HDB grocers' retirement marks 'end of an era'

Mr Peh and Madam Teo plan to rest at home and spend more time with their grandchildren after their retirement.
Mr Peh and Madam Teo plan to rest at home and spend more time with their grandchildren after their retirement.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Hougang shopowners to put up the shutters on family business that began with sales from a lorry in kampungs

Mr Peh Tang Chwee's weight may be under 60kg and his age 67, but the physical demands of his job surpass those of many half his age.

He would heft a basketful of cucumbers weighing almost 15kg with practised effort into his dried goods and fresh produce shop in Hougang. He would also haul sacks of onions and potatoes in and out of his shop, handling all the heavy lifting while his wife manned the cash register.

The spry shop owner of Peh Tang Chwee Trading at Block 322, Hougang Avenue 5 has been running the business there with his wife, Madam Teo Say Hong, 63, for more than 30 years.

When The Straits Times visited last week around noon, business was brisk. But Mr Peh's day starts much earlier - around 4am.

"I'll come in hours before the sun rises, take out all the goods for the early morning customers, like hawkers and distributors," Mr Peh said in Mandarin. He also speaks Hainanese. "My wife will come in a little later, at around 6am and together, we will start selling to the housewives and domestic helpers."

The elderly couple start packing up around 2pm daily. They rest only once a week, on Mondays. That has been their routine for the past three decades, but from Oct 1, the couple will retire and take it easy.

CHANGING TIMES

We have our regulars, but young people prefer to shop at air-conditioned supermarkets, which offer loyalty programmes. Add that to the higher operational costs for utilities and supplies, and it's about time for us to throw in the towel.

MADAM TEO SAY HONG, on one of the reasons she and husband Peh Tang Chwee decided to retire.

Madam Teo said they could no longer work as hard or as long as they used to. "He used to be on his feet the entire day, packing and unpacking goods," she said of her husband in Mandarin. "But in recent years, he has had to sit down more and more."

The Straits Times understands that the new owner will renovate the shop, and continue to sell dried goods and fresh food.

Madam Teo said growing competition from supermarket chains and the change in shopping habits among the younger generation are also reasons they decided to retire.

"We have our regulars, but young people prefer to shop at air-conditioned supermarkets, which offer loyalty programmes," said Madam Teo. "Add that to the higher operational costs for utilities and supplies, and it's about time for us to throw in the towel."

She said they plan to rest at home and spend more time with their five grandchildren after retirement.

Mr Peh and Madam Teo's two children have their own jobs - their son works in the heavy industries and their daughter is in sales.When the couple retire, it will be the end of a family business that started with Mr Peh's father.

Mr Peh and his father used to peddle dried goods and fresh produce from the back of a lorry, driving from kampung to kampung. They stopped doing that in the 1980s, when kampungs were replaced by new Housing Board estates.

Mr Peh and his wife then bought the shop in Hougang and named it after himself.

To their regular customers, their imminent retirement signals the end of an era. In the past, Mr Peh would let the poor decide for themselves how much they could pay for the things they buy, or they could pay later when they had the money, said Mr Ng Kiang Swee, 58, a taxi driver who has been a customer for more than 20 years.

"They are good people; it's hard to find people like them any more," said Mr Ng.

Madam Teo said they are looking forward to retirement. "It's about time we took a break," she said with a smile. "We don't have any debts, so we need not be too worried about money after retirement."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2016, with the headline 'HDB grocers' retirement marks 'end of an era''. Print Edition | Subscribe