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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Old provision shops get a new lease of life

Exhibition, part of heritage series, will travel to schools, libraries, community centres
The Straits Times - December 30, 2011
By: Lim Yan Liang
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Old provision shops get a new lease of life Pulley tin cans used to commonly seen in provision shops. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KOONG

IN A corner of Jurong Regional Library yesterday, the disappearing trade of provision shops came back to life, if only as an exhibition.

Dull-copper biscuit tins, a vintage Smith electric clock and a boxy, Bakelite orange push button phone were some of the nostalgic artifacts on display, as was a re-creation of the pulley-tin system shop owners used to keep loose change an arm's reach away.

It is the first stop of the travelling exhibition, part of the National Heritage Board's Community Heritage Series documenting heartland culture.

'Our objective is to document important aspects of Singapore's heritage and provide insights to younger Singaporeans on the evolution of provision shops here, from their rise to subsequent decline,' said the board's director of heritage institutions, Mr Alvin Tan.

The hope is that different generations of Singaporeans will visit the exhibition together, and grandparents will share memories and stories with their grandchildren, he said.

The exhibition, a culmination of three months of research and another six weeks of interviews with 20 provision shops, will go to schools, libraries and community centres. When it ends next year, exhibition materials will be deposited in the Singapore Memory Project and the National Archives, said Mr Tan.

To provision shop owner Madam Tan Koy Eng, who was at yesterday's launch, the exhibition was timely because provision shops are in their twilight years. As are most of their owners who, like Madam Tan, are in their 70s.

Although she and her husband own the land on which Guan Hin provision shop sits in Tiong Bahru, property taxes, water and electricity bills, and a shrinking clientele mean they just about break even every month.

'How long more will I do this? It's very hard to say as we are both very old. We just take it a day at a time,' said Madam Tan, 74, in Mandarin.

Her three children, all university graduates, chose not to take over the family business, citing the long hours and poor job prospects. Two work in IT while the other is a manager.

Mr Tan Bock Heng, 72, agreed. The secretary of the Singapore Provision Shops Friendly Association said membership had declined from more than 1,200 in the 1970s to fewer than 150 today, and one reason was the unwillingness of children to take over the family business.

As Mr Tan's children grew up, he emphasised the importance of education and, as a result, all four are university graduates. His eldest son works for Apple in the United States. 'I was born in the shop and I grew up in the shop, but nowadays things have changed,' he said.

The next exhibition in the series, on wet markets, will be launched next month.

Traditional Provision Shops: A Thriving Past & An Uncertain Future will be at Jurong Regional Library until Jan 31, when it will move to Tiong Bahru Community Centre.

 

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