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Wed, Nov 07, 2012
Urban, The Straits Times
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Tangs for the Memories
by Ong Soh Chin

In my last column, I wrote about authenticity, values and the Singapore brand. So it was almost like a poetic coda when I attended a lunch shortly after to celebrate the 80th anniversary of what is probably Singapore's best-loved retail store, Tangs.

I cannot think of my life as a Singaporean in Singapore without thinking of Tangs, or CK Tang, as it was called in its early days.

I was a child in the 1960s and 1970s, when the early seeds of mass consumerism were sown. So Tangs, together with the two other home-grown retail giants - Robinsons and Metro - are an indelible part of my childhood.

Christmas, in particular, was very special. I remember going to Robinsons every year to have a go at the Lucky Dip and to have my photo taken with Santa Claus.

To this day, I can still sing the Metro Christmas Magic TV jingle - "People like you, people like me, families gathering around the tree...".

Most of all, I remember the Tangs Christmas windows, not only because they were pretty, but also because they always made it a point to insert a Bible passage into the decor.

This meant that every year, amid the baubly glitz and pageantry of Orchard Road, in the frenzy of shopping, one could count on the Tangs display to remind everyone quietly but firmly of "the reason for the season".

It also conveyed to the whole of Orchard Road the family's deep-rooted values. Everyone knows about how founder CK Tang came to Singapore from China with only a tin trunk and a leather case to his name.

But I found out only after reading Once Upon A Tang, the commemorative coffee-table book that is now on sale to mark the store's anniversary, that Mr Tang's father was a Presbyterian pastor in China. Christianity, for the Tang family, therefore, was not something arriviste and fashionable, but an inextricable part of its DNA.

I was not and am not a Christian, but those yearly Christmas Bible passages, which signified an adherence to something deeper that went beyond commercialism, resonated with me; and I respected Mr Tang for sticking to that formula steadfastly, even as the years passed and publicising Bible passages on a shopping street may have seemed quaint and old-fashioned.

I respected his beliefs, just as I admired how Tangs would be closed for business on Sundays to mark the Sabbath, a practice that ended in 1994, as the company attempted to stem the financial losses from its Tangs Studio expansion plans.

But the Bible passages still go up every Christmas and they still shine benignly as beacons of integrity - a far and elegant cry from the crass and cynical prosperity gospel shills which have emerged from some companies in the last few decades.

The other distinctive thing about Tangs was, of course, its green tiled Chinois roof. Again, this reinforced the notion that Tangs was one of us - Asian to the core and not an impersonal shopping destination.

Those traits were also invaluable branding tools as they distinguished Tangs from its competitors by emphasising that this was a family business, not a conglomerate.

Ironically, in those days, the Christian and "Oriental" branding was probably more attractive to Western tourists and expatriates than to Singaporeans, many of whom could ill afford to shop in Orchard Road and most of whom belonged to other faiths.

But it most definitely struck an aspirational chord and, thanks to the country's rampaging economic success and social mobility, many Singaporeans soon found themselves shopping at Tangs, rubbing shoulders with those same Westerners.

Tangs always had a firm sense of place, which included wearing its Singapore roots proudly. This was clear when it supported the Society of Designing Arts Singapore (Soda) by showcasing emerging local designers in the 1980s.

And when it started Tangs Studio in 1988, it showed that it had its finger on the zeitgeist by going beyond mere retail and embracing a whole lifestyle concept instead.

In its early years, Tangs Studio was a huge success. When it moved to Ngee Ann City from 1993 to 1999, it sold art books as well as burgers and wines. As a young adult, Tangs Studio was, for me, the place to be and to be seen.

Sadly, however, the Ngee Ann City business faltered and Tangs Studio was eventually shuttered, adding to the truism that Tangs was always bravely ahead of its time, for better or for worse.

But the failure of Tangs' bold experiment was actually another of its endearing and true qualities. This was, after all, a Singapore brand founded, not only on the values of integrity and authenticity, but also of vision.

The vision was there when Mr Tang made that trip from Swatow to Singapore. It was also there when he decided to buy a plot of land on Orchard Road that nobody wanted, simply because it faced a cemetery.

Today, as anyone along Orchard Road can see, Tangs is embarking on a brave new vision - a major renovation that will see new concepts being rolled out for a whole new generation of global shoppers.

When it is fully completed by 2014 - the renovation is in three phases, the first of which is the beauty hall on the ground floor, which will be ready by December - it will be a spanking new store that looks to the future; a store that emphasises experiences and celebrates new talent by curating unique products and brands.

But one hopes it will also look back and remember its founding virtues of good value for money and local pride.

Today, the Metro Christmas Magic jingle no longer plays on TV and the Robinsons Lucky Dip has long been mothballed. But as Christmas rolls around again next month, I know I can count on Tangs to remind me always of the reason for the season.

Happy birthday, Tangs, with much love and affection.

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