In 1944, oblivious to the dangers of landing in a Japanese-occupied Singapore, Mr Heng and his father left their home in Guangdong in search of a better life. His daughter could not say how he and her grandfather navigated the dangers upon arriving at Syonan-to, the “Light of the South Island” but she knew that once the light was extinguished and Singapore was officially returned to British colonial rule on 12 September 1945, both men took to peddling.
With a strong bamboo pole across their shoulders that had a basket full of wares on both ends, they would walk to different locations to set up shop. They started off selling powder cakes, scented water, and other basic cosmetics as well as locks, handsaws, scissors, and other tools. Soon their baskets would also have mirrors, pots, and a range of other household items. Business was brisk and after 3 years, the older Mr Heng returned to Guangdong and soon after, the younger Mr Heng was reunited with his wife and 5-year-old son in Singapore.
The family found a home at “Si Kar Teng,” an area off Tiong Bahru Road which is a 10-minute walk from our office. “Si Kar Teng” is in the Hokkien language, and when literally translated, it means “4-legged roof” which is a tent or pavilion erected near tombstones for visitors to rest. So, living in a shanty community in the vicinity that was once a Chinese cemetery, the Hengs had 6 more children. In 1965, the family moved into a flat in a block next to our office and Mr Heng set up his sundry business on the ground floor. Their youngest son was born soon after. The Hengs cite this as a significant milestone as living in an area ravaged by a huge fire in 1961 was not exactly comfortable to say the least.
The shop closes every Friday and in the evening Mr Heng and his family will be gathered behind it enjoying a meal and each other’s company. Mr Heng would be sitting on a low wooden stool, savouring a puff from a 2 feet-long pipe and amidst the incessant chatter of his children, he was a picture of calm and contentment. This ritual and the family bliss it portrayed was much admired by others in the neighbourhood,
For the last 45 years, Heng Mong Hin which is the name of the shop, has been managed by Mr Heng’s 5th and 6th offspring who still introduce themselves as “Ah Tee” and “Ah Moi” respectively today. The shop has been an important resource for the neighbourhood as one could get all essentials for maintaining a household and if it were not available, Ah Tee will bring it in for you the next day.
Several items like bulbs and tools have evolved with time but one can still get crockery that were available in 1965. Importantly what has remained constant is the service and the way the shop generally looks which provides long-time residents a familiarity that is comforting, a place that characterizes the neighbourhood they call home.
The 5-year boy who came with his mother to Singapore is now 73 years old and all 10 siblings are living elsewhere with their own families. Their flat was sold off a long time ago and their shop has been recently sold off too. “Little bother” and “little sister” are now retiring and today, they were supposed to close and never to open again but they have yet to fully empty out their shop and they must finish doing so in a week or two.
The departure of Heng Mong Hin is news that is hard to take for long-time residents. It is not just another business moving out but a family who made a living attending to their needs and, in the process, becoming a familiar and friendly feature that made the neighbourhood so much more liveable.
Wishing you good health, peace of mind and the comfort associated with a place called home.
Economic activity represents a crucial part of social life and is knit together by a wide variety of norms, rules, moral obligations, and other habits that together shape the society. – Francis Fukuyama