Not everything needs to be dollars and cents.
An old man came into my shop with his ye hu (椰胡, a Chinese string instrument) because he wanted to replace one string. A new set of string now costs $2 each but he insisted that my father sold him for 50 cents in the 1980s. As I understand he lives far away, I offered him 4 strings for $2, so that he can keep some spares and save his time and money travelling all the way just to buy one string. Some of these old customers like him like to visit my shop just to relive the memories of their good old days.
Other than traditional Chinese musical instruments, I also supply martial arts equipment, Chinese Wayang costumes, props and traditional Chinese embroidery tapestries. I’m lucky to have learned sewing from my grandfather and father because there are still those who prefer my hand sewn tapestries than those produced by machines today. I had a customer who brought in an old embroidery altar cloth owned by his grandmother for repair. Some of these older textile are very fragile and he entrusted the old tapestry to me as it can only be repaired by hand.
Eng Tiang Huat is my shop’s name and is also my grandfather’s name. He came alone to Singapore from Chaozhou China in 1936 and started a tailoring shop at No: 15 Merchant Road. Due to the crisis in China and communications breakdown during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, he was only able to finally bring them over after the Japanese occupation here in 1946.
When I was a child, my Ah Kong told me many things about his business. Some of his friends told him not to bother, because the younger generation don’t care about such things. His friends’ predictions were almost true, because I was influenced by Western culture as a young man. I even participated in a rock band! But maybe my Ah Kong had a feeling I was going to continue Eng Tiang Huat.
A temple once wanted to purchase some musical instruments for their ceremony but had some financial difficulty. My Ah Gong allowed them to take first and instead of paying later, he gave the instruments to the temple. Even when the temple people see me today, they still talk about my grandfather’s generosity.
Whenever there were happy occasions like Chinese New Year, neighbours came over to celebrate together. When there were sad events, such as my grandfather’s funeral, they were also here to help out like a big family.
The shop was also my playground. I remember playing with the sewing machine and getting the needle pierced into my finger. Didn’t hurt at first because all I could think about was my father scolding me.
Now when I think back, I learned many things from my father. Like the attention to details when making an ang cai; the stitches, the quality of tassels and laces, and accuracy of measurements which not many would notice. Those who noticed these little details will appreciate very much. Which makes me very satisfied.
Once there was this busker, he played a ye hu along Bugis Street. He used to visit my shop, he was smelly and dirty with many things stuffed into his clothes. He wanted to buy ye hu strings. One day my father asked him, “How much can you earn by busking? Why not sell the instrument instead?“ Because he was not able to pay my father, my father gave him a few ye hu to sell. After some time the busker came back, paid for the instruments and bought a few more to sell. With a better income, he came back to my shop looking neater and cleaner. My father told me, “See, his life is better now..”
Like my grandfather and my father, I think the shop is more than just having a business. Their generosity and compassion helped those who really needed it and hoped that it could change their lives. Many older customers still return to my shop with fond memories of my forefathers.
When I was 33, my father passed away, and suddenly I had the responsibility of continuing the family business. Some of my relatives reminded me that I had to uphold the name Eng Tiang Huat. So, I took over, not yet aware of the difficulties.
People were soon able to buy similar products and services at lower prices from the Internet. There was also less appreciation for traditional music instruments or embroidery. There were times when business was so slow, it felt so scary and I wanted to give up.
I cannot work faster or cheaper than factories or Internet sellers, but there are people who appreciate the older productions and my handicrafts because I do my work passionately. If you sincerely do it with your heart, the work will come out differently. Customers can sense it.
I also have customers who bought items from my grandfather, and they’d bring them in for me for touching up. Maybe that’s why our goods don’t sell very fast, because they last so long!
I ever been tempted to tell customers they need to buy a new ang cai every year, so I can sell more. But I decided not to, because my ang cai really can reuse year after year. In my opinion, not everything needs to be dollars and cents. Sometimes my customers send me photos of their purchases and tell me how happy their families are. That makes me feel very satisfied.
Even today, many of my customers don’t know my name but they know Eng Tiang Huat. I think that’s a good sign that I have managed to continue what my father and grandfather built. Some people ask me why I bother using such high quality fabric for my ang cai because it usually gets used only once. Like my father and grandfather, I think it’s more than just business.
Eng Tiang Huat