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.
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