Travel back in time

Travel back in time

They smell musty, the walls look weathered and the furnishings are worn out.

Stepping into these shops that sell antique clocks, old, rare stamp sets and traditional tea leaves is like entering a time warp.

Unlike the current wave of retro-chic establishments which deliberately fashion their interior design after bygone eras, these shops are the real deal and the atmosphere of the past is still very much alive in them.

They have, after all, borne witness to - and survived - the changing times in our young nation: war, independence, a baby boom and economic growth punctuated by the occasional recession.

Their clientele includes seniors who have patronised them through the decades and younger customers who pop into these shops to immerse themselves in the vibe of yesteryear.

Artist Teo Boon Kim, who stumbled upon Pek Sin Choon tea shop in Chinatown 10 years ago, waxes lyrical about the taste of Chinese teas.

The 89-year-old tea shop reminds him of his boyhood when his parents took him to hawker stalls to eat bak kut teh (pork rib soup) paired with tea.

Mr Teo, now 34, says: "Going to the tea shop is like stepping into a traditional tea house.

"But more than that, it has a very friendly atmosphere where I can chat with the owner and share and learn about finer teas. It feels a little nostalgic."

SundayLife! picks out some of these heritage gems.


Pek Sin Choon

36 Mosque Street, tel: 6323-3238, open: 8am to 7pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday

A rattan stand at the door of this 89-year-old tea enterprise holds a filled porcelain teapot wrapped in batik and some cups.

Occasionally, a passer-by stops and pours himself a cup of steaming hot Chinese tea.

This harks back to the old days when people travelled long distances on foot. When they reached a temple or shop, they would quench their thirst with free tea that was set aside in a corner, says Mr Kenry Peh, the 44-year-old grandson of the shop's late founder, Mr Peh Kim Aw.

He tops up the 2-litre kettle five times a day, which contains tea brewed with leaves that the store packs for the day - such as pan-roasted Longjing or fermented dark Pu Erh.

To mix tea leaves, he uses the family's treasured bamboo tea basket, which dates back to the 1940s and was carried by his great-grandmother from Anxi, China, to Singapore.

He learnt the skills of the trade from his grandfather, who died in 1976.

As a schoolboy at the shop - called Pek as a variation of the family's surname and Sin Choon to indicate a new beginning - Mr Peh recalls trying to sprint past the marble table in the shop - then located along New Market Road - to avoid his grandfather's "blind tea tastings", he says.

When he could not escape, the elder Peh would watch, eagle-eyed, as his grandson tasted the tea with his eyes shut.

"A correct answer and he would give me 5 cents as a reward. If I got it wrong, he would rap me on the head," says Mr Peh, who joined the business full-time in 1993 after national service.

His grandfather, after all, had a refined palate for tea. When he started the business in 1925 along George Street, he noticed coolies were chugging pork rib soup as a tonic and sometimes paired it with oolong tea.

The elder Mr Peh decided to concoct his own version, mixed with different varieties of tea and reroasted for a stronger aroma and darker colour.

In the 1950s, the savvy businessman sold his blended product at five times the price of typical tea leaves, calling it the Unknown Fragrance Tea, and gave free samples door-to-door.

The business has moved thrice - its current location is in Mosque Street - but has kept its furnishings intact. The only thing that has changed, says Mr Peh, are the labels on tea packets, which have printed descriptions rather than those written by brushstroke.

Tea packets are handpacked by Mr Peh's female relatives - the same way as it was done in days past. Why not use machinery, which would be cheaper than paying wages? He wants to preserve the personal touch, Mr Peh explains.

The shop gets about 10 walk-in customers daily and supplies to restaurants.

The future of the business, says Mr Peh, lies in whether the younger generation will drink Chinese tea regularly and he plans to take a health angle in selling it.

He explains: "I try to make it educational and that tea promotes a healthier lifestyle, with no colouring or chemicals."

But for now, Mr Peh, who has six children aged between two and 16, would just say "please come in, try something" and hopefully spark some interest.

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