Graveyards made way for shopping belt

CK Tang chairman Tang Wee Sung says the department store made the mistake of going "a little more mainstream" over the past decade and lost some of its customer base - the mid-20s, and professionals.
CK Tang chairman Tang Wee Sung says the department store made the mistake of going "a little more mainstream" over the past decade and lost some of its customer base - the mid-20s, and professionals.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Who are some of the largest property owners in Orchard Road? Rennie Whang features some of those who have been running businesses in the area for decades and gets some to share their views on the appeal of the shopping strip and what makes it unique.

Meeting on Orchard Road for a meal or some window-shopping is a national pastime.

Mr Tang Wee Sung remembers when the now-vibrant strip was a backwater. "There didn't use to be too many buildings here. We were the only one at this end of Orchard Road," said the CK Tang chairman .

"There were Cold Storage and Ngee Ann Apartments. And behind that, all the graves."

Tangs moved into the area in 1958, marking the first shift of Singapore's shopping focus from High Street to Orchard Road.

But it was not the most conducive area to do business, given the sprawling Tai Shan Ting cemetery nearby. Despite this, Mr Tang's father, Mr Tang Choon Keng - Tangs' founder - predicted at the time that "one day, this place will boom".

STILL YOUNG AT HEART

Over the years, (Tangs) has really resonated with Singaporeans. It's been so much a part of their lives, and history. We have been around a long time, and we still want to stay young at heart. That is the key.

CK TANG CHAIRMAN TANG WEE SUNG, on the department store's influence

 
 
 
 
 

It connected the Tanglin residential area to the city's business and commercial heart at Raffles Place and High Street.

Today, ownership of Tang Plaza is split between Tang Holdings, which owns the Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel, and CK Tang, which owns the department store.

In the 1960s, the most exclusive supermarkets, Cold Storage and Fitzpatrick's, were along the stretch, recalled Mr Tang.

The same well-heeled crowd would head to the former House of Tang for Kelantan silver, Chinese jade and curios. The department store became well-known for houseware in the mid-1960s.

"We were importing near container-loads of stoneware. People used to come from Malaysia by the busload just to buy that," he recalled.

"(Orchard Road) was really the only place to shop, and there were no shopping centres elsewhere, until Katong Shopping Centre in the '70s - but these were quite secondary compared with the glitz of Orchard Road."

CK Tang became well-known for cosmetics by the 1970s, with international brands including Dorothy Gray, Revlon and Elizabeth Arden.

By the 1990s, it had built up its range - with men's and women's clothes and shoes getting a higher profile."Over the years, what we've always tried to do is read what the shoppers want and give it to them. Tastes and desires have changed over the years; retail is getting to be not just pure shopping, but a place you want to experience."

Tangs is now positioned as a specialist store, no longer offering children's products, for example, but grouping merchandise by lifestyle. Who is the target? "It's no longer an age group, but lifestyle - someone quite young at heart, with a young eye."

He noted that the store made the mistake of going "a little more mainstream" over the past decade, losing some of its customer base - the mid-20s, professionals - as a result.

 
 

"If we are smaller (than Takashimaya or Robinsons), we have got to be good. And by good, I mean we bring in things that are not easily available in other stores. We have a definite point of view. In being smaller, the advantage is your offerings can be much more clear and that's what we are trying to do.

"Over the years, (Tangs) has really resonated with Singaporeans. It's been so much a part of their lives, and history. We have been around a long time, and we still want to stay young at heart. That is the key."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Graveyards made way for shopping belt'. Print Edition | Subscribe