By Hana Chen
An old mercury thermometer once displayed in a Chinese medicine hall. A blowtorch repurposed as an electric lamp. Vintage technology of all sorts — transistor radios, old television sets and even typewriters.
These are just a few of the more unusual collectibles at By My Old School, a vintage shop in Commonwealth that boasts a collection of over 10,000 items, each with their own colourful history.
The store was started in 2011 by Winston Wong, 74, and his daughter Rebecca, 45 — but the immense vintage collection that makes up the store’s inventory actually began decades earlier — back when Uncle Winston bought his earliest collectible with his first paycheck.
At that time, he was fascinated by miniature die-cast model cars.
Uncle Winston, as I call him, was fascinated with these small toys. They were a way for him and his peers to own replicas of the life-sized automobiles that they had often marvelled at, and so he began his first collection.
As the years went by, the scope of his collection grew, expanding beyond die-cast cars into antique tools, naval memorabilia — pretty much any collectible that caught Uncle Winston’s interest.
Slice of history
“I don’t collect for the sake of collecting,” says Uncle Winston in the video, “My love is always centred around the artistic value (of the item)… then I go back into history.”
It’s a sentiment that he echoes when I visit his store on a rainy afternoon.
“These collectibles are enduring,” he shares, “It is natural that you read up as much as you can about that particular trade or tool.”
He likes to know everything about the items that he collects — what they were used for, how they were made, even the materials used to make each particular item, and how they affected the object’s functionality.
While Uncle Winston enjoys learning about his collectibles through books and research, some of the knowledge he has comes from talking to other collectors whom he trades items with.
“We have friends running shops, or keeping things out of their interest,” he says, “social media makes it very fast to share ideas… when they find something new, they share it.”
Having a community of like-minded vintage enthusiasts doesn’t just help him learn more about his own collectibles — it was also one of the reasons why he and his daughter chose to open their shop.
The duo used to host garage sales over the weekends, as a way of clearing some excess items in their collection. These garage sales often gave Uncle Winston the opportunity to trade with other collectors, and it motivated him to open By My Old School.
When the shop first opened just over a decade ago, he was still working in the civil service. Rebecca was a writer and editor at interior design magazine Home and Decor, and both of them continued balancing their full-time jobs while running the store.
Eventually, Uncle Winston retired and Rebecca decided to focus on the store full-time. Today, Uncle Winston spends his time as an in-house historical consultant and advisor for the shop, a position that allows him to share on the many unusual tidbits of knowledge that he has picked up over the years.
Step into the past
Stepping into the store immediately brings you back to bygone days.
By My Old School brims with nostalgia, and the extensive collection of items means that there bounds to be something that will capture your attention.
“We have themed concept corners,” explains Rebecca, “like the kopitiam, like a bookshelf area, or the kitchen area… so that people can also relate better to the things.”
“The challenge is to know where everything is, and what people are looking for,” she laughs. Having a designated space for each section of their vintage collection makes it easier for her to find what is needed.
Like her father, Rebecca’s passion for vintage objects isn’t just about the item itself, but also understanding the history behind it. As she moves around the store, she shares small nuggets of information about different collectibles and their functions.
“The beauty of what we collect is actually a lot of the everyday stuff from the past, that people don’t have the space (to store),” she says, “a lot of these things were treasured by the people who used to own them… (they don’t want to see them) being thrown away.”
Other stories you might like
Instead, people reach out to the Wongs to see if they can rehome the items, trusting that the father-daughter duo are able to appreciate each vintage piece, and find them new owners who might appreciate their heritage value.
That said, running a vintage collectible shop is a double-edged sword. While there’s a growing appreciation for vintage items, some items have become obsolete, having no function or purpose in a modern home beyond being a decorative piece.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult for Uncle Winston and Rebecca to say no to some of the items that cross their path, even if there’s no commercial demand for such items.
After all, the store isn’t just a business, it’s a passion.
“I’m not buying to resell immediately,” explains Uncle Winston, “even though there might be a profit to it. I’ll keep it because I appreciate the value, and I appreciate where I buy it from, and who I talk to.”
Like how Rebecca said in an interview with Home and Decor: “I always feel extremely grateful that the things we have fell into our hands, that we are able to save them and appreciate them before handing them over to the next owner. I see the value in everything and try not to discard items easily, which is also not good when storage space is limited!”
Rather than just let the items sit in storage though, Rebecca and Uncle Winston have found other ways to share their appreciation with others.
For example, they rent out vintage items for productions and events.
It’s a solution that works for all parties. Most of the props available for rent — old cookware, industrial tools, and more — aren’t meant for everyday use despite being in good condition. Thus, they serve as perfect props for production companies for one-off use.
Driven by passion
At the end of the day, it’s about appreciating the vintage items for what they are, and what they offer.
While vintage objects — whether it is fashion, furniture, or everything in between — have been making a comeback, it’s the enthusiasm and passion of collectors like Uncle Winston and Rebecca that have built the foundation for this revival.
Without their commitment to preserving and appreciating these items, many would have been lost or carelessly discarded. As Rebecca says, you have to know where you came from to appreciate what you have now.
For Uncle Winston, collecting has also helped him throughout his golden years.
“My advice is to do it for yourself,” he shares. He says that his passion for seeking out and learning about his vintage collectibles helps him keep his mind active and nimble.
Other stories you might like
Uncle Winston’s video is the fourth in the Everyday Elderly series by Hey, You Got Mail! (HYGM), which aims to raise awareness about the issues faced by seniors. Previous features in the series include Uncle Chris, Uncle Jeffrey, and Uncle Wellie, all inspiring seniors pursuing their passions through their golden years.
Everyday Elderly plans on featuring one video story a month on its social media, so be on the lookout for upcoming features!
If you’re interested in visiting By My Old School, drop them an email at [email protected], or contact them at 9879 2088! Visits are by appointment only. Alternatively, they can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Carousell.