The district of Geylang Serai is well-known among the Muslim community for the wide array of traditional clothing sold. Away from the crowd on the second floor of Joo Chiat Complex, Mr Ismail Alkhatib has been running his family-owned business — selling crystal ornaments for 38 years. “I can say, I am probably one of the few left in Singapore selling these items that are brought in from Turkey,” he mentioned.
“It is a family-owned business, passed down through generations. My grandfather was the one who brought in the crystal ornaments upon meeting the suppliers in Turkey. The partnership remains strong till today,” he said. I had a glimpse around the shop, and the ornaments are undoubtedly stunning. Some of these ornaments are plated in gold while others are embellished with a brilliant crystal finish.
However, he felt that this business might not last in the future as it gets more competitive with online retailers. “Now everybody is buying things online, and that is definitely cheaper, I have been here 38 years, and I can see the number of people entering here being lesser. My children will also probably not carry on this business because young people now, will not want to do this kind of business anymore,” he quipped, shrugging his shoulders. Perhaps, it is true that the digital age is slowly replacing such traditional stores, a poignant reminder of the inevitable passing of time.
Mr Goh Kiok Seng is known to be the last rattan weaver in Singapore, and his business has been around in Singapore since 1969. As he is in his eighties now, the business is passed on to his son, Mr Patrick Goh—although he still makes his visit to the shop on the daily. More often than not, he will be passing his time while sitting on a rattan chair as he entertains the occasional curious guests.
”Everything you see here is hand-made, from the baskets to the chairs, all hand-made,” he mentioned as he pointed to the vast rattan materials stacked in the shop. It is a beautiful sight to behold as these rattan products are hardly ever found elsewhere. Even the good old cane that our parents used as a form of discipline can be found in the shop. “Nowadays, people rarely buy rattan things as they go for plastic products, that is why we have so much stock left over the years.”
“It is sad because this business will be gone in the future. Some of the younger kids these days don’t even know what rattan is, don’t even talk about weaving them. If they do not know, how can the business survive?” he remarked with a smile. It is hard to ignore the nostalgic feeling upon looking at all the products that the shop offers, and it is even harder to believe that soon, this shop will fade away as rattan becomes a thing of the past.
Known as “Ah Chye” among his colleagues, he sits at his table and wearily carries on tying pieces of wooden cables together. Ah Chye has been working at Yeo Swee Huat for around 35 years where traditional Chinese lanterns, costumes and figures are made. He flashed a tired smile as he continued taping the props together. “Just a normal day, I’m used to this.”
“This is just what we do on normal days. It gets busier during festive periods such as the Hungry Ghost Festival. You should be here then because the amount of work we had then was crazy,” he mentioned. There was little reason to doubt him as his colleagues also spoke about orders made to countries as far away as London. “We just fulfil the order. We do not know who it is for, usually the boss tells us what to do, he is the main one making the deals,” someone added. As I took a look around the entire production area, everyone was just busy performing their tasks and can only afford a polite nod.
“Even after 35 years, it is hard to say that I love this job. I grew up in the kampungs, my education level was not very high, so I had to do such labour intensive jobs to support my family and myself. Nobody likes to do this; we just have no choice. The future generation? Will you do this? I doubt it. Nobody now will want to do such jobs,” he mentioned with a poignant smile. I honestly could not have asked for more given his honesty, and it is indeed great to see the people there feeling refreshed seeing a young person entering and talking to them. “Thank you for coming and entertaining us,” he laughed.
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