LOOKING at the many rows of shophouses in Kuala Belait, it's hard to tell any of them apart, especially with its late 1950s structure and an array of things for sale that range from groceries to bicycles.
Upon closer inspection, one can notice that there's a shop that seems to be stuck in a time warp, and at the centre of this quaint and modest operation there's an elderly man with sharp eyes who has spent most of his life fixing time pieces and spectacles.
Enter Chan Cheong Fatt, a permanent resident in Brunei, who operates Nam Long Watch & Optical Co, a modest optical and watch shop in Kuala Belait.
The shop was established not long after the opening of these shop lots back in the 1950s. Chan, whose father and older brother were watch repairmen at the time, followed the family business at a young age of 14.
"Things were very different then, education was not readily available, so we make do with what we have, and since I did not receive much education, that is why I took it upon myself to be a watch repairman," said Chan.
And when the shop was opened, Chan eagerly joined the family business and began his training to repair watches and spectacles under the watchful eyes of his father and elder brother. It took him close to five years to "pass" the gruelling task of repairing watches, but when he eventually did, Chan was more than ready to go forward with his new-found skills.
This timepiece technician, told The Brunei Times, that at the time when he first started, it was the trend for people to look for an actual watch shop to get the latest in watches and glasses.
"There were not many of us (watch sellers) back then, Kuala Belait did not have that much visitors as the distance between the town and housing areas were quite far, people would often flock to us whenever they felt the need to purchase watches," he said.
He went on to say that most of the customers then were expatriates and workers from Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP) who would rush to his shop to survey his items that were up for sale.
Chan says with a chuckle that at one point in time, he was the "guy" for Rolex brand watches, a luxury not everyone could afford then.
While Chan and his family members initially enjoyed relative success, things however started to dwindle once the digital age takes over. From the 1970s onwards, the local watch industry saw leaps and bounds in terms watch technology. Instead of spring mechanism and other moving parts that operates a watch, the current generation of watches are battery-operated and have small LCD screens with PCB boards.
This digital technology essentially spelled doom for Chan as more and more businesses started to carry these new "disposable" watches.
"It became all too common, and since then, every shop we have now are carrying these watches," said Chan.
Chan notes that disposable watches these watches easily lose their value since many would just throw the watches away and get new replacements.
Despite this scenario, the need for time-piece technicians still continues through the years. Chan learned to take in the new with the old and continued to be relevant to people who still needed his services.
"There are good days when there many people who come here and get their watches fixed, and there are also dry days when there's no customers coming in," he laments.
"We used to open our shop til 9.30pm, but seeing as the way things are these days, we now close our shop around 6.30pm, there's no point in waiting when business is very uncertain," said Chan.
When asked who would take over his legacy, Chan, who is married with no children, said that none of his family members currently wanted to take over the business.
"Nowadays, nobody wants to get into this type of business," he said, explaining the idea of staying all day at the shop that does not make profit or spend all day fixing watches are hardly appealing. "People are more educated now, they are looking for better jobs with better opportunities," says Chan.
At 75 years old, Chan still maintains his steady hands and still has a sharp eye.
However, not all is glum for Chan. He is still surrounded by family and friends, old and young, who frequent his shop with hellos and asking for his health.
Chan continues to live life as he had done so in the past 60 years, "earning enough just to make a living".
The Brunei Times
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Feel free to comment on this article using your Facebook account. By submitting your comment, you agree to the Terms and Conditions for the use of this comments feature, as stated here.