This is the story of Mr Toh Chin Siong, a second-generation rag-and-bone man who has turned his humble karang guni business into an Instagram hit for home inspiration. Aided by his family, Mr Toh has managed to transform his business dramatically over the past 40 years.
The karang guni man used to be a common sight in the heartlands of Singapore. His honking horn was as familiar a sound as the ringing bell of the ice-cream uncle. Carting old newspapers, unwanted clothes, appliances and distressed furniture onto their trucks, the karang guni man often toiled rain or shine to buy their wares from people looking to discard their “rubbish” for a small profit. Over the years, the quick pace of modernisation has dwindled their numbers. While many have retired or given up the business, a few have managed to thrive.
You could say Mr Toh, 56, was born into the karang guni business. Growing up in a large household in a kampong, the rag-and-bone business was all he knew growing up. “My family used to be a well-known karang guni group. Our family then consisted of my father and his three brothers, and together with their children and wives, we all went out to collect newspapers. There were about 30 people in total who were collecting newspapers. Back then we were living at our old house, a kampong, so we would head to the HDB [Housing and Development Board] flats to collect. It was a very simple lifestyle for the karang guni, and you can easily earn money within the day,” reminisced Mr Toh.
Mr Toh describing his childhood days at his shop at 153 Kampong Ampat. He is seated on a couch awaiting refurbishment. Photo by FJ Sai
With regards to the business’s name, Hock Siong Waste Dealer, the word “hock” was chosen because it sounded like the rotation of goods in Hokkien, which was what they felt their business was about.
The work was back-breaking as they often had to lug their goods around, which consisted largely of glass bottles and gunny sacks, as there weren’t that many newspapers and electrical appliances back then. Mr Toh started following his father to work at the tender age of six because it was a laborious job and the elder Toh needed all the help he can get.
Notwithstanding the hard work, it was a very lucrative business for the Toh household. Back in the day, their collection – odd goods like clothes, chairs and even carpets – would sometimes yield more than 40 times the price they paid. He recounted, “I would buy something for $5, and then sell it for $200. And $200 back then was a huge amount, and it can cover the expenses for one month.” It was a very simple but extremely profitable business model.
His father felt it was a good time to realise his ambitions for the business and opened his first store on Joo Seng Road in the 1970s. This also meant they could take in more goods, even from other rag-and-bone businesses.
As with many family-run businesses, conflicts and disagreements arose internally, which resulted in Mr Toh taking over the reins of the family business in the ’90s.
Some of the curios on display in the shop. From street signs to religious sculptures to vintage kitchenware, there really is no saying to what one can find in the shop. Although some may no longer be functioning, there has been an increased interest in such items of nostalgia by customers looking to add some quaintness to their home decor. Photo by FJ Sai
Like any business, it wasn’t always rosy. Besides making a loss on an unwanted item, it also took up valuable storage space. For a business whose profit was based on a revolving system, an unsold item was like a choke in a basin.
When the Asian Financial Crisis happened in 1997, the business was greatly affected. It all came to a halt when the business’s only market in the region, Indonesia, faced a major crisis in the form of riots and civil unrest in May 1998. At the time, Mr Toh had just established a new line of business exporting old clothes to Indonesia. Compounding that problem was the decline of the Indonesian exchange rate, which effectively wiped out the value of his profits. Saddled with mounting costs, he was forced to do a fire sale to minimise his losses, and it wasn’t long before he shifted his focus back to collecting newspapers again.
Joined by his daughter, Brillyn, who was only six back then, he started collecting newspapers and old bedsheets from hotels to keep the business in the black. And it didn’t take him long to stumble upon his current enterprise. At the suggestion of an acquaintance, he started collecting old furniture from hotels, refurbished and resold them. His first real breakthrough came with the closure of then Marco Polo Hotel in 1999, as there was an influx of quality furniture and goods.
A Marco Polo hotel keychain that Mr Toh managed to acquire. Photo by FJ Sai
When Mr Toh started buying old furniture for resale, the general attitude towards used furniture back then was quite different. “People were concerned about the origins of the furniture. Like where it came from, or did the previous owner pass away. But nowadays, people are thrilled about collecting and owning second-hand goods probably because they are more aware of issues such as environmental concerns,” said Mr Toh. Hence Hock Siong has evolved from a rag-and-bone business to an enterprise that upcycles and gives new life to pre-loved furniture.
Mr Toh and his daughter Brillyn, who now manages the business. Photo by FJ Sai
When his daughters were of age, they joined Mr Toh in the business and he has since handed the business over to them with no regrets. Beaming, he said, “Of course I’m happy. But I want to give them assurance by being there for them. I’ve already handed over the entire business to them. I used to lead them but now they lead me. You have to let go and give the younger ones a chance because they have many ideas and they are also willing to try.”
And his daughters have been working hard to take Hock Siong to the next level. Leveraging on social media, they introduced Hock Siong to the world, attracting fans of refurbished furniture. They also plan to expand their carpentry offerings to handle more upcycling projects. Although the business may have changed over the years, the entrepreneurial spirit of the Toh family continues to chart its course through history.
Written by: Adam Chan
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign