Vintage Treasures

Nestled inside Junjie Industrial Building lies Hock Siong, a family-run treasure trove of vintage furniture and second-hand gems for your home. We got the chance to catch up with the founder’s daughter, talking passion, hard work and the beauty of refurbished furniture.

On the surface, it may appear that the karung guni (rag-and- bone man), an iconic character in Singaporean neighbourhoods, is teetering on the brink of extinction. But one karung guni, who started out by helping his parents collect newspapers after school, has come a long way since the 1970s, establishing the beloved second- hand furniture retailer Hock Siong.

In the early 1990s, when the shop was first founded, Toh Chin Siong began by purchasing used clothing, newspapers and electrical items from individual collectors. It wasn’t until the late 90s that he ventured into buying used furniture from local hotels and subsequently expanded to working with restaurants and businesses that were seeking to renovate.

“During the early 2000s, this line of business was seen as a sunset industry,” explains Brillyn Toh, the founder’s eldest daughter and Hock Siong’s current Managing Partner. “Items that were mass-produced in developing countries were cheap, new and good, and there was also a strong stigma around old and used products.”

Curating treasures

Even though Brillyn studied Business IT at university, the shop has always been a part of her life. Even back in her secondary school days, she was already helping her father with the English paperwork needed for hotel projects.

When Brillyn officially came on board after graduating in 2011, a culture of shopping for secondhand goods was already growing in Singapore, and Hock Siong began sourcing from individuals and households. Today, she is in charge of procurement, curating the treasure trove you see at Junjie Industrial Building.

This selection goes beyond the confines of our island. “In our store, you will be able to find objects from different cultures, from Asian to European, spanning modern, vintage and antique,” Brillyn says.

A love of the old

She herself dreams of the day she’ll be able to furnish her home with preloved pieces. “One day, when I have my own home, it will definitely have vintage items too. I am looking forward to the day I can use and not just store them!”

Many other homeowners are on board too, excited at the prospect of having second- hand and vintage pieces at home. But what’s driving this rise in the popularity of second- hand goods?

According to Brillyn, customers are not just in search of a bargain-they also value high quality and the stories attached to their purchases. Plus, buying second-hand goods helps ensure sustainability when renovating and furnishing one’s home.

“A tree takes many decades to grow, and many vintage items are made with materials like hardwood. These are getting rarer due to overlogging and it’s great to see them being incorporated into current interiors.”

Refurbishment is hard work

Giving used pieces a new lease of life is by no means a straightforward process. When a customer sends Hock Siong photos of their items, the sourcing department first assesses their potential. Next, the operations department is deployed for collection. This is no job for the faint of heart, especially when hotels are involved.

At one point, when working on one of the oldest hotels in Singapore, the team had quite a challenge moving the items, particularly due to the size of the lift. “We had to construct ramps around the staircase landing to transport the large pieces down,” Brillyn recounts.

“On another hotel project, we had to work round the clock in two shifts as we were working with a tight timeline. That was definitely a physically demanding project.”

Once an item arrives at the warehouse, it undergoes a thorough assessment for additional repairs and refurbishment. Thanks to the growth of its well-established carpentry team, Hock Siong has been able to offer a wider range of refurbished and upcycled products for sale.

“I often say it takes a village for an end product to be showcased in our store. It’s not just about the technical knowledge and capabilities, but also about having the heart to do it because we deal with secondhand products and our environment can be dusty and dirty”

Community and resilience

Currently, the “village” that is Hock Siong is 25 persons strong and counting. But operational costs are rising as a result of inflation and a scarcity of labour in Singapore (80% of their staff are blue-collar employees who work with their hands), which has thrown a spanner into their plans for expansion.

In the present climate where homeowners can easily turn to Taobao, Hock Siong also has to maintain the appeal of secondhand furniture. This makes it all the more heartening for the team to encounter regulars, some of whom have supported the brand for over 25 years.

Brillyn shares the story of one such patron, who purchases from them whenever he notices a lull in business activity, even if he isn’t in the market for new furniture. “He gives his furniture away to relatives and friends so that he can make way for ‘new’ furniture from our store. He does it out of sheer support for our company and community, and we’re very grateful for that.”

“He has inspired me greatly in the way I run the business and manage my team Brillyn reflects. “Regardless of whether we are business owners or employees working for someone else, we can do good in whatever way we can.”