This sleepy estate facing Queensway Shopping Centre might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you're deciding where to shop for furniture, especially with furniture giant IKEA nearby. Still, there’s reason to visit the furniture stores in Alexandra Village: The store owners themselves are walking encyclopaedias on the furniture you’re buying, and a chat with them is sure to offer new insight on not just furniture of the present, but furniture of the past as well.
Whether you're looking to gain a sense of nostalgia or just want to learn more about furniture, these are the shops you'll want to visit.
Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-114
Call: 6271 3308
Come here for: Vintage wares and Chinese traditional furniture
The owner, Mr. Alan Wong, might have only started selling vintage items in 2012 but he has been an avid vintage collector long before then. Ask him or any of his colleagues about any furniture or home electronics from any decade in Singapore's history and they will likely have the answers to it.
He started out with a hardware business and chose this particular location because there were many car repair shops in the area. Inspired by online second hand dealer, Cash Converters, he changed his trade to the vintage wares in 2012, collecting old furniture from people who were moving. Today, he owns a vast collection, 40 percent of which are Chinese style items, while the rest are vintage items. The collection is so huge that he has to house them in a warehouse elsewhere.
Now and then: Mr. Wong says wooden cabinets were common in many Singaporean homes, especially Chinese newlyweds who used them as display cabinets during their weddings and called them Jia zhuang chu. In the '50s, these wooden cabinets would be U-shaped, but by the '60s and '70s, these would then open up into A-shaped legs. The wood then was mostly from Burma and was of good quality, and have even lasted till today.
Shi Hup Furniture
Blk 123, Bukit Merah Lane 1 #01-106/108
Call: 6273 1498
Come here for: Value bedroom sets
His popularity might be thanks to the extra services he throws in—he does the delivery himself and he sometimes even adds a nail or two to ensure the furniture is more stable and lasting. "Just one nail less won't do. The structure will collapse," he says. Pricing for furniture is affordable, too. For $300 or $400, you can buy a bedroom set: a wardrobe, a study table, a mattress, a bed, and a bed case.
While he doesn't feel that the nearby competition is something to worry about, he does feel the challenge to hire workers for the shop. "Even if we wanted to do a bigger business, we can't because we can't hire enough workers for the shop," he laments. He currently gets by with the help of four employees, some of whom are from Malaysia.
Now and then: Mr. Tan says the biggest difference in the furniture then and now is that the furniture pieces of the past were handmade. The designs were also different; the past had simpler designs. However, the biggest difference is probably in the materials used. He points to a Formica table he picked up from nearby and points out how the table is still in working condition despite having aged. "Now, nobody does these things," he says. "Today, most of the furniture is made from old recycled wood."
Chun Mee Lee Rattan
Blk 122, Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-68
Call: 6278 2388
Come here for: Everything related to rattan
Second generation owner, Mr. Zheng, has worked in the rattan trade all his life. His father, who came from mainland China, learnt the craft when he was 18 in Hong Kong and passed the skills on to Mr Zheng and his wife, who today run the shop.
As experts on rattan, they do everything related to it. This includes manufacturing, fixing, painting, and upholstery.
"As long as it's rattan, everything from zero to the final product, we do it all." Mr. Zheng says that he can recreate any piece of rattan furniture as long as you show him a picture of what you want. He says half of the customers are regulars and half of them are new. "Many of them come here by word of mouth, because that is the best form of advertising. If our customers recommend others to come, it means that they were satisfied with our service." Perhaps it also helps, too, that they are one of the few traditional rattan shops left in Singapore. "I believe that there are not more than 10 traditional rattan shops in Singapore," he says. "For fixing, we may be the only store left."
Mr Zheng showing us his rattan weaving skills
He says he didn't have any special interest in the rattan business when he first started working, but says it was a good career choice because it's a hand craft that not many people have.
Mr. Zheng says his business was at its peak in the '70s; back then he used to export his furniture and would ship out two to three containers filled with furniture every month. Things are different now though. Today, together with a lack of appreciation for rattan, Mr. Zheng says that rattan is not understood at all. "The customers have high requirements but they do not have knowledge of rattan. They can't tell the difference between rattan and bamboo." (Quick answer: Bamboo has a hole in it while rattan is flat).
Now and then: According to Mr. Zheng, the reason why rattan has always been popular is that it's light, which makes it easy to move around, and is perfect for the hot and humid temperatures in Singapore. In the past, it also helped that it was cheap—a seashell-shaped chair in the '60s would cost just $5.50, while a rattan basket would cost $6 or $7. Today, a basket costs $50 and is hard to find. "You might have to go to Kalimantan in Malaysia to find it." Besides rising material and rental costs, rattan is now also harder to get as laws are stricter and taxes are higher. Mr. Zheng even compares buying rattan to buying gold: "Even if you have money, you can't buy it!"
Alexandra Home Furniture Co.
Blk 125 Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-184
Call: 6273 1941
Come here for: Long-lasting wardrobe sets
For owner Mr. Heng, this is more of a business for him to pass time. "Being too free isn’t good, you know what I mean?" he says. "My children are all married so we have no burden (of bringing them up)." Despite being well into his 60s, he has not listened to his children, who are now all in their 30s, who have been asking him to retire. "If I don’t work, I could get dementia!"
Mr. Heng first started selling furniture in the '50s with his father under a zinc roof in a Kampung in Sembawang. The space was both the location for the family business as well as their home. When the government reclaimed the land that the Kampung was on, they were given two options to choose from, and they chose the Alexandra Village area for its cheaper rental.
While he’s been at Alexandra Village since the '70s, he says the '80s is when he felt business was best as he feels there was lesser competition. To him, the furniture of the past was also better because they were all handmade, and the business was so good that he would be able to employ others to make furniture for him in his shop.
He says business is not as good now, but he remains proud of the furniture. His customers are mostly regular customers, but he’s not optimistic about relying on them for maintaining his furniture business in the long run. "We’ll see," he says.
At his shop, younger customers mostly buy smaller items while regular, older customers would buy bigger items. "They want things that can last and are practical," he says. Conversely, he feels that young people don’t see the value in investing in quality furniture and prefer to follow trends. "Young people want things that they can use once or twice before throwing it away."
The furniture he sells comes with a quality assurance, too. "My suppliers have a reputation to uphold," he says. "They are products that will not spoil within a short period of time." The furniture that he uses is made of MDF (medium-density fibreboard) and compressed wood—materials commonly used in many stores everywhere, but he claims his is different as the workmanship and grade of wood used are better. Service is also part of the deal—the expense you pay for your furniture includes delivery costs.
Now and then: Most of the furniture in the past did not have colour and mostly wooden. During the '60s, and '70s, the use of Formica was also very popular, but the coloured Formica table was probably as far as design went during those years. "People didn't have many requirements in the past, but today people don’t just want a wardrobe—they want a cupboard, a drawer, and a mirror in their wardrobes."
Do you know any furniture stores that you would like us to feature? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Michelle Ong