Provision shop owners Tay Beng Yap, 76, and his wife Lim Hui Zhen, 72, have been in the trade for as long as they can remember. The couple shared with us their memories of the provision shop, and their thoughts on the once-ubiquitous business being reduced to a dwindling statistic with the predominance of supermarkets and emerging online retail platforms.
Walk into any Singaporean heartland and you’ll find a provision shop, shelves stocked with just the thing you need—whether it’s an ice-cold canned drink to combat the sweltering heat, cup noodles for today’s lazy stay-in lunch or a loaf of bread for tomorrow’s breakfast. It is no different at Tay Hock Choon Market Produce, a provision shop in Bukit Batok, owned by Mr Tay and Mdm Lim.
When we arrived at the shop, we were warmly welcomed by the elderly couple, who greeted us with shy smiles and slight nods. Their grandson, Jeremiah, ushered us to the back of the shop and up the stairs to their humble home.
The only distinction between the shop and their house was that flight of stairs. The house was lined with empty tins, unopened stock, pails and gunny sacks—goods that are part of the shop’s inventory. It was almost as if the business had melded into the couple’s private lives.
Speaking to us in Chinese, Mr Tay shared that the provision shop is a family business that was largely managed by his mother. Mdm Lim began helping out with the business after they married in 1965 when she was 20 years old.
Tay Hock Choon was originally located in a kampong in Tampines, near Jalan Ang Siang Kong. When the government offered to relocate them to make way for new establishments, they decided to seize the opportunity to start anew in a different environment. As such, in 1985, Mr Tay’s parents moved to their present location at Block 371 Bukit Batok Street 31.
The original Tay Hock Choon provision shop at Tampines in 1985, with Mr Tay at the far right. Photo courtesy of Tay Beng Yap
Back then, Tay Hock Choon sold more than just soft drinks, cup noodles and bread.
“We used to sell a lot of things, like vegetables, kuehs, cakes, homemade beehoon, dumplings and red bean soup, as well as food for livestock,” said Mdm Lim.
“And ice kachang,” added Jennifer, the couple’s daughter, who joined in after attending to a customer. “The ice kachang was very different. We will pack them tightly so that it hardens into a ball, and then pour the colourful flavoured syrup over them. Very popular with the kids.”
“I also remember when my grandmother used to make popsicles,” recalled Jennifer. “She used pineapple juice, red beans, green beans and coconut water, then poured them into bags and froze them. It was only 10 cents apiece!”
Jennifer, 52, is the eldest of 10 siblings in the Tay family. She spent most of her childhood either playing or helping out at the provision shop. Even after she got married and found a job as an office assistant, she shared that she and her siblings would still make an effort to return to the shop and help out. Through the years, Jennifer has seen her parents’ health deteriorate, as there was a lot of back-breaking work they had to do behind-the-scenes—work that we would never give a second thought about, if we were not in this line of business.
“It was very tough for my parents,” shared Jennifer. “When my father had to do deliveries, he had to carry crates of soft drinks. The soft drinks came in glass bottles. Glass, as you know, is very heavy. When filled with liquid, it becomes even heavier. Just imagine carrying the crates during a time when there weren’t lifts on every floor!”
Mr Tay in 1985 with his trusty green pickup that brought him around Singapore for deliveries and collecting supplies. Photo courtesy of Tay Beng Yap
“We had to shell our own coconuts, extract the flesh and grind them. And the biscuits tins didn’t have little windows to see what biscuits were inside. We had to scoop them out, and rearrange them to display in the shop.”
“These were all hard labour that my parents are too old to deal with now,” continued Jennifer. “They simply do not have the physical strength for work like that anymore.”
Having grown up in the provision shop and seen the changes in supply and demand over the years, the trio believes that provision shops like Tay Hock Choon will soon die out. Big-brand supermarkets in the heartlands are stiff competition, and Mdm Lim lamented it is tough to match their competitive pricing.
“Whatever the supermarkets sell, we also have them,” said Mdm Lim. “But there’s no way we can compete with their prices. They sell things wholesale, while we buy them from distributors. The prices are different.”
“I do hope that we can continue the business,” said Jennifer. “After all, we’ve been doing this for so long. But I know that it’s only a matter of time before we are completely eliminated.”
From left to right: Mr Tay, Mdm Lim, Jennifer and Jeremiah in front of their provision shop in Bukit Batok. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
Perhaps due to the convenience of provision shops, we have taken this familiar facet of our heartland culture for granted. It would be a shame if traditional mom-and-pop shops such as Tay Hock Choon Market Produce become a thing of the past.
Written by: FJ Sai
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign