Provision shops. Once a common sight in Singapore, having reached its peak in the mid-seventies with more than 2,000 of them scattered all around the country. As development gathered pace, and shopping of groceries made easier with the opening of modern supermarkets, mini-marts and convenience stores, many traditional provision shops are facing an uncertain future. Today, less than 150 provision shops are still in business. Many have been struggling with the stiffer competition and lack of successors. The iconic Tian Kee, located at Dakota Crescent for more than 50 years, had pulled down its shutters for the final time two years ago.
While many of the traditional provision shops are located among the HDB flats, there is a special one worth mentioning, one that is housed in an old-styled single-storey bungalow with a blue zinc roof at the junction of Rosyth and Sandilands Roads, off Yio Chu Kang Road. Named Tee Seng Store, it is one of the few landed properties in Singapore that also serves as a provision shop.
Tee Seng Store was established in the fifties. The owner of the shop, Mr Ang, first worked there in 1955 after completing his primary education. He later took over the business from his former boss. And for almost half a century, he has been faithfully running his humble shop that doubles as his long-time home with his wife, where the 6,000 square feet property is partitioned into a shop, bedroom and kitchen. Now in his 70s, it is a matter of time before Mr Ang retires. With his three children not keen to continue the business, his vintage provision shop, like many others, will likely walk into the history.
Tee Seng Store serves mainly the landed houses around Rosyth Road, thus it is common to see domestic maids doing their grocery purchases every day. From their regular contacts, Mr Ang is able to pick up several languages over the years, including English, Bahasa Indonesian, Thai, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
Like most traditional provision shops, Tee Seng Store sells a wide range of basic necessities from toiletries, detergents and washing powder to canned food, instant cup noodles, packet drinks and bags of rice. The goods are stacked neatly on the wooden shelves and cupboards that are virtually unchanged in the past few decades, except for some repairs due to wear and tear.
Little vintage gems can also be found inside the provision shop, as though they have been frozen in time. Old black power switches and sockets are attached to the wooden beams, same as those that were once commonly found in households many decades ago. A wooden weight, in the shape of a beer bottle, was once used to balance a Milo tin can that functioned as a “cashier box”. And not forgetting a pair of vintage metal trays printed with Coca Cola and F&N advertisements that Mr Ang displays proudly in his shop.
Although provision shops are usually opened and owned by ethnic Singaporean Chinese, the Muslim and Indian provision shops have been fairly common in the past too. In the sixties and seventies when there were still many kampongs, provision shops became a vital amenity that provided much needed convenience to the villagers. To be able to open a provision shop with sufficient supply of goods required certain amount of capital. Therefore, the towkays of provision shops back then were viewed as doing considerably well.
Some provision shops in the past also sold petrol and diesel. One example was Yong Seng, situated along Changi Road, that had pumps supplying Esso diesel to motorists. Such scenarios are no more today, as the oligopoly of the four oil giants rules the local retail petrol market in Singapore today, with each of them owning 30 or more petrol stations each. Provision shops were not restricted to mainland Singapore; outlying islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong also had provision shops to provide the daily necessities to the residents living on the island.
Unlike supermarkets or convenience stores, provision shop owners built up good relationships with their customers, often by giving credits, a practice that some traditional provision shops still observe today, or home delivery services. There were other traditions too, one of which was the distribution of customary soft drinks to customers during Chinese New Years. In the late sixties and early seventies, each provision shop gave out some 700 cases of soft drinks every year. This tradition, however, stopped in 1973 when many provision shops were hit by the rising costs and overheads.
Traditional provision shops in Singapore had been facing challenges since the early eighties. Even the petrol service stations started offering groceries at discounted prices. With the mushrooming of competitors, more than 100 provision shops decided to remodel themselves in a bid to survive. They were renovated and converted into self-service mini-markets (mini-marts) with uniform logos, identical shop layouts and similar prices. Centralised bulk purchases, advertising and promotion campaigns were carried out to give the new shops the edge over others. By 1982, more than 50 provision shops had successfully converted to mini-marts.
Many decades have since gone by. Some had changed their business model. Others had opened and shut down. Those that have remained today are likely to struggle. Will the traditional provision shops officially walk into history one day? Or will they be able to stand the test of time? Perhaps next time when you walk past a traditional provision shop, show your support by buying some canned drinks or chocolate bars from them.
Published: 26 May 2015