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Passion calls for self, Calling lives for others

Passion calls for a certain boldness, freedom and a burst of firepower that propels us to achieve that which we are (supposed to) born to do. Calling, on the other hand is a thoughtful, measured and often toned down response of how we make sense of our passion – in relation to our world. So which one is “more” necessary? 

When I was younger, especially when I just started Supermama, I think that passion is the only currency that rules the world. I thought the world favors the young, the brave and the passionate – and how I can bulldoze the world with my fire. When I grow older, my bulldoze nonsense was trimmed down considerably, bearing in mind that everyone is going through their own shit. We just gotta learn to give grace and space to others. It is something that I am still learning.  

So which is more necessary?

Passion is brave, calling is wise. I think we need both. 

And for both to live in harmony and tolerance of each other. 

The First Miracle

As we come to the 6th year of running Supermama, I thought it is good to find time to pen down some of my thoughts and the entire history of setting up this very unique Singapore store. Hopefully with this blog post, we can remind ourselves of the unexpected events that occurred, all the shit that was thrown to us and all the good people who’ve made this a wonderful journey. And yes, it is still very much a journey – without any destination though. I am happy with just pit stops along the way. No need for grand “change the world” type of destination.

There are many reasons why we set up Supermama but clearly the main one is to find a way to earn $$ yet at the same time, having flexible hours with the business for the family. Oh my, how naive is that thought… but we did it anyhow. So in 2011, we both quit our full time jobs, sold our home and went on this whirlwind journey of being an independent shop owners. On 19th March 2011, after sinking in $150k from the sales proceeds we got from selling our home, we officially opened Supermama.

It is miracles after miracles at every stage of the way. From the beginning of how we decided on the location to where we are at today. So I’m gonna highlight a few milestone and miracles here –

The first miracle 

Being a fan of the brand “Freitag”, I always frequent “Actually”. The “Actually” shop at Seah St was super super well designed, well done, full of character. It’s no longer there now – boohoo while it lasted. So, when we were looking for a space to set up this dream design shop, I kinda mouthed out to Meiling “wouldn’t it be nice if we can have a shop like Actually?” So, after saying a short prayer, we did a search at property guru and bingo – found a listing for a Seah St unit.

We said another prayer. We said lotsa prayers setting up Supermama- you gotta need a lot of comforting words, signs and wonders from the powers above to embark on such a tortuous journey ok…. Prior to viewing the unit, we prayed for a unit besides Actually and a max rent of $2.4k/mth. It is almost impossible. Why? Cos there is only ONE unit besides the “Actually” shop, occupied by a Hainanese clan association.

But you know, as the legend goes, the Kheng Zai Cheng Hainanese Clan Association was renting out the front portion of their clan house at an asking rent of $2.4k/mth!!! (Omg!!!) So, with the 3 months old Toby in Meiling’s arms – we looked at each other, stunned beyond words. And therein lies our very first Supermama miracle.

Being honest brings people together

Recently I came across 2 videos of an American pastor delivering a message to his church – one when he was younger and one now. The way he delivers has an obvious difference. He is a lot more professional now and it seemed like he is giving a stage performance more than he is delivering a message. I prefer the younger him. Seemed more honest. 

I started off in retail as a noob and I hope to remain like this forever. There are always things to learn and people to learn from. I don’t wanna get so professional in doing what I’m doing that I lose the soul of doing it – even though outwardly I may be getting better in my trade. 

The distance between 2 people can only be moved closer when both are honest. In a stage performance (be it in my shop, or in a networking session) – it is a performance. 

What happened to the retail scene?

Being someone who is ultra conservative, I am probably the worse type of person to be in retail.

I thought running a shop is simple- present a good product, customer who likes it buys. There we create trade and make a living for ourselves, or at least that is how I envisioned the retail scene to be. I thought it is as simple as buying coffee from the coffeeshop uncle. No gimmicks, no marketing, not trying to save the world… just plain coffee. But I was wrong –

  1. My coffee needs to be packed nicely, the coffee doesn’t matter, the packaging does.
  2. My coffee needs to be the best tea that anyone can have.
  3. I need influencers taking photos with my coffee.
  4. I need to go digital.
  5. My coffee needs to save the entire coffee industry.
  6. My coffee needs to be made through some collaboration scheme.
  7. I am selling another poor coffee maker’s coffee and earning his cut.
  8. I need to create a coffee exhibition/festival watever.

omg! I just wanna sell coffee.

The thing about craft

2 years ago I wrote an article on my idea of craft (or traditional crafts) and now that I’m starting a craft shop, I think it is good to revisit it. I thought my perspectives towards craftsmanship would have changed or “evolved” over the last 2 years but am surprised that I still believe and stand by what I wrote. Here’s the article –

These days I cringed when I hear the word ‘craft’ spoken or written in a way like a fashionable term. Crafted leather wallets, crafted coffee, crafted this and that… I prefer it old school. The image of an elderly man behind a potter’s wheel is still the most authentic and I’ll never allow some punks to erode this. Let me tell you why.

I had a pretty profound experience some time ago in my trip to Takaoka, Toyama when I paid a visit to the atelier of a 71 years old metal polisher. He has been in this trade for more than 50 years. Many thoughts (about craft) triggered after a pretty heavy conversation with him –

1. Craft is not human automation. Simply doing something again and again ‘without thinking’ does not make you a master craftsman but a mindless machine. He accounted how one of his counterpart with 20 over years of experience in a certain method of metal polishing was kicked out of the industry when a machine took over. Brutal. If your works can be replaced by a machine that easily, it tells a lot about the work you are doing.

2. Craft involves your entire being. Your body, mind and soul. Can you sense what is wrong with a piece of artefact even before you pick it up? Can you tell the value of a porcelain vase without looking at the price tag? It is more than an intellectual study of a selected topic, it involves all of you.

3. Craft evolves. Machines can never adapt, it can only be replaced by newer models.

4. Craft is being. He asked me, ‘I can do this my entire life and am enjoying every moment of it. How about you?’ Being a city boy, I went quiet. I need the distraction of an iPhone…

5. Craft redefines your role in the society. While many of his peers travel to the city to pursue a career, he travelled out of the city in search for solitude where he can master his trade – something that he did mindfully, almost against logic.

6. Craft commands respect. It took me a full 20 minutes of observing him at work before he decided that I am a “worthy” person to talk to. It was only then he invited me into his back room, and shared with me unreservedly, over a drip brew and lit cigarette.

A human shop

I was preparing Shop Tema Hima for its opening in a few weeks and realised I have been looking at various references of shops that are nicely done. It seemed like shops that reflects the personality of its owner attracts me the most – even though design wise, it is not so polished. I guess we are living in an age where we wanna rid of everything that is superficial, showy or artificial.

What is the model shop of the 21st century? Is it in the adoption of technology? Is it in automation, should the shop operations be run by robots? I was at Mcdonalds the other day, the point of sales seemed to be replaced by screens and the only interaction I had with a human being is when my number was called to collect my meal. I kinda missed the elderly auntie asking for my order.

I don’t want my shop to be cold. I don’t want my shop to be perfect. I don’t want to be professional. I don’t want it to be of the highest service standards. I want it to be relational, educational, to be like home where you can let your guards down… and most of all, I wish that my shop can be a human shop.

Why did I start this?

I wanted a place of escape. I wanted a place for myself. One that I need not pretend to be who I am not. The past years running our shop was fantastic but I guess it might have taken a toll on me. It was such an enjoyable ride – spending time with my family, making friends with designers and craftsmen. It is a season in my life that I will not take for granted and yes, it is the best years of my life. As we move forward, I kept looking back. There is something I missed about the days when we first started. Maybe its the randomness of things, or perhaps people are a lot more forgiving those days. I do not need to put up a nice signage, nor do I need to do any marketing at all. It is just magical. Things just happen. Customers became friends, friends who accepted you as who you are. Maybe it is the space, the mini outdoor/indoor garden or the children’s room. But I don’t think it is so much about the physical space, I think it is about people. It is about people being real, letting down their guards, allow each other to enter into our hearts.

I wanted people to slow down. Not the kinfolk type. Not the now fashionable type. Just simply taking time for themselves to find themselves. Just like what we did. We took a year off, planning to shut down the shop after a year and head back to “life”. Somehow the shop moved, it worked! Yet I don’t want it to work, I don’t want it to become a “business”. But do I have a choice?

Some time last year, I came across this film. It is captivating. It brought me back to the time when I first started, when I can take time to appreciate every object I carefully placed on the table. In fact, I threw away all nonsensical packaging that comes with it, I wanted the object to stand by itself. Should I present an object for the beauty of its craft or should I try to sell it through clever marketing/sales tactics? I had enough. This year I am going to take the year back. This year, I want to take time. I make to make effort.

Shop Tema Hima is a concept shop inspired by the film “Tema Hima” by Tom Vincent and Yu Yamanaka. The term “Tema, テマ” and “Hima, ヒマ” is translated as “effort” and “time” respectively – the 2 values which are found wanting in our fast moving and modern society.

In the course of running mama, I came across many designers and craftsmen who put in immerse amount of thought and effort in crafting a piece of object. Yet the works they produced are conveniently compared to those that are mass manufactured. Makes no sense at all.

When you realised that amongst your treasury of drinking cups that there is only one that is your favourite – one that you have been using for the past 10 years – really, you don’t want that to be a plastic one.

Let’s not shop for things.

Let’s shop tema hima.