This Singapore Story Went From Rags to Riches

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

This city's sophisticated department stores are great places for spending time . . . and money.

Their wide range of merchandise includes local and imported fashions, personal and home accessories and gift items. In a city that's spread out and steamy hot, one-stop department store shopping has a distinct advantage.

The city's department store roster includes branches of Japan's Tokyu, Sogo, Isetan, Daimaru and Yaohan, of France's Galleries Lafayette and Au Printemps, and various Chinese emporia.

But Singapore's home-grown enterprises are particularly interesting. Of these, Tangs Super Store (320 Orchard Road) has the broadest range of goods, the highest overall quality and the best service.

Tangs' five selling floors are glimmering high-tech displays designed by New York-based Hembrecht Terrell International, noted for work with Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's.

Tangs has individual designer and theme-fashion boutiques for men and women, a perfumery, cosmetics counters, shoe salons, model rooms with fine furniture, a delicatessen, bakery and other easy-to-shop departments.

While Tangs' atmosphere is comfortable and familiar, merchandise is appealingly different. The fashion floor shows dressy and casual attire by Singapore designers, including Esther Tay's beautifully tailored linen dresses ($60) and embroidered blouses ($58), as well as imported fashions, including Pellini's linen blouses ($28), Ribelle's black linen dresses ($170) with white linen jackets ($145), Jaeger's pretty lightweight wool suits ($610) and Ken Dome's color-splashed swimwear ($63).

There are locally made lacy halter tops ($20), casual cotton jackets ($30) and trendy floral viscose dresses ($50), plus imported cashmeres ($70 and up). For men, Kelvin C.'s handsome tri-colored shirts ($25) and trousers ($25) share floor space with Segno suits (about $400 and up), Gian Marco Venturi cotton knit coats ($250), Yves Saint Laurent shirts ($30) and Bruno Magli loafers ($125 and up).

There are Fratelli Rosetti men's loafers (about $250) and women's pumps (about $175), and Pancaldi's lovely ladies' suede sandals ($110).

Tangs' top floor has unusual home decorating accessories, mostly from Asian sources. There are hand-carved Malaysian wooden boxes (from $8 and up) in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, as well as enormous decorative fans ($10 to $20) and handsome batik-covered notebooks ($12), Chinese porcelain teapots ($15 to $73) and appliqued linen table mats (50 cents to $7) and Thai blue-and-white ceramic serving accessories ($2 to $25), including bowls and charming elephant-shaped teapots.

Geometrically shaped and brightly colored paper lamps from the Philippines cost $25. There is also Chinese teak and other Oriental furniture.

Tangs' jewelry department features fine and fake pieces, with best buys including delicate seed pearl necklaces. Cosmetics and perfume departments offer complete ranges of top European brands, plus locally made eye shadows ($1 and up) in exotic colors.

For children, there are terrific toys and games ($2 and up) including Barbies and clones, Monopoly and robots galore, as well as amusing clothes hangers featuring likenesses of Alf, Garfield and Snoopy ($4 and up).

Kids' sneakers ($7) come in a rainbow of colors and profusion of patterned canvas. Leather goods include Mulberry steamer trunks ($15,000) and agendas ($240), saddles ($400 and up), all sorts of clothes and pressed crocodile accessories ($80 and up).

Tangs' complimentary personal shopping service helps coordinate clothing purchases and assemble gifts. The store gives shoppers identification tags to place on purchases, which are then sent to a central customer service desk and may be paid for all at once.

A packing, posting and insurance service sends fragile and/or unwieldy purchases directly to your home, and a regular post office is in the building.

Tangs' origins are the stuff of which entrepreneurial legends are made. Choon Keng Tang, son of a Presbyterian pastor in Swatow, China, emigrated to Singapore in 1923 with a tin box filled with fine lace and embroidered linens, which he peddled door to door to Singapore's British residents.

By 1932, Tang had opened a shop on River Valley Road, then the heart of Singapore's shopping district, where he sold linens, laces and other merchandise at bargain prices.

In 1958, Tang moved his enterprise to Orchard Road, then an undeveloped area far from Singapore's waterfront business district. Other retailers thought he was crazy, but Tang's purchase of land turned out to be one of the best real-estate deals in Singapore's history.

Orchard Road became Singapore's prime shopping and hotel strip, and land bought for about $2.50 a square foot is now valued at about $1,500 a square foot.

Tangs constructed a new store in 1982 and shed its bargain-basement image. The new building's modified Chinese architectural style dominates the intersection of Orchard and Scotts roads, the crossroads of Singapore's most important shopping streets.

Rising from the building's center is the circular tower of the exclusive Dynasty Hotel, which also belongs to the Tangs. Now 85, Tang still minds the store, with the help of his son, Wee Sung Tang.

Recently, Tangs opened Studio (6 Scotts Road, around the corner from Tangs), a chic emporium designed to appeal to Singapore's young urban professionals, with a carefully selected range of trendy career-oriented fashions with in-house labels (outfits priced about $50 and up), and those of Singaporean designers (outfits priced about $80 and up) Kelvin C., Esther Tay, Peter Kor and Bobby Chng, as well as imports (outfits priced about $200 and up) by Joseph Abboud, Sara Sturgeon, Hugo Boss, Moschino, Williwear, Pamplemousse and others.

Studio features individual cosmetics salons in which Christian Dior, Shiseido, Lancome and other leading companies demonstrate and sell their products, as well as provide facials and other beauty services.

Other departments provide avant-garde home furnishings and gift items from France, Italy and England, as well as collector teapots from Sweden, glassware from Germany and colorful ceramic dishes from Portugal.

Metro is Singapore's largest department store chain with seven outlets, all stocking slightly different merchandise. Metro Grand (304 Orchard Road) sells upscale goods, including imported famous label fashions by Ungaro, Givenchy Gentleman, Mila Schon and Burberrys, plus Bottega Veneta leather goods and Bruno Magli shoes, home-decorating accessories and gift items by Cristal Lalique and others at prices they claim are the lowest in the Orient.

Metro (290 Orchard Road, 14 and 25 Scotts Road and other locations) sells moderately priced to inexpensive goods made locally or imported from other Asian countries. Ananas is a favorite fashion label at Metro, with a wide range of young and fun, colorful mix-and-match cotton trousers ($35) and jackets ($25), big-pocketed sun dresses ($30) and little bustiers ($20).

Good buys for men include Arnold Palmer shorts ($30) and Fred Perry T-shirts ($15) or high socks ($3). Metro Plaza (7500-D Beach Road) and Metro Supreme (9 Penang Lane No. 01-01) sell seconds, overruns and stock lots at up to 50% off, including Cacharel shirts ($13), Daks trousers ($5), Boston Harbor jeans ($7), L.A. Gear ankle bands ($2) and wrist wallets ($2), Marimekko fitted queen sheets ($10) and other items from Generra, Aca Joe, Martex, Calvin Klein, Banana Republic and The Limited labels.

Robinson's (Centrepoint, Orchard Road), Singapore's oldest (established in 1858) and most traditional department store, features pricey prestige-label wearables by Louis Feraud, Fratelli Rosetti, Bis, Gitano and others, as well as in-house fashion lines (with outfits priced about $120 and up).

The store's well-stocked Liberty of London boutique has a full selection of neckties ($35), fabric-covered visitor books ($17), blouses ($60), woolen scarfs ($20 to $35), sizable carry bags ($100) and other items in fabulous floral prints.

There are large furniture and home accessories departments, the latter with pretty English and Japanese tablewares and intriguing cookery gadgets. Robinson's monthlong April sale is one of Singapore's major annual shopping events. The store is crowded with shoppers looking for up to 50% off on most merchandise.

John Little (across Orchard Road from Robinson's) offers budget clothes for the entire family. Kids' togs (about $8 and up) are among the best buys.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing .

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