Haji Yusoff ‘Tali Pinggang’
Haji Yusoff’s father, Haji Mohamed Noor bin Haji Ali was born in Solo, Java, Indonesia. He was en route home after performing a pilgrimage in Mecca when he stopped in Singapore. He noticed that there were not many people trading in Singapore and he decided to strike his fortune there.
When he returned to Solo, he sold everything he had for business capital. He brought his 2 daughters (Hajah Maimunah & Hajah Rahmah) to Singapore (his wife had died due to illness before he left for Mecca).
Haji Mohamed Noor set up his home in a rumah pondok (hut) in Kandahar Street, Singapore. He was among the first few to set up a food stall at the shoreline at the Rochore area, near Kallang Airport (Singapore’s first civil airport). He employed 4 Javanese stall assistants and ran a profitable food business until he was 90 years old.
Haji Mohamed Noor married Kamsinah, a woman of Javanese descent. They were blessed with 5 children: Haji Ali, Haji Yusoff, Kahsiam also known as Mariam (daughter), Perkhi and Mohamed Yunos.
Haji Yusoff bin Haji Mohamed Noor (also known as Hadjee Eusofe bin Hadjee Mohamed Noor) was born in Kandahar Street, Singapore.
Haji Yusoff studied in a religious class at the Sultan Mosque and studied Malay at home.
Haji Mohamed Noor did not allow Haji Ali and Haji Yusoff to go into the food business. Instead, they were encouraged to venture into other businesses using their own capital. Haji Ali and the 22 years old Haji Yusoff started the songkok (the Malay traditional cap for men) business.
25 year old Haji Yusoff married Noribah (who was 5 years older) after he returned from pilgrimage. They lived in a small stone house in front of Maaruf Mosque at Cylde Street. They later moved to a shophouse in 741 North Bridge Road when their first son, Muhammad (Wak Ahmad) was born. Haji Yusoff decided to specialise in the tali pinggang (belt) business, while Haji Ali continued with his songkok business.
Haji Yusoff wanted more children. Noribah suggested Haji Yusoff take a second wife. She proposed to her own cousin, Hajah Aisah on his behalf. Hajah Aisah was 13 years old when she married Haji Yusoff.
Hajah Aisah gave birth to 13 children, of whom only 6 [Fatimah, Salmah, Abdul Rahim, Ismail, Othman and Zohra] survived infancy, illness and two world wars. Fatimah (Hidayah’s grandmother), her eldest child was born in 1911.
Haji Yusoff became an expert in the business of tali pinggang and songkok. His tali pinggang and songkok had their own trademark and could be found in all stores selling such items. His goods were in high demand especially during the Hajj session when pilgrims en route to Mecca would stop at Singapore and buy his products.
His tali pinggang trademark: A belt buckle flanked by 2 flags and a star shining on top of the buckle.
From a small store, Haji Yusoff’s business expanded and he moved his business to a 3 storeys building at 717 North Bridge Road (1st storey: Shop, 2nd storey: Noribah’s residence, 3rd storey: factory). He monopolised the tali pinggang and songkok market in Singapore and was also the main importer and exporter for these goods. He was thus known as Haji Yusoff ‘Tali Pinggang’ – Haji Yusoff the Belt Merchant.
His songkok and tali pinggang were exported to Mindanao (in the Philippines), Brunei, Miri, Sarawak, Johor, Penang, and the islands in the Malay Archipelago such as Siak, Bengkalis, Mentok, Sulawesi, Bugis and Palembang. In fact, Hajah Aisah’s uncle, Raden Shariff opened a shop (named ‘Rex Big Shop’ – Rex Theatre was next to the shop) in 28 Hilir, Palembang selling Haji Yusoff’s products.
Haji Yusoff was a very thrifty man and invested his profits in real estate. He bought houses and lands in various parts of Singapore such as Selegie Road, Middle Road, Serangoon Road, Arab Street, Malabar Street, Kallang Road, Joo Chiat Road and Kandahar Street. He also had some properties in Malaysia, namely in Batu Pahat and Penang. Besides those properties, Haji Yusoff owned rubber, coconut and oil palm plantations in Changi and about 100 hectares of oil palm plantations in Batu Pahat.
Haji Yusoff bought Gedung Kuning from R.M.P.C Mootiah Chitty.
Hajah Aisah and the one-year old Fatimah moved to live Gedung Kuning (73 Sultan Gate) from their previous residence at 741 North Bridge Road whereas Noribah and her son lived in 717 North Bridge Road. Haji Yusoff’s two wives lived amicably and lovingly, from the beginning until they passed away.
Even though Haji Yusoff was busy with his business, he made time to serve the Malay community. He was one of the Nazir (Management Committee member) of the Sultan Mosque for 30 years. As a Nazir, he was responsible for raising funds for the mosque and looked after the development of the mosque.
Haji Yusoff also started a free madrasah or Islamic school in a room on the first floor of the Sultan Mosque. He named the madrasah after this father and furnished it with basic necessities such as benches, wooden tables, a blackboard and books. A teacher, Ustaz Jaafar, was employed by Haji Yusoff to teach boys from Kampung Gelam mengaji Quran (Quran reading) and fundamentals of Islam and its laws. Haji Yusoff’s own grandchildren attended classes which were held on every Monday to Thursday from 2 pm to 5 pm. Madrasah Haji Mohamed Noor functioned for more than 10 years before it ceased its operations when Singapore was occupied by the Japanese in 1942. The tarbus (Moroccan Fez hat)-wearing Ustaz Jaafar was later appointed by the Japanese to become the Governor of Sumatra.
Pre-war era (before 1942):
– Haji Abdul Karim – bill collector
– Muhammad (Noribah’s son) – handled the business’ accounts
– 4 to 6 Javanese men (‘bujangan dari Jawa’) – sewed tali pinggang and songkok
– Haji Ismail (Hajah Aisah’s son) – handled banking matters
– Othman (Hajah Aisah’s son) – bill collector
– Haji Ahmad (Hajah Salmah’s husband) – handled the business’ accounts
– Abdullah (Hajah Fatimah’s son & Hidayah’s uncle) – shop salesman
– 4 to 6 Javanese men (bujangan dari Jawa) – sewed tali pinggang and songkok
Some business information
– The sewing machines were purchased from Germany.
– The tali pinggang cloth were imported from Germany. They were packed in huge containers and sent to Singapore via the Sakara ship which docked at Harbour Board (now Port Authority of Singapore).
– The velvet for the songkok were the ‘S.O.B’ brand from Germany and ‘Benang 1000’ from Holland.
– Colours of the tali pinggang: Green & Maroon
– Colours of the songkok: Blue-black & Black
– Price of 1 tali pinggang: $2
– Prices of 1 songkok: $1.50 to $3.50 (depending on quality)
– 20 pieces of tali pinggang would be packed into 1 kodhi (large box).
– The employees worked from 9 am to 5.30 pm, with lunch and prayer breaks.
– The sewers were paid daily salary of $2 to $3. In addition, Haji Yusoff gave them rice, sugar, chicken and some ‘bonus’ during Hari Raya (Eid).
– Haji Yusoff’s office staff (most were his children and grandson) received a monthly allowance of a minimum of $40 and higher.
– Even when there were no orders in a day, the sewers continued sewing the tali pinggang and songkok.
Haji Yusoff suffered from stroke and was bedridden. His tali pinggang and songkok business ceased.
Haji Yusoff passed away in Gedung Kuning at the age of 95. At the time of his death, most of his properties had been sold and acquired by the government for urban redevelopment. However, Gedung Kuning and some other properties still belonged to Haji Yusoff’s beneficiaries.
Haji Yusoff was a philanthropist who chose to remain anonymous. Only his family members and his lawyers knew the benefactors and the amount he donated. He was also humble, shunning away from publicity and the media. The public did not know much about him until after his demise. Even Hidayah was never told by her family that Haji Yusoff, her moyang, was a successful entrepreneur. She grew up in the Gedung Kuning household where family ties mattered more than business.