Thrifting in Singapore: A Guest Post by Weylin of Only Slightly Pretentious Food

We’ve furnished many an apartment with an eclectic mix of Ikea basics, sturdy second-hand goods hand-me-downs, quirky treasures scavenged off the street, and craigslist finds. I love the satisfaction that comes with finding a unique piece and a good deal. (I often find shopping in Singapore so uninspiring. Where’s the challenge?)

I gave up on much of my Goodwill hunting upon moving to Singapore, assuming there wasn’t much of a thrift scene here. “Not so,” says my dear friend, Weylin. Read on…

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Thrifting is a (bad) habit that I picked up while living in the United States. We would frequent vintage and antique shops, Goodwill stores, and flea markets for bric-and-brac.

In Asia, there seems often a stigma attached with used items. I tend to put this down to the recent affluence that the region has experienced and the resultant disdain for used, old, or dirty items. I find that, with the older generation, it’s not just prejudice and hygiene concerns, but the evocative memory of poverty, shame, and even wartime that dominates their preference for brand-new purchases. In recent years, younger generations have become more curious, receptive, and nostalgic about the style and history of past eras. There’s been a big resurgence in thrifting or nouveau-antiques.

In Singapore, there are quite a few shops that specialise in sprucing up old furniture and re-selling it at a steep premium. But there are fewer, real thrift stores. For antique or lovingly refurbished furniture, places like Just Anthony, Second Charm, Fairprice Antiques, Asher’s Vintage Market, Like That One, Barossa Furnishings, Journey East, Junkie’s Corner, and Lorgan’s are very popular. These ‘proper’ stores have a comprehensive selection and there is no bargaining involved!

There are also several small shops that sell more furnishings than furniture. This would include Oriental Arts and Crafts at Holland Village Shopping Center (where I recently saw a pair of lovely Celadon lamps for $60 each), The Heritage Shop, Tong Mern Sern Antiques Arts and Crafts, and By My Old School. These are typically family-run antique shops and I love them for their quirky aesthetic. They have the best old posters, telephones, glassware, and smaller items like Peranakan tea sets and souvenirs like coasters and chopstick rests.

Now, for thrift stores, my first go-to place is Hock Siong & Co. in Jalan Ampat. As resale businesses go, this is one of the more cheerfully and efficiently run, while retaining a sense of chance and discovery. Hock Siong takes in items en-masse from hotels and large hospitality businesses around Singapore and the staff can usually tell you the providence of each item. They specialise in furniture—typically sofa sets, tables, consoles, and lamps—and also carry a large selection of hotel banquet equipment, like food warmers, chafing sets, and cutlery. Prices can go up to $500 for a full-size cabinet but average $60 to $80 for hotel chairs and paintings in very good condition. They also have an electrician and a reupholster on hand, so that you can get work done immediately on your purchases.

I discovered this place via a classifieds ad some five years ago and it’s only become more and more popular since. Now they have their own website and Facebook page where they display selected new wares. The turnover is extremely quick so the best steals are still to be had in-store, like Artimide lamps and designer chairs. My star buys have been: a set of Art Deco keyhole armchairs; sleek modern standing lamps ($60 each); a pair of blue and white China ginger vases and a pair with a delicate red and blue pattern, all with lamp inserts ($60 each); framed watercolour paintings of old Singapore ($20 each); and some gorgeous Celadon and glazed China pots and vases ($15 each).

When I have time, I also go out to the Red Shield Family Thrift Store called Praisehaven in Upper Bukit Timah. The Red Shield Industries (RSI) Family Thrift Stores are a social enterprise as well as a serving ministry. They receive donations-in-kind from the public and companies and resells them at affordable costs through its network of Family Thrift Stores. The income generated supports the Salvation Army’s social and community programmes.

The store at Upper Bukit Timah is particularly large and has two showrooms, one for smaller home items and apparel and one for larger furniture. In the home section, they have a wide variety of plates, bags, wedding clothes, toys, and sports equipment, mainly overrun items that they receive on consignment or from expatriate families that depart in a rush. I’ve often thought that if you need a throwaway item, like crutches or assorted teacups, this would be a good place to look. The furniture section is particularly worthwhile, especially if you are looking for tables, chair, and sofa sets, as there is an entire floor of these.

I have bought a few cheap bits and bobs at the Salvation Army but my best experiences here have been in picking up a set of large porcelain tableware stamped with raised moulding from an old Singapore hotel ($30), a beautiful red pallete brush oil painting ($100), a set of leather-backed Chesterfield chairs ($200), and brand-new 4-seater woven outdoor table set ($300). On public holidays, they give additional discounts and have a volunteer-run storytime corner for children. A friend of mine came on a public holiday, bought 12 mismatched chairs for $8 each, and had them reupholstered for use in his trendy cafe. Another friend was thrilled to find a set of early Chua Ek Kay ink on paper prints that were unrecognized and mispriced in the Art and Paintings section.

The Salvation Army has five locations. I’m told the Praisehaven at Upper Bukit Timah and Upper Serangoon Road branches have the best furniture sections.

Other than the Salvation Army, there are several other shops that also perform a similar charity function. However, I tend to find that they are much smaller in scale, slightly less efficient, and carry a selection of smaller, less expensive items, primarily accessories and books. The first is the M.I.N.D.S Good As New Charity Shop at 800 Margaret Drive. The second is the SCWO’s (Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations) New 2 U Shop at 96 Waterloo Street.

There are several stops along Tagore Lane that have fantastic deals. One is the Picket and Rail at 22 Tagore Lane. This is a huge space of discounted furniture but the real deals are in their $85 mattresses and $2 plates, imported from Crate and Barrel’s China factories or various rustic French brands like Maisons du Monde. Another place for crockery is Java Enterprises at 25 Tagore Lane. These are overruns manufactured at a family-run crockery firm in Semarang, Indonesia. Remember to call before visiting as some of these warehouses keep odd trade hours.

The most prolific online listings are HardwareZone.sg, Singapore.Gumtree.sg, Classifieds.SingaporeExpats.com, Singapore.Locanto.sg, and Adpost.com/sg. This market has grown so exponentially in size over the last few years with the frequency of households arriving and departing Singapore that I can’t keep up with the new websites. I can’t remember, literally, the last time we purchased a brand new washer, dryer, or television. You can usually get a gently used one at a handsome discount or a brand-new one that somebody’s won in a lucky draw! The items range from baby products and furniture to kitchen equipment, and in particular white goods like washers, dryers, air purifiers, televisions, and stereo equipment. Just remember to always view the product before buying and transact in cash and preferably in person, never on a sight-unseen or overnight transfer basis.

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Before you go charging out to thrift, I do have a few words of warning. The first is that you don’t necessarily save money if you buy items that you don’t need. I would be particularly picky when thrifting, as there is no recourse for damaged items or for plain overbuying. Pick classic lines, sturdy structures, and items that will be evergreen even if you move.

Be disciplined about your own personal standards, for example, I draw the line at used mattresses, bedding, and sofas that are not reupholstered. Also, if the items you’re eyeing require too much alteration or are damaged, don’t consider it, as the transportation and refurbishment costs may not make it worthwhile. Most of the stores will charge you a delivery fee of $60-80 for bulky items, although you can ask for it to be waived if you spend over $300.

Lastly, the kind of items at thrift stores in Singapore trend toward classic Chinese furniture, such as rosewood and mother-of-pearl settee sets, ornate Chinese vases and lamps, or 1960’s-1980’s wood, Straits-born furniture. If you are into the retro coffee shop look, you’re in luck as there will be many pieces that you can fix up with a little elbow grease. There are also lots of iron-wrought, glass, and stainless steel pieces but these can be somewhat clumsy and chunky, and a modern, linear design is rare. Dress-up items are also very common—kimonos, Chinese outfits, or wedding dresses—but in our climate, many of the apparel items will be dusty or yellowed unless inventory is replenished regularly.

Most of these stores will have new things in every week, so it is always the luck of the draw and there will always be something new to consider. Good luck and happy hunting!

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Dear readers, do you have a recommended shop not on this list?

(Additional credits: Photograph via Hock Siong & Co.‘s Facebook page.)

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