The chatter of bargain hunters and traders permeates the air, and as far as the eye can see, stalls selling all manner of knick-knacks bear the brunt of the Sunday morning sun.
From rusty metal pipes to used shoes, clothes to perishable goods, electronics to gardening and construction tools – everything and the kitchen sink (literally) can be found here, at Ipoh’s flea market on Jalan Lim Bo Seng, right in the centre of town.
But “rusted gold” isn’t all that’s available – the keen eye of the coin collector is bound to be drawn to the few traders selling foreign currency, and of particular interest, old Malaysian currency, which naturally also includes Straits Settlement-era legal tender.
Ong Kean Thew, 69, who has his vintage bank notes and coins neatly arranged on a tarpaulin on the road, is a clear hit with collectors, given his genial personality and wares. His spread of old Malaysian currency is eye-popping, and it’s clear that this is a decades’ long labour of love.
Ong began collecting from the time he was 20, when he used to work at a coffee shop. “I used to collect newly-minted shillings. From there, my interest grew to bank notes, and I began collecting the older ones every time a newer series was issued,” he revealed.
The designs might have been what caught his eye, but this is the kind of foresight that’s well rewarded, albeit, years later. According to him, the collector market was nearly nonexistent all those years ago, but today, there is burning interest in the subject.
Numismatists might seem like Ong’s most likely clients, but surprisingly, not all are.
“Many of them just buy these old notes as investment, knowing that the prices can only appreciate over time,” he shared.
It’s these pieces of the past that feed collectors’ ravenous appetite. And Ong has these notes in a variety of conditions, from immaculate to sheets that have clearly gone through many transactions.
And condition is everything in this trade, as clearly indicated by how exponentially the prices can increase, from a decent quality bank note to one in pristine shape. According to Ong, the lowest quality is “fine” while the highest is “brilliant uncirculated”.
“Prices are really dependent on quality and the denomination of the note,” Ong revealed. A RM1 note from the mid 1970s (back when our money was minted by bank note printers such as Bradbury & Wilkinson and Thomas de la Rue) could go for anything between RM5 and RM80.
Ong mines coin shops and antique stores for new supplies, but admits that they are getting harder to come by, simply because there is greater awareness of their worth, making collectors reluctant to part with them.
To evaluate his collection, Ong, and most other collectors, too, turn to the tome Standard Catalogue Of Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei Coin & Paper Money, a compendium of all the different issues of currency, from the Straits Settlement era to the present day.
So, is there anything in his collection that is worth more to him sentimentally than financially?
Ong smiled as he answered: “Everything has a price ... I keep nothing.”