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This Singapore Story Went From Rags to Riches

July 09, 1989|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

SINGAPORE — This city's sophisticated department stores are great places for spending time . . . and money.

Their wide range of merchandise includes local and imported fashions, personal and home accessories and gift items. In a city that's spread out and steamy hot, one-stop department store shopping has a distinct advantage.

The city's department store roster includes branches of Japan's Tokyu, Sogo, Isetan, Daimaru and Yaohan, of France's Galleries Lafayette and Au Printemps, and various Chinese emporia.

But Singapore's home-grown enterprises are particularly interesting. Of these, Tangs Super Store (320 Orchard Road) has the broadest range of goods, the highest overall quality and the best service.

Tangs' five selling floors are glimmering high-tech displays designed by New York-based Hembrecht Terrell International, noted for work with Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's.

Tangs has individual designer and theme-fashion boutiques for men and women, a perfumery, cosmetics counters, shoe salons, model rooms with fine furniture, a delicatessen, bakery and other easy-to-shop departments.

While Tangs' atmosphere is comfortable and familiar, merchandise is appealingly different. The fashion floor shows dressy and casual attire by Singapore designers, including Esther Tay's beautifully tailored linen dresses ($60) and embroidered blouses ($58), as well as imported fashions, including Pellini's linen blouses ($28), Ribelle's black linen dresses ($170) with white linen jackets ($145), Jaeger's pretty lightweight wool suits ($610) and Ken Dome's color-splashed swimwear ($63).

There are locally made lacy halter tops ($20), casual cotton jackets ($30) and trendy floral viscose dresses ($50), plus imported cashmeres ($70 and up). For men, Kelvin C.'s handsome tri-colored shirts ($25) and trousers ($25) share floor space with Segno suits (about $400 and up), Gian Marco Venturi cotton knit coats ($250), Yves Saint Laurent shirts ($30) and Bruno Magli loafers ($125 and up).

There are Fratelli Rosetti men's loafers (about $250) and women's pumps (about $175), and Pancaldi's lovely ladies' suede sandals ($110).

Tangs' top floor has unusual home decorating accessories, mostly from Asian sources. There are hand-carved Malaysian wooden boxes (from $8 and up) in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, as well as enormous decorative fans ($10 to $20) and handsome batik-covered notebooks ($12), Chinese porcelain teapots ($15 to $73) and appliqued linen table mats (50 cents to $7) and Thai blue-and-white ceramic serving accessories ($2 to $25), including bowls and charming elephant-shaped teapots.

Geometrically shaped and brightly colored paper lamps from the Philippines cost $25. There is also Chinese teak and other Oriental furniture.

Tangs' jewelry department features fine and fake pieces, with best buys including delicate seed pearl necklaces. Cosmetics and perfume departments offer complete ranges of top European brands, plus locally made eye shadows ($1 and up) in exotic colors.

For children, there are terrific toys and games ($2 and up) including Barbies and clones, Monopoly and robots galore, as well as amusing clothes hangers featuring likenesses of Alf, Garfield and Snoopy ($4 and up).

Kids' sneakers ($7) come in a rainbow of colors and profusion of patterned canvas. Leather goods include Mulberry steamer trunks ($15,000) and agendas ($240), saddles ($400 and up), all sorts of clothes and pressed crocodile accessories ($80 and up).

Tangs' complimentary personal shopping service helps coordinate clothing purchases and assemble gifts. The store gives shoppers identification tags to place on purchases, which are then sent to a central customer service desk and may be paid for all at once.

A packing, posting and insurance service sends fragile and/or unwieldy purchases directly to your home, and a regular post office is in the building.

Tangs' origins are the stuff of which entrepreneurial legends are made. Choon Keng Tang, son of a Presbyterian pastor in Swatow, China, emigrated to Singapore in 1923 with a tin box filled with fine lace and embroidered linens, which he peddled door to door to Singapore's British residents.

By 1932, Tang had opened a shop on River Valley Road, then the heart of Singapore's shopping district, where he sold linens, laces and other merchandise at bargain prices.

In 1958, Tang moved his enterprise to Orchard Road, then an undeveloped area far from Singapore's waterfront business district. Other retailers thought he was crazy, but Tang's purchase of land turned out to be one of the best real-estate deals in Singapore's history.

Orchard Road became Singapore's prime shopping and hotel strip, and land bought for about $2.50 a square foot is now valued at about $1,500 a square foot.

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