More than just a city of gleaming malls and luxury brands, Singapore is home to a multitude of passionate local craftsmen, artisans and business owners.

During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these homegrown heroes faced their fair share of adversity, overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges with grace, tenacity and sheer passion for their craft.

Venture behind the scenes with these heroes of retail, and share in the struggles and triumphs they’ve faced amidst tough times.

Close up shot of Kenry Peh, fourth-generation owner of Pek Sin Choon

Tradition amidst new trials

“It’s a very challenging time right now, but tea runs in our blood” says Kenry Peh, fourth-generation owner of well-loved heritage brand Pek Sin Choon.

Kenry’s life work centres on keeping the traditions of tea alive. With original roasted tea blends offered at almost every bak kut teh (peppery pork soup) eatery here, it’s no exaggeration to say that his 95-year-old business has served multiple generations of Singaporeans.

The tea leaves here are still wrapped by hand in traditional paper squares. Utilising a decades-old folding technique, elderly packers deftly assemble an impressive 2,000 packets daily at Pek Sin Choon’s shophouse in Mosque Street.

In spite of rising costs and fewer customers due to heightened social distancing measures in the early stages of the pandemic, the future is looking brighter for Kenry, with walk-in customers now able to visit his store.

Kenry’s unwavering commitment to his craft is echoed by other independent businesses facing dwindling sales in the wake of the pandemic.

In the apparel industry, fashion label Reckless Ericka is striving to keep local craftsmanship alive. Helmed by Singaporean designer Afton Chen, the womenswear brand outsources its sewing to seamstresses whose livelihoods would have otherwise been significantly impacted by the pandemic.

“I've worked with these ladies for 11 years. I really admire their craft, and we're almost like family,” Afton explains of her decision to continue employing marginalised craftsmen. “Our customers understand that they’re a huge part of our brand and identity.”

Two packers assembling tea packets at the Pek Sin Choon shophouse
Shot of Afton Chen, owner of fashion label Reckless Ericka with one of her womenswear creations

To adapt and to overcome

Ever since the pandemic started, many other brick-and-mortar retailers were forced to adapt and display entrepreneurial ingenuity to stay afloat.

Books Actually—a stalwart of the local literary community—is one such example. The beloved Tiong Bahru bookshop shifted its operations online entirely in September, allowing avid readers to continue to purchase books from the comfort of their homes.

It was owner Kenny Leck’s foresight and acumen that allowed him to evolve his business, reimagine the concept of a literary community, and begin a new chapter in the business. “Before the circuit breaker [A period that required Singaporeans to stay home and minimise face-to-face contact], we only had 600 titles online,” Kenny tells us of the burgeoning endeavour. “Now we have up to 2,500, and are adding more every day.”

“We’ve even transformed how we promote our writers by going digital completely.” In order to garner publicity, Kenny tapped on innovation and the power of online media, hosting a series of live Instagram chats and virtual interviews with local and international authors from all walks of life.

Similarly, Sifr Aromatics was compelled to hop into the world of e-commerce when its perfumery on Arab Street had to shut its doors.

Its online shop was launched in April 2020 and offers worldwide shipping in a bid to reach potential customers beyond our island’s shores.

“Though we may be [physically] distant from our customers now, we’ve made ourselves more available through other channels like email and social media,” says founder Johari Kazura, who hails from a family of perfumers.

As patrons were not able to conveniently customise fragrances in person during that period, Mr Kazura had to proactively send out sample kits, while being extra descriptive about the scents and his personal recommendations.

Despite being unable to meet customers face-to-face during the early period of COVID-19, remote communication allowed him an avenue to better understand some of their needs.

“I’ve actually deepened my connection with some of our customers who’ve reached out to us from their homes via social media,” he shares. “It leads me to understand how important we’ve been to them.”

Kenny Leck, owner of Books Actually hosting a series of live Instagram chats with local and international authors
Close up shot of a perfume sample kit from Sifr Aromatics

The unwavering light of passion

Despite new changes in the months ahead, our retail heroes have evolved their businesses, created novel ways to connect with customers and continued to shine the unwavering light of their passions into an uncertain future.

“I think this experience will make us even stronger,” Afton enthuses. She’s already gearing up to launch a new collection and meeting clients for bespoke appointments.

As Jamal confidently sums up, “It’s not about making a quick sale. At the end of the day, it is the personal experience we provide that encourages people to come back to us.”

Likewise, local readers have continued to express their deep, abiding regard for Kenny Leck and his commitment to the local literary scene.

“I had a customer who used to buy books every month or so, who started buying them every week during the pandemic,” Kenny shares. “When I reached out to thank him, he merely said that it was his way of helping us during this tough time. Customers from overseas have purchased books and left messages online encouraging us…and that’s really, really nice.”

Having weathered so many storms through the decades, Mr Peh is determined to get back on track with furthering Pek Sin Choon’s vision, and perhaps says it best when asked about the future.

“The art of tea making is both bitter and sweet, and the world is always changing,” he shares. “But Pek Sin Choon’s vision will never change, and we’ll continue to be here, introducing people to the world of tea.”

Close up shot of Jamal Kazura, founder of Sifr Aromatics
Shot of Kenny Leck, owner of Books Actually