BY DANSON CHEONG, Straits Times
YOU can find them tucked away in a corner of Turf Club Road, right behind pre-schools and eateries serving omakase burgers or vegan food in The Grandstand.
On a narrow two-way street are three antique shops housed in an old warehouse formerly used to store horse feed.
With racing horses having bolted for greener pastures, antique collectors have moved into the space and turned the street into a tunnel to yesteryear and a gold mine for treasure hunters.
The warehouse is on state land marked for eventual residential use, but the Urban Redevelopment Authority says there are no plans for the area for now.
Part junkyard, part antique store, the shops are filled with so many things that they almost spill out onto the lane.
“Here, not much is valuable; it’s all junk,” said Mr Cham Chin Hong gesturing to things like a pair of Chinese-style bronze horses in full flight, moss-covered lions usually found keeping watch at Chinese temples, and the headless bust of a woman.
Known in the area simply as Ah Cham, the 68-year-old and two other antique collectors moved here from areas like Little India about three years ago, drawn by the relatively cheap rent.
Mr Cham pays about $1,000 a month for a space about the size of a tennis court, with ceilings around 3m high.
These old curiosity shops beckon with “store windows” framed by overhanging vines and moss-covered rafters.
Here, one finds a menagerie in plaster – a deer, rabbits, lions, even a brown trumpeting elephant. Popping up too are the odd Buddha head and smiling statues of Chinese deities Fu Lu Shou (Good Fortune, Prosperity and Longevity). In another corner, an old carousel sits derelict and silent, its happy tunes gone – passing into memory like the children it used to entertain.
Stepping inside the store, Mr Cham opens an old wooden cabinet, revealing a collection of Qing dynasty porcelain – teacups, bowls, saucers and teapots, all in immaculate condition. “These are from Kangxi’s era,” he said, referring to the Qing emperor who lived from 1654 to 1722. The porcelain was salvaged from a Chinese shipwreck off Tanjung Pinang, in the Riau islands, he said.
Artefacts such as these were sold to him by fellow collectors and antique traders, he added.
Rattling off in Hokkien and Mandarin, Mr Cham explained how Qing dynasty porcelain is special, because of the heat of the kilns that bake it and the timbre the earthenware makes when given a gentle knock.
But quality comes at a price.
During a recent afternoon, The Straits Times saw a 64-year-old businessman spending the better part of an hour inspecting a tea set with a flashlight before shelling out about $1,500 for it.
He took out a purple $1,000 note from a stack, before making up the difference from a wad of $50 notes.
“The people that come here are collectors and traders, people who like old stuff and know what they are looking for,” said Mr Cham, adding that his richer clients have no qualms splurging. “In the past, I would make sales worth more than $100,000 and my heart wouldn’t even skip a beat.”
These days, such sales are rare, with many of the big-ticket items like furniture made from prized huanghuali or yellow rosewood having been sold.
The antique shops here do not advertise but are known by word of mouth or stumbled upon, sometimes in cyberspace.
History teacher Paul de Souza, 53, was looking for a Peranakan sideboard for his home when a Google search led him to Junkie’s Corner, the biggest warehouse on the street – run by a man called Uncle Charlie.
Charlie declined to be interviewed but allowed The Straits Times into his labyrinthine shop – stacked to the rafters with old furniture and curios – to have a look.
Inside, one is assailed by an old musty smell and a layer of dust seems to be everywhere.
It was here Mr de Souza found the sideboard he was looking for, which he bought for $2,300. “You could tell from the workmanship that the man who built it really cared for it,” he said. With handcarved peonies and Peranakan motifs, it was likely made at the turn of the 19th century, he said.
The items are not all costly.
“The young people that come here are on a budget, but we have cheap items too,” said Mr Edmund Poh, 53, from the last warehouse on the stretch that he runs with his older brother.
Hanging in his shop is a poster of 1990s comic character Mr Kiasu, along with old marble-top kopitiam tables and rattan chairs which Mr Poh says are popular with young couples and cafe owners looking to outfit their homes and businesses.
He added that these items could cost as little as $100.
“Tourists come here to get cheap souvenirs too,” he said. “If the price is right, we will sell it.”
Another man’s trash could be Mr Poh’s treasure – many of the items he had collected were simply things people threw away.
“Last time when there were many collective sales, we would go around to these places and buy the junk people didn’t want in bulk,” he said.
French expat Julie Artru, 38, who was looking for a cupboard for her shoe shop in Tanglin Mall, put it best: “It’s original and unique… Everything here has a story.”