Friday, September 25

The day the music ends – the demise of an old trade

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The writer with Ivy Ng on her last business day at Kenyalang’s Jong Hua Music Centre on June 30.

GROWING up in a small town like Kuching in the 1960s meant going to school ferried by your parents’ car, a neighbour’s carpool, by bus, by bicycle, or even on foot. When you went out to town for a meal, it was a luxury and it meant either the open-air market at Power Street, or Min Heng, Ann Lee, or Loke Restaurant at Carpenter Street. Shopping meant school supplies at the corner shops at the corner of Khoo Hun Yeang Street and for other goods at India Street, Padungan, or Main Bazaar.

It was only in August 1965 that Electra House opened and the concept of shopping malls arrived in Kuching, with three floors selling various consumer goods, from watches to clothing, electrical, and food outlets. The first big locally owned department store called Ngiu Kee established itself there and attracted massive crowds from day one. It had opened its very first textile shop at High Street in Sibu in 1953. The chain grew speedily and expanded into other towns and outlets popped up everywhere in the following 10 years.

Ngiu Kee folded in July 2010 after it defaulted on an RM34 million loan. This thus ended a retail empire which had stretched the length and breadth of Sarawak and Sabah for more than 57 years. It was only many years later that a chain store like Parkson would manage to match and equal Ngiu Kee’s reach, appeal, and attraction to the average consumer on the street.

Depending on which retail trade media you read these days, it has been said that the days of group chain stores are also on the brink of fast vanishing due to diminishing consumer demand for their brick and mortar retail outlets and goods.

The reason?

The boom of the internet and online shopping and the huge and massive success of home-based convenience coupled with aggressive pricing and a wider range of choice, as well as cost effective and speedy courier delivery, and easy to use online payment. Reliability and return-if-not-satisfied options also matter to today’s more net savvy consumers, especially those between the ages of 18 and 45, whose disposable incomes are the highest ever in the history of human endeavour.

Today I want to focus on three trades which have personally affected my way of shopping since I was old enough to go to the shops on my own either by bicycle, with parents, or friends. Since about the age of 10 or so, I have had three favourite past-times and hobbies: reading, listening to music, and going to the movies. This hasn’t changed much in over 60 years.

For my books and magazines in the early days of the 1960s and the 1970s, there were bookstores aplenty of which my favourites were Rex, Mayfair, Mong Soon, Chiang Wah Onn, Majid & Sons, and Toko Mustafa. Scarcely a weekend would pass without me frequenting two or more of them on a shopping spree; blowing all my allowance on magazines and books. I was rather fortunate as after age 16 in 1966, I was already earning my keep by writing for Desmond Leong’s The Vanguard English broadsheet daily on a weekly basis and getting paid the princely sum (in those days) of $80 per article for a full page with photos.

I cultivated the reading habit from a very young age and was avidly following every new arrival of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series from the British Council library; after puberty hit I went on to more serious stuff and devoured non-fiction books mainly biographies, history, and travel and leisure subjects. As for fiction, I was more inclined towards drama and mysteries and not that keen on science fiction and fantasy.

I had membership cards at all the available public libraries then, the State Library, British Council, American Consulate, and that’s about it.

The selections and titles available at our local bookstores in those days were very limited for both magazines and books. Most of the time, the ones you really wanted you had to reserve or prebook in advance as they’d only receive a few copies for sale. Although there was censorship of some of the more enlightening magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, as well as books by DH Lawrence and Henry Miller, once in a while my friendly bookshop keeper would be able to surprise one with a copy that had escaped Customs or the authorities. Needless to say these came at quite the premium!

It was towards the mid-1980s that the older bookstores started to shutter and fold; while the early 1990s saw the advent of chain bookstores like MPH, Times, and Popular slowly setting up shop in the many shopping malls and plazas that had started cropping up. But these so-called bookstores started to diversify and when they did, books and magazines became just a small part of their overall showroom space. The coming of the internet in the 2000s started to chip away their core business and consumers could order online from Amazon and e-Bay for whatever they desired.

Today, what you find in MPH and Popular are toys, stationery, and IT items occupying 90 per cent or more of their shop space.

The trade I miss most, because I enjoyed the time spent, the casual browsing around, and the oft-times surprising discovery of either an odd piece of music or a long forgotten movie, is the music and video shop – usually combined as one shop front.

The earliest ones that I recall were the two at India Street in the 1960s – Tai Chey and Kwong Heng Lee. The ones in Singapore that I loved and would never miss visiting whenever I was there were Sing Records, initially at Victoria Street, then Lucky Plaza; and the many others like Sembawang, MPH, Tower Records, Kinokuniya, Times, Borders, and HMV. They all had great selections of music DVDs, CDs, some vinyl, and a vast catalogue of movie titles on Blu-ray and DVD. One could spend hours and dollars in any one of these outlets!

The internet only came into worldwide popular use 29 years ago on Aug 6, 1991; and YouTube was launched on a massive scale in the year 2005. The death knell for the movies and all things music-oriented came only 13 years ago in 2007 with the advent of Netflix and it caught on like wildfire. The internet and subsequently online streaming coupled with the spread of smartphones dominating the world with enormous data capacity and speed meant the end of music as we have historically heard them on CDs and movies we’d seen on DVDs and other formats. The rest is history.

There’s one outlet in Kuching that sold both music and movies that I miss a lot. It’s Jong Hua Music Centre at the old Kenyalang Park Commercial Centre, and it had been in business for over 40 years! It provided me with a good proportion of my entire collection of VCDs, DVDs, Blu-ray, as well as CDs during this period; they moved more times than I can remember, from the now defunct Kuching Plaza to King’s Centre, and Kenyalang Park. I was one of their oldest and best customers during this time; I also became good friends with the owner Ivy (Chern) and her siblings Jason (How) and Ellie (Ng), as well as staff member Fang (Vivian).

They decided to call it a day and their last day of business was on June 30, 2020. Earlier on while preparing for this change in consumer habits, they had branched out into new areas of business, they opened a new food court in Stutong (Jong Hua) and were already operating a chain of candy and gift shops at four different locations in Kuching. Anyway they’ve already made their money selling music and film content for the past 40 years … and what a ride it has been, both for them and for me, their loyal customer for so many years.

May good business fortune continue to shine on them and I am thankful to them for all the past memories. Amen.

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