The past few decades have not been kind to stamp collectors.
It’s one of those by-products of the rise of technology — with email and text messaging, paper correspondence is becoming a thing of the past.
Nowadays, we open our letterboxes to flyers, brochures and bills, none of which use postage stamps!
And with the dearth of letters and postcards comes the death of postage stamps. Once a stationery essential, beloved by collectors, stamps are slowly being rendered obsolete, doomed to become a curio of the past.
Elsie Yap would know — she has been in the business for sixty years.
As the owner of Kenneth Fish Stamps, Auntie Elsie, as I call her, has seen firsthand how the demand for stamps has drastically fallen.
In its heyday during the 70s and 80s, Kenneth Fish Stamps was the stomping grounds of stamp enthusiasts, who would visit the store in search for new entries to their collections. In addition to local Singapore stamps, the shop also sold stamps from other countries, including Japan, Borneo, and Malaysia.
However, those days are long gone.
While she still sells stamps, Auntie Elsie has expanded her offerings to include postcards as well as a laundry service. Her third-floor unit in Holland Road Shopping Centre is shared with a photo studio to split the rent.
Despite all these measures, she still does not break even.
Auntie Elsie chalks it up to a sign of the times — youngsters nowadays, she explains, don’t really write letters or collect stamps.
“I think they have other things to do,” she adds with a tired smile.
Despite this, the 77-year-old is determined to keep her store running for as long as she can. It’s more than just a business to her — Kenneth Fish Stamps is the result of a promise she made, and after so many decades, it has become a home of sorts for her and her customers.
From 1962 to 2022
The year was 1962 — the first James Bond film was released, the Beatles’ dropped their debut single “Love Me Do”, and Singapore voted in a referendum to join the Malay Federation. It was also the year that Auntie Elsie began working as a shop assistant for Kenneth Fish, the owner of a stamp store on High Street, right next to St Andrew’s Cathedral in town.
“That was donkeys’ years ago,” she tells me, laughing, “I was only seventeen then.”
Before she got that job, Auntie Elsie worked part-time selling magazines outside The Cathay Building, the heritage building that later became home to the iconic Cathay Cineplex, which recently announced the closure of its branch there. It was her father, an avid Singapore stamp collector, who suggested that she find a full-time position with the expatriate stamp expert.
“He asked me to go see Mr Fish, and to see whether he would take me on,” she recounts, “when I went there, he hired me straightaway!”
Auntie Elsie has been there ever since.
In the 1970s, the store moved from High Street to the newly-opened Holland Road Shopping Centre. There, it thrived, and the duo continued to attract a wide range of customers.
As an amateur stamp collector in Singapore herself, Auntie Elsie loved working in the store. Her boss, whom she still refers to respectfully as Mr Fish, had come to Singapore from Britain as a soldier during World War II, and stayed on because he loved the country. He taught her about stamps — the history behind them, how they should be handled, and more.
“He was wonderful,” says Auntie Elsie, “when Mr Fish was on his deathbed, I promised that I’d carry on for as long as I could.”
And she has been keeping to that promise.
For the love of stamps
Yet business is far from prosperous — in fact, most days are very quiet. While Auntie Elsie has built up a good list of regulars over the years, many have since passed away, or are no longer able to visit the shop.
It’s another sign of the times, a reminder that stamp collectors, and the hobby itself, are slowly becoming a relic of the past.
Nevertheless, Auntie Elsie strives on.
While she no longer seeks out rare stamps to buy and sell, she cherishes what she has, and takes good care of them.
When I visit the store on a quiet morning, Auntie Elsie takes out the file containing some old stamps to show them to me.
Like the shop, the stamps are part of Mr Fish’s legacy. Even now, traces of him linger, through his handwritten labels, and the memories that Auntie Elsie shares as she flips through the folder.
Each small collection is accompanied by an explanation about the stamp’s origins — some bear the face of a young Queen Elizabeth II, others make reference to the Straits Settlements, dating back even to colonial times.
Auntie Elsie admits to me that she has not been the most meticulous in tracking the value of her stamps — while they aren’t the most expensive ones (rare stamps can cost thousands of dollars!), some do cost a pretty penny, and have probably increased in value over the years.
“Sometimes, I’m scared to take them out and show them (to strangers),” she explains, “because they can just take the folder and run away. What would I do then?”
To her, stamps have more than just a monetary value — they’re a way of learning more about the world around her.
“Back then, a lot of people would come in to tell us that their children (after taking up stamp-collecting), became well-informed and thoughtful,” Auntie Elsie shares, “they know about where they came from, and it’s good, because they learn.”
A wealth of knowledge
In 2015, at the request of some of her customers, Humans of Singapore, a local group dedicated to documenting the stories of Singaporeans, shared a Facebook post about Auntie Elsie and her business.
“She is fantastic, and a wealth of knowledge,” reads one comment. Another commenter calls her the “nicest lady around”, and still more heap compliments on her.
It’s clear that Auntie Elsie, with her gentle nature and warmth, has made a positive impact on the people around her.
“Sometimes, customers become like friends. They’ll come in to say hi, chit-chat for a bit,” she shares, “there aren’t many people who collect stamps anymore, so it’s nice (to have people come in and visit).”
Auntie Elsie is one of the subjects of the Everyday Elderly series by Hey, You Got Mail! (HYGM), which shares the stories of inspiring seniors pursuing their passions.
Everyday Elderly aims to feature one senior each month, and share their stories and experiences through their social media posts, so do be on the lookout for that!
Other stories you might like
Kenneth Fish Stamps can be found at 211 Holland Avenue, Holland Road Shopping Centre, #03-48. The store opens from 10 am to 5.15 pm from Monday to Saturday, and 11.30 am to 3.30 pm on Sundays.