Provision Shops: Singapore’s Dying Trade

In a changing world, some choose to look towards the future whilst others take the time to stand and acknowledge the significance of the past – specifically focusing on the ways in which it has shaped a national identity. In Singapore it is the National Heritage Board, chaired by Mr Ong Yew Hua, who take on this task.

In recent years there has been a focus on the dwindling numbers of traditional trades – with the board, in early July 2015, releasing their E-book, ‘Traditional Provisional Shops’, aiming to inform about the trades history, heritage and place within modern society.

Unbeknownst to many, traditional shops such as this played and, to a degree, still play a significant role in Singaporean Communities.  The early provisional shops, going as far back as the 1920s, functioned as the ‘hubs’ of communities. Often being the only locations where locals had accessibility to every-day goods, in addition to being the only locations with official address, telephones and electricity.

The success of such enterprises was due to their necessity within the community.  A marker of unity in times of economic uncertainty; the shops were a symbol of communal harmony, where owners established good relationships with their customers – sometimes offering customized services such as delivery and credit.

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1970s, Rural Provision Shop – Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore

In 1960s the booming economy brought about a rise in the presence of provisional shops – making them common place in the experience of everyday life in Singapore. This commercial appeal of the provisional shop carried on and by the mid-1970s there were more than 2,000 shops in operation.

Unfortunately, since this era of ‘brisk business’, there has been a steady decline in the number provision shops – so much so that now only less than 200 provision shops are still in operation. Yet, despite this decline those that are still operating have shown resilience.  All across Singapore, stand the businesses that proudly carry on their craft in spite of it all; preserving an integral part of Singapore’s identity, heritage and culture.

Where would one be able to find such a store, you ask? Well, shadowed by the exuberant malls and the contemporary Singaporean city-scapes; tucked away in varying nooks, within various districts across the island, stands a symbol of the Heartlands: the humble provision shop. From Pulau Ubin’s Tan Chee Liang (est. 1930) to east Singapore’s’ Sin Hoe Tan (est. 1920) and  Teck Whye Provision Shop ( est. 1980) in the west – these are the surviving trades within which one may come across an unlikely assortments of  simple items for sale. These are the survivors which hold a sense of nostalgia for so many – especially those alive in the 1960s/1970s.

In 2015, the National Heritage Board interviewed 18 store owners inquiring as to how their business had endured. Collectively, all called attention to the decline in regular customers as the result of the changing needs of the community. Yet, pointed out that despite this, they were still able to make a profit – mostly thanks to the business given by ‘passers-by’.

Evidently, the stability of the modern provision shop, especially for those in the outlying and enclosed districts, is largely thanks the support shown by surrounding communities. Despite the lack of regular customers and in-spite of increasing competition from larger retailers, these trades are prevailing with persistence.

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Overall the prevalence of these trades point to Singapore’s concerns regarding national identity. It could be argued that the centrality of the community, in addition of the government’s’ role in the preservation of such trades (as exemplified through the actions taken by the Heritage Board), points to society’s need for the preservation of an older, ‘more simpler’ Singaporean identity. Highlighting Singapore’s ongoing battle between modernity and tradition- a struggle evidently intertwined with the narrative of the provisional shops- where the youth are expected to evolve along with the ongoing changes of the city, whilst simultaneously hold on to their heritage, meanwhile the elderly are disregarded.

Many have argued that it is Singapore’s yearning for progression which has led to the decline in traditional trades.  However, I would argue that, in actuality it is the city’s desire for the preservation of tradition which has hindered its progression.

Yes, the triumph of the trade is down to the community but this does not negate from the fact that these communities are entirely self-serving and thus isolate themselves from one another. The shops may be able to survive from the business of passing strangers but to attain commercial success they must repair the channels of communication which have disintegrated over the years; for that is what made them remarkable.

Traditional trades much look towards modernity to attain attention from the general public. Although many provision shops are located within enclosed estates, which restrict their business, physical visibility is a minor issue when one is able to utilize technological means – such as the internet. However, very few operate online via social networking due the generational gap and sadly, this has rendered them invisible to all, but passers-by.

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Visit to Sin Tien Lin Provision Shop

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Filming featurette interviews of provision shop workers

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Iconic biscuit tins, locked in shop storage room 

 

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Interview with owner of provision shop

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Visits from government officials

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Traditional Kueh Dessert From HarriAnns

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Staff at HarriAnns

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Filming at HorriAnn

Watch the finished video, produced for IQ, as part of NM48803D NUS communication Module.

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