As one steps out of the glossy malls dominating Singapore’s retail landscape and into the streets of its smaller shopping belts, a series of familiar sights begins to emerge: provision shops, pawnbrokers, dried goods sellers – and goldsmiths. Particularly common in areas such as Little India, Chinatown and Geylang, small, family-run goldsmith shops, like the one started by retiree Peter Lee’s father in the 1940s, have been the classic small business in Singapore for decades. However, hard times have also caused many industry veterans to close down. We spoke with Peter about his time in the trade, running his family’s goldsmith business from the 1980s until its closure in 2004.
In an age where people’s appetites for the latest trends – think Instagram fads that come and go by the day, or Bitcoin hoarded in invisible wallets – are matched only by the speed at which such trends change, the enduring popularity of gold stands out. Whether as an asset or an investment, Singaporeans’ appetites for gold have largely held steady over the years, though jewellers’ fortunes have waxed and waned.
In terms of the jewellery trade, for years the industry largely comprised small, family-run goldsmith businesses, which sprang up during the mid-20th century. Typical of such shops was the one started by Peter Lee’s father in around 1944, towards the end of the Second World War. Peter, 73, and now a retiree, took over the business in 1983 and ran it for over 20 years.
Like many children born into families of craftsmen, Peter grew up around his family’s shop, and spent many afternoons after school watching his father at work. His father had picked up the trade at the age of 20 and ran the business out of a prewar shophouse on Geylang Road where the family also lived. In those days, the monthly rental was cheap (“$42, upstairs and downstairs”), which made it ideal for a family with seven children to feed.
Peter Lee talks about his circuitous route into the goldsmith trade. Photo by Lynette Lee
“I grew up there and whatever my father did, I would watch him,” Peter said. Peter’s father was strict with the children, and insisted that they go straight to the shop after school. He described watching his father pick scraps of gold out of junk piles, which he would take back to the shop and manufacture into pure gold.
“Normally, gold is melted at high temperatures, but sometimes it could spill over and fall on the floor,” recalled Peter. “That’s considered scrap. My dad would recover this scrap gold from rubbish dumps, and from goldsmith shops and workshops. After recovering all the scraps, he would pound them into pure gold.”
Despite this early exposure, Peter was candid about his initial lack of interest in taking up his father’s tools. “After school, I planned to find a job of my own after I graduated. At the time, I never thought of doing it,” he admitted.
True to his intentions, Peter forged his own path for a time, working as an aircraft technician in the engineering department of Singapore Airlines for several years while his father continued to run the shop. For the most part, business was decent – the Malay community in the nearby Geylang and Kallang estates provided Peter’s father with a steady stream of customers, prompting him to pick up Malay.
“My father learned to speak Malay, and made many Malay friends. Even the kampong (village) heads,” said Peter. “From there, they developed a relationship, and they would introduce their friends and relatives to buy from him, or exchange them for newer pieces.”
By the 1980s, however, Peter’s parents were getting on in years, which made it hard for them to keep running the shop without help. A spate of robberies in the country at the time was an additional cause for worry. While the business had been lucky, leaving his elderly parents to manage by themselves looked to be increasingly untenable.
As such, when Peter was laid off from his job in 1983, the next step seemed obvious. Seeing an opportunity to enter the world of commerce while lending his parents a hand, he took the plunge and joined the business, starting off in the retail side of operations while his father continued with making jewellery.
“He manufactured the jewellery himself – handmade diamond settings, ring stone settings,” said Peter. “He encouraged me to do it too, but I didn’t. It was very tedious, so he did all of it.”
The business’s clientele was a mixed bag, with orders coming in from both commercial and individual clients. “We used to get orders from big shops in South Bridge Road. They would give my father gold bars, and tell him how they wanted it made, whether gold bangles, chains, or bracelets.”
On top of that, they had regulars who could be relied on to make purchases, mostly for special occasions like birthdays and marriages. “People would trade in old pieces for newer ones, and pay the difference for workmanship. There was a demand.”
That being said, the business was not immune from hard times.
“At times it was quite tough with poor turnover,” continued Peter. “Business could be slow.”
He also recounted an alarming incident – when the shop was burgled. “There was this one man who came to look around and then ran off with the gold. About a few thousand dollars’ worth.” Despite the loss, however, they considered themselves lucky: the premises had not been damaged, and no one was hurt in the process.
As time wore on, however, Peter began to feel the pressure of running a small business, particularly as the retail climate became more competitive. For years, the low rent on the Geylang shophouse helped keep their finances in the black, but around 1999, the landlord decided to take back the property and end their lease. Looking to stay in the neighbourhood, Peter moved the business to City Plaza, but rent there was much steeper.
“The rental was very high,” said Peter. “There was increased competition, and profit margins were very low. People would look at you, a small shop, and expect a good price.”
Another threat to the business came with the rise of large chain jewellers, which had the resources and financial clout to carry out aggressive marketing and price their products more affordably. “Customers would bargain, and at the time, some other businesses would sell their gold below cost. How could I compete?”
Peter carried on for another five years. By the mid-2000s, however, profit margins had fallen so badly that he decided it was time to close shop. “Business was very slow and there was no point keeping it open,” he conceded. “It was better to close than risk becoming indebted.”
In the years after, Peter moved on quickly from those golden days, facing another cycle of life’s ups and downs with a calm stoicism. After giving up his business, he worked at a number of part-time jobs until his retirement, including helping out at his sister-in-law’s cleaning business and as a clerical assistant in a legal firm. It was a significant change, going from being a business owner to a cleaner, but Peter didn’t mind.
“I’m a simple man,” said Peter. “I don’t bother about face.”
His unadorned, pragmatic approach to adapting to change and dealing with adversity is definitely admirable.
Written by: Sophie Chew
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