(What is missing from the above photo of a traditional sundry shop is the old Chinese uncle wearing a white singlet with khaki short pants. Image source: Wikimedia)
Sundry shops those days, in the early 80s, were nothing like these days’ grand oversized hypermarkets. Small sundry shops were the lifeline to many small residential areas.
Let me talk about the sundry shop that was near to our old house in Old Klang Road – it was run by a Chinese family. The “uncle” was always in a white singlet and brown short pants. There will be a cigar on the main table (something that we often blow at when he is not looking) which also acts as the main counter – with his main tool, the abacus.
Near to this counter are the sacks of the rice and flour. There is a small ladder leading to a small room but the rest of the area on the ground floor is fully used for all sundry items. The shop has 2 entrances – one facing the main road whilst the other door faces the peaceful housing area.
Until 7 pm, the sundry shop with its 2 main entrances is opened for customers. However, we rarely go to the sundry shop before 7 pm unless it is truly necessary. Any shopping to be done is done only after my dad have come back from work. And he often comes back late – after 9 pm with his daily take of income. There, he will give us some money and a list of items to be purchased and off we run to the sundry shop to buy the items.
(No matter what we buy, the old uncle at the shop can quickly sum up using the abacus. Image source: Wikimedia)
Most of the time, dinner is cooked only after my dad have come back from work and if we are hungry before that, we will have biscuits. The sundry shop is about 100 metres from the house, so it was not tiring to be running up and down to the shop and house. At this time, the shop is closed for the day (the family sleeps in the shop, in the small room upstairs). But they leave a small window opened in case there is any late shopping. The problem is this window is high up – we being small kids, can hardly reach the window.
So, most of the time, we are left “shouting” for attention and it will be some time before someone walks to the window and asks us what we want to buy. The mission considered a “success” when we managed to explain on what we wanted to buy (sometimes we forget the “name” of the items and had to rush back home to confirm the name and rush back to the shop) and we have paid the money for the item.
Month-end is a different story – my dad and my mom will spend many hours coming up with the “list”.
We had little money to spare for luxuries so we need to be very careful about what we buy (not like nowadays). When the list is finalised, my dad will make the trip to the shop and leaves the list with the uncle in the shop. The next day, my dad will pick the items from the shop and pays the amount. If the amount exceeds the available cash, my dad will talk to the sundry shop owner and buy things on credit.
The monthly items will be placed in a small box or a large paper bag and my dad will bring it to the kitchen and we will “help” him to check the list against the items in the box. Myself and my siblings usually take a turn on this – one will read the list, another will do the “search” in the small box.
Nowadays, the monthly items purchased from hypermarkets fill the back of the car to the brim (and things finishes early). It is not imaginable now that a small box will do for a family of 5. One of the main items – rice is bought on a need to have basis.
It is amazing to note how things have changed over the last 20 years.