A Photographer’s Ode to Heritage Mom-and-Pop Shops (Before They’re Gone)

There are no statistics to back this, but all photographers know that it can be incredibly difficult to convince your local aunties and uncles to pose for photographs. So seeing almost – almost, except for too-cool-to-smile barbershop uncle – every single subject in Nicky Loh‘s three-year-long photo series on lao diams (old shops) smiling, relaxed, and just completely in their element, is testament to how much love the 39-year-old photographer has poured into this personal project of his.

The lao diams captured within these 24 photographs range from the familiar mama shop and hardware store to ones that most Singaporeans wouldn’t have stepped foot into, like the “Kiddy Rides” shop at Lichfield Road that closed their shutters shortly after being photographed. Award for the oldest shop goes to Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop, which opened in 1897, followed by the toy store in Holland Avenue, opened 1940. The youngest lao diam would be Shafanah Kiosk, a mamashop in Ang Mo Kio that opened in 1986 – still before many of us reading this were born.

Below, we showcase a few selects from the series, together with bits and pieces of our conversation with Nicky. (To view the full series, use the slideshow above.)

Sin Palace Hair Dressing Saloon @ Commonwealth Dr., opened 1964
Molly Toh Ean Tailor and Dressmaker @ Kensington Park Road, opened 1971
Tong Mern Sern (Antique Shop) @ Craig Road , opened 1972

Nicky: “I started on this project in 2016, after finishing a smaller version of the lao diams based solely around the Tanglin Halt area. After that series, many people told me how much those photos resonated with them, so I decided to expand the series to document lao diams across Singapore.

Nostalgia has always been my way of escaping reality, because memories can be beautiful. I also wanted to capture these lao diams as a gift for the people in them; as time passes, work unknowingly intertwines with life, and many of them have spent their entire lives in these places.

It’s sad to think that these places will eventually close, and that all these old and long-lasting ties will be uprooted and lost forever. I’m trying to document as much as I can before it all vanishes. Being brought up by my grandmother who used to take me to some of these places, I’d like to think that I’m honouring her by being nostalgic in this series of photographs.

My last shot for this project was around 2019 and I stopped because when I was diagnosed with Lymphoma cancer. And then when I was in remission, COVID-19 happened so I never managed to fully focus on this series from then on.”

Chun Mee Lee Ratan Furniture @ Bukit Merah Lane, opened 1970
Xinhua Cultural Enterprises Pte Ltd @ Bras Basah Complex, opened 1983

“A lot of the aunties and uncles always ask “為什麼要拍?“ (“shoot for what?”), and even after I explain the meaning behind this project, they always look unconvinced. I would sweet-talk them a little, buy some stuff or just sit down and have a long conversation with them until I win their trust. When you actually talk to them, you discover that they have a lot of pride when it comes to the nature of their business, the history of their shops.

After taking the photo, I would make it a point to show them how amazing their shop looks on camera. The smiles on their faces reflect that they’ve never seen their shops in this light either.

My dream is to actually hold an exhibition, and have these people come and see life-sized prints of their shops.”

Sin Hon Loong (Bread Shop) @ Whampoa Dr., opened 1955
Woo Hock Trading Co (Kiddy Rides) @ Lichfield Rd, opened 1985

“Woo Hock Kiddy Rides was one of my favourites (to photograph), especially because after my previous series on the kiddy rides themselves, a lot of people wanted to buy the rides as art pieces for their office or homes. Woo Hock had stopped providing these rides to shopping centres for a while now because decline in demand, so it was nice to see Uncle Lee getting some renewed interest and earning more from his beloved kiddy rides.

The other place that I was really happy getting access to photograph was the Sin Hon Loong bread shop. I had to go down to the shop four separate times and bought a lot of bread before I managed to convince the owner of the shop for a big group photo. This was particularly meaningful to me because I used to stay near Balestier Road, and I could always smell the baking bread all the way from my home, and when my grandmother brought me to Whampoa market. From what I know, Sin Hon Loong is also notoriously hard to get access to photograph these days.”

Shafanah Kiosk (Mama Shop) @ Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, opened 1986
Lam Yeo Coffee Powder @ Balestier Rd, opened 1960
Amir & Sons Pte Ltd (Rare Carpet Seller) @ Kandahar Street, opened 1964

“As a photographer, I want to find joy in my work, so I tend to indulge in photographing things that make me happy. In this sense, I’m quite sentimental about the past because it represents a time when things were more simple. They really are fleeting moments that can hardly ever be recreated.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, the very few occasions I got to go out, I made sure I carried a camera or at least an iPhone because photography created a bubble of a moment that I could get lost in without thinking about anything else.”

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