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Balestier’s vintage shops hold on to fading trade

SINGAPORE — Hoping to scare off an eager buyer, Mr Lim Seah Seng once demanded S$5 million for the 1,600sqf space occupied by his optical shop along Balestier Road.

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SINGAPORE — Hoping to scare off an eager buyer, Mr Lim Seah Seng once demanded S$5 million for the 1,600sqf space occupied by his optical shop along Balestier Road.

To his surprise, the buyer readily agreed to the price. Still, Mr Lim rejected the offer out of hand. “My late father said, ‘no selling’, and so as his children, we listen,” said the 59-year-old boss of Lim Kay Khee Optical Shop.

With its vintage floor tiles, stools and ceiling fans, Mr Lim’s Balestier shop — he owns another one in Peninsula Plaza, which has a more modern feel — appears to be stuck in a time warp. The shop has been a part of his life for almost half a century, going back to the days when he helped his father with the business after school.

Vintage shops such as Mr Lim’s stand out among the budget hotels and eateries along Balestier Road, though only a handful of them are left. They are remnants of a past era and their owners have had to reinvent their business to keep up with the times — while holding on to traditions. For these owners, they are able to keep their businesses afloat despite the dwindling revenue because they do not have to pay rentals for the shop space they own.

Mr Jimmy Chin, 65, has been running Chop Wah Hin Sheet Metal Works since the 1970s. In the past, residents in the area would go to the shop to buy kettles and dustbins. Today, Mr Chin mostly makes industrial items such as pipe joints. While there used to be as many as four metal smiths in the Balestier area, there is only one left now.

“Are we a dying trade? I don’t think so,” Mr Chin said. “I prefer to call it a fading trade. No one wants to take over and the business simply fades.”

Whampoa Colour Centre owner A K Ong, who is in his mid-60s, started his business in 1983, when film processing shops could be found almost everywhere. “It used to be a very good business to be in because people needed to develop their photos after taking them,” he said. “But now, no one wants to print photos any more; it’s all digital.” Still, in a bid to evolve the business, Mr Ong has learnt to edit pictures on computers and invested in laser photo printers from Japan because he believes there is still demand for quality prints. These days, the centre’s regular customers are professional shutterbugs, he said.

Mr Lim said during his shop’s heyday, he sold more than 100 spectacle frames a day — 10 times more than what he is able to sell now. “We don’t offer any of the branded frames that young people like,” he said.

He recalled an incident when a regular customer took his son to the shop to make a pair of glasses. “The young boy was not impressed with the range (of spectacle frames) and the ambience (of the shop), so I told him to head to our Peninsula Plaza shop to get more ‘youthful-looking’ frames,” he said.

A week later, the boy returned to the Balestier shop and left as a happy customer after buying a pair of spectacles. “You see, it’s just messier here, but there are nice frames as well,” Mr Lim said.

Most of these vintage shops are on their last legs and the shutters would fall once their owners, who are getting on in their years, call it a day. Mr Lim said his daughter, a trained optician, is mulling over whether to take over the business. The next generation will have their own ways of doing things, he noted wistfully.

Over the decades, Balestier Road — named after Joseph Balestier, the first American Consul in Singapore — has transformed from a swampy ground into an area bustling with vehicular traffic and flanked by swanky condominiums. Its distinctive shophouses — and Balestier’s rich heritage, for that matter — are increasingly concealed.

Mr Lim said: “When there were still kampungs, people would come by the shops and visit. Now, everyone here owns a car and they don’t even walk by the shops, let alone know they exist.”

Balestier is home to the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, the Masjid Hajjah Rahimabi Kebun Limau and the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple, among other historical sites, and efforts are under way to preserve the area’s heritage — including dedicated blogs set up by the youth and an official Balestier Heritage Trail created by the National Heritage Board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Like the historical sites, the presence of the vintage shops is often overlooked by younger residents, who said they did not realise they were there until they paid closer attention. Yet, once they looked, they found the hidden gems — just like the boy who returned to Mr Lim’s shop. ALFRED CHUA

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