Thursday, October 09, 2008

Money Change ….. Hello Johnny, Long time no see (by Peter Chan)

In 1961 I made my first trip to the CBD (Central Business District) Area when I accompanied my father to the Singapore and Malaya Stock Exchange at the Singapore Rubber House. My father felt it was a good way for me to brush up my Arithmetic; currency conversions from Pounds, Shillings & Pence to Straits Dollar, Fractions and Mixed Numbers. Anyway this article is not about the stock market but on Change Alley.

After I got most of my Arithmetic correct, I was allowed to independently wander into Change Alley for up to 2 hours. This was how I learnt everything about the place.
Change Alley was not as boring as the other buildings on Collyer Quay.

Fig 1: Different views of Change Alley

Most of the major legal firms, shipping firms, trading houses, office products, compradors and banks were at HK Bank Chambers, Union Building, Winchester House and Ocean Building. There was even SHELL House, the head-office of the SHELL group of companies in Singapore.

Fig 2: “Johnny” poses with local traffic policeman at the Change Alley overhead bridge (circa 1970). Change Alley is behind the bridge and further behind is the present Fullerton Hotel

Change Alley was different because it was filled with bustling retail activities. People squeezed their way through a narrow lane with shops on both sides. Make-shift tarpaulin covers protected shops and shoppers from the sun and rain. There were shops dealing in imitation Rolex and Omega watches, clothing (T-shirts, Arrow Shirts and Batik shirts), leather (belts and shoes in leather or crocodile finish), ladies hair accessories (brushes, combs, hair-band, clips) and Chinese curios (jade pendants). One retail shop which began in Change Alley was Boon Radio or Boon & Company which dealt in cameras. There was one “Tau Fa Shui” stall on tricycle at the Raffles Place end of Change Alley but there were many cobblers, locksmiths (ala “Mr. Minute”) and fresh fruit sellers at both ends of Change Alley. Don’t forget there were many pick-pockets operating in Change Alley.

The shopping strategy was to bargain and walk away if you were not happy with the price. Don’t be surprised; “Johnny” was pretty good at bargaining. The shop-keeper trailed Johnny for some distance and to close the deal would animatedly ask; “OK you tell me how much you want. I make very good price for Johnny. I don’t earn. No problem. You my friend OK”. Next moment after further haggling, Johnny gets his goods and the shop-keeper smiles. You just have to wonder who gained but realized it’s all about brinkmanship.

Fig 3: The last days of Change Alley (circa 1990) with “Johnny” looking around to find what happened to his beloved Change Alley which he knew back in the 1960s

A unique voice which added much character to Change Alley was the money-changer, typically Indian Muslims. You knew they had to be one because they wore checked-printed sarongs held by a broad black leather belt, long sleeved white office shirts tucked over the sarong and black songkot. Each time a European tourist or a British sailor in his white splendid uniform walked past they would loudly shout; “Money (2)............ Money Change (2).......British Pound, American Dollar, Singapore Dollar.” My favorite past-time was to watch the Money-changers counting notes. In fact my Indian friends claim I can imitate one. The money-changer first wets one of his thumbs with saliva before counting the notes. Then he spreads the notes with 2 hands like a fan. To every question raised, he shook his head as if indicating an affirmative answer.

Unless you had something to buy, locals would never go to Change Alley because the prices were priced to suit the European pockets. Change Alley was strategically located because it had a bus stop in front of SHELL House. This brought many Europeans to Change Alley. For that short-cut from Clifford Pier to Raffles Place, locals walked through The Arcade Building, a Moorish-looking building on the outside and on the inside. The Arcade Building offered a different level of comfort and shopping experience from Change Alley.

After emerging from Change Alley on the Raffles Place side; to your left was the Bank of America branch and John Little Building on your right. Robinson’s Department Store was directly across Change Alley. After the Bank of America was Gian Singh Department Store whose premises were later taken over by Oriental Emporium. Gian Singh closed because of major worker strikes

Fig 4: Recognize the old Change Alley (circa 2008)? Change Alley Aerial Plaza replaced the old “Change Alley Overhead Bridge”. Change Alley overhead pedestrian bridge was the first overhead pedestrian bridge built in Singapore

Change Alley was demolished in the early 1990s and with it ended one of the colourful chapters of shopping and bargaining in the CBD. For me I last saw Change Alley in 1980.

25 comments:

yg said...

although there are money changers all over the island, and even in hdb estates, i still go to the arcade and change alley to change money.

Victor said...

Peter/Chun See - The photos in the montage (1st photo) are so small that they look more like stamps to me. Can't see much details leh. Can post larger ones?

fighting fit said...

The Change Alley Overhead Pedestrian Bridge with its two rows of shops were most interesting. It had tailors, money changers, eateries, souvenirs, and my favorite--the few that sold all kinds of stuff, cameras, old watches, clocks, things taken from ships. I reckoned a lot of sailors must have brought stuff there and traded them or sold them to the guys. They had lots of old Russian watches. If you know your watches, you might run into a gem now and then.

But they are all gone now. Anyone has any idea where they are now?

peter said...

Fighting Fit

I know you refer to that antique shop operated by an Indian. I am not sure whether they are the same people. There is one which sells similar stuff at Golden Landmark. The shop is facing Ophir Road and a bus stop. The next unit is a PRC massage parlour

Icemoon said...

Victor, here is the secret to reading those very small signs.

Victor said...

Icemoon, I know how to meddle with the "s" (not sex but size hor) parameter but would prefer to see a big photo directly on the blog.

Many years ago, I saw a shop selling old ship lamps, Russian watches and other stuff on the overhead aerial plaza near Change Alley. I don't know where it had moved to now.

passerby said...

Rather than a large picture in the blog post (which may break the layout, be bad for slow connections etc. and is generally a bad design idea) why not link the picture so that you can click on it to see it in a larger size rather than having to get the url of the picture...

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm why is every one commenting on the size of the pictures.

Guess size does matters. :)

The name Change Alley brings back memories. It did add colour and excitment to the other wise boring area. That was my perception as a child.

peter said...

The second photo in Fig 1 has come alive. There was on the ground floor an office stationery shop with a large window display - the shop sold those "SAF RSM walking stick" which I think were used in land surveying. Aiyah I wish I can remember the same of the shop.

Boon & Company was to the right of this shop after passage way.

NCR (national cash register) the computer company was I think on the second floor. Still can imagine sales men carry those mechanical cash registers in and out of the building.

Tom said...

Tom said ...
icemoon I click on to your secret, I thought it was very good know we all can see the photographs alot better haha.

Lam Chun See said...

I am quite amazed by Peter's power of observation. As such a young boy, he was able to appreciate the bargaining process adopted by the shopkeepers of Change Alley and their British customers. What Peter described in this article pretty much echoes what Derek Tait has written in his book, Memories of Singapore and Malaysia. In page 68 he wrote:

"Change Alley was a great place to barter and you always ended up with a bargain. The shopkeepers would do anything to get you into their shops and once you were in, they nearly always managed to sell you something or other. Every time you would walk away, the price would get lower until it was so low, you bought whatever it was anyway. Probably most people didn’t want the stuff in the first place though it was a great place to buy watches, cameras and electrical goods."

Victor said...

Peter, was the name of the shop that sold surveying equipment called Motion Smith?

Lam Chun See said...

Hey I know that name Motion Smith. When I was doing my Industrial Engg prog at Prince Edward Campus, I once went to a shop called Motion Smith to buy a plastic template for drawing Work Study sysmbols for my Flow Process Charts. I it was located along Anson Road near to Palmer Road.

Tom said...

Tom said ...
I remember Change Ally I use to go there after I had afew Tiger beers at the Brit.Club with some ofthe lads, we would look around to see if we could get some think on the cheap, I remember two Indian lads, they came up to us trying to sell some gold rings, then we would start to barter, they always called you Sab,and we would sing them a wee scots song , and every one around us would start to smile, people were alot friendly in these days, at the end of day we went back home to Selarang with agood bargain

peter said...

No it was not Motion Smith. Motion Smith was in a building which I think could either be on the present # 79 Anson Road (which was the former CPF office = the former Phoenix Bdlg) OR the M Hotel site. My best guess is #79 because opposite was a row of shops with a long driveway (now Tunas Bdlg?).

Next time I tele you < is shall speak like someone from Mumbai and then you judge whether sounds the same like Indian.

peter said...

Actually Raffles Place quite interesting in those days. Next to Robinsons was a row of shops (2/3 storey). I remembered Naina Mohd Sdn Bhd was there. FJ Issacs the optician, Silvaroyal the agent for OMEGA watch (still around but I think now in Marina Square), Winston's Golf Shop in Ocean Bdlg area.

Chun See:
I very kapoh those days and use to follow the money-changer around. I find their HQ in Market Street (the former Tat Lee Bank Bdlg and Golden Shoe Carpark area), side by side with the Chettiars, One day must also blog about those Chettiars (money lenders). If one thinks money-changer hides his money in the wallet attached to the belt, that is a decoy. I see them hide under the sarong. have you wondered why those Indians sometimes fold their sarong short and next moment let it down like a saree? Your answer is there.

2ndshot said...

Hey, those Chettiars. I think they gave us the origin of the word "dai yee long" right?

Dreamer said...

Wow, compared to the pictures from then to 80s-90s and recent years, changes really been made over the past decades.

When I am still a little kid, my mom always brought me there with her whenever she went to my aunt's office which located inside "The Arcade" to work. I missed those good old times..

Too bad the changes been made so rapidly, the good old things have been changed.

peter said...

If I am not wrong there was a HILDA's inside The Arcade. HILDA's was a lady's boutique with another outlet the old Fitzpatrick's Supermarket or Cold Storage Supermarket in Orchard Road. I think "Handlooms", a carpet shop was there too.

If you waqnt to imagine what the old Arcade was like then, go down to the present Arcade and look up the ceiling. There was a huge void and metal railways around each floor.

peter said...

Sori mistake, I mean metal railings.

NINAI Mohd Sdn Bhd was the sole agent for S26 infant formula milk in Singapore/Malaya then, and HEINZ baby food. I know it because my sister was on that kind of diet.

alex said...

Fighting fit & Peter,

Yes, the Indian man mentioned is an Indian Muslim Haji, with the shop name Dinky. He is now at Golden Landmark. He moved there after the landlord redevelop the place. His shop is full of interesting things, many USSR products, ship compass, watches, kris swords,etc.

peter said...

Icemoon-
Chettiar not the same as Dai Yee Long. Chettairs are licensed money lenders under the Money Lenders Act of MAS. Ah Long San comes under the Geylang Act. Chettairs always take post-dated check, your IC and one guarantor. He pays out cash and charges >10%/yr in those days, not sure now days.

Victor said...

Peter, I think what Icemoon meant is that the term "Dai Yee Long" (literally "big ear hole") originated from the Chettiar's practice of wearing earrings which are so heavy that they caused the holes in their earlobes to become very big.

Jude Lobo said...

Hi Peter,Do you know J. A. Parker 20/21 Winchester house?

Tah Chong said...

Didn't know the origin of the term Dai Yi Loong dated back to the early rich history of Singapore's past. Interesting! Not many people will know.