ON THIS SPOT
The Supermarket. Bigger, bolder and cheaper than the rest; it crushed all competition. Sprawling suburban sites, economies of scale and ample, ample parking trumpeted the end of the town centre. The Mom and Pop closed up shop. The butcher, the baker and even the candlestick maker shuttered against the convenience of the superstore and sent their children to man rows of checkout lines under the fluorescent glow of endless aisles stocked with every necessity that the consumer hadn’t even considered. The shopping trolley was born, wheels buckling under the weight of a weekly run to the store, almost every river featuring at least one like a sunken wreck bereft of treasure. No one is sentimental about the supermarket – except Kuching people with Ting and Ting.
When Kuching’s first supermarket announced it was closing its doors in mid-2019, the city air was filled with laments at the loss of one of our best-loved landmarks. Shoppers rushed for a final peruse and purchase, clearing the shelves in crowds that this faded icon had not seen in some years. Memories resurfaced, bubbling up on social media feeds, of ham slices and weird cheese and festive occasions facilitated entirely by the twin Tings. What will stand next on this spot, was the oft repeated refrain as talk of yet another modern multi-storey hotel began to circulate. It felt like the beating heart of Kuching’s heritage area was falling still. En masse, we mourned the passing of a site and a sight unchanged in several decades.
Pipped to the post by Sibu, Kuching saw its first taste of Ting and Ting supermarket in 1960. It was a time when the kedai runcit (cornerstore) and the fragrant delights of Cekor still reigned supreme. It rose on the site of a rubber smoke house, surrounded by sugar cane gardens. Behind it was the Rumah Tumpangan, a lodging house where out of town visitors could get a bed for the night or, reputedly, a ride of a different type. But the vagaries of the rubber market, once Sarawak’s most famous export, sent at least one former owner scurrying back to the cold climes of Scotland in a failed attempt to seek funds from the family in Fife, and the land under the town centre location became more alluring than the rubber it processed.
Enter Ting Ming Kheng, fresh off the express boat, with a plan to provide the remaining expat community with their much-missed provisions. The British were still in force in this now lonely Crown Colony and they flocked to the two-storey shopping complex, complete with café, bar, and a restaurant named the Dragon Bowl, as well as offices and a roof garden. In Ho Ah Chon’s book compiling Kuching scenes between 1960 and 1963, Mr Ting told: “We plan to offer everything the housewife needs… In addition, we shall have ‘corners’ for the gardener, the book lover and keeper of pets”. Total domination of Kuching’s clientele was on the cards.
Strictly no credit was its strategy to undercut the competition (a policy continued strictly until the second decade of the 20th century when it finally succumbed to its first credit card machine). But really, in the sixties, there was none. The first cold storage company in Kuching with the convenience of the freezer was Joo Chan on India Street. But Ting and Ting aimed to blow them out of the water. With parking for 40 vehicles, at a time when one wonders if there were even that many cars in Kuching, it eclipsed the cramped confines of an India Street location. The elite of Sarawak would drop by on their way into town to stock up on tinned goods and trade stories. They worked upstairs for the Sarawak Alliance. Sidi Munan in the Borneo Post tells that Tun Razak, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, stopped by in 1968.
For mere mortals, Ting and Ting was the king of the special occasion: the best beef for Hari Raya and a plump imported turkey for Christmas, even a pudding in a tin, along with a well-stocked selection of seasonal tipples. It provided fat rashers of bacon for the received ritual of the full English breakfast for the early locals who had been educated overseas. It served the sweet tooth of many St Mary’s students celebrating the end of school. It even sourced Kangaroo meat, ostensibly for the aforementioned keepers of pets, though one family privately admits to preparing it as curry, thanks to a lucky ‘unknown meat in the freezer’ mistake. Quite against the mass-market, pile ‘em high ethos of the supermarket elsewhere, ordinary Kuching people rarely shopped there.
It was perhaps the exterior that was best known to the public, especially after its one and only redesign when the new sign, a striking example of the graphic style of the time, became one of Kuching’s most familiar frontages. It looked more like a nightclub and, for some years, upstairs, it was. The Kuching crowd danced partnered at the Blue Ocean during the disco years and solo at Scene One, grooving into the massed mirrors common to every club in the Eighties. Down below, the supermarket struggled on. It remained the preferred place for the occasional ‘orang puteh’ oddity – a melange of wholegrain mustards, gherkins, lasagne sheets, and cans of sauerkraut – unavailable elsewhere. Its strange range was never quite outdone by the newcomers in the trade. But the expat community simply shrank. Instead, Ting and Ting became the super kedai runcit for the whole community. It was on the way to everywhere and everyone dropped by sooner or later.
Eventually, however, the ever rise of other options took its toll and, once again, the land became more appreciated than the business inside. Perhaps the outpouring of nostalgia at this Super-Market’s end was an expression of that creeping regret of the neglected. We thought it would always be there until, suddenly, it wasn’t. So, a strange thing happened. After several months standing hollow, its tired space and cavernous freezers empty yet inviting like a horror set, suddenly everyone wanted back in. The What About Kuching Festival 2019 remade it as a performance space – Location X marking the spot. The very people who had patronised Ting and Ting throughout the years thronged the tiny mosaic tile floor at the Forever Young night, a revival for the bands who had played in the city in their youth, one of the biggest crowds of the festival calendar. The community spirit it inspired at its demise had brought it back to life.
Now, the barriers are back down again. The parking spaces are open to the public. The iconic sign has gone but its image lives on. Ting and Ting is transformed into Think and Think, a community art space, the reference obvious to every Kuching resident. Throughout October, Borneo Lab is running ‘Rethinking Public Relations’, a project to examine the impact of new normal on our creative communities and there could be no better space to call out to Kuching, still cooped up with Covid. So get down there and leave a story of hope for the heritage heart of Kuching. Leave a wish on the wishing tree for the future of every small shopkeeper. Immerse yourself in the theatre that is Ting and Ting.