In 1965, Singapore was founded as an island nation that carved its freedom from the British Empire and neighbouring Malaysia. From those uncertain days, one man has managed to run a successful skate shop for 35 years of Singapore’s 55-year history. Thriving in a business that betted on the earliest of Singaporean countercultures is Eddie Goh – founder of Go Sports LLP.
Reachable within a few minutes of Somerset skate park in central Singapore is a small mall, half-shuttered under the effects of the coronavirus, but well-lit and impeccably clean. Hidden within its sterile labyrinth is a shop displaying a colourful storefront, which on closer inspection reveals an array of skateboards and sporting equipment. ‘Go Sports // The Skate Shop’, the sign says.
Eddie – colloquially endeared ‘uncle’ – is instantly recognisable by his shoulder-length hair. Casting a slight glance, uncle returned to talking on the telephone behind the counter. As he emerged from behind a rack of T-shirts, Eddie said “no handshakes”, and maintained a metre of social distance on the bench. He took the sheet of questions before there was a chance to ask them.
“No,” he said, referring to the question of whether he skates. “I’ll not call myself a skateboarder. You come to the swimming pool, you struggle fifty metres, you will not consider yourself a swimmer unless you can swim easily for eight laps.” Despite not describing himself as a skater, Eddie said he identifies with a skater’s spirit. “Skateboarders are quite nice people. Easy going, you know. Just want to skate.”
The legend is that the first skateboards were invented by Californian surfers to quell flat spells, attracting its first disciples in the 1950s, followed by the first national championship in 1975. By the mid-80s skateboarding had spread from America into an international phenomenon, which was when Go Sports first opened shop in Margaret Drive – a residential compound some two miles away from its current location.
Despite the international movement, skaters were considered part of the early ingaporean counterculture. “Thirty years ago, there was no TV. Skateboarders were not on TV, skateboarding is considered – it’s not considered a sport – something weird, very rebellious, anti-society, that kind of thing,” Eddie recounted. His shop in Margaret Drive acted as a meeting point for skaters, who used to skate in the empty space out front. At first, residents living in the flats above often complained about the noise, and the police were often called. Eddie believes communication with residents was important in changing their perception, and keeping the noise down also helped. “Just respect the people, respect their peace. Don’t just skate and hit somebody and run, or try to act cool, or that you’re somebody.”
Although skaters were possibly the first urban culture shock in Singapore, ethnic cultural clashes are part of the national identity. As a former British trading hub, Singapore attracted an influx of workers from across the Asian continent, leading to an ethnographic mix of Chinese and Indian settlers, along with the indigenous Malay population. Diversity of cultures sparked early conflicts, such as the violent 1950 Maria Hertogh riots and 1964 communal, mainstream multiculturalism in Singapore has been successful overall, symbolised by the popularity of the creole language Singlish, which sees the influence of Malay, Tamil and dialectic Chinese colonise the English left by empire builders.
While mainstream multiculturalism existed more as a peaceful cohabitation, sometimes punctuated by arguments over cultural practices as mundane as cooking curry (see 2011 curry dispute), the skateboarding community in Singapore has always been welcoming to anyone willing to give the sport a try.
“You can make a lot of friends with skateboarding. I think – I’m not sure about today – but during our time in Margaret Drive my shop was like a mini United Nations. We had skateboarders from every country hanging out there,” said Eddie. “You won’t believe it, but over thirty odd years there had never been a fight at all. Never had a single fight. Very, very safe, everyone in the whole community knows each other well.”
“I miss the space. I miss the old location because the old location is like a magnet. Like what you call in Malay a kampong – a village. A village where people feel very safe to go there, and when they go there, they know there’ll always be people they can hang out with and skate with,” Eddie continued, his upbeat Singlish slipping into a tinge of nostalgia. “Margaret drive was demolished about six, seven years ago. No longer a venue you can skate. Only the old skateboarders still know the name Margaret Drive. You see the name Margaret Drive?”
Eddie pointed at one of the dozen skateboard decks behind the glittering glass of his current storefront. It was red, with the words ‘Margaret Drive’ scrawled across it in bold, white strokes.
“There they’ll come in at ten o’clock in the morning, and then go back at ten o’clock in the evening. Just sit there, hang there, do whatever they wanted to do there. It’s a hangout place for everybody. In fact, in the evenings the older residents will come down, sit down by the stairs and see the skaters skating, watch the fun, feel the energy. It’s a location you can never find again.”
For Singapore’s current generation of skateboarders, the social element of skating remains, although the tight-knit countercultural camaraderie has transformed into a subculture of much more personal, even spiritual experiences.
Umar, 17, was inspired to skate after watching cartoons and Youtube videos. On what he would take away from his skating experience, he answered, “I would remember staying up late night skating with my friends”. He finds the skating community “for the most part very welcoming”.
Wesley, 19, rates the community as “pretty chill”. “Skateboarding looks like trying to be good at kicking a piece of wood, but really it’s about mastering your own fear. It’s pretty addictive and fulfilling,” he explained. “Sometimes it makes me think that humans can achieve anything if we work towards it.”
“I can understand [skaters] myself,” said Eddie. “If they see me, they can understand that this old uncle, he understands what we do. And so, that’s how we keep [the business] going – thirty-five years already… I’ll keep going until I die! Hopefully I die in fifty years’ time.” He laughed, shaking his black, shoulder-length hair. A few strands of silver sprung above the surface.
“Hopefully, before I die, I can get a partner – an investor to be able to continue the name of Go Sports. It’s such a waste if nobody continues, which is true, I mean, we did skateboarding for thirty odd years. Nobody can believe it, and nobody thinks that a business like that can go for over thirty years.”
“We had all these economic crises: the oil crisis, the war, most of the time it’s the economy affecting everybody and business goes down. The whole world went down four times. This is the fifth time. COVID-19.”
Even without economic cycles, the business is not immune to trends within skateboarding itself. The secret to Go Sports’ success? Diversification.
“In the so many years of my business, many skateboarders open shops, many people open skateboarding shops. Every single shop is closed. The challenge is: what if the business goes down, nobody buys skateboards, what are you going to do?” he mused before answering, “We do all kinds of business related to wheels. All kinds of wheels you know. One time the scooter was so popular. One time, in 1992, inline skating was so popular. That was a time when skateboarding died. Even a lot of skateboarders at that time picked up rollerblading.”
“We still sold skateboards, though, to maintain the business presence we still had skateboards when they came back. We ride the wave – the wave of skate. [The equipment] are all manufactured by very similar people and factories. So they go, ‘This rollerblading business is good you want to try?’, and I say, ‘OK I’ll try.’ So, we ride the wave, you know, we follow the trend. Of course, now the trend is skateboarding. It’s the biggest trend now.”
Within the course of the interview a few groups of skateboarders had wandered into the shop, but Eddie was still eager to show the photos he had pinned on display at the front. “I used to have a whole box of photos,” he said, “but a journalist took them and never gave them back.” The remaining photos captured moments of an almost forgotten history, the oldest few rendered sepia with age. Eddie pointed to one.
“He came over for the X Games. He’s a pro in America now.” And another.
“This was the shop in Margaret Drive.”
Sometimes he found friends he still knows.
“He’s what, thirty, forty now. He has a daughter,”
Inside the shop, Eddie’s own daughter was busy attending to the customers. “She’s managing it well,” he said. He handed back the sheet of questions, “So, you see, everything done.”
Uncle paused for a moment, as if he wanted to say more, then gave a half-wave as he strolled back into the shop.
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Sources and links for interested readers:
History of skateboarding: https://www.skatedeluxe.com/blog/en/wiki/skateboarding/history-of-skateboarding/
1950 Maria Hertogh riots: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_83_2005-02-02.html
1964 communal riots: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_45_2005-01-06.html
2011 curry dispute: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2015-05-11_105734.html