Traditional provision shops occupy a special place in the hearts of Singaporeans who grew up in the 1960s to the mid 1980s. Tucked away in the residential sprawl just off Yio Chu Kang Road, near Rosyth Road is Tee Seng Store, believed to be the only landed house in Singapore that doubles as a provision shop. I decided to visit the shop and do a photograph documentation of the place. This is one of the few remaining provision shops in Singapore and one that may hold memories for long time customers. It is a quaint shop, typical of the many provision shops we had in the Singapore of old before they started disappearing with economic development and competition.
Residents from the surrounding neighbourhood gathered around to converse and exchange about their daily happenings as they made purchases of household items and various necessities. The memories of serving an assortment of snacks and drinks, after school, to the men who gathered around the small tables to chat and joke. In essence, the provision shop was more than a mere store selling goods and offering services, like the wet markets, it was a venue of affection, friendship and wondrous connection.
Times have changed and many might opine that the advent of a variety of communication channels has made keeping in touch more accessible and efficient. Yet, the “human touch” of these smaller traditional shops, in the form of personalised service, familiarity of the staff and the tremendous attention to details remain inimitable for the large grocery chains.
Tee Seng Store was established in the 1950s, the current owner started working at the store when he was in his teens and took over from his boss a few years later until now.
The house beside the provision shop belongs to the same owner. It is just as unusual as the provision shop, with stone walls, wooden doors, old window grills and a worn-out letterbox.
Inside the shop, time stood still. The old cupboards have seen better days. Many objects have a story to tell.
The shop is stacked full of goods. One can see stackloads of goodies in old cupboards and on the concrete floor. Perhaps only the proprietors know full well how to locate items compacted within the space.
Many younger generations have little desire to continue this struggling business which their forefathers had guarded religiously in the past decades. The proliferation of major convenience stores in heartland neighbourhoods has posed significant threats to smaller provision shops. Even though economically it is definitely logical for larger, well-equipped corporations to out-wrestle their smaller counterparts, the nostalgia and cultural significance tagged to the provision shops – affectionately known as “mama” shops, makes it an unfortunate pity.
Like "mama" shops, these old-school provision shops that sell everything from daily necessities, drinks and snacks are vanishing slowly but surely. A familiar and iconic fixture in HDB estates for children who grew up the 80s, these provision shops were known for using rusty Milo tins to keep spare change and coins and customers were allowed to pay on a weekly interest-free credit. Or even just a place where neighbours could simply gather to chit-chat.
Many traditional provision shops still in existence today are managed by owners who are advanced in age but remain committed towards keeping the shops in operation for as long as their health permits. These owners regard their shops as a significant part of their lives and are unwilling to face the prospect of winding down a business which they have painstakingly built up over the years. It is definitely an uphill task for such traditional provision shops to continue to survive and thrive. Wherever possible, let all of us progress without losing too much of our valuable heritage and memories in Singapore.