Explore retail Singapore’s hidden shopping gems

Discover the restored shophouses and historic enclaves a world away from Singapore’s shiny glass-and-steel malls

  • Pearlyn Tham
  • July 2018

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In a city where chain bookstores have had to downsize or even exit in the past few years, Kenny Leck and Karen Wai are considered brave souls. They started indie bookstore BooksActually in 2005 and grateful bibliophiles have colonised their store in Tiong Bahru to snap up out-of-print titles, critical works and antique editions. BooksActually also has the largest collection of Singaporean literary publications (or SingLit) in the country. For a non-clichéd souvenir, Kenny suggests gems such as La Kopi (an artist’s ode to local coffee) and Ways of Seeing (a look at architectural details in public housing blocks).

Tan Teng Niah House, Little India, Singapore

If music is more your thing, you’ll like the extensive collection of vinyl at neighbouring Curated Records. Tiong Bahru, once a low-cost public housing estate, has since gone through gentrification – cue the hip bakeries, restaurants and bars. Make a beeline for the famous indoor Tiong Bahru Market. There’s no air-conditioning, but you will find delicious and affordable Singapore cuisine such as chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes topped with preserved vegetables), fishball noodles and sugarcane juice in a typical hawker setting.

From Tiong Bahru, take a slow, scenic walk of about 20 minutes through the old streets to Bukit Pasoh, where an interesting mix of old businesses and trendy restaurants await. Look for Grassroots Book Room, a cosy space decorated with vintage furniture and curios offering a wide range of Chinese titles from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Malaysia and Singapore. Only some of the titles here are in English, but inspiration can be found in the beautifully illustrated children’s books. Look for knick-knacks such as tote bags, enamel brooches and retro toys, most made by indie local designers and artists. Don’t leave without having Taiwanese tea or a lemon soda at the tranquil Katasumi Koohii café tucked away at the back of the shophouse.

For even more bookstore hopping, find the award-winning Littered With Books at nearby Duxton Road. This two-storey treasure trove will keep you happily browsing with thousands of popular fiction, non-fiction, culinary, travel, children’s and illustrated works, and also stocks antiquarian books, modern first-editions and rare maps and prints.

The perfect souvenir

Despite its nondescript name, 5b is anything but. If you are strolling down the entire Joo Chiat stretch – which, like Melbourne’s Chapel Street, goes progressively from classy shops to seedy pubs – pop into this gargantuan foodie paradise. Chefs, restaurant owners or just about anyone interested in cooking can be spotted stocking up on everything from Chinese teapots to casserole dishes, cutlery in bulk and even old- fashioned steak hotplates in the shape of cows.

For something more artistically curated check out Onlewo in Jalan Besar, probably one of the last areas in Singapore that hasn’t been completely overtaken by cold-brew coffee bars or Buddha bowl cafés. Nestled between old-school shops selling Taoist temple paraphernalia and traditional soybean curd, this intriguing store is the brainchild of self-taught designers Mike Tay and Eugene Yip.

Their brand name is a colloquial take on the Chinese term for “a cosy warm home” and the duo design unique prints inspired by colourful childhood memories from their second-storey studio. These prints appear on evening bags, lampshades, wallpaper, scarves and coasters for sale on the retail floor below. If you want bespoke designs, Onlewo can also ship the result back home for you. A personal tip from Mike: try the paper-wrapped chicken at Hillman Restaurant on nearby Kitchener Road, an institution that opened in the 1960s.

Masjid Sultan Mosque, Kampong Glam, Singapore

Garments galore

On Beach Road, Private Affair Tailor can cut and sew you a bespoke shirt then ship it to your door (though you will need to spend three to five days in Singapore for the fitting session). Before you leave the area, look out for Selfie Coffee. As its name hints, you can request your mugshot on your cold-coffee order and see your selfie etched into the coffee’s foamy layer using food colouring.

Another must-visit is Innit Bangkok at Ann Siang Road. This Thai clothing brand specialises in designs with artistic pleats and embellishments for women, young girls and even babies (guys, get your pleated bowties here too). Each style can be worn in reverse for twice the mileage.

For more wardrobe updates, The AC, also known as The Attaby Collective, is London-born Claire Chahil’s retail incubator for emerging brands based in Singapore. She chose a shophouse at Joo Chiat because “shophouses reflect principles of great design with lovely proportions such as high ceilings” and reflect Singapore’s unique heritage. Claire stocks about 15 brands in her store, as well as the designs of her own Attaby label. You’ll find chic comfortable and tropics-appropriate wrap dresses, maxi dresses, separates and jumpsuits in silk, cotton, rayon and jersey. Her sizes range from UK8 to UK18 – a rarity in Singapore where clothing sizes generally stop at UK12 or UK14.

In the house

Ask any savvy Singaporean shopper and they will tell you that some of the best retail gems in the city are squirrelled away in old shophouses.

One historic enclave that has become a fave address for indie boutiques is Haji Lane, with stores such as Mondays Off and The Salad Shop found in local shophouses. The latter, by the way, isn’t a salad bar — its founders Mike Tan and Eileen Teo wanted their offerings to be always fresh, like a bowl of salad. Besides fashion accessories and clothing sourced from South Korea, New Zealand, Japan, India and Hong Kong, they retail homewares including vases and candleholders, as well as locally made Thow Kwang Pottery items and Ania Skincare.

Over at Mondays Off, bestsellers include handmade Oh!eaf ceramics, designed in Singapore and produced in the town and ceramics hub of Jingdezhen. There are also hand-poured Mondays Off candles, made by owners Leyna Poh and Soh Kair Ruo with help from family members, and the limited-edition design ranges of Singapore clothing brand Ellysage.

Sales storm

From June to August, Singapore holds its annual Great Singapore Sale (known locally as the GSS). Stores and malls offer discounts of up to 70 per cent on everything from homewares and electronics to clothing and toys. While most of the action is concentrated in the Orchard Road and Marina Bay belts, you may also find smaller shops elsewhere offering GSS buys.

Under-the-radar finds

As a well-known stylist to the stars in Singapore, Neo Lirong pops into designer boutiques and chain stores in the Orchard Road area every other day to pick up clothing samples for her fashion shoots. But when it comes to her own retail therapy, she prefers hanging out at the quiet yet hipster Chip Bee Gardens near Holland Village. “I can spend an entire day here. It has transformed into an area for cool people and you can find unique items by local designers here,” Neo says.

When she’s in this once-residential enclave, Neo may visit homegrown luxe stationery and leather goods store Bynd Artisan, which she loves for “customisable, high-quality notebooks that make good souvenirs for friends and family”. She also recommends Singapore designer Ong Shunmugam’s boutique for its modern cheongsam dresses. “I like having a freshly made waffle with ice-cream at Sunday Folks. It can get really crowded on weekends so get there early for a queue number. I may end my night with a drink at one of the bars in Holland Village – just across the road – which gets pretty happening at night.”

Chinese New Year, Chinatown, Singapore

From street-style to tailored

From street-style to tailored chic, Darren Lee founded street-style site Shentonista in 2011 to prove that even Singaporeans working in the traditionally stuffy business district can dress fashionably. “In Singapore, we have several amazing bespoke tailors, like Kevin Seah, In Personam Custom Clothiers, and Dylan & Son,” Darren says. Renowned tailor Kevin Seah recently moved to The Mill, a standalone building at Jalan Kilang, which is filled with furniture warehouses and automobile shops. For those looking for a quick purchase, he’s recently launched the ready-to-wear Kevin Seah Black line.

Darren also recommends homegrown multi-label stores Naiise and Keepers for local designs, as well as Dover Street Market for high- fashion labels. “Supplies & Company and Tuckshop & Sundry Supplies along Perak Road carry some of my favourite brands like Engineered Garments and Nigel Cabourn. For locally-produced leather goods, there’s Omitir – find them at Inventory or online. “For an interesting take on streetwear, there’s Mash-Up and Revasseur that are stocked at Superspace [at Orchard Gateway].”