Hidden gem: This 61-year-old man has spent over 40 years repairing bikes in Bukit Merah

His customers call him Dr. Goh.

Ashley Tan | November 26, 2022, 12:50 PM

Hong Seng Guan Bicycle Shop occupies a nondescript spot along the first floor of Block 107, in the sleepy estate of Jalan Bukit Merah, nestled between a shop offering alterations services and a hardware store.

Bicycles, arranged side by side outside the shopfront, spill over onto a blue tarp covering the grass verge adjacent to the walkway.

Photo by Ashley Tan

The clutter outside is only a precursor to the disarray and jumble of items within the bicycle shop itself, an accumulation of generations' worth of memories.

After all, Hong Seng Guan Bicycle Shop has been in the estate since the 60s.

Photo by Ashley Tan

Inside the shop, I sit with one of its loyal, but unexpected, customers, a sprightly but soft-spoken 11-year-old named Brydon. The young boy isn't exactly the clientele I was envisioning of the shop, which looked like it had sprung out of the 90s.

Brydon lives in one of the flats at the same block, and has a bicycle from Hong Seng Guan.

Having wanted a bicycle since he was seven, he shared that his father finally bought one for him as a reward for getting good grades in 2021.

“My father say come to the nearest store so I came down here to find the bicycle I want, then lucky I found the design I like so I bought [it].”

Photo by Ashley Tan

Brydon and the owner of Hong Seng Guan, Goh Ah Poo, have been friends for years.

The young boy regularly pops by the shop to say "Hi" and offer a jovial wave to the 61-year-old, or stay for a short chat.

As we speak, Goh cheekily adds from off to the side where he's repairing a bicycle that Brydon is familiar enough with his shop to become his 'secretary'.

When asked if he considers Goh his friend, Brydon answers in the affirmative without hesitation.

"I like uncle because he's a very kind man." When probed further, the boy adds that Goh is friendly to all the neighbours.

"He's very smart," Brydon chirps. "He know[s] a lot about bicycles and how to fix bicycles."

The affection is clearly reciprocated by Goh, who provides effusive praise on the boy's studies and grades.

"I like him, he also likes me," Goh quips fondly.

Photo by Andrew Wong

Crossing borders

Having already heard positive testimonials from a faithful customer, I finally get some time to speak to the man himself.

As if welcoming us into his house, Goh ushers me and my colleagues onto mismatched rattan chairs and rickety stools towards the back of his shop, before taking a seat himself on an office chair.

In a smattering of Mandarin and Hokkien, he expounds on the history of Hong Seng Guan, which dates back to the 1950s.

The shop was opened by Goh's father, who had taken the leap of faith to travel to Singapore from Xiamen, China, in search of a better life. His father had learnt the trade of repairing bicycles from his own father, or Goh's grandfather.

Goh spent his childhood days in the cluttered shop, which originally resided at Tiong Bahru, observing his father fix bicycles with deft hands.

“When I was around four or five, I would sit there and watch my father repair the bikes."

As the youngest of eight children ("You know, last time at night nothing to do," Goh jokes), Goh's father doted on him.

The elder Goh would gradually start imparting the tricks of his trade to his son whenever the boy had finished school for the day.

Inherited the business at 23

Having gotten his hands dirty in the years after — both figuratively and literally; during the interview, Goh gestures, ebullient, with hands stained black with oil — he eventually took over the shop to become its third-generation owner at the age of 23.

Photo by Andrew Wong

At the time, Goh was fresh out of the army and had been carrying out various odd jobs, when his father, then in his 70s, fell sick and was unable to continue working.

Perhaps out of a mixture of filial piety and simple unrestrained devotion, Goh felt it was his duty to continue his family's legacy.

"My father raised me to this age, [so] I should inherit this business."

Has he ever thought about doing something else for a living, I ask?

"No, because I love my father.

This [business] is my father’s, he wants to pass it on to me, so I take lor."

What's more, his seven siblings were already tied down with their own jobs or families.

And Goh has remained true to his sense of duty for the following 38 years till now. "I've been in this shop since I was six years old," he declared.

The assortment of knick knacks adorning the walls and surfaces of the shop is certainly testament to the time Goh has spent in the place.

Photo by Andrew Wong

Photo by Ashley Tan

Photo by Andrew Wong

Of course, he asserts that he does derive some sort of happiness from the job.

"Firstly, whatever profession you're in, you have to like it. Only then will you go through with it for so long," he says.

Staying open during circuit breaker

For Goh, he sees the bicycles that his customers bring in for repair as ill "patients", and himself as the doctor. Some of his customers have even taken to calling him Dr. Goh.

"Once it's repaired, it's 'happy'", he says of the wheeled contraptions. "[When the] customer is happy, then I also happy."

This joy he receives from doing a job well done translates to his relationships with his customers, whom he treats like his friends. Some of them even travel to his shop from as far as Woodlands.

After all, "你的开心就是我的快乐 (Your happiness is my satisfaction)," is the motto he lives by.

Photo by Ashley Tan

Goh's magnanimity and his dedication to his craft and customers was seen in how he kept the shop open even during the 2020 circuit breaker.

As most of the population sequestered themselves in their homes and there was an uptick in food deliveries, he'd noticed that food delivery riders were unable to find any shops open to repair their bikes.

Goh thus submitted an application to the government to keep his business open and enable riders to continue their livelihoods.

"I thought, eh, they also need to eat?

I not kiasi (scared of dying), so can open just open."

Goh's two sons were supportive of his endeavour, which proved fruitful, as the shop saw up to 10 customers seeking repairs each day during that period.

The pandemic might be on its last legs, but Goh's work has not abated — he works seven days a week with no rest days.

He remains blasé about this though, brushing our questions of work life balance off by saying that he doesn't work that long hours anyway (the shop is open from 10:30am to 5:30pm).

For Goh, time flies by while working, as he gets to talk to his customers, or rather, his friends.

Photo by Andrew Wong

But while Goh himself might be affable and laidback, surely not all customers are easily satisfied. Difficult patrons are a commonality in every business, and Goh is no stranger to such clientele.

He is, however, confident of handling such people. "Whatever it is, I can deal with it," he says.

The secret to this, and perhaps to the longevity of the shop, is to "speak the truth". Simply, honesty is the best policy.

If Goh is unsure of how to repair a bike, he is upfront with the customer. "You cannot say you know everything also," he adds.

"I will retire when I want to"

Sadly, Hong Seng Guan Bicycle Shop's legacy might end with Goh.

His sons, aged 26 and 31, are currently in the tech and engineering fields, and they have no intention of taking over the shop.

Goh doesn't have concrete plans for retirement at the moment though. "I can retire whenever I want. I don't want to work can don't work," he remarks flippantly.

"I will fix bicycles until I think it's time for me to retire. I haven't thought about when to retire. Maybe one or two years later? I will retire when I want to."

Photo by Andrew Wong

When asked if he might be sad when the shop is no longer around, the man's response is unexpectedly swift.

"No," he says with a grin. "Because many things are like this."

Goh pondered further:

"Let me think. This is a good question... I think it's okay even when [the shop] is not around because when we have something, we should be happy. And when we lose it, we should not be unhappy.

This is called 'philosophy' in English right? Be happy when you have it, but don't be upset when you lose it. Like if my girlfriend leaves me, I cannot be sad too. Because you will find a better girlfriend in the future. Correct?"

Perhaps that's the true nugget of wisdom Goh has unearthed after all this time.

Whether Hong Seng Guan Bicycle Shop persists for a year, or two, or a decade more, Goh is content with what he has, come what may.

Photo by Ashley Tan

Hong Seng Guan Bicycle Shop is one of the small businesses Starhub supports with its Small Business Day initiative.

Top photo by Ashley Tan