For former design editor Rebecca Wong, reusing and repurposing old items makes perfect sense. Giving second-hand items a new lease of life not only preserves the rich history behind them, but also minimises environmental impact, a cause dear to Rebecca’s heart.
It was only natural, then, for her to step up and join her father Winston Wong in the stewardship of By My Old School, a vintage shop in Commonwealth selling various homeware pieces and other items collected over the years.
The place is a portal to the Singapore of yesteryear, with a veritable treasure trove of relics from a forgotten past.
Old signs, kopitiam cups and kopi socks, vintage luggage and other items jostle for room, each bearing its own unique history. Such is the magnetic draw of the shop that it’s almost impossible to just have a quick browse – visitors spend many a nostalgic hour poring over the collection, and Rebecca is more than happy to share the stories that accompany each item. We chat with her about what it’s like to be a collector.
What draws you personally to the business?
I guess collecting is in my blood! Almost all of my dad’s siblings are collectors or have an artistic inclination. A big reason why people collect is that they appreciate the artistic value of an item, whether it’s the design, material or craftsmanship, or all three. I do as well, and of course the stories behind the items. Every item tells a story of the era in which it was made, and the way of life then.
Some items (to me) have immense historical significance, for example, Japanese textbooks used when Singapore was occupied by the Japanese, or books or documents which commemorate special events, such as the opening of the now defunct National Stadium.
Well-made items also have an extremely long shelf life, so it’s more sustainable to use something that is already made and can still last many more years.
I always feel extremely grateful that the things we have fell into our hands, that we are able to save them and appreciate them before handing them over to the next owner. I see the value in everything and try not to discard items easily, which is also not good when storage space is limited!
In your opinion, what gives vintage its value?
There’s the quantifiable value such as the rarity of the item, the workmanship, and the monetary value of the materials used (i.e. brass, copper, type of wood, etc), but very often vintage is valued because of the value the owner bestows on it. Like they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Personally, I have a fruit knife that belonged to my grandmother, and it belonged to her father. One part of the blade has completely worn away because of years of use (it’s more than 100 years old), but looking at it makes me think of my grandma, so it’s priceless to me but of no value to another person.
The value we place on items is often tied to our personal history. So my customers are drawn to different items in the shop, and it’s great when they see something and it triggers a personal memory which they often share with me!
How do you think the public appreciation of vintage objects has evolved over the years?
Collecting vintage items is a niche interest. Some people like vintage, but some really just want new and modern items, and nothing old. Perhaps people start appreciating vintage items when they get older, which is understandable. Getting older, I think, makes people nostalgic for the simpler times of their childhood and school days.
Singapore’s rapid development has led to us losing much of our built heritage and also the traditional streetscape. Many traditional businesses struggle to survive (and many have shuttered) because of rising business costs such as rental and labour, and lack of successors. In the last 10 years, I think there’s been more dialogue about conservation and heritage and more awareness of what we are losing in the name of progress.
People, especially the younger ones, are taking an interest in learning more about Singapore through heritage tours and events. I guess younger people are also curious about how our way of life now is so vastly different from life in the past. They (and sometimes I) can’t imagine what life was like in a kampung. Some are fascinated and have become passionate about analogue and mechanical objects such as film cameras, record players, and typewriters. I guess it’s a pushback on the homogeneity of digital materials, which have very little character.
Nostalgia has also proven to be a very powerful and effective marketing tool, especially when it comes to food. Heritage businesses are highlighting their long histories, or traditional recipes to draw customers.
Recently too, vintage items have been used as part of therapy for dementia patients as these objects can be powerful triggers for memory, for the sharing of memories. Most care or activity centres for the elderly also have a corner where vintage items are placed for their familiarity and for the elderly to interact with. Many customers spontaneously share their memories with us when they visit our shop and see all the items they have used before or have seen their parents or grandparents using.
What design tips do you have for vintage lovers who want to display their collection at home without it looking cluttered?
Place items in groups – for example, gather a few of your favourite objects on a tray, but make sure they are of various heights or shapes to make them visually interesting. You can use vintage books to add height. Also, items in odd numbers look better.
Old rattan baskets and wooden boxes have a lovely patina and are great for storing and displaying loose items.
It’s more impressive if you display multiples of the same item, such as a collection of colourful Peranakan tingkats or thermos flasks in various colours to create a theme. For flatter objects, you can use a pegboard and mount items on it with cable ties. Make sure there’s a theme so it creates a story and is not just a loose assortment of items.
Use wall-mounted shelves if you have run out of floor or cabinet space. At the shop, we mount old teak drawers on the wall and use them as shelves. Enamel trays can be displayed and ‘attached’ to walls with tiny but very strong magnets (found at Daiso) stuck onto the walls with masking tape.
By My Old School is located at 115A Commonwealth Dr, #03-24, with visits by appointment only at 9879 2088.
This article was originally published in Home & Decor.