A Jewel among Jewellers

By Priyanka Bansal

August 2021 FEATURE
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NAM LOONG JEWELLERS was not always known for its jewelleries. In fact, it first started as an import business at 5, Campbell Street, established in 1922 by the Thong cousins who had emigrated from Canton, China. Nam Loong was so named to signify their partnership, symbolised by the three mighty dragons of Southern China.

When his two cousins decided to sell their share, Thong Yuet Sang became sole owner of the business. “My grandfather was an enterprising man,” says Philip Thong. “In those days, not many stores on Campbell Street sold a variety of goods. But with his skill and resources, my grandfather began importing premium silk, satin, tea, umbrellas, face powders and the finest wines and liquors from China.”

Note the long string of firecrackers to be lit before the shop reopens after the Chinese New Year celebrations. Photo by: Philip Thong

Thong also sold gold and silver jewellery pieces at Nam Loong; he had apprenticed under a goldsmith in his youth. “Call it his experience or his eye for antiques but soon, my grandfather’s jewellery became the talk of the town, and his customers were mostly Chinese of affluence.”

Nam Loong was soon the go-to shop for imported Chinese goods. As business grew, so too did the need for additional space.

After setting off the firecrackers. The red from the firecrackers symbolises auspiciousness on the first day of business. Photo by: Philip Thong

A Family Legacy is Born

Thong wed Hor Sek Yan who had migrated from China in 1930, and the couple purchased the family home at 19, Love Lane. “They had five sons and four daughters. As the eldest son, my father Wai Ko took over the family business in the 1950s.”

In the 1960s, Wai Ko departed from tradition. He did away with the import business and tore down the wall between Nos. 5 and 7, combining them into the jewellery store that Nam Loong is today. It was also on Campbell Street that he was struck by Cupid’s arrow.

19, Love Lane at the Thong's family home during the wedding day of Philip's parents. Photo by: Philip Thong

“My mother was the second daughter of the owner of the sundry shop ‘Oi Wing’. She used to blush, remembering how my father would find every opportunity to visit their shop just to catch a glimpse of her. That’s how their love story blossomed, and on this very street. They were married in 1949.”

Philip was next in line to succeed his father; he joined the family business in 1975, following his return from Hong Kong where he studied more in-depth about diamonds, pearls and precious gems. “My father believed the people in Hong Kong to be very ambitious, competitive; to sustain, you must strive for excellence. Though I inherited my father’s taste in design, his eye for colour and hand for texture, it was my experience in Hong Kong that made me appreciate the craft all the more and through steady commitment, sharpen it to perfection.” Meanwhile, his brother, Peter, focused on scaling the business to greater heights.

Philip with his favourite nanny at his grandparents' rambutan estate at Ayer Itam. Photo by: Philip Thong

A Reputation that Lasts

As a brand, Nam Loong is known from Hong Kong to Singapore. Its jewellery pieces aim to be modern in design, but classic in taste. “Our jewelleries are exclusively made; no two designs are similar. We were very honoured to be appointed jewellers for members of the Malaysian royalty, and to design five of their royal crowns,” shares Philip, adding that Nam Loong counts among its customers, one of the Governors of Penang as well.

Throughout his years in the business, Philip amassed quite the collection of antique heirlooms, including Nyonya hairpins and hand-polished mine diamonds that date back at least a century. “Having designed for members of Malaysian royalty, we have a deep understanding of vintage, one-of-akind jewellery pieces.”

Today, Nam Loong stands at the threshold of becoming a centenarian. “We have gained a reputation as a family business, carried from one generation to the next, and this is reflected in our motto, ‘Trusted for generations’. Even our jewellery boxes still retain their traditional design and our original 3-digit landline, 171.”

Campbell Street in the 1920s. The signboards at Nam Loong Jewellers display for sale perfumes and imported goods from China. Photo by: Philip Thong

But since the start of the MCOs, Nam Loong’s business has been considered inessential. Like their grandfather, however, the Thong brothers are quite the innovative duo. Philip realises that while customers still prefer timeless pieces, there is also an increasing need to make accessories that are suitable for daily wear. “I always encourage my customers not to trade their old jewellery for new ones. Instead, bring them in to be redesigned. Why waste a great piece of jewellery just because the design is old?”

In the 1960s, on the 15th day of Chinese New Year, Campbell Street held annual competitions for setting off “the longest firecrackers”. This naturally drew all of Penang to the street to witness the festivities, hence the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. Photo by: Philip Thong

The Spirit Dwindles

The original metal boxes and containers for Nam Loong’s jewelleries, from the 1920s to 1960s. Note the 3-digit phone number. Photo by: Philip Thong

The 1980s saw Campbell Street transformed into a semi-pedestrianised mall. Inadvertently, this limited the number of parking lots, which in turn, also reduced customer flow to the jewellery and goldsmith shops. “The security of the shops was at stake,” says Philip. Already in the 1960s, Nam Loong was a victim of a daytime robbery. “It was a major setback for us since in those days, we had neither insurance nor security in place. But we jewellers and goldsmiths were able to pool enough money to hire about six security guards to watch over our shops.”

The facade in the 1960s. It was the trend then to use aluminium grills. Photo by: Philip Thong

This community spirit is fast dissipating though. “Everyone is grabbing at opportunities to sustain their businesses, now made worse by the pandemic,” laments Philip. “Conversations have become superficial, always about the day-to-day but never delving deeper. Obviously, everyone is wary about competition and are tight-lipped about sharing resources, new trends and innovations, and the likes. It is a pity.”

Priyanka Bansal

is an Indian expat living in Penang. Owing to her artistic bent of mind she loves writing, painting and crafting. She is also a passionate hiker with a mountaineering degree. On the academic front, she holds a postgraduate degree in public health nursing with 8 years of lectureship experience.