Back in 1957, if you were dolling up for the Merdeka party of a lifetime, where did you shop?
Well, Robinson’s of course!
The Singapore-founded department store was to Malayans then what Harrods is to Londoners now. With stores in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Robinson’s was where the crème de la crème splurged on import-quality goods.
“In the 50s, a blue-blooded Nyonya or well-born Malay lady would only settle for Robia (label) Swiss voile, or Robia kasar fabric, for the kebaya. And you could only buy it at Robinson’s department store in Singapore,” says Henry Bong, an art and antique connoisseur and founder of Pucuk Rebung Royal Gallery-Museum.
Sarawak-born Bong, 54, recalled taking two days on a steamship to sail from Kuching to Singapore with his mom, Nellie, on her shopping jaunts to Robinson’s.
For Barbara Fletcher of Taiping, Perak, Robinson’s brings fond memories of yearly shopping trips for her family to Kuala Lumpur.
“We bought hats to wear to church and also toys, shoes and books. In fact, I bought my Clarks wedding shoes from there in 1969,” says Fletcher, in her 60s, now living in Selangor.
“I remember the store was in front of the now Dataran Merdeka,” says Ruby Siah, in her 50s. “Going to Robinson’s was like a treat as it was the only store that sold imported products. People would actually dress up to visit the store.”
But aside from its legendary service and sales, what made Robinson’s an institution was its colourful history.
In the span of 149 years, the company had weathered all storms – two World Wars, The Great Depression, SARS, the Asian Financial Crisis and competitors – to become the leading fashion retailer in Singapore today.
Where it all began
The Robinson’s story started in 1858 when Australian merchant Philip Robinson and his business partner, James Gaborian Spicer, a former Singapore jailkeeper, set up shop as Spicer and Robinson in Singapore.
Their first ad appeared in the Free Press on Feb 25, 1858, hawking a smorgasbord of fine-quality imports – from oatmeal to York ham and Gloucester cheese, from fashionable bonnets to “superior, English-made” boots – the store offered everything money could buy. The duo also focused on wholesale trade and business thrived. But two years later, Spicer pulled out of the partnership and Robinson renamed the business Robinson and Company.
Instead of setting up branches countrywide, Robinson hired travelling salesmen to solicit customers in the Malay Archipelago and Borneo. Before long, the Malay rulers, as well as King Mongkut of Siam – then the most powerful ruler in South-East Asia, were among Robinson’s aristocrat clients. On certain occasions, the King even wrote personally to Robinson to place his order and signed off as “your good friend”.
In 1886, Philip Robinson passed away and was succeeded by his son, Stamford Raffles Robinson. Sales were brisk in the Federated Malay States. The company launched a large advertising campaign in the newspaper and boosted the number of sales reps. In 1891, the company moved to Raffles Place (the financial hub of Singapore). At that time, the store’s Chinese staff still had queues (pig-tail) and wore loose-fitting trousers.
By the early 1990s, a piano, harmonium or horn gramophone – or even all three – were de rigueur in Malayan homes. Robinson’s stocked the best musical instruments and advertised them widely.
The company was among the first agents for Raleigh bicycles in the world when they started selling the bikes in 1907. For the first time, people had access to a cheap form of transportation aside from walking. Raleigh bicycles started appearing in towns and villages everywhere. By 1958, Robinson’s had sold over half a million Raleigh bicycles.
World War I (1914-1918) had little effect on Singapore. Some Europeans went back to England to enlist and the Asians were given more responsibility in the workforce – a precursor to Malayanisation.
Riding out the Depression
The Great Depression that swept the world from 1928 eventually reached Malaya.
“Planters were sent home and there were a hundred men for every skilled job, a thousand for every unskilled one,” stated The Story of Robinson’s corporate book .
Many stores were boarded up and some lost their fortunes overnight.
On April 23, 1932, the Straits Times reported that Robinson & Co lost S$233,745 from the effect of continued Depression. The Kuala Lumpur branch, which had been opened in 1928, was also running at a loss.
Robinson’s’ chairman, R. Page, blamed it on the “greatly decreased purchasing power of the community” and the fact that large numbers of their clients throughout Malaya, the Dutch Indies and British North Borneo had returned to Europe. The staff had to take a pay cut and some were laid off.
During the slump, the company could have sold lower quality and more affordable goods to keep sales up but Page was adamant to guard Robinson’s reputation.
“For 70 years, we have been building a reputation for quality . . . it would have been most short-sighted to sacrifice our reputation by letting down the quality of the stock,” he said in the book.
The company rode through the Depression and made its first profit – S$25,355 – in 1936.
In November 1941, Singapore’s Robinson’s moved to bigger and better premises in Raffles Place. A reporter who visited the store wrote that the café and hairdressing salons were air-conditioned. Customers praised the spacious tiled entrance where they could mingle with friends, or wait for their cars in comfort.
World War II – the resilient years
When the Japanese landed in Malaya, 20-year-old Brother Lawrence Spitzig was a teacher at St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur. The schools were closed for Christmas holidays. The city was in chaos and European expatriates were being hurriedly evacuated.
“We received a call from Robinson’s in KL asking some of the teachers to destroy the liquor supply. The store was closing down and the managers didn’t want anyone getting hold of the liquor, as it could cause trouble. Five teachers, including Brother Lawrence, went to the store and smashed all the liquor bottles.
Armed guards were stationed at the end of the lanes leading to the store to prevent people from breaking in. Rickshaw pullers and bystanders scooped up and drank the liquor that was running down the drain. As the store was closing, the brothers had permission to take anything they needed.
“We had enough Palmolive soap to last us, and the Convent, the whole war,” said Brother Lawrence (as reported in The Star, July 16, 1995).
Allied troops fighting in Malaya were running short of supplies and the manager of Robinson’s Kuala Lumpur branch had come to the rescue by providing hundreds of camp beds, food and clothing supplies. One of the former chairmen of the company, W. H. MacGregor, died in internment in 1942.
In Singapore, the first Japanese bombs that fell on Dec 8, 1941, blew out the front of the store. Next day, Robinson’s advertised: “Open as Usual”.
In February 1942, bombs devastated the building again. As the war raged on, Robinson’s restaurant was the meeting place of the European community.
A war refugee from Perak who fled to Singapore described his experience in the book.
“When I arrived in Singapore, the city was in a terrible state of confusion, with Japanese planes roaring overhead and dropping bombs. The city’s business area was almost deserted. Every eatery and bakery had closed its doors and many homes had to go without bread,” he said.
When he and a friend went to Robinson’s, they were surprised to find the place still open.
“Crowds of civilians and service people were having food and drinks in the restaurant. There was only the young manager running the whole show.”
He asked the manager if he could have something to eat. The manager replied, “Certainly, sir. There is sliced bread and food which I cooked.”
“But he added there was no one to serve us so we would have to help ourselves. His staff had left him in the lurch. I watched him serving drinks from the refrigerator as if everything was fine and he was always smiling.”
In April 1946, Robinson’s threw its doors open again in Singapore. Profits for the first year topped one million dollars for the first time. Business boomed in the post-war period and the company employed staff from all walks of life.
The store still caters to shoppers who value quality, and Robinson’s annual sale has become the city’s major shopping event, often attracting more than 50,000 shoppers.
Robinson’s became the first store in the Far East to be fully air-conditioned in 1955. In the same year, the company acquired a 76% interest in the capital of John Little (Malaya) Ltd.
In Kuala Lumpur, Robinson’s closed shop in the mid-70s for unspecified reasons. A huge fire in 1972 ravaged Robinson’s in Singapore. The store moved to Orchard Road’s Specialists’ Centre and later to Centrepoint in 1983 where it still stands today.