In the same way that Singaporeans head to Johor every week to buy groceries, the Johor Sultan and his family come to Singapore just as often to shop. One of their pit-stops would be The Hour Glass in Orchard Road, where Peter Chong was always on hand to personally serve – and they asked only for him – three generations of the family until his retirement three months ago at the age of 81.
Possibly the oldest salesman of The Hour Glass – maybe even in the whole local industry – Mr Chong has been in the trade his whole life, since he dropped out of Primary Five to work as a watch-repair apprentice.
His is a story typical of the pioneer generation – money was scarce, education a luxury and street smarts were essential for survival.
“My parents were poor and I had very little education,” he says in a mix of English, Mandarin and Cantonese. At the time, the watch trade was what everyone wanted to be in. “It was seen as high class, and people looked up to you if you worked there.”
As a watch-repair apprentice in a North Bridge Road shop, the young Mr Chong was paid S$15, plus an extra S$2 for a haircut. There was no formal training; he was tasked to stand behind a master watch repairer to watch him work.
But the master wasn’t interested in teaching anyone, he recalls. “When he was fixing a broken watch, he would send me out on an errand so I didn’t get to learn his secret skills.”
Still, two years after working in the repair shop, Mr Chong was poached by a neighbouring shop for S$150 a month. “I was young and a good salesman,” he says.
The watch retail trade was very competitive then – and shops needed energetic young salesmen to sell as many watches as they could. Watches were very cheap and it was a volume business.
“You could buy a manual mechanical watch with a fine Swiss movement for S$20 plus,” Mr Chong says. The well-known brands then were Titoni, Titus, Movado and Cyma. “Omega was the best, not Rolex.” Mr Chong quit his job in 1959 and with S$6000 from savings and loans, opened a shop in Bukit Panjang. But within three years, poor sales drove him out of business.
He went back to work, and by the 1970s was earning good money – around S$2000 a month, plus commissions of S$4000 to S$6000.
“That was the time when many Japanese tourists came by the bus-loads,” he recalls. “We would close the shop for them to buy watches.”
He would go into business again but by the third failure, he was convinced that it was not his forte: “I am meant to work for people, I can’t do business.”
It was the early 80s then, and he encountered The Hour Glass founders Henry Tay and Jannie Chan, who were looking to expand their business. He knew them from his early days in North Bridge Road – then the hub of the local watch trade – when Mr Chong worked in the shop beside Dr Tay’s family’s outlet.
When the Tays approached him, he was already a 30-year veteran. At the time, Singapore was a shopping paradise for Indonesian tourists, so he easily hit his S$2 million monthly sales targets.
His biggest customers were the Johor family. “They bought a lot from me, mainly Rolex watches. All the expensive models.” Even after he officially retired at 62, he stayed on to work at the Rolex boutique in ION, where he continued to serve the Johor royal family.
Indeed, the family helped to prolong his success, says the super salesman who has rewarded himself with a string of luxury cars, including Mercedes-Benz and BMW, over the years. But even his cars and two Rolex watches are not as important to him as the three Seiko watches in his collection. They bear the seal of the late Sultan Iskandar al-Haj, who gave them to him. And in so doing, sealed their friendship for all time.
Adapted from The Business Times.
PHOTO Yen Meng Jiin / The Business Times / Singapore Press Holdings