The Emporium Legend Lim Tow Yong (1925-2012)

China was in a state of chaos in the early 20th century. A pair of Teochew brothers from a traditional family of farmers in Suatow decided to venture out into Nanyang for a better life. At age of only 15, the elder brother Lim Tow Seng (1921-1991) first arrived at Singapore in 1935. He worked hard for others, and save enough to set up a small business at Pickering Street just three years later. The business was named Lim Seng Huat (S) Limited, literally means credibility (seng) and prosperity (huat).

In 1940, Lim Tow Yong came to Singapore to help his elder brother in the provision and distribution business. Over the years, he grew from a naive kid to an eloquent sale person, taking efforts in traveling to many parts of Singapore, including kampong and plantations, to seek for new clients. From only knowing the dialect of Teochew, Lim Tow Yong also managed to learn English, Mandarin, Malay and other Chinese dialects of Hokkien, Cantonese and Hainanese. He did not manage to master Hakka though.

With Singapore in need of basic necessities after the Second World War, provision shops became a hot commodity. The Lim brothers’ business emphasised on toiletries and apparel such as China-made towels, undergarment and singlets, targeted at the middle-low income population. After the fifties, they started to distribute small popular brands from China, Hong Kong and Germany. The products now ranged from basic necessities to mattresses, blankets, pillows, lipsticks, perfume and pens.

The end of the fifties spelt a great opportunity for the Lim brothers. During that era, the main retail business for the local Chinese was concentrated at Bugis and Chinatown. The popularity of Gay World (1936-2001), New World (1923-1987) and Great World (1930s-1978) had charmed countless Singaporeans for decades. The Lim brothers decided to promote their products in these three amusement parks, and the result was overwhelming.

In 1961, the Lim brothers founded the Emporium Holdings Group based in Singapore. Five years later, in a bold move, they opened their Chinese product-selling Oriental Emporium opposite departmental giant Robinson, which was selling high-end Western goods. The gamble was a huge success. Moving into the seventies, despite facing competitions from the likes of Shankar’s Emporium and Isetan Emporium, Lim Tow Yong and his elder brother expanded the business aggressively, opening 15 departmental stores in Singapore from 1970 to 1979.

The ambitious Lim Tow Yong had his eyes on Malaysia’s vast market too. By 1980, the Emporium Holdings had department stores opened in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca, Johor, Kuantan, Kulai, Seremban and Kluang. The same year, its branch at Brunei, the largest departmental store in the country then, had a grand opening.

The reason why the official name of Lim Tow Yong’s company was Emporium Holdings instead of Oriental Holdings was because the name Oriental was already registered by another company in Malaysia. But it turned out to be a blessing as the trademark of Emporium became so well-known that almost everyone in Singapore and Malaysia had heard of it. Its Chinese name 英保良, translated directly from the English name, was a household brand.

Emporium Holdings recorded a historic feat on 28 March 1980. On this day, 10 new departmental stores and restaurants under the corporation were opened at the same time. They were the Oriental Emporium branches at Ang Mo Kio, Clementi, Woodlands, Bedok, Bukit Timah and Bukit Merah, two Oriental Palace Restaurants at Ang Mo Kio and Bedok, Klasse Dept Store at Peninsula Plaza and another small departmental store at Ang Mo Kio (碧丽莎百货公司).

The golden era of Lim Tow Yong and his Emporium Holdings was between 1980 and 1985. The diversification in the business saw the corporation added 13 confectioneries, convenience shops and restaurants to an already long list of 52 departmental stores in East and West Malaysia. Another 10 stores were also set up in the new venture in Hong Kong. In 1983, Lim Tow Yong was bestowed the title of Dato’ by the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan.

The year 1985 was the peak of Emporium Holdings. It had 113 businesses spreading all over Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Hong Kong. But the good days would not last, as Singapore suffered its worst recession since independence.

Since 1965, Singapore had enjoyed an average of more than 9% annual growth in its economy. In 1985, the rapid decline in exports, coupled with high overhead cost and a currency that was far too strong, caused the economy growth to plunge into the red. Demands diminished and unemployment rate shot up, hitting all sectors hard. By the mid of 1985, Emporium Holdings, the biggest departmental chain in Singapore, had suffered a loss of $10 million. Banks and credit companies started to seek repayments from the troubled company. Two years later, the company was acquired by Malaysian tycoon Bill Ch’ng. In 1988, a 63-year-old Lim Tow Yong was declared a bankrupt.

Others would have given up but not Lim Tow Yong. With pure determination, he planned his comeback in the nineties with another departmental chain in Sabah, and later Brunei and Labuan. In 1999, Lim Tow Yong was finally discharged from bankruptcy. He sold his business in mid-2000s and became a millionaire once again at 79.

On 7 April 2012, the legendary former boss of Emporium Holdings, aged 87, passed away at the National University Hospital. He would be remembered for his generosity and inspired spirit by many of his former employees.

Published: 09 April 2012

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30 Responses to The Emporium Legend Lim Tow Yong (1925-2012)

  1. Cindy Lim says:

    A wonderful, extremely capable and well-respected man. He will be well rememebered.

  2. Thomas Tan says:

    It was an honor working with you. Your dedication and determination will always be remembered.

  3. dinkyequinox says:

    i seem to recall there was an emporium in hougang where heartland mall now is

    • Yes. In fact, that was the biggest and most well-planned of all outlets in Singapore. Towkay Lim Tow Yong had wanted to set a new trend for retailing in Singapore back then.

      It was also about that opening time that saw the beginning of the collapse of the Emporium Group due to financial reasons. It was brewing, but not known to the public just as yet.

  4. A new NTUC Fairprice sits where the old AMK Emporium used to be!

  5. leonard says:

    an honourable man who gave back. thanks for the post.

  6. slimjim1309 says:

    the current Seng siong(next to KFC) in Bedok is where the old Emporium dept store was ! The chinese saying of “From the Great Eastern Mountain shall raises again” is so apt to describe this mountain of a man. a pioneer and a community leader.

  7. In Hong Kong we had the Da Da group of department shops 大大公司 from 1974-1986
    At the peak there were 7 stores, but the good days would not last as the Hong Kong economy was hit by loss of confidence in the future of Hong Kong as the British government discussed the handover back to China.

  8. Sze Chan says:

    This brings back soooo manyyy memories!!! Thanks so much for this writeup. I miss the old Singapore so much —- my childhood playground etc.

  9. DZ says:

    I remember the Emporium at Clementi now Courts and McDonalds taken over. My mum and I love to hang out there

  10. nostalgic tan says:

    i remember the emporium at kovan, now known as heartland mall kovan.

  11. VM says:

    whenever I walk past the area where the Toa Payoh emporium used to be (beside ntuc), I think I can still smell the cotton candy. They had a machine there that was quite popular with kids in the 80s and early 90s. There were also Icee (remember the bear) and steamed cakes. As for Heartland Mall, I still call it Hougang Emporium. Used to hang out there every day after school since it’s near the Hougang St 21 interchange. Hougang Emporium had red stairs to the 3rd floor to the gift and home decor area. I remember Emporium’s price stickers had the gst added (when it was first introduced) which made things looked more expensive compared to other shops and we had to carry 1 cents.

  12. Josie says:

    Holland Village shopping centre also had an Emporium, the space is currently taken over by Lims. Spent many hours and gain many fond memories there, it was so popular in its day.

  13. The Oriental Emporium at Bukit Merah central 1980s

    NTUC Fairprice currently occupies the former premises of Oriental Emporium

    The Oriental Restaurant at Ang Mo Kio central 1980s

  14. Pingback: Klassiske Vaniljekranse – Danish Butter Cookies « travellingfoodies

  15. JT says:

    There was a branch in jurong east that closed down in the mid 90s?

  16. jason says:

    So sad, all the good thing just live in memory!

  17. YH says:

    Worked in the Lion City (now demolished) Emporium while waiting for my O Level results. Got to know some good friends whom we still get together after over a decade.

  18. Cheng Tsang Man (郑仓满), another great entrepreneur and philanthropist of Singapore, has passed away on 7th July 2013 at age 97.

    Born in 1916, he left China at age 8, following his uncle to Indonesia. Due to the chaotic situation of Indonesia in the late 1950s, Cheng Tsang Man decided to resettle at Singapore. In 1961, he established Prima Limited with the first flour mill in Southeast Asia. Under his chairmanship of 37 years, Prima expanded and diversified to property, food manufacturing and information technology. The company was also one of the first to be publicly listed in 1969.

    Cheng Tsang Man, also well-known as the local “king of flour”, was a keen supporter of education, despite not having a formal education himself. Millions of dollars were donated under his name to scholarship funds, NTU and SMU.

  19. Oriental Emporium paper bags (Raffles Place and Ang Mo Kio branches)

    (Source: Facebook Group “Nostalgic Singapore”)

  20. lynne martin says:

    My family, the payntings (eddie and dolly) knew a family called lim in the 1950’s. Their son went to the sorbonne. I would love to know if this is the same family. I have a picture of them visiting birmingham uk in the ’70’s or there about.

  21. Marjorie says:

    May i know exactly when (or at least what year) ang mo kio’s otiental emporium closed down please?

  22. Srie says:

    Quoted from the article – “By the mid of 1985, Emporium Holdings, the biggest departmental chain in Singapore, had suffered a loss of $10 million.”
    I think there’s typo in the years stated. Wasn’t it the mid 1995 that it happened? I still remembered working there around 1996 when they were clearing stocks and selling things cheap because Oriental Emporium (OE) was closing down, and he’s only bankrupt in 1998 (not 1988) – that’s when OE is totally gone.

  23. mark stephens says:

    Thanks for these pages when I lived in Singapore 1979 -1985 my friends and my self would go for dim sum every third Sunday at the cavernous Oriental Palace Restaurant at Ang Mo Kio great food great times would meet new people have great conversations pity its gone love to know if there was somewhere around no like that

  24. Adrian Ng says:

    Old oriental emporium at Ang Mo Kio was demolished in 2006. To make way for Ang Mo Kio hub.

  25. Adrian ng says:

    Dear Roy, when was the old Ang Mo Kio fountain demolished.

  26. Adrian says:

    Royston Tan was the old arcade building in the 1980s next to the old nutcracker known as Ying Bao Liang building?

  27. Adrian ng says:

    Dear is Ying Bao Liang building the former building that is now amk hub right? It was next to the old ntuc building . Was it in the 80s or 90s?

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