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KH Plastics


132 Arab Street, Singapore 199823
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Packing Up the Plastic

Name of business:KH Plastics
Name of business in other language:佳合塑膠
Business location:132 Arab Street, Singapore 199823
Business type:Plasticware

KH Plastics, a family-owned business established in 1976, is a reliable supplier of plastic products located at 132 Arab Street in Singapore. Third-generation owner Mr Seah Yang Phing reflects on the past challenges that the business has gone through since its establishment and acknowledges the need to adapt to changing market demands.

KH Plastics started out at Blanco Court, a former commercial building filled with busy offices and retail shops. During the 1970s, the atmosphere was lively, with people swarming the shops as they carried bags of their shopping haul. The site was small, and shopkeepers were packed wall to wall. It was something Mr Seah hadn't experienced or seen since. Every shop was like that, and that was how good business was in the past.

Blanco Court was located at North Bridge Road, where the Raffles Hospital now stands. When the site was redeveloped in the late 1980s, shop owners in Blanco Court had to find new places to start over. At that time, Mr Seah, along with his mother and younger sister, had taken over the business from his uncle. To retain their old customers, Mr Seah's family was determined to find a location close to Blanco Court and eventually ended up at Arab Street. The family was relieved to secure a nearby location that the old customers could easily locate.

Tucked in between shophouses at 132 Arab Street in the present-day, the store is unassuming and utilitarian. Shelves and racks occupy every possible space, storing an assortment of plastic products. The store supplies postal courier bags, food packaging, plastic containers and more. A variety of plastic bags in different shapes, sizes and colours hang on hooks and chains, some draped on the shelves, some rolled into thin cylinders. With the vast array of plastic products in the shop, one might feel a little cramped and even disoriented. However, customers can approach Mr Seah for help as he knows the store like the back of his hand.

Over the decades, KH Plastics has established its footing in Kampong Gelam. They are recognised by fellow shopkeepers as a reliable source for their plastic packaging needs. Restaurants on Beach Road buy food containers in small amounts, as they do not have the room to keep bulks of plastic containers. The short distance makes it convenient to pop by whenever they are short on supply. The store has also been expanding its reach outside of Singapore, exporting to countries all over the world, from Brunei to Maldives and even Russia.

In its heyday, there would be many "van sales" at the shop, where vans would come to stock up on plastic products to distribute to hawker centres and markets. In the present-day, sales are much slower because some of KH Plastics' older customers have retired without successors. Competition is more aggressive as well, with 40 or so businesses popping up in the small Singapore market. International customers, like importers from Maldives, would now directly source from China and other suppliers through the Internet, instead of purchasing supplies from KH Plastics.

KH Plastics also has to constantly keep up with the volatile demands of the market. The food packaging industry is a prime example. KH Plastics used to sell laminated "rice packaging paper" for Hainanese chicken rice takeaway. This changed when food stalls wanted styrofoam boxes instead, and transparent plastic boxes not long afterwards. "If we don't change, we won't have business in the future, because customers are requesting for this as well, they want to improve the packaging," Mr Seah says. "They want it to look nice, utilitarian, and so we need to follow along."

However, not every trend is easy to accommodate. The most recent drive towards sustainable packaging and paper products puts KH Plastics in a difficult spot because they would have to go through the tedious process of injecting new capital and sourcing for new suppliers again. "Me and my sister aren't exactly ambitious, we just want to hold on to the business," Mr Seah says. "We do not have plans to expand and prefer to keep to our old customer base and continue servicing them." Currently, most of their customers visit the store physically or place their orders through phone or email.

"Nowadays, we always talk about recycling and being environmentally-friendly, but my business is really the opposite of that." The awareness that selling plastics is a sunset industry looms over Mr Seah. "To give it up is indeed quite a pity," he says, "but if the prospects stay the same... that is there's not much space for growth or development of the business, it's better to give it up."

While KH Plastics has provided for his family for so many years, learning how to let go of the business is important too. Mr Seah understands that KH Plastics will come to an eventual end, regarding it with an attitude of pragmatism and acceptance.

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