A TREASURE IN THIS ERA
By Yimin & Kelsey
A hobby turned into business. Uncle Keng shares with us his journey as an antique dealer for three decades.
August 21, 2022
Nestled between the rows of minimalist and modern shops at Craig Road is a quaint shop filled to the brim with items of the yesteryears. Anything you can imagine — vintage cameras, photographs, jewellery, vases etc — can be found in this 3-storey shophouse. As hard as our curiosity tries to beckon us in, few will ever dare venture into Tong Mern Sern. It doesn’t help that the Google reviews are filled with horror stories of how passersby are turned away by the reserved and unapproachable owner.
But as the saying goes, never judge an (old) book by its cover. The gentleman that met us was a vastly different person from the image painted by the reviews. We didn’t know what to expect when requesting an interview with him, but the moment we stepped into Tong Mern Sern, Uncle Keng greeted us cheerfully and could not stop sharing his experiences. Instead of a “grumpy old man”, who we met that day was a soul filled with gratitude for life, and a mind so open and forward-thinking unlike many from his era. His life as an antique dealer revolves around the saying — “things that are worthless to you might be a treasure to another”.
Writer‘s note: The interview was conducted in Mandarin. The transcript is close to full verbatim.
Exploring the Business World
"I remember it was around 1960, and I was still studying at Pei Qun Primary School. My mother was working in a foreigner's house somewhere in the Botanic Gardens. There used to be a place where many foreigners gathered. At that time, I saw that many people were selling peanuts to tourists to feed the monkeys, so I followed them. I would go to the grocery store and spend 5 cents on one kilogram of peanuts. Then, I will split them into 20 packets, priced at 10 cents each. And I sold peanuts until I entered secondary school.”
Birth of Tong Mern Sern
“I used to visit Sungei Road to buy secondhand items when I started working. I also enjoy picking up things that have been disposed of by others but are still in good condition. After repairing them, they will be beautiful and usable again!”
”以前打工的时候，我喜欢到Sungei Road 那里买旧东西，经常喜欢捡一些别人丢弃但还好好的东西。 修一修又可以用的，还好好的！“
“After working for about 8 years at my second job, the company started laying off staff and gave us retrenchment benefits. I received SGD5000 and decided to rent a small place in the back alley of Tomlinson Road which is now the Regent Hotel and started trading second-hand goods. Back then, the store was named Tong Mern Sern Antique Craft.”
”在第二份工作大概呆了7，8 年之后遇上公司裁员，我就利用裁员赔偿金5000元在Tomlimson Road (现Regent Hotel) 店铺后巷租了一个小地方开始做二手物品买卖。我的店铺当时叫Tong Mern Sern Antique Craft。“
“In 1986, the shop was going to be demolished. So, I went to rent a shop space in River Valley to continue my business and later opened another branch nearby. I stayed at River Valley for about 10 years.”
“1986年的时候，(Tomlinson Road shophouse)要进行拆建。于是，我就在River Valley 正式租下一间店继续生意，之后还有在Clarke Quay开了branch。在River Valley 呆了10年左右。”
Writer’s note: In 1986, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Singapore Tourism Board (STB) carried out resettlement and tourism development plans. Tanglin district was part of the plan.
Keng Ah Wong, Founder of Tong Mern Sern.
Moving to Craig Road
“After working for about 10 years at River Valley, the URA opened bidding for shophouses. My friend advised me to bid for one so that I did not have to pay rent anymore. I did not participate until the third phase of the bidding. Eventually, I spent SGD290,000 in the bid for the current unit.”
“在River Valley 做了10年左右之后，URA开放投标店屋，朋友叫我去标就不用租房。我并没有参与，一直到第三 期， 我才用了290，000标到现在这间店。”
“At that time, the shophouse was dilapidated. So I spent another $300,000 on renovation. So all in all, close to SGD600,000 was spent on the shop. The bank refused to lend me money to buy it because I had to tender at a much higher price than the original market price of SGD100,000 and I had no other property to mortgage. So, I borrowed from friends and brothers everywhere. I also took a loan from DBS with a 7% interest. Everyone told me I was stupid because it cost me almost $600,000 on a store that only has 99-year lease. Thirty years ago, $600,000 was not a small amount, you know?!”
“当时店屋破破烂烂，我花了装修费$300，000,前后大概花了$600，000。 那时候银行不肯借钱给我买因为我得标价比市场原本的$100，000 高了许多，而我又没有其他产业可以抵押。我就到处跟朋友兄弟借钱，然后也跟DBS Finance 借高达 7 八仙利息的贷款。那时候，人人讲我傻，因为才99年地契却花了我$600，000。30年前不比现在，$600，000不是一笔小数目。”
“Unexpectedly, the price has constantly been increasing in the past 30 years. The value of this shop has increased more than ten times!” “The shop owners on this row have changed countless times and I am the only original owner left. Hence, passersby find it strange that my storefront looks different from the rest which is modern and beautiful. But because I own the shop, no one can stop me from doing what I want with it or change how I want it to look”.
Origin of the Slogan
“A Caucasian neighbour who became my friend many years ago told me that in Canada, there are stores collecting old items with a slogan “reselling fine art” at their front doors. So she suggested that I put a slogan “we collect junk & sell antiques”.
“Then, when I was at River Valley, I met a friend who was working on film censorship at Shaws Brother. He saw a scene in a movie - someone was selling a car, with a banner that said "some fools buy, some fools sell" and suggested that it can be added into my slogan”.
“That was how the slogan “We buy junk and sell antiques, some fools buy some fools sell” came about.”
“那时有个住在附近的洋人朋友跟我说她在加拿大有很多商店都在后门收集旧物，前门写 “reselling fine art”, 变商品卖出去。 这个形容很特别，她就建议我放一个标语“ we collect junk & sell antiques”。 ”
“我在river valley 的那段时间认识了在Shaws Brother 从事影片审核的一位朋友，他在一个电影里面看到一个场景，有人卖车时候挂横幅，上面写着” some fools buy, some fools sell” , 他就建议可以把它加到我的标语里面。 也就有了现在这句“We buy junk and sell antiques, some fools buy some fools sell”。 ”
“I can never express enough how grateful I am for these two people..”
With two hands clasped together, Uncle Keng muttered with a smile on his face
“If not for the people that helped me along the way, I will not be here.“
Shopfront of Tong Mern Sern
Journey as an Antique Dealer
“Customers will come to me and tell me what they want to buy, and I search for them. When I make a mistake, they will let me know what was wrong and educate me. For example, we will need to look out for the hallmark when dealing with English silver. And that handmade jades are very valuable now because most jades are made by machines nowadays.”
“我就是顾客来跟我说要买什么我就去找给他们，偶尔买对，偶尔买不对。买错了，他们就教我们比如说english silver 是要看hallmark的。 还有手作玉很值钱，因为现在都是机器做的。”
“My biggest fear in doing this business is accidentally buying stolen goods, and the police will come and question me all day long.”
“Antique business is not about you (seller) saying the goods are valuable to buy. Instead, the people who want to buy them are the ones deciding whether it's good."
“Five-thousand to nine million dollars? I will not consider this as smart. If not for the people that helped me along the way, I will not be here. There was once when I fell sick, and someone gave me SGD1,000,000 worth of furniture. That really helped me tide through the period and the gift came just in time.”
“我从5千块到现在9千万，i am not smart , 是有很多人帮我。我之前生病的时，有人送我价值1，000，000的家具给我。”
Throughout our conversation, Uncle Keng abruptly stood up from time to time to rummage through his collections and proudly showed them to us.
Future Plans for Tong Mern Sern
"I thought of selling the shop, but my daughter said I would never be able to buy it back if I do so."
“Just look at the spacious rising step opposite my shop, it means rising Fengshui! Whatever I do here will turn out good and smooth.”
The antique business is not always smooth sailing. Uncle Keng would sometimes acquire items that looked desirable but wound up gathering dust in his shop for decades. There were junks he bought from garangguni uncles and before he knew it, the items had already been sold! Inevitably, his decisions and approach to people are also questioned by many. However, his endurance has eventually paid off. Through his business, he also has the opportunity to meet various people from all walks of life. Because of this, Uncle Keng chose to continue what he has been doing for decades despite the adversaries. This is where he found his meaning in life.
Similarly, we go all through ups and downs in life. Often, when the things around us seem to be falling apart, they are in reality just falling in place.