Ex-Yaohan supermart staff reunite to mark SG50

Crowds gathered at the relaunch of Yaohan Thomson after its revamp in 1986. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Crowds gathered at the relaunch of Yaohan Thomson after its revamp in 1986. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Shopping for Chinese New Year goodies at Yaohan supermart at Plaza Singapura. -- PHOTO: NEW NATION FILE
Shopping for Chinese New Year goodies at Yaohan supermart at Plaza Singapura. -- PHOTO: NEW NATION FILE
Yaohan Katong's opening in 1977. -- PHOTO: NEW NATION FILE
Yaohan Katong's opening in 1977. -- PHOTO: NEW NATION FILE
Yaohan employee Henry Quek at the Yaohan International Education Centre. -- PHOTO: HENRY QUEK 
Yaohan employee Henry Quek at the Yaohan International Education Centre. -- PHOTO: HENRY QUEK 
Morning assembly in one of Yaohan's stores. In its early years, Yaohan gathered all its employees for daily morning assemblies, where the national anthem and Singapore and Yaohan pledges were taken, followed by physical exercises. -- PHOTO: HENRY QUE
Morning assembly in one of Yaohan's stores. In its early years, Yaohan gathered all its employees for daily morning assemblies, where the national anthem and Singapore and Yaohan pledges were taken, followed by physical exercises. -- PHOTO: HENRY QUEK
The grand opening of Yaohan's Marina Square branch. Mr Henry Quek, who was the store manager then, is standing on the extreme right, next to Yaohan corporate manager Soicho Sato (in suit), who is also the brother-in-law of the then president of Yaoha
The grand opening of Yaohan's Marina Square branch. Mr Henry Quek, who was the store manager then, is standing on the extreme right, next to Yaohan corporate manager Soicho Sato (in suit), who is also the brother-in-law of the then president of Yaohan. -- PHOTO: HENRY QUEK

SINGAPORE - They were simple round buns with sesame sprinkled tops and filled with red bean paste. But they were so popular, they flew off oven trays before even reaching the shelves of one-time supermarket giant Yaohan.

Quarrels and snaking queues were commonplace in many of Yaohan's branches, where customers competed for the many bargains the Japanese chain offered, recalled former staff who yesterday got together - many of them for the first time after almost 20 years - to reminisce.

Opened in 1974 in Plaza Singapura, Yaohan was the first to introduce the one-stop shopping concept to Singapore. The first week alone saw nearly a million Singaporeans flock to its three floors in the newly opened mall. By 1983, it had five branches, including in Jurong and Bukit Timah. In 1997, its parent company in Japan went bust, and its last branch in Thomson closed.

But between the start and the end, it became a household name, with its green and white logo, Japanese management culture and retail innovations - from childcare to allow parents to shop, to open-view bakeries and shoe-repair services - which were as iconic as its an pan (red bean paste bun).

"We used to have morning assemblies daily," said retiree Jeffrey Law, 73, who was a human resource manager with Yaohan before retiring as an editorial consultant. To encourage camaraderie, employees sang the National Anthem, took the Singapore and Yaohan pledge - in which they vowed to better serve all people - and did morning exercises. Staff were also regularly sent for Japanese etiquette and service training at Yaohan's international education centre in Hong Kong.

"We were taught not to walk with our hands behind our backs because customers might perceive it to be rude," said Mr Law, who joined Yaohan in 1976 and left in 1997.

But if the staff were taught to be on their best behaviour, the crowds could at times get unruly. Former store manager Henry Quek, 63, remembers how the Katong store's glass doors broke on the morning of a sale, which included bargains such as a 5kg pack of rice for $1. "The crowds were pushing as they waited for the store to open," he said.

Ms Alice Leo, who organised Saturday's get-together of 120 former staff at Chengsan Community Club, also recalled how customers brought their babies along when buying Anchor beer. Each carton was specially priced but each customer was limited to one. "I asked if their baby also drank beer and they replied: 'My baby is also a person'," the 61-year-old former sales assistant laughed.

Many of those who met up on Saturday worked for Yaohan for more than two decades. Ms Leo began reaching out to her long-lost colleagues at the suggestion of a friend as a way to mark SG50. "Word that we were holding the event spread very quickly and we soon had to turn some away after we hit 120 responses."

Such a reception was not unexpected, though. Said Mr Law: "We spent so much of our working lives in Yaohan."

andreang@sph.com.sg