“SAYA nak yang belimbing dan tong gas.”
Star fruits and gas tanks? Are my ears playing tricks on me? I’m in the heart of George Town’s heritage zone where provision shops are few and far between. Pausing awhile at the junction of Chulia and Cintra streets, I subsequently backtrack a few steps, nearly bumping into a young Malay lady who’s just exited via the shop’s side entrance.
“Can I help you?” someone hollers from behind the counter.
A middle-aged bespectacled woman approaches me before imploring me to take my time and look at the items on display in the glass-fronted wooden cabinets. It all looks rather ordinary. At first.
Drifting further into the shop, things become more interesting. Rows upon rows of vintage ceramic coin boxes pique my curiosity. I instantly recognise those in the shape of roosters and cats, having seen them in my maternal grandmother’s house back in the 1970s. At that time, it was common for children to drop their spare change into coin boxes and save for the proverbial rainy day.
It’s not long before a hearty conversation ensues with chatty Neoh Phaik Mooi, the second-generation owner of the shop. “My father’s brother was the first in his family to leave China. He arrived in Penang in the 1930s and worked at a provision shop near Prangin Canal here in Georgetown. Like all Sin Kheks (newcomers), he worked hard and saved as much as he could. Things became very tough during the Japanese Occupation but he remained steadfast. Unfortunately, he lost all his money when the Japanese currency became worthless after the war,” relates Phaik Mooi grimly.
Her uncle, says Phaik Mooi, didn’t give up hope. He picked up the pieces and started on a clean slate. Slowly and steadily he began building up his savings again. In 1948, about three years after the British returned, he decided to send for Phaik Mooi’s father who was still living in their ancestral village in Fujian province.
“My father, Neoh Guan Aik, started work in Penang as a salesman. Like his elder brother, Guan Aik led a simple life and laboured hard for his employer. He was also very prudent in his spending, buying only what was necessary. Thanks to that exemplary habit, Guan Aik quickly became financially stable and soon asked his wife in China to join him,” adds Neoh.
The couple then moved into this shophouse a few months before Independence. “Thanks to Merdeka I’ll always remember moving here in 1957,” says Phaik Mooi, who has six other siblings.
As I return my gaze to the coin containers, I can’t help but reflect on the recent news about several get-rich quick schemes in Penang. Nowadays, people are willing to “invest” their hard earned money in Ponzi schemes that offer gravity-defying returns. Any level-headed person would know that these operators prey on human greed and it’s just a matter of time before the gravy train stops. By then, it will be too late.
Returning to my side, Phaik Mooi confides that there’s a trend for these coin boxes among her customers. Some, she says, are using them as decorations. Indians frequent her shop to buy elephant-shaped coin boxes as they resemble their deity, Ganesha. “Indians put the elephants in their homes for good luck and prosperity.” At the same time, there are others who purchase her frog-shaped containers to enhance their fish pond landscape.
The coin boxes sold at Guan Aik (the shop is named after Phaik Mooi’s father) come from 80-year-old moulds. Her younger brother, says Neoh, helps her to look out for new designs to reach out to the younger generation. “Teenagers like unique designs like the colonial era post box and gas cylinder best. They look may look different compared with the older designs but the function is the same. They all teach children the rudiments of thrift and savings,” says Phaik Mooi before informing me that her coin boxes come in three sizes. The smallest ones sell at an affordable RM10 each. The two larger ones are dearer by just RM2 for each size increment.
As we end our chat, I ask Phaik Mooi where she sees her shop five years down the road. A small smile plays on her lips as she confides in me about the constant pressure she receives from her friends who want her to start a cafe or restaurant instead. “They always tell me this business is
already outdated but I still persevere out of respect for my late mother who died two years ago,” she says, her voice choking slightly. “It’s too soon to stop. I’ll carry on for a few more years. Everything here reminds me of my parents. I also hope the association that owns this place doesn’t increase the rent too much.”
PRACTICE OF SAVING MONEY
Chulia Street is diverse. Just next door to Guan Aik is an antique shop which I frequent regularly. The camera and publicity-shy proprietor, who only wants to be known as Lim, has always been a great source of information and material to me. While still hot on the topic, I ask Lim to show me how people used to save money in the past.
While waiting for him to bring out his ware, I browse through Lim’s numerous display cabinets. He receives new stock regularly and it pays to have a quick look. Over the years his dark wooden shelves have become rich hunting ground for collectors.
“Are you ready?” Lim’s voice interrupts my search. Quickly returning the intricately-carved betel nut cutter back to its place, I head over to the counter to see what gems Lim has unearthed in less than 15 minutes.
The first are several coin boxes from China. Compared to those next door, these have detailed finishing and brighter colours. The one shaped like a giant panda catches my attention.
Next Lim shows me three Malayan school savings booklets used in the 1950s. These rare examples were among the techniques employed by the Post Office Savings Bank to encourage schoolchildren to save. In those days, commercial banks were only confined to major towns in Malaya so the government had to use the Postal Department’s extensive network to provide banking services to the masses.
“Students use their savings to buy stamps which they affix on the booklet. The duly completed booklet is then presented to the post office clerk who would invalidate the stamps and credit the amount into the student’s Post Office Savings Bank Account,” explains Lim before showing me his final and most precious item.
Looking serious, he hands me his newly-acquired gem — a Japanese Occupation era Post Office Savings Bank Book.
“The system was originally set up by the British as part of the Malayan Post Office Service Department on Jan 1, 1877. The Post Office Savings Bank enjoyed steady growth between 1877 and 1940. The number of account holders grew exponentially from just 211 in 1877 to 57,000 in 1940. Total deposits jumped from 19,862 to 14.3 million Straits Dollars,” explains Lim before showing me the entries in the book.
“I really salute this person. She deposited money into her account every month throughout the entire Japanese Occupation and never withdrew a single cent. The final entry was in July 1945. The bank would have been closed in early August after the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After that, the war was over,” explains Lim, excitedly.
The account holder, a certain Ooi Swee Hoon whose stated workplace on the book was at the Penang Shimbun, began her deposits on Dec 22, 1942. That was the first month the Nippon Government Savings Bank began accepting deposits at all post offices. “Despite the fact that total savings rose sharply in the final year of the occupation, amounting to nearly 42 million Malayan dollars by the time of the surrender, but sadly the Savings Bank only kept worthless banana bank notes issued by the Japanese Imperial Army. All deposits were wiped out,” says Lim, before adding: “The people were very angry and many burnt their savings books as a sign of protest. That’s why it’s rare for books like this to survive intact until today.”
As Lim walks me to the door, I can’t help but question if Phaik Mooi’s uncle could have been one of those who lost all their money when the Savings Bank went bust after the Japanese left Malaya. History has taught us an important lesson. We mustn’t only save for the future but also take carefully planned steps to safeguard our hard-earned cash so that it doesn’t disappear overnight.