Known as Ah Kong Tiam (Grandfather’s Shop) until 2003, during its Kandahar Street days, this two-storey antique museum squirrelled away in the Arab Quarter remains fairly inconspicuous except for its unofficial mascot: a man-sized robot standing guard by the door, luring in curious passersby.
CLM is a pet project dreamed up by Mohamed Haikal, Patrick Neo and Alan Wong, three vintage collectors who wanted to share a slice of simpler, carefree days of old with as many people as they could. Since Wong’s mysterious disappearance in 2010, cinematographer Terry Chua has stepped in to help run the museum. The first floor is a treasure trove of vintage paraphernalia: radios, gramophones, TVs, jewellery, clothes and even a fully functioning 1950s art-deco fridge – a peek inside revealed a water jug and some apples. Most items were bought through dealers in Malaysia, Indonesia and India, or picked up from thrift stores. While some of these are for sale, other one-off pieces – like the motorbikes – are priceless. ‘It’s the one and only piece. If we let it go, then we shouldn’t be calling this a museum,’ Chua says.
The highlight, however, lies past a cabinet of wind-up robots and up a flight of the stairs. Like a memory vault, the second floor is devoted to playthings from an average kampung childhood, giving rise to the museum’s name. Musical toys, tin toys, stuffed toys, plastic guns, plastic soldiers and playground favourites like chapteh (a weighted plume of feathers kicked like a hacky sack) and guli (marbles) are sorted on shelves, as are the school supplies, from uniforms to yellowed textbooks. But it’s not just a spectacle – the owners have also built interactive exhibits and most of the museum’s decor by hand. A wooden drinks stall lets you serve ‘punch’ (coloured water) to friends, and a barber’s station comes complete with scissors and a shaving knife, and wooden swords are stacked up in the corner, ready for a duel.
‘If you can only look at things, you won’t get the feel of an era,’ explains Chua. Unfortunately the most popular exhibit – a mobile cinema that screens cartoons and vintage shorts – was out of order. ‘Kids keep pulling out the film reels,’ Haikal says ruefully.
While tourists seem to make a special pilgrimage to Children Little Museum, Terry and Haikal admit that locals remain unaware of it. ‘That triggers me to do something more,’ Chua says.
For munchkins who’ve largely ditched handmade toys for PSPs and iPads, the owners now hold workshops to impart the joys of enthusiasms like spinning tops. They also allow interested parties to rent props for photo shoots or reserve the museum for small functions – all for the sake of sparking more interest in forgotten days.
‘It’s not about profit. We even wanted to make the museum free, but decided on a $2 token fee – why? – because we want guests to value their visit and absorb everything slowly. If you come down after 15 minutes, I don’t think you’ve really seen or learnt anything,’ Chua explains.
The duo plan to keep the museum running as long as rent doesn’t rise. ‘Sometimes we have people coming in asking, what kind of karang guni (rag and bone) stuff is this? And they’ll wonder why we’re doing it,’ Chua says. ‘As long as we’re happy and it’s what we like, we’ll continue until we find people who appreciate our heritage.’