Friday, August 26, 2011

Echigoya The Japanese Fabric Store in Singapore

 Echigoya and I

My Youngest Uncle Prakash bought me two pieces of lovely material to make dresses. The first one was bought in 1964 when I was fourteen. It was brown and had some kind of bamboo design. The material was soft to the touch and did not crease. He told me that he had paid a lot for it. Mum took me to our Chinese tailor in Jalan Lumba Kuda who sewed a pretty dress for me. Two years later he got me a blue piece. Blue is my favourite colour.

Everyone admired the dress which the tailor once again made for me. It had a sailor collar and white piping. It had two pleats in front and a kind of tie. I loved the dress and wore it for many years. It never lost its colour and the soft touch. He told me that it was from Echigoya.

By the time, I had started to work, and had the money to shop, I could not locate it.
Today, 26 August 2011, I googled and found a history of that shop which I have printed below but without the permission of the writer. I am not claiming that to be my writing.

 Echigoya

By Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman written on 09-Sep-2005
National Library Board Singapore
Comments on article: InfopediaTalk

Echigoya was a Japanese fabric store in Middle Road set up in 1908, famous for its fine fabrics and garments, and tailoring of Japanese fashionwear. It closed down when Japan lost the war in 1945, but returned to Singapore to resume business in 1955 and closed permanently in 1977.

Origins

Echigoya Gofukuten (Draper), a Japanese store that sold textiles and garments, was located at 23 Middle Road in Little Japan when it first opened in 1908. Little Japan started with the karayuki-san (Japanese prostitutes) whose services in numerous Japanese brothels in Malay, Malabar and Hiram streets from 1877 to 1920 made Little Japan famous as the Japanese red-light district.  The presence of the karayuki-san in fact helped the Echigoya store to flourish in its early years.  Japanese drapers stores were indispensable in the red-light area because the karayuki-san usually wore kimono.  Before WWI, other drapers that served the prostitutes apart from Echigoya included Koyama Shinnosukes Shin-Koyama Shoten also in Middle Road, Koyama Yoshimatsus Koyama Shoten in Malabar Street, Shriono Shozos Nihon Shokai in North Bridge Road, and Ishii Inosukes Maruju Gofukuten. Echigoya though was the most successful.

The pioneer of Echigoya was Chubei Takahashi (b. 1870, Kashiwazaki, Niigata, Japan d. 1933) who adopted the old name of his birthplace (Echigo is the old name of Niigata) for his store in Singapore.  Chubei and wife Sawa left Japan in 1896 and started a trading business in Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong prior to his move to Singapore.  In Hong Kong, Chubei set up a drapers shop in the Japanese red-light district in 1904 but the lack of success led to his move to Singapore.

When the Japanese Consulate General in Singapore banned Japanese brothels in 1920, Echigoya diversified and successfully attracted the Europeans. This helped to ensure the longevity of its business in pre-war times.


Pre-war
From a two-storey shophouse in Middle Road, Echigoya sold kimono and related goods to Japanese prostitutes in cash.  Chubei's staff were all taken from his hometown of Kashiwazaki, fresh graduates from the school of commerce. The store's fortune hit a brief snag when licensed Japanese prostitution was banned in 1920, but craftily Chubei steered his business towards catering to Caucasian customers' apparel needs though not without some difficulties initially.  One well-known European who raved about Echigoya was Roland Braddell, of the famous Braddell family, who served as Municipal Commissioner from 1914 to 1929.  In his book that was first published in 1934, The lights of Singapore (1982), he wrote: 
Round Middle Road, Hailam Street, and Malay Street, you will find a very gay little Japanese quarter. And speaking of buying things, the most fascinating of our shops to me is the Echigoya in Middle Road, a real Japanese shop, where you can get a proper Japanese kimono tailored to measure, and have your pick of the latest Japanese fashions which change with the seasons as do ours (pp. 87-88).
Indeed, Chubei became a very wealthy man.  He built a luxurious mansion in his hometown of Kashiwazaki and donated to the building of the town's City Hall.  In 1916, a 13-year old Fukuda Kurahachi (b. 1903, Gunma, Japan) who later became Chubei's successor, had just completed primary school when he was brought by Chubei to Singapore to work in Echigoya.  After Chubei's death in 1933, his wife Sawa reorganised the store into a company, Echigoya & Co. Limited, with Fukuda as the general manager.  She maintained 50 per cent of the company's shares while the rest was owned by the staff of Echigoya including Fukuda.  Under Fukuda's management, business prospered and the store expanded and relocated to a three-storey shophouse at 131 Middle Road in 1937. The store had a lift, then the only place in Singapore with one installed. The new store operated from this location until 1945.

Post-war and closure
Echigoya had to wind up its business in 1945 when the Japanese was defeated in the war. The British sequestered the company's assets.  But the chance to revive its business came in 1954 when a Singapore resident, Mr Hu, called on Fukuda to help him import silk goods, piece goods, sundry goods and other products from Japan.  The Colonial Administration in Singapore then did not permit the entry of any Japanese who had resided in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation.  But with the help of a certain Briton who was once Echigoya's loyal customer prior to the war and who worked in the Immigration Department, a special arrangement was made for Fukuda's return to Singapore.

Fukuda was among the earliest Japanese to come back to Singapore, which had numbered 20 when Fukuda returned in late 1954. In July 1955, a step nearer to reviving Echigoya, Fukuda obtained permission from the Singapore government to re-open the store.  With capital subscribed by Lai En Ho, an overseas Chinese of British nationality, and arranged by Lim Chong Geok of the Badminton Association, the sum of $150,000 was raised and a retail store was re-established.  On 9 November 1955, a new chapter began for Echigoya & Co. when it resumed its retail business at Coleman Street with Fukuda as the general manager. The occasion was favourably reported in the local Chinese newspaper
Xingzhoubao.

Echigoya was the first Japanese company to be registered in post-war Singapore and its return marked the enduring ties it had cultivated with the country. In subsequent years, Fukuda was key to bringing back Japanese business to Singapore when anti-Japanese feelings were riding high. His contributions earned him a Fifth Class Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1974, an award given by Emperor Hirohito for his service to the Japanese community in Singapore.


In 1971, Echigoya shifted to Neil Road where it continued its business of importing and selling textiles until 1977.  In the same year, Fukuda returned to Japan, ending his 65 years of living and working in Singapore.



Author

Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman



References

Braddell, R. (1982). The lights of Singapore (pp. 87-88). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.75 BRA-[HIS])

Hiroshi, S, & Hitoshi, H. (1999). Japan and Singapore in the world economy: Japan's economic advance into Singapore, 1870-1965 (pp. 37-39, 127, 167-169, 178-179). London: New York: Routledge.
(Call no.: RSING 337.5205957 SHI)

Hirayama, M. (2003, January). Alumni in Singapore have a great time: Singapore-Niigata ties. IUJ Alumni News, 6. Retrieved September 9, 2005, from http://iuj.jp/alumni/newsletter/pdf/2003-1-news.pdf

Kajita, T. (2005, June 18). Singapore's Japanese prostitute era paved over.
The Japan Times online. Retrieved August 10, 2005, from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?nn20050618f1.htmPrewar Japanese community in Singapore: picture and record (pp. 36-41, 64-65, 82-91). (1998). Singapore: Japanese Association.

(Call no.: RSING 305.895605957 PRE)

Tsu, Y. H. (n.d). Japanese in Singapore and Japan's southward expansionism, 1860-1945: Historical notes for under another sun. Retrieved September 9, 2005, from Asian Educational Media Service  website: www.aems.uiuc.edu/HTML/UAS/Tsu.html


Further Readings

Makan Time. (1995 - 2004). The representative Singaporean chicken rice restaurant. Retrieved September 9, 2005, from www.makantime.com/paradise/cr5e.htm 

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