Singapore may still be considered a young nation but often, the same neighbourhood holds disparate memories. To millennials, Tiong Bahru is best known for its appeal of picture perfect cafes and bohemian bookstores. Yet, to the pioneer generation, it was once the ‘Hollywood of Singapore’.
While this mature estate risks death by gentrification, it is comforting to know that not all has been lost to the sands of time. Tucked away in an unassuming corner of Tiong Bahru, Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co is a third generation old-school provision shop rarely seen these days.
Walking in, a wave of nostalgia hit me as I recalled a long-forgotten childhood memory of visiting the neighbourhood mama shop daily after primary school. Despite Tiong Bahru’s rapid development, it felt like the provision shop somehow managed to stand still in time.
However, Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co’s rustic charms should not be confused with an inventory of goods irrelevant to millennials who now frequent the area as this is more than your ordinary mama shop.
Keeping up with the times, you can expect to find balsamic vinegar, Vietnamese rice paper, bottled jalapenos and even quinoa among other ‘atas food’ (as coined by Singaporeans) in this provision shop.
Speaking to third generation owner Mr Rodney Goh, he points out the need for his shop to stay competitive in these times where one can easily find supermarkets such as NTUC or Giant in every neighbourhood and heartland mall.
Also, with the changing profile of residents in Tiong Bahru, he had to make these changes so as to better cater to their needs. Apart from regulars, Mr Goh has noticed a rise in foreign customers as expats from Europe, China and the Philippines started moving in over the years.
Despite having to make adjustments based on shifts in demand, some items such as these wooden clogs have been in stock since his grandfather first started Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co back in 1938. Solely from browsing what is sold in this shop, one can discern its long history.
Being able to trace how far Singapore has come just from the kind of goods you can find in a provision shop of close to eight decades, is something that you don’t learn from National Education lessons in school.
In this day and age where many old-school provision shops struggle to survive amidst strong competition from supermarkets, Mr Goh admits that business is definitely slower as compared to its prime back in the ’80s, but is still profitable.
He also mentioned how the wet market opposite helps bring in customers looking to restock on condiments or other dry goods after buying their weekly haul of fresh produce there.
Unlike supermarkets, I feel that a certain bond exists between customers and shop owners in these humble spaces; akin to the long-forgotten ‘kampung spirit’ we often hear about from our parents.
When I was there, I noticed how some customers came in just to complain about various unhappy events they recently experienced, causing Mr Goh to playfully label his shop as a ‘complain centre’ for residents here. He goes the extra mile as well by providing delivery services within a 5km radius.
Mr Goh explains that some of his elderly customers have difficulty leaving their house so he brings what they need to them instead. These elements add a certain warmth to the whole experience — something you don’t get at the supermarket.
Before leaving, I asked Mr Goh if he has plans to pass down this ‘family heirloom’ to the next generation and “it depends” was his answer. He went on to clarify how it’s really up to his children’s desire in continuing this family business and he doesn’t want to force it on them against their will.
Although Tiong Bahru is now better known as a popular hipster district to millennials, don’t forget to check out this cosmopolitan provision shop the next time you are there. It’s about time we start making an effort before crucial parts of our history are lost forever.
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