All The Glitter You Can Hold
Name of business:
89 Arab Street, Singapore 199785
Digvijay Sequins specialises in sequins, crystals, beads, and trimmings, and caters to a wide variety of customers. While the Digvijay Sequins was established in 2005, it can trace its origins to the business started by Mr Harish Kumar’s grandfather in India during the 1930s.
Lined with racks of colourful beads, the shopfront at 89 Arab Street is reminiscent of the rainbow shophouses next-door. Venturing inside, one will find shelves draped with beautiful lace trims, shelves of crystal beads of every colour and size, and curious accessories dangling like ornaments from the ceiling. It is difficult not to be inspired by the variety of colours, shapes, and textures that fill the shop. From jewellery and costumes to dresses and decorations, the possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination.
We often associated heritage to a particular history or cultural practice, but for Mr Harish Kumar, it is the act of handing something down from one generation to the next that gives meaning to the word “heritage”. Like a family heirloom, Mr Kumar’s family business has traversed both time and place to be where it is today. Digvijay Sequins originated from the business started by Mr Kumar’s grandfather in Northern India. He brought the business to Singapore when he moved with his family in the 1930s. It has since made a home for itself at Arab Street selling specialty items like beads, sequins, and trimmings.
Although the wide range of items may be the first thing to catch the customer’s eye, what keeps them coming back is the dedicated service provided by Mr Kumar’s family. They will offer customers examples of designs, choices of materials, and advice on how to match things. “We are here to serve,” says Mr Kumar. To meet customers’ requests and better advise them on designs, he maintains a keen attention to current trends and new products in the market. For example, he introduced new trims with brighter colours and more diverse textures after observing that gold and silver trims were outdated. Even when dealing with difficult customers, he is patient and methodical, laying out what he has to offer and the options they can take.
Just like the confluence of cultures situated in Kampong Gelam, the products at Digvijay Sequins are not limited to a single culture. The range of multicultural influences encourages the creative use of products; as Mr Kumar notes, “something you can use for the traditional Chinese and you can also for the Indian stuff.” This is evident in the shop’s diverse customer base, which includes customers looking for decorations for weddings, temples, churches, costumes, and other DIY projects.
Like many traditional family businesses, maintaining manpower is always an issue, It is more challenging for niche trades like haberdashery as young people are not interested in entering these industries. At the same time, one can always rely on the family in times of need. Mr Kumar and his brother handle all the duties including ordering goods and attending to customers. His nephew also helps with day-to-day tasks at the shop.
With the ongoing trend for businesses to digitalise, Mr Kumar recently made his products available online. But the sensory experience of seeing and feeling the materials in person is something that cannot be replicated by the flat, two-dimensional image on the screen. As Mr Kumar notes, “Online is just a rough guide. The colour you see online is different from what you actually see in person.” When it comes to preparing for important events like weddings, customers prefer to be at the store to see and feel the products. Incidentally, this is the reason the business has been able to survive the past few years—weddings were still taking place even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having grown up in Arab Street, Kampong Gelam has been the family’s home since the 1960s. Back then, Mr Kumar’s immediate family had to cram themselves in the upper unit of the shophouse. It is often the places at and people one has endured difficult times with that become ingrained in memories; for that reason, Kampong Gelam is deeply woven with Mr Kumar’s past, present, and future. Now, he regards neighbouring business owners as his own neighbours, maintaining good relationships and regular contact with most of them. If his shop does not offer what someone is looking for, he would not hesitate to direct them to the next shop that does.
“This is the only place that I know I can do my business, and I also like the area. You know, it’s different from any other place. It has no modern buildings and all that; I’ve seen enough of that. This is nice, comfortable.”
Navigating the precipice between tradition and modernity, Mr Kumar believes that Kampong Gelam is a space where the old and the new can co-exist. He hopes that with the diversification of newer businesses, there might be as many possibilities for the future of Kampong Gelam as there are beads, trims, and sequins in Digvijay Sequins.
Interviewed by Alice Chua, Phoo Myet Che, Pearl, and Toa Chunyu on 28 May 2022.