Car­pet man rolls out the wel­come rug in Kg Glam

Busi­ness­man wants to boost the area’s charm, at­tract more peo­ple

The Straits Times - - HOME - Toh Wen Li

An Ira­nian-born busi­ness­man is work­ing with the Sin­ga­pore Tourism Board to roll out free Wi-Fi and a dig­i­tal map, and also wants to bring more tra­di­tional mu­sic, arts and fash­ion events to Kam­pong Glam.

In the last three years, One Kam­pong Ge­lam (OKG) founder and chair­man Saeid Lab­bafi has helped boost the Kam­pong Glam area’s charm with restau­rants and cafes, com­plete with the oblig­a­tory hip­ster barista.

Ear­lier this month, Mr Lab­bafi, 49, won the Ur­ban Re­de­vel­op­ment Author­ity’s an­nual Place Cham­pion Award for his ef­forts. These in­clude spear­head­ing the reg­u­lar week­end car-free zones that have led to a rise in foot­fall in the area.

Sev­eral roads, in­clud­ing Bali Lane, Haji Lane, Baghdad Street and Bus­so­rah Street are trans­formed on week­ends into car-free zones for com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties, bazaars and out­door din­ing.

Last month, OKG ini­ti­ated its first precinct-wide car-free zone in con­junc­tion with the Ali­wal Arts Night Crawl. Vis­i­tors were treated to silat shows, Malay dance per­for­mances and com­mu­nity yoga.

OKG has about 70 mem­bers, all of them busi­nesses.

Mr Lab­bafi is not done yet. With more than 600 stake­hold­ers in the area, he hopes to get al­most all of them on board a pilot Busi­ness Im­prove­ment Dis­trict scheme, which the Gov­ern­ment an­nounced ear­lier this month.

The scheme aims to en­cour­age ground-up ef­forts to spruce up dis­tricts, and the Gov­ern­ment will give groups of busi­nesses match­ing grants of up to $500,000 a year, over four years, for a to­tal of up to $2 mil­lion. Mr Lab­bafi said he is talk­ing to busi­ness own­ers about the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits.

With the help of fund­ing for the scheme, he has plans to make Kam­pong Glam more at­trac­tive – with tra­di­tional floor tiles and road signs, green spa­ces and pub­lic seat­ing ar­eas. Hav­ing more, and maybe even per­ma­nent, road clo­sures would fa­cil­i­tate this, he said.

Speak­ing to The Straits Times at Haji Tawakal Carpets last week, the Te­heran na­tive said he came to Sin­ga­pore as a car­pet whole­saler in 1994, at­tracted by the prospect of a “good mar­ket”. He later opened car­pet shops in Kam­pong Glam in 2004 , drawn to the area’s rich her­itage, and driven by a de­sire to know the lo­cal com­mu­nity bet­ter.

The area’s long-time busi­nesses in­clude tex­tile mer­chants, stalls sell­ing sou­venirs and nasi padang stalls.

Mr Lab­bafi, a Sin­ga­pore per­ma­nent resident who holds dual Ira­nian-US cit­i­zen­ship, is mar­ried to a fel­low Ira­nian, a house­wife. They have a son, 11, and a daugh­ter, nine.

While he has been able to draw peo­ple to the area, it has not been all rosy for his own busi­ness.

Mr Lab­bafi said his car­pet re­tail and whole­sale busi­ness has seen a 30 per cent to 40 per cent slump since the mid-1990s. Just two months ago, he closed one of his shops in Arab Street. He and his fam­ily now own eight car­pet shops in Arab Street. Tastes have changed, he said. In Iran, carpets can be found in every home. He said: “You have your chil­dren crawl­ing over the car­pet, birthdays hap­pen­ing on it, and as you grow older, you ap­pre­ci­ate the art­work.”

Mr Lab­bafi has seven Per­sian carpets in his home in Sin­ga­pore.

Peo­ple also now buy fur­ni­ture be- fore get­ting the carpets.

Said Mr Lab­bafi: “In the past, the car­pet was the first thing you bought. Peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ated carpets as a piece of art, and they tried to ac­cept the car­pet for what it was. Today, they want the car­pet’s colour to match the fur­ni­ture they have.”

The carpets in his shops gen­er­ally cost be­tween $1,000 and $5,000, al­though an­tiques or col­lecta­bles can cost much more.

Most are hand-wo­ven and knot­ted by weavers in places like Iran, Tur­key, Afghanistan, Kash­mir and Pak­istan, said Mr Lab­bafi, and each one of­ten takes a year – some­times even four – to com­plete.

Each car­pet has sto­ries wo­ven into it. Point­ing to a $10,000 car­pet on the shop’s wall de­pict­ing the “Tree of Life” in Per­sian mythol­ogy, Mr Lab­bafi said: “The roots of the fam­ily come to the tree, and no mat­ter how far the branches are spread out, they are still united.”

Most peo­ple do not know much about fine carpets. Even fewer peo­ple have spe­cial­ist knowl­edge, for in­stance, of the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Per­sian and Kash­mir car­pet. That may be partly why not many are will­ing to spend a lot on a car­pet.

Mr Lab­bafi started run­ning free car­pet ap­pre­ci­a­tion classes about a decade ago, and more than 1,000 peo­ple have at­tended so far. His shops also sell some cheaper ma­chine-made carpets from Bel­gium.

Also, on­line shop­ping has l ed many cus­tomers to com­pare the cheaper prices of on­line prod­ucts with those sold in his shops but such com­par­isons are in­ac­cu­rate.

There may be dif­fer­ences in qual­ity that cus­tomers could be un­aware of since they can­not check the feel of the carpets sold on­line, Mr Lab­bafi said.

He hopes to turn Sin­ga­pore into South-east Asia’s “car­pet hub”.

He said: “Every prod­uct made by hand should be sup­ported. A hand­made prod­uct can never be re­placed by tech­nol­ogy... It’s not too late. It is our re­spon­si­bil­ity to keep the in­dus­try alive.”

ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

One Kam­pong Ge­lam founder and chair­man Saeid Lab­bafi won the Ur­ban Re­de­vel­op­ment Author­ity’s an­nual Place Cham­pion Award for his ef­forts. These in­clude spear­head­ing the reg­u­lar week­end car-free zones that have led to a rise in foot­fall in the area.

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