Old is Gold for Singapore's vintage lovers

Vintage lovers in Singapore connect over their love of bygone eras, dressing old-fashioned style, unwinding to jazz records on a gramophone and surrounding themselves with paraphernalia of the past

They sleep with their hair in curlers and shop not at high-street brands, but by rifling through piles of others' hand-me-downs.

For them, a good time is not so much a night out clubbing, but rather cutting the rug to a swing number or unwinding to jazz records on a gramophone older than they are.

Old is gold for Singapore's vintage lovers, a community of collectors, consumers and performers that has been growing slowly but surely. They are testament that they do sometimes make them like they used to.

"I've always felt I was born in the wrong era," says entrepreneurial consultant Kannan Ramakrishnan, 42, who owns a 1959 Mercedes-Benz and sometimes still wears his grandfather's trousers from half a century ago.

"My motto is to live life in analogue," he adds. "Back then, people had more style, more substance. They lived in the moment, they didn't look at their phones - when they had a conversation, they had a real conversation. A gramophone record may not have the sound quality of an MP3 file, but it has more soul."

The community has been growing, especially in the past couple of years, says bank officer Gary Tan, who started the collective The Retro Factory two years ago. The group of vintage collectors and sellers has grown from 10 to a circle of about 200 and has held a flea market at Katong Square once a month since November last year.

Next weekend, it will take part in the National Museum of Singapore's 130th birthday bash with a flea market and vintage car boot sale.

"We are a First World nation devoid of heritage," says Mr Tan, 48. "The more Singapore industrialises, the more everything looks the same. The Singapore tendency is to give things away, sell them to the karung guni man or trash them, which is not good for the environment. We don't have things that remind us of our past."

He has a collection of about 100 gramophones and record players, the oldest of which is a 1910 machine from Germany which has survived two world wars.

Given the opportunity, he will wax lyrical about the merits of shellac versus vinyl discs.

He has big dreams for The Retro Factory. Some day, he hopes to work with other Singapore flea markets to hold a permanent market seven days a week, where old and new generations of vintage enthusiasts can come together.

There are many vintage subcultures. The 1950s and 1960s are popular decades, with their pin-up glamour and bold rockabilly styles.

Then there are the purists who believe that true vintage means the 1940s and earlier: the lean elegance of the pre-war 1930s, the flapper fashion of the Roaring Twenties, even - though very rarely - as far back as the turn of the 20th century.

Vintage, for Ms Lim Sing Yuen, is a culture of self-respect. Many call the 55-year-old the "godmother" of the local lindy hop scene, as she brought to Singapore the dance - which evolved with the big band music of the 1930s Harlem clubs in New York - when she founded dance school Jitterbugs Swingapore in 1995.

Ms Lim, who now teaches lindy hop at Timbre Music Academy and goes dancing three to four times a week, loves the music and fashion of the 1930s and 1940s - Glenn Miller and glamorous hairdos.

"Singapore culture is a bit casual - it's shorts, slippers and T-shirts to everything," she says.

"When we do vintage, we take in the spirit of what it was like then. You dressed up to go out, you gave it that respect, you made it something special."

This year has seen a wave of nostalgia in the local arts and music scene, from musical Tropicana, about the 1960s topless cabaret of the same name, to The Great Singapore Replay, in which 10 pairs of home-grown music acts remade classic Singapore hits such as Shanty (1964) by The Quests and You're The Boy (1965) by Shirley Nair & The Silver Strings.

Tapping this trend is emerging singer-songwriter Lou Peixin, 24, who released her debut EP two weeks ago and bills her music as "classic vintage pop". She chose to set the music video for her first single, More Than Just That Bass, at a 1950s-esque beauty pageant.

Lou, who co-runs online vintage store Baju Mama Vintage, estimates her wardrobe is "80 per cent vintage". She favours the Victory Roll, a 1940s updo, and rich red lipstick as a regular look.

"I love the over-the-top glamour of that era," she says. "I'm at my most confident self when I dress like this and I hope to inspire others to do the same."

Dressing vintage in equatorial Singapore is, however, considerably more difficult than in cooler climates as the humidity plays havoc with pincurls and moustaches.

Ask barber Jacky Chan about how he deals with the heat and he laughs it off.

"I used to be a firefighter in national service," says the 25-year-old, who goes to work almost every day in tailored trousers and suspenders and sporting a waxed pompadour and a handlebar moustache, which takes him an hour to style.

He insists he would not be caught dead leaving his home turf of West Coast in shorts.

He takes inspiration from British television show Peaky Blinders (2013 to present), about gangsters in 1920s Birmingham, but also wears the 1970s Montagut polo shirts that once belonged to his father, who died of cancer in 2012.

Caring for his father in his last days planted in him an appreciation for yesteryear.

"I want to be a unique person," he says. "People look at me like I'm weird, but this is the way I want to present myself."

  • VIEW IT / THE RETRO FACTORY'S VINTAGE FLEA MARKET: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SINGAPORE'S 130TH ANNIVERSARY

  • WHERE: National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road

    WHEN: Friday, 5 to 10pm; Saturday, 2 to 10pm; Sunday, 10am to 6pm

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: bit.ly/2fJI62Q

  • KATONG SQUARE LIFESTYLE AND VINTAGE MARKET

    WHERE: Katong Square, 86-88 East Coast Road

    WHEN: Oct 20 to 22, 1 to 10pm

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: bit.ly/2xSb60p

I want to be a unique person. People look at me like I'm weird, but this is the way I want to present myself.

BARBER JACKY CHAN, who goes to work almost every day in tailored trousers and suspenders and sporting a waxed pompadour and handlebar moustache, which takes him an hour to style

Vintage get-ups often earn their wearers stares, especially on public transport. Mr Chan has overheard himself called "Mr Pringle" by his fellow commuters, who must have been referring to the moustachioed logo of Pringles potato chips.

"The stares did make me uncomfortable at first," says Ms Ammy Lau, who runs vintage reproduction online business Bluebelle, which sells 1950s-and 1960s-style dresses. But there are advantages to sporting a full circle skirt and petticoat on the MRT, adds the 29-year-old. "It gives me a lot of personal space, even during peak hours."

Reproductions such as Bluebelle's - or "repro" - are catching on with vintage lovers, as authentic pieces from the 1940s and earlier are often fragile and too small for today's waistlines and thus do not lend themselves to daily wear.

Besides scouring flea markets and thrift stores and buying reproductions, some fashionistas even take things into their own hands.

Ms Gwen Heng, a speech therapist who blew her first pay cheque on a petticoat, has sewn or knitted about 20 vintage-inspired pieces. These include a shift dress inspired by Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian design and a green floral print dress based on a classic Butterick pattern from the early 1960s.

"Usually when you buy something these days, more than one person in the world will have it," says the 28-year-old. "But this way, I can create dresses that are truly unique."

Ms Anis Razali drafts her own dress patterns based on the 1940s and 1950s. Her wedding gown, which took her a month to make by hand, was embroidered tulle based on the silhouette of the 1950s New Look style popularised by Christian Dior.

The 25-year-old, who is between jobs, also likes to rework her grandmother's kebaya, styling it in the fashion of Singapore actress-singer Saloma, whom she loved to watch in P. Ramlee movies from the late 1950s while growing up.

She is drawn to the details in vintage clothing. "Modern styles don't hold much appeal for me," she says. "There's something empowering too in dressing differently from how society expects you to."

Naysayers may criticise vintage lovers for romanticising a time that, with its sexism and racism, was not exactly a bed of roses. But school counsellor Lim Li Hsien, who has been swing-dancing for 20 years, says her passion should not be mistaken for escapism.

"I wouldn't mind dropping in to see what the olden days look like," says the 53-year-old. "But the status of women in the old days - would you really want to live in that time?"

Integrating vintage aspects into modern life, she explains, is her way of appreciating the richness of the past while rehabilitating its problematic mores. "I think a lot of us are capable of being both past and present at the same time."

Businessman Dale Cheong, 34, a vintage car collector and trombone player who formed the Summertimes Big Band in 2009 so that his friends could have live swing music to dance to, says: "With all this modernising - an unending chase towards what is newer, newer, newer - it gets quite sterile.

"What we love is the colour of that era - the exuberance of the music back then, the energy of the dance, the elaborate dresses, the beauty of the lines of the cars. We value what used to be."


Vintage treasures

Here are some places in Singapore where you can get kitted out for the vintage lifestyle

FASHION

Dustbunny Vintage

This 14-year-old heartland shop sells clothes and accessories from the 1940s to the 1990s, as well as second-hand designer bags and its own vintage-inspired in-house label.

Where: 01-203, Block 112 Bukit Purmei Road; tel: 6274-4200

When: 12.30 to 8.30pm (weekdays), 1 to 7pm (Saturdays and public holidays), by appointment only from 1 to 5pm on Sundays

Info: dustbunnyvintage.com, @dustbunny_vintage on Instagram

Five Stones Vintage

This online shop sells clothes and accessories from the 1940s to the 1990s, including rare cheongsam and swimwear. It can be spotted as a pop-up at markets and festivals.

Info: fivestonesvintage.etsy.com, fivestonesvintage@gmail.com, @fivestonesvintage on Instagram

Dark Horse Vintage

Sources one-of-a-kind items from a variety of eras with a focus on the 1970s. Formerly in Arab Street, the shop is now fully online and by appointment only, but makes frequent pop-up appearances at markets and festivals.

Tel: 9062-7995

Info: hello@darkhorsevintage.com, @darkhorsevintage on Instagram

ANTIQUES

Past Image

This 26-year-old staple sells collectible toys, antique vinyl records and players, Peranakan jewellery, magazines from the 1950s to 1980s and more.

Where: 03-08 Excelsior Shopping Centre, 5 Coleman Street; tel: 6339-3985

When: 11am to 6pm (weekdays), 11am to 4pm (Saturdays), closed on Sundays

Info: pt3008@yahoo.com.sg

The Heritage Shop

A treasure trove of items from yesteryear, mostly from the 1950s to 1960s, but some dating as far back as 200 years, including collectible stamps, enamel tiffin carriers, porcelain plates and a ceiling hung with kerosene lamps.

Where: 01-01, 93 Jalan Sultan; tel: 6223-7982

When: 1.30 to 8pm daily

Info: www.facebook.com/theheritageshopsg

Junkie's Corner

Tucked away in the forested Turf Club area, this warehouse is packed to the rafters with a dizzying assortment of items from past eras - furniture, toys and more.

Where: 2 Turf Club Road; tel: 9791-2607

When: 9.30am to 5.30pm daily

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'For old times' sake'. Print Edition | Subscribe