Monday, March 26, 2012

Singapore, 1960s – Joo Hen (by Tim Light)

We needed to eat, so we had to go shopping. I can remember shopping trips to Cold Storage and Fitzpatricks, but pretty soon my parents settled on Joo Hen (that might not be the right spelling). Joo Hen’s was a small grocer at Sembawang Hills Estate. I’m struggling to remember the exact location, but I seem to remember just off Sembawang Hills Circus, near the junction with Old Thompson Road, there was a group of shops surrounding a small car park. The other shops included a newsagent (where we bought our Superman comics) and a toy shop that had very desirable but unaffordable Hornby Dublo train sets. My best guess is that Joo Hen’s was near where the Shibly Muslim Food shop is today, on Casuarina Road. I walked past there in 2001, and was unable to recognise anything. It looked like everything had been rebuilt, although memory can play tricks.

I imagine someone must have tipped my parents off about Joo Hen’s. It’s not the sort of place you would find by accident. From outside it was a small, unpretentious shop with Chinese owners. Inside it was well stocked, and clearly had everything that we needed. I don’t remember if they sold local products, but there was everything that we were familiar with. Persil, Corn Flakes, Spam … you name it. I was fascinated to see familiar boxes like the Corn Flakes box, with Chinese writing.

Outside was the delivery van. It was lettered with Joo Hen’s name in both European and Chinese writing, and was covered with pictures of some of the products they sold. If I’m not mistaken, 555 Filter King cigarettes was one of the products. Vans decorated with advertising images were a feature of Singapore at that time. Back in England, delivery vans would carry the grocer’s name, but there would be no illustrations. Sadly I don’t have a picture of Joo Hen’s van, but I’ve found a few that were similarly decorated.

After a while, we started to have our groceries delivered in the van. My mother would telephone in the morning, and the delivery would be made that afternoon. We still went out to Sembawang Hills once a month to settle our account. I always liked that place. It was friendlier and quieter than the big supermarkets.


Brian and Tess said...

Tim thanks. Glad to see your blog as one strong memory I have of Singapore in the 1960s was the process of selecting a local grocer who would deliver much of what we needed. These were always Chinese businesses and they always arrived bearing gifts either at the interview or perhaps if actually appointed - the gifts being small pieces of furniture or decorative items.

I think my parents would see at least two or three grocers before selecting one. They no doubt consulted other service families on which ones to approach.

We had to change grocers when we moved from the Opera Estate to Toh Drive in Changi and of course change was always possible if the overpricing got too obvious!

Icemoon said...

Hmm, for a group of shops to surround a small car park, Joo Hen would have to be on the Jalan Leban/Batai side rather than Casuarina Road?

Edward said...

Icemoon, you seem to be quite familiar with Sembawang Hills Estate. Were you a former resident there? The car park on Jalan Leban, in front of the row of shops, was probably built after the mid 70s.

Tim, although I don’t recall any car park near the junction of Sembawang Hills Circus and the Old Upper Thompson Road, one of GMY’s readers posted a comment about this, in my story on “The churches and shops in Phase 1” (October 26, 2009). I quote verbatim from Annette Fox’s comments:

“At the back was a car park until the late 60s when a char kway teow stall started, then the rest followed. The ice ball stall was at the corner of the "last shop".

At the front of the shops during the mornings was a small market which sold fresh meat, fish, vegetables and tou-foo.”

I do not know the name of the Chinese provision shop you wrote about but I suspect it is the same shop mentioned in the above posting. My friends and I used to play the illegal slot machine at the back of this shop in the late 60s. The only Chinese provision shop whose name I can remember is Soon Huat, situated at the corner of Jalan Kuras and Jalan Leban, on the other side of Upper Thomson Road.

Freddy Neo said...

I remember Jui Hen (I think it was spelt this way. It was a Jalan Leban near to junction with Upper Thomson Road. It was located at the unit now occupied by 7Eleven. The owner and staff were Hainanese. I grew up at Jalan Batai near to Jui Hen. The shop at the corner (near to Jalan Batai) was the Bata Store. They also sold stationery and comics.

Edward said...

Hi Freddy,
I don’t remember any provision shop along Jalan Leban. The only shop I can recall is Soon Huat, at the corner of Jalan Leban and Jalan Kuras. We both mentioned this Chinese provision store in our earlier postings. I know there was a kopi tiam in that row of shop houses in Jalan Leban, operated by a Hainanese family. Has Jui Hen been there since the early 60s? Like you I also shifted to Sembawang Hills Estate in 1958. I left the estate after the mid 70s. My memory of the estate is somewhat selective. There are places I can remember so well, others nearby appear to be very vague or non-existent. It’s a pity there are no old photos of this shopping strip.

Icemoon said...

I'm not a former resident. Workplace nearby, go Sembawang Hills FC for lunch sometimes. Blogged about elephant at Seraya here -

Edward said...

Ah yes, of course, Icemoon, now I remember. You were from Bedok. I also lived in Bedok from 1956 to 1958.

Freddy Neo said...

Dear Edward,

Jui Hen was at Jalan Leban near to junction with Jalan Batai, facing the taxi kiosk from about 1959 to about 1972. They lost their customers (Brit Servicement),when the British Forces withdrew in 1971. 7Eleven store is now occupying the premises.

Lam Chun See said...

I have just added a map and photo of the area which I think is where you guys are talking about.

Lam Chun See said...

Freddy. Do you mean the shop next to the silver Toyota Wish in the last photo? That's my car!

Edward said...

Hi Freddy,
This is a real surprise for me. I’ve been to that shopping strip many times since the late 60’s and do not recall a Chinese provision shop there. Or perhaps I’ve forgotten about it. I know the kopi tiam, the shop run by the Lai family where my brother and I used to buy our fishing gear and Radiant Store, which sat on the corner of Jalan Leban and Jalan Batai. I used to get my Beano and Dandy comics from Radiant Store. It was owned by the Chia family from Serangoon Gardens Estate. I have also been to the Sembawang Cafe, just next to Radiant Store. I think the Lai family owned a tailor shop in that shopping strip as well. There are several other shops along Jalan Leban that I simply cannot remember.

I believe the ANZUK forces took over after the British withdrawal in 1971. I don’t know exactly what the arrangements were, but I do know there were many Maoris drinking in Sembawang Cafe and Kashbah in Jalan Kuras. Yes, many of the local businesses lost the valuable patronage of the British servicemen and their families after the pullout. I don’t remember how long Soon Huat provision store lasted. It was the only air conditioned provision shop I have ever been to, in Singapore. I know about Cold Storage, but I have never step foot in that store.

Edward said...

Chun See, the fenced-up car park besides the taxi stand must’ve been built after the mid 70s. The fence didn’t exist while I was living in Sembawang Hills Estate. The car park was just an open space occupied mostly by taxis. That taxi stand looks a bit up-market too. Wow, the whole place has changed so much.

Lam Chun See said...

Edward, these are not new photos but part of the batch I sent you the last time you blogged abt Semb Hills Est. I just thot it would be useful to ppl who cannot follow your discussions - who are not so familiar with the roads in the vicinity ... like me.

Freddy Neo said...

Yes, Chun See. Jui Hen was at the unit near to the Toyota Wish.


I know the Lai and Chia Families. The children, Doris Chia married Willaim Lai Wee Ngen.

Edward said...

Hi Freddy,
You’re right – William Lai married Doris Chia, one of the daughters of the Chia family in Radiant Store. Both William and Doris are law graduates from the NUS. He had a law practice, William Lai and Partners, but also invested in other businesses – seafood restaurants and the Pungol Marina. Not sure if he is still operating this boating and yachting club. A friend of mine has dined in one of his restaurants. You were probably from the same year as William at the NUS. Small world indeed!

Freddy Neo said...

I recommend Willams' restaurant, Choon Seng Punggol Seafood at Turnhouse Road, Changi. Serves excellent chillie crabs and pressed ducks (order in advance). Ate there a few times.
Willaim and I are of the same age but he went to University earlier. He went U, then served NS. He was from VS and NJC. Chun See should know him.

Freddy Neo said...

William is currently operating Choon Seng Punggol Seafood Restaurant at Turnhouse Road near to Changi ferry point. It serves excellent chillie crabs and pressed ducks (must order in advance). I have eaten there a few times. William is the same age as me but went to University of Singapore earlier because he served NS only after graduation. He was from VS and NJC. Chun See should know him.

Edward said...

Freddy, you made my mouth water with the chilli crabs I’ve heard so much about. Yummy. I believe William also owns an IT business in Vietnam with focus on data mining. I was told there are 2 Choon Seng seafood restaurants, both upmarket and they serve very good seafood dishes.

Tim said...

Hi everyone

Greetings from California (on vacation).

Thanks for the info. photos and maps, along with the correct spelling. The photos show the place that I remember. true, the fence was not there, but the shops are more or less the same. I'm always thrilled when I discover a piece of Singapore that has survived the 40+ years since I lived there.

Sorry to hear that Jui Hen's business did not survive. I guess the forces withdrawal caused lots of businesses to suffer. In the UK the small grocers are almost extinct, put put of business by the supermarkets and convenience store chains.

Keep up the good work Chun See, this blog is great.

tim said...

.... or was it Jiu Hen? All I remember was that my parents pronounced it JOO so it could have been JEW or JU or JUE or JIU.

William Lai Wee Ngen said...

Hi Edward and Freddy Neo!

This is William Lai. I happened across your comments and wanted to let you know that old memories are indeed wonderful.

My mom still lives at 16A Jalan Leban, and we also operate the Hakka restaurant, Plum Village Restaurant. I am presently doing IT in Singapore, Myanmar and Thailand. Also, I still run the Choon Seng Restaurant at Turnhouse Road.

If either of you are ever there, please let me know, and I will be glad to treat you to a dinner on the house!

I'm retired from the law practice. but my wife Doris Chia is now the Managing Director at WLAW Advocates LLC.