Fancy another Merlion chou chou? The business of selling Singapore culture and heritage

Fancy another Merlion chou chou? The business of selling Singapore culture and heritage

It’s been two years since SG50, but the popularity of locally themed products hasn’t diminished. Channel NewsAsia's Mayo Martin asks industry players what the future holds for this burgeoning industry.

Heritage merchandise (Shopping illustration)
Looks like Singaporeans (and tourists) can't get enough of Merlion, Peranakan and local food-themed merchandise. (Illustration: Rafa Estrada)

SINGAPORE: Last week, French tourists Laura Zane and Younes Abdelli dropped by Naiise’s branch at The Cathay searching for a piece of Singapore to take back with them.

The couple, who were travelling around the region, came across the local lifestyle store while searching for some souvenirs, and had their eyes set on a notebook and an enamel mug with Peranakan motif.

“We were trying to find a special gift from Singapore and I was interested in the colour and design,” said Ms Zane.

They weren’t the only ones shopping for local products that day.

Ms Alicia, a 26-year-old Singaporean, had earlier dropped by on her lunch break to get a gem biscuit cushion. Her friend had given her a blue version as a gift, but she wanted to exchange it for a pink one.

“I already have two at home – a tutu kueh and a curry puff,” she said. “My husband and I like all these retro things and we thought they would nicely complement our home. They're cute and I like that they remind me of my childhood.”


While it has been two years since the SG50 festivities fuelled interest in products with distinctly Singapore themes, it would seem their popularity among Singaporeans and tourists alike hasn’t diminished.

Heritage merchandise (The Farm Store merchandise)
Food, landmarks and retro designs continue to be a hit even after SG50. (Photo: The Farm Store)

A quick check with Naiise’s retail staff that day revealed that others, too, had purchased items such as Good Morning towel drawstring bags, an Ayam brand pouch, some Singlish stickers and a handful of local greeting cards.

And it’s not just Naiise that is seeing a steady stream of customers buying local items.

Another local retailer, The Farm Store, has been doing brisk business at their pop-up store at the National Design Centre (NDC), with customers buying all things related to Singapore, from plates, notebooks and postcards to aprons, tote bags and quirky collectibles.

And with National Day just around the corner, the store is launching even more products by local brands at its Singapasar event at the NDC this weekend. These include, among other things, cushions featuring the Singapore skyline or in the shape of ice-cream sandwiches, vintage grill and peng kueh coasters, as well as a Merlion baby bib.

Heritage merchandise (The Farm Store)
The Farm Store's Mabel Low and Dawn Tan with their latest offering, a series of cushions featuring Singapore landmarks. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

Indeed, what supposedly began as a novelty a couple of years ago is slowly morphing into something bigger.

“We have observed an increasing trend of emerging independent retailers who are designing and producing souvenirs unique to Singapore,” said Ms Choo Huei Miin, director for visitor experience at the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), which regularly supports local brands to come up with products through its Experience Step Up Fund.

It’s a view echoed by the National Heritage Board, which also collaborates with local players to come up with Singapore-themed products for its Museum Label.

“We have noticed that heritage merchandise has really taken off and become popular in recent years – not just a rise on consumption, but there are also more individuals and organisations who leverage on heritage interest in their business,” said Ms Jennifer Quong, National Heritage Board's deputy director of retail and merchandising.


Locally designed contemporary merchandise have been around for a few years.

Prior to setting up The Farm Store, local design group Farm was already teaming up with museums to create merchandise. (Remember the "kan cheong spider" watch?)

Heritage merchandise (Edwin Low, Supermama)
Supermama founder Edwin Low with some of his company's Singapore-themed porcelain pieces. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

Meanwhile, local label Supermama was already known for its HDB-themed porcelain items, which eventually earned it a President’s Design Award in 2013. That same year, Naiise opened its doors and began collaborating with local designers, who were actually already tapping into homegrown themes.

But it was in 2015 – when Singapore celebrated 50 years of independence – that designers, retailers, and customers all went gaga over all things related to this country.

“It became super vibrant and everyone created content for Singapore. You had tea, furniture, table-top objects and even fashion pieces,” recalled Supermama founder Edwin Low.

His company was among those that tapped into the growing public interest, launching two collections, including the popular Souvenirs from Singapore series.

Done in collaboration with two design brands, Supermama produced 50 items, including the popular Merlion Chou Chou plushie, which “sold in the thousands”.

Heritage merchandise (cushions)
Uniquely Singapore merchandise, from curry puff and gem biscuit cushions to Merlion chou chou plushies.

“SG50 definitely increased people’s interest in local products,” added The Farm Store's brand manager Mabel Low. And this, in turn, prompted other stores to take notice and give local products a shot.

“More departmental stores and shops became willing to take in more, even though they’re slightly more expensive. And with more distribution points, it increased the chances of these being sold.”

For both companies, it was a turning point.

“Since we started in 2011, all the way to 2015, we didn’t make money at all. It was only during SG50 that we did,” revealed Supermama’s Mr Low.

Meanwhile, The Farm Store’s annual sales has doubled to around S$400,000 since 2015.

Perhaps the most notable indication of growth has been that of Naiise. When it opened in 2013, it only carried five brands and raked in S$60,000 that year. Today, it carries 1,068 brands – including around 700 to 800 local ones. Last year, the latter made up 20 to 30 per cent of the company’s revenue of around S$5m.

Heritage merchandise (Dennis Tay, Naiise)
What's the next step for heritage merchandise? Naiise founder Dennis Tay believes it's all about reaching out overseas. (Photo: Naiise)

“It’s a testament that more people are buying local products. They’re buying things that are made by local Singaporeans,” said founder Dennis Tay.


And as Singapore-themed merchandise shift from fad to norm, what’s next for this burgeoning industry?

For The Farm Store, it’s all about giving the growing market what it wants.

Souvenirs From Singapore
From cushions to stickers and keychains, Supermama's Souvenirs from Singapore are popular among tourists and locals alike. (Photo: Supermama)

“Anything Peranakan, that has the Merlion, or deals with iconic foods like nasi lemak, chilli crab and chicken rice sell well to locals and tourists alike,” said Ms Low.

“Right now, we are factoring in the demand. In the past, we did things that expressed our creativity. But slowly, we want to do what really appeals and sells. For example, we know things with landmarks sell, so we try to steer towards that – which is why we’re doing our Singapore skyline cushions.”

Meanwhile, Supermama is taking the opposite tact and plans to differentiate itself from the rest. It has temporarily stopped its Souvenirs From Singapore series with the aim of rebranding it, and rolling out 100 objects that "tell stories" within the next two to three years.

Mr Low, who is also taking part in STB’s Singapore: Inside Out event in Tokyo next month, also hopes to diversify into designer toys and edibles.

Heritage merchandise (Naiise store)
When Naiise opened in 2013, it only carried five brands. Today, it carries 1,068 brands, including around 700 to 800 local ones. (Photo: Naiise)

“Nowadays, if people want the Merlion or HDB graphics – bam, Merlion, Merlion, HDB, HDB. But I don’t want to be caught in a situation where I’m chasing the next big thing,” said Mr Low.

He added: “The public will still buy nostalgia. But we’re beginning to see a shift, where people are looking beyond kitsch and nostalgic items. People are thinking, ‘what more of Singapore culture can we create’? People like their chicken rice and Merlion. It's the novelty of things. But for the second year? You can't. They've already bought it.”

One example, he said, is their popular Peranakan-meets-Star Wars porcelain pieces, which combines traditional and pop culture without shouting “Singapore”. Of the 1,800 pieces they produced late last year, only 200 of these are left.

Heritage merchandise (Supermama porcelain)
Local landmarks and then some. Supermama's porcelain pieces have designs that range from what's recognisably Singaporean to a hybrid of Star Wars and Peranakan motifs. (Photo: Supermama)

But as local brands and companies ponder about what kind of Singapore merchandise to make, another question is where to expand.

While much of the focus has been on the consumer market, Mr Tay pointed to potential growth in Singapore’s business-to-business market, by supplying unique corporate gifts that companies can give to overseas visitors.

“We’re now trying to move on to that front. It’s a potential area for development,” he said, adding that at the moment, it only comprises five to 10 per cent of Naiise’s total revenue.

But perhaps the most ambitious area to consider is the relatively unexplored overseas market.

Heritage merchandise (Singapasar 2015)
The annual Singapasar event features local brands showing off their uniquely Singapore products. (Photo: Singapasar)

Both Supermama and Naiise have plans to expand internationally. With its close connections to Japanese makers, the former is looking to open an office in Tokyo in October.

Meanwhile, the latter will be opening shop in Kuala Lumpur and London later this year, and will be bringing local brands along with them.

But in a broader market, that Merlion product might not quite cut it. What evokes nostalgia for a Singaporean might not mean anything to a Japanese who hasn't stepped foot in the Lion City, for instance.

“In order to stand out, it might entail some tweaking of products in order to attract a larger audience,” said Mr Tay.

“For us to bring too-heavily local and nostalgic products to the UK market, for example, might not make sense because they might not understand them. So designers might have to think about creating everyday products that’s influenced by Singaporean designs – without having to be an actual ang ku kueh anymore,” he said.

Source: CNA/mm