Traditional Provision Shops – Can They Stand the Test of Time?

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.

tian kee provision shop 2011

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 at rosyth road1

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 at rosyth road2

tee seng store at rosyth road3

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.

tee seng store at rosyth road4

tee seng store at rosyth road5

tee seng store at rosyth road6

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.

tee seng store at rosyth road8

tee seng store at rosyth road7

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.

tee seng store at rosyth road9

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.

a muslim provision shop at everton road 1980s

indian provision shop at jalan kayu 1970s

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.

yong seng provision shop with diesel pumps at changi road

wing mow seng provision at pulau tekong 1979

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.

chee kow provision shop at jalan kayu 1970s

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

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11 Responses to Traditional Provision Shops – Can They Stand the Test of Time?

  1. jgnpnc says:

    Interesting read! Thanks for sharing.

  2. zzzisle says:

    ya, i still remember the milo tin cash register.

  3. keeveg says:

    These provision shops used to have a common “local name” used by various Chinese dialect – “cake i” 店 tiam (hokkien), tim (cantonese), ddiam (hainanese)

  4. Nickolas says:

    Looks closed in a recent Google street view. I hope being landed meant the shop keeper owned the land. A great deal of money to be made but a great shame. Yet more of Singapore’s soul being stripped away.

  5. Ex Jalan Kayu kid says:

    The R.N.Samy & Co provision shop had another 2 Chinese operated provision shops on either side of it. R.N. Samy granddaughter was in the same cohort with his right side neighbour competitor granddaughter in Jalan Kayu Primary School but they not in same class together.
    Samy main customers are not his fellow Tamils but Thai Construction Workers who were the FWs of choice in the 1980s. During those days, the shophouses along Jalan Kayu don’t even have flushing toilets and still count on Ministry of Environment for the “bucket” system. If I remember correctly, the flushing toilet only built around 1986/7 which to me was a waste of money as the forced resettlement notices had already served to the residents earlier.

  6. Sue says:

    Can anyone tell me if Tee Seng store is still in operation/if Mr Ang is still there?

  7. I guess there will also be a day when the familiar dried goods/fresh food -selling HDB grocery shops cease to exist….

    HDB grocers’ retirement marks ‘end of an era’

    04 August 2016
    The Straits Times

    Mr Peh Tang Chwee’s weight may be under 60kg and his age 67, but the physical demands of his job surpass those of many half his age.

    He would heft a basketful of cucumbers weighing almost 15kg with practised effort into his dried goods and fresh produce shop in Hougang. He would also haul sacks of onions and potatoes in and out of his shop, handling all the heavy lifting while his wife manned the cash register.

    The spry shop owner of Peh Tang Chwee Trading at Block 322, Hougang Avenue 5 has been running the business there with his wife, Madam Teo Say Hong, 63, for more than 30 years.

    When The Straits Times visited last week around noon, business was brisk. But Mr Peh’s day starts much earlier – around 4am.

    “I’ll come in hours before the sun rises, take out all the goods for the early morning customers, like hawkers and distributors,” Mr Peh said in Mandarin. He also speaks Hainanese. “My wife will come in a little later, at around 6am and together, we will start selling to the housewives and domestic helpers.”

    The elderly couple start packing up around 2pm daily. They rest only once a week, on Mondays. That has been their routine for the past three decades, but from Oct 1, the couple will retire and take it easy.

    Madam Teo said they could no longer work as hard or as long as they used to. “He used to be on his feet the entire day, packing and unpacking goods,” she said of her husband in Mandarin. “But in recent years, he has had to sit down more and more.”

    The Straits Times understands that the new owner will renovate the shop, and continue to sell dried goods and fresh food.

    Madam Teo said growing competition from supermarket chains and the change in shopping habits among the younger generation are also reasons they decided to retire.

    “We have our regulars, but young people prefer to shop at air-conditioned supermarkets, which offer loyalty programmes,” said Madam Teo. “Add that to the higher operational costs for utilities and supplies, and it’s about time for us to throw in the towel.”

    She said they plan to rest at home and spend more time with their five grandchildren after retirement.

    Mr Peh and Madam Teo’s two children have their own jobs – their son works in the heavy industries and their daughter is in sales.When the couple retire, it will be the end of a family business that started with Mr Peh’s father.

    Mr Peh and his father used to peddle dried goods and fresh produce from the back of a lorry, driving from kampung to kampung. They stopped doing that in the 1980s, when kampungs were replaced by new Housing Board estates.

    Mr Peh and his wife then bought the shop in Hougang and named it after himself.

    To their regular customers, their imminent retirement signals the end of an era. In the past, Mr Peh would let the poor decide for themselves how much they could pay for the things they buy, or they could pay later when they had the money, said Mr Ng Kiang Swee, 58, a taxi driver who has been a customer for more than 20 years.

    “They are good people; it’s hard to find people like them any more,” said Mr Ng.

    Madam Teo said they are looking forward to retirement. “It’s about time we took a break,” she said with a smile. “We don’t have any debts, so we need not be too worried about money after retirement.”

  8. Provision shop uncle: ‘It’s time to move on’

    23 September 2017
    The New Paper

    After almost seven decades of running a neighbourhood provision shop, Mr Wong Ah Chai is finally calling it a day.

    Tomorrow, the 80-year-old will close the shutters on Lian Seng Dept Store & Provision Shop at Block 678, Hougang Avenue 8, ending the three-generation family business for good. The shop, the size of a four-room HDB flat, will make way for a tuition centre.

    “I’m tired. I’ve been doing this for 69 years, and it’s hard work. If you were to work here, you would give up and leave after just three days,” said Mr Wong, wagging his finger.

    He declined to say how much he sold the shop for.

    Lian Seng’s roots can be traced back to Pulau Tekong, where Mr Wong was born. At 11, he began at his grandfather’s provision shop, which served 5,000 islanders. It also sold fish – some caught by Mr Wong, who loved to fish.

    After his marriage at 22, he took over the running of the store with his wife and their three sons. In 1987, the Wongs moved, following plans to turn Pulau Tekong into a military base. Given a relocation fee, they moved to a flat near the shop they were allocated in Hougang.

    Lian Seng was a hit, but when supermarket giants started coming up, business dwindled.

    “People came only to buy items they needed urgently. They buy everything else from supermarkets,” said eldest son Wong Woo Ling, 56.

    The rise of online grocers was another blow. When The New Paper visited on Wednesday, the shop was half-empty – Mr Wong had been clearing stock.

    “People tell me it’s a pity, but the business has run its course. It’s time to move on,” he said.

    A regular customer, Ms Sim Hui Hwang, said: “What makes them stand out from the retail giants is their warm and friendly service.”

    Retirement means Mr Wong can now go back to his childhood love. “I’ve arranged to take a boat out next week to go fishing,” he said with a smile.

  9. Last hurrah for 70-year-old Geylang mama shop

    The New Paper
    11 May 2018

    The Cheng Xing Provision Shop at 229B Geylang Road, which for more than 70 years sold items like cigarettes, vintage mugs and joss sticks, will open its doors for the last time this weekend. The shop had closed down last year but there will be two guided tours on Sunday to pay tribute to the business and its owners.

    The event is co-organised by media company Our Grandfather Story and social enterprise Geylang Adventures. A video featuring the shop’s former shopkeeper Madam Yeo Li Ying, 63, has been uploaded on Our Grandfather Story’s Facebook page.

    Visitors can read anecdotes from Madam Yeo about how they used a pulley system for their money tin, and how there was an attempt to rob them.

    The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s director of conservation management, Mr Kelvin Ang, will talk about conservation struggles in Singapore and the history of old shophouses. Old-school snacks such as fancy gem biscuits and glass-bottled soft drinks will be sold at the two-storey shophouse.

    Geylang Adventures founder Cai Yinzhou, 27, told The New Paper that Madam Yeo had shuttered for good last year, partly because of falling sales with the Liquor Control Act in 2015 and her husband’s death in 2016.

    The masters student at Singapore Management University said Madam Yeo had approached him for help to sell her items, as she had no space to keep them in her new Yishun home. Madam Yeo was clearing out the remaining items in her shop on Tuesday when TNP visited. She declined to be interviewed.

    Ms Cheah Wenqi, 23, one of the co-founders of Our Grandfather Story, said: “We felt it would have been a pity to just let this iconic old-school mama shop close down without a proper farewell.”

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