Missing a piece of old Singapore? This 'heritage keeper' has it in his home
David Wee of Wee’s Collection has been collecting Singapore heritage items since he was 15 – and he also rents them out for events.
Stepping inside David Wee’s home is a bit like stepping back in time to an old Singapore.
It’s not only because the two-storey terrace house where he grew up along Changi Road looks like it hasn’t changed one bit – it’s because there’s just so much old stuff everywhere.
If the TV show American Pickers did a Singapore episode, Wee's home would be the perfect place to drop by. There are cabinets full of vintage radios and clocks, old Klim and Ovaltine tin cans, an assortment of old phones, a handpainted beauty salon advertising signage, a couple of trishaws… And that’s just what’s outside the house in Wee's garage.
He tells us of his plans to tidy up the area soon. “There will be a tailor shop section, a barber shop, a provision shop… Like a museum where you walk in and have an entire set-up of how Singapore was like,” he explained.
‘I TRY MY BEST TO BE A HERITAGE KEEPER’
The 35-year-old Wee, a former civil servant, is passionate about all things to do with Singapore’s heritage. He’s been collecting the stuff since he was 15 years old, and he now runs an events company called Wee’s Collection, which organises heritage-themed events for clients looking for something retro.
Shanghai Nights-themed wedding for millennials? No problem. A 1960s throwback company dinner and dance? Sure. An entire village scene complete with kampong games? Coming right up!
“The thing about Singapore is (that) it’s developing too quickly. We’ve lost a lot of our heritage along the way so I try my best to be a heritage keeper and keep whatever can tell a story that’s meaningful for the next generation,” said Wee.
To date, Wee keeps around 2,000 items at his place (his parents’ actually) and it’s a mix of his own personal collection and things he rents out for events or even sells.
Unlike other collectors of Singapore paraphernalia, who may focus on specific themes, he describes himself as a “generalist” who collects all sorts.
Taking CNA Lifestyle on a quick tour, he shows off some of his rare finds and special pieces.
These included old road signs made during the 30s or 40s of Garden Street and Johor Road, which no longer exist. The roads were short so these signs are rare and can easily fetch a thousand dollars apiece today, Wee said.
“But the monetary value aside, what’s important to me is the historical value.”
FROM PAP POSTERS TO A BIG MAC STYROFOAM BOX
And there are certainly snapshots of history found everywhere. Among his special pieces are framed paper advertisements from the People’s Action Party made circa 50s or 60s in the different languages, and a selection of tiffin carriers – including one that reads “Made In Occupied Japan”, a term for Japan during the post-war years from 1946 to 1950.
There are a lot of old school Diamond electric clocks from the 60s – and he’s sold “hundreds” to young couples who remember seeing these at their grandparents’ houses or old coffee shops as kids.
Even ordinary looking ones held surprises – one porcelain cup looked ordinarily Japanese-inspired until Wee held it up against the light, revealing an image of a geisha at the base.
“I did a bit of research and these were manufactured during the Japanese Occupation – when soldiers drank from this, they’d see the geisha and think of their hometown,” he explained, adding that later reproductions in the 50s and 60s didn’t have that mysterious image.
But Wee’s collection doesn’t just stop there – there are also collectibles from the 1980s and 1990s, such as Mr Kiasu figures, the odd Big Mac styrofoam box, and a whole Snoopy World Tour collection from McDonald’s.
“During our time, it wasn’t a place you went to often – it was considered high-end. I’d go with my classmates. They’d buy food and I’d buy the toys from them,” he quipped.
A S$1 F&N GLASS KICKSTARTED IT ALL
Wee’s passion for collecting was kicked off by an old F&N glass he bought for a dollar at the Sungei Road flea market during a bargain-hunting trip with his father. “I saw a lot of heritage things being thrown out, which was quite sad, so I started gathering them,” he said.
Today, he considers his glass collection as his most prized feature. One of the most valuable ones is an F&N 75th anniversary glass manufactured in 1958.
“I like logos and these were all advertising glasses – those days, if you bought one crate of soft drinks, they’d give you one,” he said.
These days, Wee scours for treasure at flea markets, such as the one at Chinatown’s Fook Hai Building, or at old estates like Tanglin Halt. He occasionally gets calls, too, when people move out of their houses. And when he’s overseas like Malaysia or Thailand, he makes sure to drop by their respective weekend flea markets.
Unlike other collectors, however, he doesn’t keep it all to himself – most of his trove can be rented out for events, including the really old items.
“I believe that every item has a story to tell. That’s why I bring them out for events. We’ll display our stuff and the parents will tell their kids, ‘Hey, we used to use this coin phone, you’re all using handphones now.”
Wee started off buying and selling back in 2012 but subsequently decided to switch to doing events and renting out the items. Nowadays, he reckons he has at least one item out there at at some event evoking a bit of the past every week.
Film students and filmmakers regularly drop by to rent props (a couple of the items you saw in Royston Tan’s film Provision Shop were from Wee), and the National Museum has bought a couple of old movie books.
Wee has also worked with nursing homes, setting up permanent retro exhibition spaces for old people to reminisce about the good old days.
Among the more unusual events he’s done was setting up an old salon for a hair treatment company and recreating an entire village at the Keppel Country Club. “It took us five days to set it up just for one night,” he said.
Whether it’s just for one night or a weekend, a single piece or an entire living room, Wee takes pride in being able to show off a bit of the past to anyone keen on them. And, well, he just can’t help collecting them anyway.
“A collection is never ending – I’ll always think I have everything and then something will pop up somewhere. And when you finish collecting Singapore glasses, you can always start collecting Malaysian ones,” he said, laughing.