Tucked away in a corner of the sleepy Tanjong Katong Complex is Mr Goh Seng Moh’s K2 Watch Company. A local maker and mender of watches, Mr Goh has been involved in his family’s trade since the age of 12.
The weekend crowd at K2 watch company. Image Source: C. Goh
It is 3pm on a Saturday, and my father, Goh Seng Moh, systematically attends to the customers crowding around his shop, K2 Watch Company. Depending on the customer, he would speak in fluent Mandarin, dialect, or conversational English and Malay, a characteristic of an older generation steeped in a thoroughly polylingual environment.
Although he is best-known among local Seiko enthusiasts for his nimble repairs and honest business ethic, my father also sees a wide range of Japanese and Swiss watch brands including Rolex, Omega, and IWC. Besides repairs, he welcomes trade-ins of Japanese and Swiss watches, but laments that the local pool of vintage watches has shrunk with the expansion of opportunities to sell watches abroad and online.
My father’s first shop in Tanjong Katong Complex, 03-K2, in 1983. Image Source: C. Goh
K2 Watch Company is located on the third floor of Tanjong Katong Complex. As an adolescent in the 1970s, he recalls the Tanjong Katong area attracting throngs of people and had quietly admired its prime location. Built in the 1980s, Tanjong Katong Complex was branded as Singapore’s first fully air-conditioned mall, and its novelty drew a queue of cars that snaked “all the way to Changi”. Among the older generation, the Complex is still synonymous with Yokoso, the nation’s first 24-hour supermarket.
In 1982, my father tendered for a small space on the third floor of the Complex. Even though he subsequently moved to the larger neighbouring unit 03-K1 where he still works, K2, the unit number of his first shop space, was adopted as the name of his shop as a nod toward forging his own path.
Posing with my grandmother in 1984 after moving into a larger space. Image Source: C. Goh
The love for watches runs in my family. As a child, I thought that my grandfather’s name was Goh Seo Choon, as that was the name of the watch shop he established and handed down to my late uncle. Only much later did I discover that my grandfather’s name was Goh Yeu Cheong, and he had worked for Lee Seo Choon before being encouraged to start his own shop. It was only when the authorities required registered businesses to have distinct names in 1986 that my grandfather modified the name of his shop from Lee Seo Choon to Goh Seo Choon at Havelock Road.
My dad boasts that my grandfather was an inventive tinkerer who not only mastered watchmaking, but also made his own soap, built a motor-powered sewing machine, and modified the alarm of a mechanical alarm clock to become a longer, louder siren. These alarm clocks were especially popular among bus drivers who had to rise in the wee hours of the morning.
Despite uncertain beginnings at Havelock Road, business was burgeoning by the time the blocks at Havelock Road were slated for en bloc. My grandfather then relocated the shop to Chinatown in the 80s. By then, word had spread that my grandfather was honest, performed repairs well, and charged a fair price, a reputation akin to my father’s today.
My father credits his family for his horological expertise. Seeing that their 12-year-old son, in his words, “liked playing and disliked studying”, my grandparents made my father apprentice at Goh Seo Choon after school, hoping to instil discipline and bestow on him the skills needed to forge a livelihood. By then, my father’s elder brother, Goh Seng Lee, was already stationed at the shop, and, along with my grandfather, slowly imparted his skills to my father. My father then started his own shop at Tanjong Katong Complex when he turned 23.
Until October 2015, my uncle was still running Goh Seo Choon at Chinatown, where my father would stop by almost every day, sharing spare parts, pointers, and concerns. My late uncle was exceedingly generous, his gruff exterior constantly punctuated with wry smiles and witty quips. He is still dearly, sorely missed.
One of many tall stacks of watch catalogues and magazines at home. Image Source: C. Goh
Watching my father engage in easy conversation with his customers, periodically holding a watch to his ear, and deftly prying open watch casings, I realise that the apparent ease with which he diagnoses a watch belies years of accumulated expertise. Even though repairs are theoretically obvious – many customers have attempted them with help found on the internet – there is no substitute for well-honed techniques, steady hands and years of experience.
Yet my father is not content to depend on his experience. To keep abreast of the latest trends and watch movements, he regularly peruses watch catalogues and magazines, of which he has amassed stacks.
The showdown between the Seiko Marine Master Professional 300m Diver Automatic and Rolex Submariner 300m. Image Source: C. Goh
He illustrates a contemporary debate in the horological world by fishing out two watches, the Seiko Marine Master and the Rolex Submariner. Both models invite comparison as 300m diver watches. I ask which he prefers. Each commands a loyal following, he acknowledges, but the Seiko Marine Master has to be sent to Japan if it is damaged because the company no longer releases replacement spare parts. It is unfortunate, he adds, because it undermines people’s confidence in these new high-end watches from Seiko. I am soberly reminded that the fate of watchmakers like my father’s rests partly in the hands of larger corporations.
Celebrating my sister’s eleventh birthday. Image Source: C. Goh
I have utmost respect for how he has embraced a family trade as a pursuit of passion, often relishing how lucky he is that it makes money too. However, my family knows all too well the costs of my father’s work as a craftsman. My father works every day, only taking half a day off on Sundays, and an annual holiday on Chinese New Year.
In my writing of this article, his only request was that I include how committed he and my mother have been to our education. Indeed, my sister and I have enjoyed a conducive learning environment, a shelf replete with books that has furnished our love for reading, all of which were instrumental to our current professions. We appreciate his material provision, but even more his kindness and affability at both work and home.
Perhaps naming his shop K2 foreshadowed the folding of its future into the fate of Tanjong Katong Complex. The shopping centre still enjoys large crowds during the Hari Raya season, but authorities have expressed that its days are numbered, and it remains uncertain where my father will move in the future. However, he hopes that maybe location will matter less than reputation in the age of the internet. Until then, only time will tell.
Written by: C. Goh
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