As my wife’s and my nascent art collecting interest grew with time, we began to venture into acquiring other artistic forms of creations, besides antique ceramics and jades, that were fashioned by human hands in an era when there was a deep-rooted pride in workmanship and when time was not a pressing commercial factor to afford the master craftsman the peace of mind and deep concentration to patiently execute his much admired finished works.
One of the best places for an average collector, with limited means but imbued with a sense of adventure, was to embark on an exciting journey of discovery in anticipation of finding treasures of old, which the uninitiated would contemptuously dismiss as junks, at the so-called “junk shops” or “flea marts” in many parts of the world. Happily for such collectors, several of these junk shops had sprung up by the 1960s in Singapore to satisfy the insatiable needs of a growing band of of their fraternity, comprising mainly the expatriate and diplomatic community and a small group of local people, and they were doing a thriving trade with them. Most Singaporeans were then quite indifferent to their own heritage and some would not hesitate to sell their family heirlooms for a song when they moved from their large extended family homes to their much smaller individual abodes.
Most of these junk shops were situated in Sungei Road, popularly known as the “Thieves’ Market”, Upper Paya Lebar Road and a couple of them were closer to the Central Business District of Singapore. At the corner of Grange Road and Paterson Road, there once stood a colonial-style bungalow painted in bright red colour, known simply as the “Red House”. Its spacious ground and rooms were overfilled with antiques and other collectibles, ranging from Chinese and European furniture to Chinese wood carvings, ceramics, paintings to Peranakan ornaments, embroidery works, household utensils and to other bric-a-bracs culled by its Shanghai-born owner from all over Singapore and Malaysia. It became a local landmark. Sadly for collectors, it was demolished in the early 1970s in order to make way for road widening.
All these junk shops had some attractive items to offer, but the Red House was easily our favourite weekend haunt as there were bargains galore waiting to be discovered from among the heaps of disparate collectibles by the discerning collectors who must, in the final analysis, discriminately select the articles that they really liked and which their residential spaces could comfortably accommodate. Compulsive and indiscriminate buyers would always run the risk of becoming a hotchpotch accumulator, instead of a collector, and turn their homes into junk shops! For instance, to get the best buys in old furniture and sizable wood carvings, one must be able to visualise in one’s mind’s eyes what the chosen piece would look like once it has been restored from its unattractive condition to as close to its original condition as possible. The congenial owner of the Red House, who was always clad in his trade mark singlet and underwear for comfort and convenience, would usually speak highly of every article in his store, leaving it to the potential buyer to make up his own mind what would best suit his needs and taste. He would not give any warranty as to to an object’s vintage and provenance, beyond stating that most of his pieces, of whatever origin, were of considerable age and that his prices were real bargains. It was a case of caveat emptor (buyer beware) and a test of one’s knowledge and judgment against that of this wiry dealer. One can either purchase an object, like an old Malacca chair, altar table, Peranakan cabinet or blackwood couch, with or without restoration work being done and the price differential would, of course, be substantial. If the agreed price includes restoration work, you can rest assured that it would be superbly finished by the Red House’s experienced resident carpenters and master craftsmen. A couple of my restored furniture pieces bought from this establishment four decades ago still look as good today as when they were first delivered to my house, despite their years of wear and tear.
From the 1960s until around mid 1970s, stocks of these collectibles were still, by and large, readily available and could be sourced cheaply by the junk shop operators through their networks of “runners” here and in Malaysia, including the ubiquitous “Karang Kuni” man who would scour every nook and corner, as it were, in order to persuade the ignorant or naive householders to part with their aged old family heirlooms for a pittance so that he could resell them to the junk shops for a quick profit. By the time the goods reached the hand of the collector, the junk shop operator would be laughing all the way to the bank!
The above period coincided with a time of heightened building activities in Singapore, both by the Government’s public housing programme and the private sector property developments. Numerous extended families, who lived in rambling bungalows, sold their bulky antique furniture and four-poster beds left by their elders for a fraction of their market worth as they were only too glad to get rid of them when they moved into their separate far smaller dwellings. These would invariably end up in the various junk shops and quickly snapped up by their favoured customers
Some junk shop operators never tired of regaling their regular customers with spicy anecdotes. One succeeded in convincing a young couple to exchange their valuable old rosewood living room set for a far less valuable contemporary sofa set with formica top to boot! An experienced Singaporean collector was astounded to come face-to-face with a large oil portrait of his late Malacca great grandfather in a junk shop, many years after his father and uncles had given it and other family items gratis to a “Karang Kuni” man as they were not sentimental in keeping them. He felt that he should salvage the family’s honour by buying the painting at an inflated price because the seller knew that it once belonged to a prominent family in Malacca.
By the end of the 1970s, more and more Singaporeans, especially the professionals and business executives, had become avid collectors of things old. They were joined by posh hotels, restaurants and interior decorators furnishing residences for their well-heeled clientèle. This was a bonanza for the junk shops and their prices shot up dramatically and the finite supply was substantially depleted and the shortage became more acute with the passing of time. In view of the increasing demand, a new industry in Malacca and elsewhere had sprung up in the 1980s, making copies of classical-style hybrid Chinese and European furniture catering to those who were not prepared to pay hefty prices for the genuine articles but would be satisfied with something that look like the real things.
My wife and I have had endless hours of fun and adventures visiting all these junk shops over the years and a couple of these operators had become our friends and we had gained some practical insight into their esoteric trade. Their stores had become reliable places to learn about the lavish lifestyles of the wealthy or discerning Singaporeans and Malaysians of the earlier generations, as well as the social and economic development of these two territories, through their once enviable and precious household possessions and lifestyles.
As a result of these delightful forays, we have accumulated an assortment of “antique junks” in our house, with some old flower pots and stands spilling into our garden, much to the amusement and even bewilderment of some of our relatives and friends who, most decidedly, do not share our passion in purchasing with good money “the leftovers of history”. These include a blackwood couch, tables, side tables, chairs, stools, trinket boxes, wood carvings and Peranakan ceramics and other fineries. They now have a prominent place in our home.
In the course of time, we came to know several fellow addicted “junk” collectors whom we met at the junk shops. Despite the fact that we were sometimes competing for the same objects, our friendships had somehow survived such rivalry and became firmly cemented. Who was the wise guy who proclaimed that the surest way to lose a good friend is to go with him on an antique-hunting trip. Well, my friends and I seem to have proved him wrong. We enjoyed visiting each other’s homes to view the others’ proud acquisitions and to compare notes on our triumphs and anguishes in pursuit of our magnificent obsession!
As human creativity and ingenuity knows no bounds and cultural barriers, some of our arty friends had adapted some of their purchases to uses which their creators had never intended them to be. As an example, a large polychrome Nyonya porcelain spittoon was proudly converted by its British owner into a flower vase and occupied centre stage in the living room of her black-and-white colonial-style bungalow. An American housewife turned several of her 19th century blue and white urinals into unique watering cans and had drawn acclaim from her admiring friends. Not one to be outdone by others in his sense of imagination, a Singaporean architect created what he considered a perfect coffee table by truncating the legs of the elongated and intricately carved ancestral altar table.
One of our rare and wholly satisfying finds was a stunningly beautiful spirit house, made of namwood and intricately carved and gilded, which originally would have the family’s ancestral tablets placed in it. The junk shop owner claimed that it came from Penang and once belonged to a rich family there. We placed this cabinet strategically in our living room and it had never failed to excite our visitors, one or two of whom had made repeated attempts to acquire a similar piece from the various junks shops and were greatly disappointed that none was available.
My delight in this masterpiece of art was, unfortunately, short-lived. My astonished parents pointed out that a spirit house is a sacred object and meant for ancestral veneration and that it was most inappropriate and highly disrespectful of me to display it as a piece of decoration. They firmly urged me to get rid of it quickly by selling it back to the shop, even if I had to incur a substantial loss in doing so. I was torn between whether to defer to my dear parents’ wishes or to defiantly uphold the collector’s pride of possession. As luck would have it, the shop owner who sold me this article had a keen overseas museum buyer for just such a piece and had been persuading me to part with it with a tempting offer that would be a perfect way out of my predicament. I reluctantly accepted his attractive offer to trade it for a good quality blackwood table with four matching stools which I had been eyeing for some time. It turned out to be a win-win deal for both sides, much to the delight of my parents.
Today, with Singapore becoming a very affluent First World country and with more well-paid expatriates in our midst due to its continuing economic expansion, clusters of junk shops are now spread out in many parts of our island republic. Regrettably for collectors, most of their stocks are now of more recent vintages (some were made yesterday in China, Indonesia and elsewhere and clearly stated as such), and even a few of their scarce genuine antiques are inferior in qualities and varieties compared with those that were readily available at attractive prices during their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.
Lam Pin Foo