Out and About 1 : The Store that Time Forgot.
09 June 2022
Welcome to the premiere for the Out and About series of articles that I’m working on. This week we’re providing some light on a Chinese Specialty Store in the oil town of Kuala Belait or KB, situated in the Borneo country of Brunei Darussalam.
Take off your shoes, make yourself comfortable and let’s begin….
There was something strangely enigmatic about the facade of this particular store in a row of contemporary shop houses. I had felt its magnetic pull when I had been in KB a few weeks back. That time, rushing to get back to the capital city of BSB about a hundred kilometres away — all I could do was to make a resolve to return to it at a later date.
And yesterday had been that day.
“Mahu cari apa?”, asked the Chinese gentleman in Malay (Translation : “What are you looking for?”) as I entered the Joo Foh store.
He had a face mask on, as was the norms these covid 19 days. Earlier he had been at the rear of the shop, instructing his Indian worker to move some boxes and their contents onto some shelves.
“Let me look around first, ya”, I had replied back.
“Boleh”, he had answered genially (Translation : OK)
I looked around the store, taking in the sights eagerly, a bit overwhelmed on where first to latch my eyes on. The front entrance of the store that I had walked through was as wide as the store itself, and seemed to defy the years, framing the entirety of the store and its bellyful of wares to passers-by whether they wanted to or not. I might as well have been back to the 1950’s : the premises had certainly looked the part — seemingly frozen in time in the way items were being displayed. At the entrance, trays had been positioned in the middle crammed full of rubber flip-flops and plastic sandals. Unlike more dedicated shoe shops where enough space … and elegance would be provided for the display of an individual foot wear, patrons of this particular store were expected to unceremoniously bend and pull a slipper out from the batch of slippers in the tray, and then try the selected slipper out for size.
Those trays were in front of 2 sets of waist height glass cases that were fronting leather belts, small LED lights — most likely prayer light bulbs, cotton wool, and arrays of colourful small boxes. Set on top of these cabinets were more footwear — black and grey sneakers devoid of any discernible and familiar branding.
More glass cases can be found perpendicular to the 2 front facing ones. These extend in 2 lines all the way back to the rear, with just enough space in between for a proprietor to access and play host to inquisitive clients. On the glass cases were boxes of tailor scissors, barber scissors, combs, and inner shirts. A set of purple dish containers were placed haphazardly on one display case whilst on another rested a rather seasoned cashier machine with a green measuring tape in turn conveniently resting on it.
I turned my attention to the walls of the store, and took in the floor to ceiling slim glass display cabinets. They had wooden frames with a diverse display of rolls of colourful fabrics, towels, blankets, mattresses, knitting yarns, and clear boxes of collared shirts. In front of the display, wooden poles lay suspended from the ceiling via iron wires. And on these poles hung myriads of colourful plastic umbrellas and luminescent safety vests.
“I’ve never installed air-conds”, the bespectacled proprietor — 60 year old Uncle Chin Shyh Khong told me. True, the store was devoid of any climate defying refrigerant spewing air conditioners. The ceiling mounted fans were already sufficient at keeping a steady air flow within the store. These were of course in keeping with the rather spartan settings that included tubes of fluorescent lighting on the ceiling and the rather tile-less and carpet-less existence of the cement floor.
Still the lack of sophistication of the ceiling and floor had never been a bother. Your focus on the floor would probably be more on the rubber boots and galoshes of varying height and sizes on one side of the store near the entrance. There were also rolls of multi patterned table cloth prominently displayed slanted of the wall on the other side. Above these, an old poster of Brunei’s January 1984 independence proclamation event still kept its talisman-like presence.
“Not many old stores like this!”, said Uncle Khong. I could sense a smile behind those masks. But you could never be sure.
At the back of the store, various administrative file folders populate the cabinet space, adjacent to the customary photos of our Royal Couple. Below the portraits were a large analog clock, sharing its quarters with various canisters. Multiple aluminum ladders rested conveniently in front of the assembled utilities — ready for action to access hard to get merchandise.
My eyes caught some black inner shirts towards the back. I mentioned them to Uncle Khong who dutifully walked to the display area and took the shirt out of its clear plastic bag.
“This is good quality cotton from Thailand”, he had said, unfolding the shirt.
“This is too large for you”, he continued before rummaging for one more of my size.
“Aaah, this one is ok” he said, handing me the more appropriate size. A label indicated that the shirt cost $10.50.
“$10 only”, he had said generously.
I paid him the price, and thanked him. The purchased items had been removed from its clear plastic and into another — a rather crispy and unbranded low density polyethylene red plastic bag, secured further by having the plastic bag’ handles tied together.
I took the now lumpy looking plastic bag and left the store. Behind me, Uncle Khong returned to the rear of the store, presumably to continue unloading some other merchandise. As I walked back to my car at the nearby parking area of Jalan Pretty / Pretty Road, in my mind I was transported back to years before when I had been a small child, eager to buy some books and toy cars.
“Don’t run”, my mom had told me.
I smiled behind my mask, lost in thought in the present.
I had not run then. I was surely not running now. Nobody ran away from KB. You just return to it at various times. And as long as time capsules like the Joo Foh Store still existed — it would make that experience of returning all the more rewarding.