THE TAILOR'S SHOPHOUSE

yue ngan ying

Upper Serangoon Road

A shophouse on 490 Upper Serangoon Road where Yue Ngan Ying, 60, lived with her family of six from 1954 to 1976. Her late father tailored suits and pants for a living.

Go to Nanyang!

My first home was a shophouse along Upper Serangoon Road in the good old 1960s and 70s, and my neighbours were from all walks of life, including a coffin-maker and glasscutter.

My father tailored clothes for a living and specialised in suits. He came to Singapore by ship from China and ended up as an apprentice to a master tailor, an old man taught him how to sew at the back of a shop near the Tanjong Pagar railway station. Everybody said: “Go to Nanyang, there’s money to be made.” I don’t think he thought much about it and simply scraped enough money from his family in China to follow a bunch of people here.

There was only one tailor shop along Upper Serangoon Road and there were many foreigners living at the terrace houses nearby, so business was good. We helped in taking measurements for the suits and pants and translating instructions to Hakka. We also helped write out receipts and cut squares of sample fabrics for the orders.

The Yue family in their shophouse.
The late Mr Yue Teet Hoong at his work station.

Bales of cloth

What was my first home like? Plain cement floor, bare walls, lots of bales of cloth mainly in different shades of grey and white and sewing stuff piled up high. One bale of cloth was just about enough to make one suit. Three sewing machines occupied the entire mid-section of the shophouse. The five-foot way at the front of the shophouse was our playground.

On good days, we would buy char siew rice or Hainanese curry chicken rice from the coffee shop down the road. On bad days, lunch would be biscuits or a simple fare of fried luncheon meat and rice.

Removing the bales of cloth was quite a chore – We dreaded it if a customer wanted to see the cloth at the bottom of the stacks of cloth – it meant we had to pull it out and stack the bales of cloth one by one later. I also spent a lot of time sharpening chalk for our father.

Ms Yue (centre) attending to customers on the phone.
Ms Yue's mother, Madam Wong Yew Lang.

We were never taught how to sew. Father did not want us to learn tailoring. He wanted us to go to university and get good jobs. He would be sewing at the workshop, which was in the middle of the shophouse , blocked by a tall cabinet. Hence one of us would be stationed at the front of the shop and alert father whenever a customer enters the shop. We had our first TV set in 1962 in the shop when I was in Primary One. It was placed in the middle of the shop and we watched cartoons every evening without fail.

Whenever people walked in, we were very happy because it meant money for my father. You would see him smile happily while working on each pair of trousers because there was business. Typically it took him about three to four days to make a pair of trousers or suit, but if he wanted the money bad enough, he would even work overnight to finish the job.

I learnt from my father that you had to work very, very hard to make money. To him, the lack of education meant a gloomy future and one would be stuck in a low-paying job. Education was very important to him and he made sure we never skipped a day of school. There was once, the one and only time he struck lottery, where he packed all of us into his tiny Morris Miner to eat chilli crab at Punggol.

The tailor shop folded in 1986 when my mother had a stroke. There was no one to help my father anymore so he gave up the rental premises and came to live with me.

What is home to me? Home will always be where my father is.

Mr Yue was always on the phone taking orders from customers.
A young Ms Yue standing at the front of the shop.