The Thread that Binds the Family Together
Name of business:
Sin Hin Chuan Kee
Name of business in other language:
798 North Bridge Road, Singapore 198766
1960s, registered in 1974
Sin Hin Chuan Kee supplies sewing materials, selling ribbons, threads, zippers, buttons and more. The business is run by third-generation owner Mr Kenny Ng, alongside his family members. Kenny shares his experiences of helping the business from young and his efforts to ensure that the business adapts to the present times.
Sin Hin Chuan Kee is a sewing and garment accessories shop with a distinctive look, catching the eye of visitors strolling along North Bridge Road. Spanning two shophouse units, the shop’s walls are covered in bright yellow paint. Beneath the striped awnings, traditional Chinese lanterns hang outside of the storefront, their vibrant red matches the shop’s signboard. Inside the store is a haberdashery wonderland—feast your eyes on the spools of sewing threads, yarns and ribbons displayed on shelves, available in a kaleidoscope of colours. Fashion accessories glint under the fluorescent lights as they hang in display racks, comprising beads, sequins, brooches and even crystal buttons from the reputable jewellery brand Swarovski. The deeper you go into the store, the more you would discover—sewing materials ranging from zippers, iron-on patches to pearl pins. Sin Hin Chuan Kee is a treasure trove full of gems for everyone, whether you are a tailor, a casual hobbyist, or a curious visitor.
The shop has been around since the 1960s and is currently run by third-generation owner Kenny Ng, who manages the shop with his brother, parents, uncles, and aunties. The shop’s rich history spans over six decades, and an abridged overview can be gleaned from the store’s “mini museum”, co-created with the National Heritage Board. The glass cabinet showcases several iconic items that tell the shop’s history. One of the items is an abacus which belonged to founder Ng Koon Teng, Kenny’s grandfather, who would use the abacus to tally the shop’s earnings. Another artefact is a paper bag from its early days at 47 Clyde Street—it is printed with illustrations of its products along with a four-digit postal code that is now defunct in Singapore. The cabinet also displays zippers from YKK, a Japanese brand known for being the world’s largest zipper manufacturer. A brief glance at the mini-museum’s intriguing photographs and artefacts is enough to inform any passer-by that the family business is full of colourful memories.
Kenny practically grew up in Sin Hin Chuan Kee, spending much of his time in the store. During the 1960s and 1970s, business was bustling, and the shop always needed an extra pair of hands. His parents would ask Kenny and his siblings to help at the shop in the mornings before school, or in the late afternoons after school. The shop was both a learning ground and a playground for them as children. Kenny recounts the early years fondly, saying, “From young, we have counted buttons, counted zippers, and played in the shop. It is through playing that we learnt. So, it's not so much like you come here, you do work. You can come here to play, but play to learn, then you learn how to work. This is what we—me and my brother—have been taught since we were young.” After years of experience, Kenny and his brother knew the shop like the back of their hands. When they were asked to join the business after their education, they did so without a moment of hesitation.
Choosing Sin Hin Chuan Kee over any other career opportunity was a straightforward one for Kenny, because running the business has always been a family affair. Each member in the family business knows each other’s strengths and shortcomings, as well as their role in sustaining the business. This even applies to the long-time staff as well, who Kenny regards as part of the family and affectionately calls them “big sister and big brother”. He considers the staff as the bedrock of the business. Everyone looks out for each other and is able to cover each other’s gaps at any time. Kenny takes pride in a zero-turnover rate at Sin Hin Chuan Kee, with the only departures having been for retirement or to return to their hometown in Malaysia.
Much has changed since the shop’s heyday during the 1970-1990s. In the past, many foreign buyers came to stock up on goods, such as customers from Batam who would visit every Saturday and purchase them in cartons which they would then carry back by hand. At the same time, the local garment industry was flourishing, resulting in many walk-in customers from the Malay, Indian and Chinese communities. There were many social events that required Sin Hin Chuan Kee’s services, which bolstered business. One such event was the getai (Chinese for “song stage”), a form of vernacular entertainment involving live performances of music, song, and dance. The getai was staged regularly, and the singers would go to the shop as they needed custom-made costumes. It was common to see the store crowded with patrons, giving the Ng family many busy but fulfilling workdays.
Over the years, Sin Hin Chuan Kee has adapted to technological advances and expanded its products and services. One example would be the introduction of customised ribbon printing in 2005, which was an innovation from Kenny. He recollects, “The first order for ribbon printing was for my own order, for my own wedding. We have been selling ribbons for 40 years and I entered the business over 20 years ago, right? I was thinking how to stretch the business, how to expand the business since we have the ribbon. When I was about to get married, I looked at it and said, ‘how nice is it to have my own ribbon’. My name’s printed on it, that time nobody [was] doing it.” He asked his China supplier to print the ribbons for his wedding, and word spread around in the Singapore Brides Wedding Forum, a forum where couples held discussions and shared tips relating to wedding preparations. The first customer who made the order for the shop’s ribbon printing was Miss Amabel, a bride-to-be who was interested in printing personalised ribbons for her wedding. Even though Kenny was not confident to source for a printing company in Singapore, she trusted him to handle her request. “And I was very thankful to her. When she got the ribbon, she was very happy with it, it was like a gold ribbon with maroon colour printing. That order, I will never forget forever,” Kenny said, gushing with sentiment. The order had been a net loss because the production cost for the personalised ribbons was higher than the purchase price. But Kenny saw it as a valuable learning experience, trying time and again to improve the product and make it commercially viable. Eventually, he was able to produce the ribbon perfectly, and it has been one of the business’ main services ever since. “Printing [the ribbon] to me, it's like my baby. I look at it with very prideful eyes. I'm very proud, because I’m like a mother who birthed the idea, the whole project.”
Kenny learnt from a young age that working in the family business was never about the money. Instead, he felt that his path was to continue this family legacy. He says, “That's what [a] heritage business is all about, continuation towards the next generation. And you see how long you can go on lah.” Without a doubt, his diligent and innovative attitude will allow the business to sustain through the changing times. But perhaps what truly keeps Sin Hin Chuan Kee’s spirit strong is the close familial ties everyone has with each other. In a way, Sin Hin Chuan Kee is the thread that binds the family together—the business is the result of everyone’s collective efforts to build a legacy.
Interviewed by Ng Wee Liang, May Hui, and Koh Kai Yee on 21 May 2022.