7 'mini-museums' pop up to showcase heritage of shops in Kampong Glam

They will tell stories of local shops with at least three decades of history

Mr Mohammad Asgar, the owner of food and beverage business Bhai Sarbat Singapore, demonstrating how he "pulls" his teh tarik to create a full head of froth.
Mr Mohammad Asgar, the owner of food and beverage business Bhai Sarbat Singapore, demonstrating how he "pulls" his teh tarik to create a full head of froth.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Seven new "mini-museums" are popping up in the Kampong Glam area in front of shops that are notable for their distinctive history and practices.

Whether visitors are in the area for a meal or a leisurely stroll, they might come across small cabinets of condensed heritage, within which items such as a 40-year-old pair of scissors or a page of a perfumer's notebook are exhibited.

These collaborations with selected shop owners are part of the National Heritage Board's (NHB) efforts to tell the stories of local shops with at least three decades of history, which are often family run. They were launched yesterday.

The NHB said that by next year, "mini-museums" will be co-curated with shop owners in five precincts, raising awareness of these neighbourhood gems that often fall by the wayside of grander national narratives.

The seven "mini-museums" launched in Kampong Glam include four food and beverage businesses - Bhai Sarbat Singapore, Rumah Makan Minang, Sabar Menanti Nasi Padang and Warong Nasi Pariaman.

The four have a loyal following for their heirloom - and sometimes secret - recipes.

The current owner of Bhai Sarbat, Mr Mohammad Asgar, 52, for instance, has a distinctive fast "tarik" ("pull" in Malay) for his teh sarabat (ginger tea) and teh tarik. Among the artefacts exhibited in his cabinet is a photo of a teh tarik he made with a full head of froth, a feat that requires much skill and practice.

Rumah Makan Minang sells beef rendang in a drier, caramelised style that is faithful to the cooking style in Sungai Limau, West Sumatra, where owner Zulbaidah Marlian's mother was born.

The shop's "museum" features various ladles, used to scoop coconut milk after its separation process from grated coconuts, dishes and rice.

Two other "mini-museums" are located in front of shops that bear relation to the haj pilgrimage, with Kampong Glam traditionally being a stopping point for Muslims en route to Mecca.

VSS Varusai Mohamed & Sons has provided hundreds of thousands of Muslims with accessories that are useful for the haj pilgrimage since 1935, and is best known for the sturdy, practical belt used by haj travellers to carry money and necessities.

At its peak, the shop exported some 60,000 belts to the Middle East every year, and became well known especially among pilgrims from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

A green belt known colloquially as tali pinggang haji, or haj belt, is among the artefacts the shop has chosen to exhibit.

A pre-World War II era catalogue of Varusai's belts shows how much the business had evolved even at that point, illustrating the wide variety of haj belt designs under its brand.

The other business, Jamal Kazura Aromatics, is a perfumery that specialises in perfumes without alcohol content, suitable for Muslims.

These non-alcoholic perfume oils, known as attar in Arabic, are longer-lasting and diffuse differently on people's skin. Today, the shop is also frequented by Buddhists buying sandalwood incense and Christians buying frankincense.

The seventh, Sin Hin Chuan Kee, is a Chinese family-run haberdashery that sells thread, lace, buttons and other accessories to factories, tailors and traders. A paper bag in its "museum" has the four-number postal code of its first shop at 47 Clyde Street before the 1970s, as well as YKK brand zippers, of which it is the sole distributor.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's deputy chief executive of policy and community, said he hopes the "mini-museums" create unexpected heritage encounters for the public.

The curators and researchers had worked with this group of shop owners since last year, and the participatory approach should help younger owners know more about and feel a greater sense of ownership of their trade.

More such exhibits will be created in Little India, Chinatown and Geylang Serai. Balestier, which was where the scheme was first piloted in March last year, already has some of these.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2021, with the headline '7 'mini-museums' pop up to showcase heritage of shops in Kampong Glam'. Subscribe