem: Youngsters are not interested in songbirds. "Singaporeans now are only interested in shopping and movies," she said. "Who cares about buying birds any more?"

Other bird shops here are facing tough times. Several have packed up. The number of shops approved to sell birds has dwindled to 46 this year, from 81 shops 10 years ago.

At Serangoon North, business has been hard for shops such as Chua's Pets Trading. Its 62-year-old owner, Mr Chua Thiam Chuan, said the three-decade-old store has seen costs rise by 30 per cent because it imports from countries in Africa and Europe.

It has also been battered by the economic downturn and lack of interest in owning birds. "This place used to be full of passers-by," said Mr Chua, pointing at the empty walkway outside his shop. "Now we get only a little bit of interest from young people in their 20s and 30s."

For now, birdsong still rings out in Serangoon North's bird-watching corner.

Dozens of enthusiasts - many, older men - hang up ornate cages housing their songbirds, to admire them over a cup of coffee every morning.

One of the younger ones is Mr Alex Lum, 45, who has been rearing songbirds since childhood and now has more than 20 of them.

He thinks young people will rear songbirds if their parents encourage them to join in but one huge deterrent is the cost.

"If a songbird can cost up to $1,000, why not buy an iPad instead?"

yunitaso@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 20, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/