There won’t be many Singaporeans who haven’t popped into the department store Metro at least once. But did you know the store’s parent company Metro Holdings (SGX: M01) has roots that lead all the way to China via Indonesia’s second largest city – Surabaya. China to Indonesia Ong Tjoe Kim was born in Fujian, China in 1911. He left China for Surabaya, Indonesia at the age of 16 to join his father and worked as an odd-job labourer – being paid just 25 rupiah a month. Ong joined the Aurora department store where he spent the next 25 years…
There won’t be many Singaporeans who haven’t popped into the department store Metro at least once. But did you know the store’s parent company Metro Holdings (SGX: M01) has roots that lead all the way to China via Indonesia’s second largest city – Surabaya.
China to Indonesia
Ong Tjoe Kim was born in Fujian, China in 1911. He left China for Surabaya, Indonesia at the age of 16 to join his father and worked as an odd-job labourer – being paid just 25 rupiah a month.
Ong joined the Aurora department store where he spent the next 25 years learning all about the retail trade – working his way up the company to become a director.
But Ong had bigger ideas. Using all his savings he opened his first “Metro” store in 1952, in Surabaya as a joint partnership. Business was good and the partners opened a second store in 1955.
However, rising anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia forced Ong to move his business to Singapore – and his partnership was dissolved.
Ong opened his first Singaporean Metro store in a two-storey shop house at 72 High Street – a location chosen as it was felt to be “more upmarket than Chinatown”. It proved popular, with many of Metro’s early customers being Ong’s Indonesian friends who travelled to Singapore to buy in bulk – and the shop soon expanded into the next-door unit.
Business continued to be good and in 1965, Ong became one of the first retailers to open a department store on Orchard Road. He named the new store Metrotex – and the store was renamed Metro Orchard when it moved to the Holiday Inn Shopping Complex in 1973.
Metro was soon boasting five stores along Orchard Road – including its flagship, the Metro Grand in Lucky Plaza, which opened in 1978. Metro appealed to the high-end consumer, who enjoyed shopping for the luxurious European brands such as Cartier, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent that its department stores stocked.
Metro also tried opening stores out of town, in Bukit Timah Plaza and Marine Parade. However these didn’t prove successful and were closed in the 1980s.
Toys R Us
During the 1980s and 1990s Metro brought American retailers Toys R Us, Esprit and K-Mart to Singapore. The company also championed local designers and started its own work-wear label “Marissa” as well as an evening wear line.
Despite the failings of its out-of-town stores and perhaps due to intense competition on Orchard Road, Metro decided to re-enter the suburban market, opening stores at Causeway Point and Tampines Century.
Metro also holds the Singapore franchise for the UK’s popular Monsoon and Accessorize stores, selling handcrafted ethnic clothing and accessories.
While the Metro Group’s heart is retail, it also has a successful property development arm with projects in China, Indonesia and Singapore.
But did you know…
- Ong Tjoe Kim was an avid film buff and gave his department store the name Metro after Hollywood’s famed film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
- The Chinese name given to Metro was 美羅 (Mei Luo). Not only did it sound like “Metro” but the words carried the deeper meaning of “beautiful textiles/clothes” in Chinese.
- When Metro opened in the fifties, Ong positioned it to cater for rich housewives from Indonesia and Singapore, believing Robinson’s to be the department store that appealed to expats and CK Tangs to the locals.
- Metro’s first Singapore store was at the position where the Treasury Building now stands.
- In 1974, Metro Holdings took a 27% stake in the development of a vacant site on Orchard Road. That site later became Ngee Ann City – reaping huge profits for the company when it eventually sold its stake in 2005.
Today, Metro Holdings focuses on its two core business segments – property investment and development and retail.
Metro now has just four department stores in Singapore: its flagship store on Orchard Road, located in the swanky Paragon Shopping Centre, with three other stores in Woodlands, Sengkang and City Square Mall.
The group also has nine Monsoon/Accessorize/M.2 speciality shops in Singapore and eight department stores in Indonesia.
The company also owns interests in retail, office investment, residential and mixed-use development properties throughout China.
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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Alison Hunt doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.