I am in search of party hats and party horns — you know, those cone-shaped hats made from a rolled-up piece of reflective cardboard, with a thin elastic band to go under your chin; and those curled-up paper blowers that unfurl with an unabashed BAAAAAH when you blow into it.
It’s a comical sight to see adults using these props but we often embrace them with enthusiasm; for many of us, they remind us of our childhoods, of a time of fun and familiarity. Where I would find these props, there was no question. I couldn’t go anywhere but to the store that saw me through my childhood — that party shop at Holland Village.
A familiar place that puts me at ease
Khiam Teck has been located along the same stretch of stores at Holland Village for
years. Despite its neighbours giving way to more modern chains like Starbucks and Decathlon, Khiam Teck stands the test of time.
With its mass of old-timey plastic toys, hula hoops, inflated soccer balls, and giant balloons that spill out into the corridor, Khiam Teck is a blast from the past. Just walking past the shop brings a sense of comfort in its simplicity and familiarity.
Hidden behind this frenzy of colour hangs an object, greatly valuable, that speaks of the store’s history. A traditional Chinese wooden signboard, carved with Khiam Teck’s name in Chinese characters and its Romanised words. It is very old, the words difficult to make out. The sign looks like it has weathered many storms, and indeed, this store has. Founded by Khiam Teck before World War II, the eponymous store has been running since 1933.
Khiam Teck has since passed the shop down to his three children – two sons and a daughter, who now own the store.
I have the privilege of striking a conversation with ‘Auntie’ (said with a Singaporean lilt, Aun-teeeee), as she is affectionately called by many. Auntie declines to give me her full name and is uncomfortable with being photographed, a reflection perhaps of her desire to simply be known as ‘Auntie’, a maternal, caring role she perfectly embodies.
When I step into Khiam Teck, Auntie has pink curlers in her hair – precisely the plastic ones my own 婆婆 uses. Just like my grandma, Auntie is going about her work, utterly unfazed by the curlers. It is a familiar sight; I immediately feel at ease.
The effects of digitalisation, worsened by Covid-19
Our conversation starts slow, partly due to my O-level Oral type Mandarin and her initial reticence to speak at length with strangers on matters not immediately pertaining to what kind of aluminium foil balloon I am interested in.
I ask how business at Khiam Teck is. She smiles but shakes her head resignedly, saying, “不好, (not good,)” going on to explain that with Covid-19 and more people shopping online, it has been difficult to stay in business.
When the two disruptors Auntie talks about, e-commerce and Covid-19, occur simultaneously as they did last year, the difficulty faced by shop owners already struggling to keep up with digitalisation is amplified, seen too often nowadays as we lose familiar names and neighbourhood faces.
Over the past 88 years of Khiam Teck’s operation, Auntie doesn’t recall a period more difficult than last year’s circuit breaker. She notes that even Singapore’s previous health crisis, SARS in 2003, doesn’t come close. The hardest aspect is her inability to keep the shop open. Auntie says simply: “If we’re open, we can have some business.”
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At Khiam Teck, if its shutters are down, the shop is closed. Covid-19 saw a boom in online shopping, but Khiam Teck doesn’t have a strong online presence and thus no alternative mode for business.
I ask Auntie if she hopes to have an online store. She looks at me and nods firmly, “当然要! (of course!)” but she doesn’t know how. She does, however, have the help of a friend: A working adult who helps her put shop information and products online from time to time. For instance, Khiam Teck is mentioned in a Facebook group and even has some items listed on Shopee. However, the interest from these platforms is very low.
Perhaps the sadder takeaway from our conversation is that Covid-19 has merely exacerbated an inescapable trend. With the rise of e-commerce in the last 20 years, people are shopping online much more, or at least browsing online before visiting the shop in-person.
Shop owners, especially the traditional brick-and-mortar ones, need to adapt by strengthening their online presence. By her remarks on e-commerce, Auntie is clearly aware of this trend, and guesses that customers only buy from her when something isn’t available or convenient to get online.
This trend is reflected in the fewer customers she sees today as compared to 20 years ago.
A less communal attitude towards buying
It’s not just a decrease, but a change in the type of customers who visit. Auntie notes that there are fewer returning customers these days, most are one-timers. She says, “现在没有人情味 (nowadays, society has lost that human touch)” and customers tend to look at shops from a transactional point of view – price is king.
At this point, I realise I am guilty of this thinking. Although I am at Khiam Teck to buy party props, if I had found something similar online, I would’ve bought them without hesitation.
While I do treasure my childhood memories at Khiam Teck, that doesn’t automatically translate to me buying from them. I would still go for the cheaper or more convenient option, loyalty and nostalgia notwithstanding. The realisation makes me feel uneasy.
Auntie chuckles as she recalls her regulars. There are customers who frequented her store as children, who come back as parents with their own kids to buy toys and party decorations.
This is born out of a familiarity with Khiam Teck and a desire for their children to create the same fond memories they had, she says.
Auntie happily recounts a customer who has moved far away from Holland Village, but still makes the journey back to Khiam Teck to buy party props, simply out of loyalty.
Talking to her, it is easy to see how customers return to Khiam Teck not just for the toys, but for the familiarity and rapport with its owners. In my first interaction (as an adult!) with Auntie, her calm, friendly spirit and familiar pink curlers give me a sense of what her regular customers must feel – a kind of belonging.
Another time, Auntie tells me, a secondary school student walked into her store and asked, “Auntie, 你记得我吗? (do you remember me?)” The student turned out to be a customer who regularly frequented Khiam Teck while in primary school.
That simple memory showed me the impact Auntie had on one person’s life, a student who cared enough to remember and visit her. Theirs is a bond that goes beyond a customer-seller relationship.
Even more than the story itself, it is the way she reminisced, chuckling under her breath and crinkling her face with a smile under her mask that made me think how much more important these relationships are than saving a few dollars and cents.
Communal spirit at the heart of Khiam Teck
Unfortunately, it is clear that Khiam Teck has many forces against it.
Auntie is struggling to keep up with online competition, Covid-19 is driving away her walk-in customers, and she doesn’t know what else to do.
Khiam Teck’s future seems bleak to me. But Auntie remains stoic. Throughout our conversation, she continues to go about her work, inflating balloons and preparing a product catalogue, all with a casual confidence of having done this for a long time, with curlers in her hair, no less.
She certainly worries about Khiam Teck’s future. But when I ask for her closing thoughts about Covid-19 and its effect on businesses, she still says in Mandarin: “Stay at home – especially children – don’t come out so much. Wait for [the pandemic] to be over.”
Auntie cares for her shop but true to form, her priority still remains for her customers, for them to be safe, rather than for her business to be sound.
This care for her community is a symbol of why these shops are so important to our keeping our kampung spirit alive and a sign why we should treasure them and the people who run them before they disappear.
I turn to go, and I look back to wish her good luck, but Auntie is already busy tidying up behind the counter. I’ll come back to buy more party decorations, I promise myself. It’s not much, but perhaps it’ll help her tide over a bit longer and I get to reminisce with her a little more.