A household name in Singapore’s retail industry, Metro was first established in Surabaya, Indonesia, in 1953 by Ong Tjoe Kim, a businessman from Indonesia. In 1957, the first Metro store in Singapore opened in a two-storey shophouse at 72 High Street,1 where The Treasury now stands. Metro Holdings Limited became publicly listed in 1973. In addition to retail, the company’s operations have since expanded to include property development and investment.
Ong was born in Fujian, China, in 1911. He joined his father in Jakarta in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) when he was a teen, and thereafter worked for a textile wholesaler for about two years.2 He then joined the department store, Toko The Sun, where he worked for over two decades and eventually became its director.3
After saving enough money, Ong decided to start his own business in 1952. He opened the first Metro store in 1953 in Surabaya through a joint partnership.4 An avid film buff, Ong named the store after Hollywood’s famed movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.5 In 1955, a second Metro store was unveiled in Indonesia. However, due to rising anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia, which could adversely affect his business, Ong decided to dissolve the partnership and restart the business in Singapore.6
In 1957, the first Metro store in Singapore was established in a two-storey shophouse at 72 High Street, where The Treasury is presently located. Ong chose High Street because he thought that the location was more upmarket than Chinatown.7
Metro started out as a textile shop that sold fabric for making sarong kebaya and cheongsam. While department stores Robinsons and Tangs catered to the expatriates and the locals respectively, Metro targeted wealthy local housewives as well as those from Indonesia.8 Many of its early customers were Ong’s Indonesian friends who shopped in bulk at his store.9
In 1965, Metro expanded from its High Street outlet and opened a department store in Liat Towers named Metrotex. It was renamed Metro Orchard when it moved to the Holiday Inn Shopping Complex on Scotts Road in 1973.10 Metro Supreme in Supreme House was officially opened in 1971.11
At its peak in the 1970s, Metro had five department stores housed in various shopping centres along Orchard Road, including Far East Plaza and Lucky Plaza. In 1978, Singapore’s first “high-end” department store, Metro Grand Store, opened in Lucky Plaza.12
During the 1970s, Metro established itself as a leading distributor and agent of several European luxury brands including Cartier, Charles Jourdan, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Monet.13 It was also instrumental in introducing a range of other foreign brands into Singapore over the years, such as Toys “R” Us, Kmart, Cartier, Piaget, Tag-Heuer and Burberry.14
During the 1980s and ’90s, Metro was a launch pad for local and regional designers.15 In 1985, it started the Marissa clothing label.16
Metro made its first entry into the suburban areas during the 1970s when it opened outlets in Bukit Timah Plaza and Marine Parade, but these closed in the late 1980s. Metro re-entered the suburban market in the 1990s. Its store in the Century Square shopping centre in Tampines was unveiled in 1996,17 followed by others in Causeway Point (Woodlands) in 1998 and Compass Point (Sengkang) in 2002. Another Metro store opened in City Square Mall in 2009.18
As at 2017, Metro has three department stores in Singapore: Metro Centrepoint, Metro Paragon and Metro Woodlands. It has also established an online store called Metro Online in response to changing shopping trends, as well as three specialty shops known as M.2 selling casual footwear and accessories.19
Beyond Singapore, Metro has retail investments in Malaysia, Indonesia and China.20
Metro Holdings Limited (MHL) was formed in 1973 and listed on the Stock Exchange of Singapore in the same year. Although it started out with retail as its core business, Metro subsequently diversified into property development and construction through Metrobilt, an early subsidiary of MHL.21
During the mid- to late 1990s, the Metro group also entered the hospitality sector with the construction of Oasis Resort, an S$85-million hotel in Cairns, Australia, as well as the launch of Sun Cruises. Sun Cruises ceased operations in 2000 while Oasis Resort was divested in 2005.22
In 1974, the Metro group took a 27-percent stake in the development of a vacant site on Orchard Road, which later became Ngee Ann City. The investment was sold off in 2005, which reaped substantial profits for the group.23
More recently, the group has expanded into China’s property sector with the development of Metro Tower Shanghai, Metro City Shanghai and Metro City Beijing.24 In 2014, the group entered the British real estate sector with a joint venture to develop two sites in Manchester.25
Ong passed away in 2009 after more than 50 years at the helm.26 The group is currently headed by Winston Choo, chairman of its board of directors, and Lawrence Chiang, who was appointed group chief executive officer and executive director in June 2016.27
1. Krist Boo, “Metro Chief Tells How a Store Is Born,” Straits Times, 24 April 2001, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Ong Tjoe Kim, oral history interview by Quek Khiong Ho, 4 February 1982, transcript and MP3 audio, 27:55, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000151 – 1), 7, 16
3. Boo, “Metro Chief Tells How a Store Is Born”; Ong Tjoe Kim, oral history interview by Quek Khiong Ho, 4 February 1982, transcript and MP3 audio, 27:55, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000151 – 2), 26–27.
4. Ong Tjoe Kim, oral history interview by 4 February 1982, 28–29. – 2.
5. Boo, “Metro Chief Tells How a Store Is Born.”
6. Ong Tjoe Kim, oral history interview by 4 February 1982, 33 – 2.
7. Boo, “Metro Chief Tells How a Store Is Born”; “Metro Founder Ong Tjoe Kim Dead at 98,” Today, 12 August 2009, 60. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Boo, “Metro Chief Tells How a Store Is Born.”
9. Ong Tjoe Kim, oral history interview by 4 February 1982, 36 – 2.
10. Nancy Byramji, “The Small Shop That Grew into a Thriving Business Empire,” Straits Times, 27 May 1977, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Leslie Fong, “Store with the Latest and Mostest...,” Straits Times, 23 September 1971, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Cat Ong, “All for One, One for All,” Straits Times, 8 November 1998, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Ong, “All for One, One for All.”
14. “History/Milestones,” Metro Holdings Limited, accessed 24 April 2017.
15. Ong, “All for One, One for All.”
16. Cat Ong, “Me, Set Fashion Directions? Just Look at My Hair,” Straits Times, 8 November 1998, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Cat Ong, “Quick! More Slippers, More Sneakers,” Straits Times, 31 October 1996, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Cheryl Ong, “Metro Will Be New Anchor Tenant at Centrepoint,” Straits Times, 5 March 2014, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Metro Holdings Limited, Continuity in Pursuing Core Strategies: Annual Report 2016 (Singapore: Metro Holdings Limited, 2016), 33.
20. Metro Holdings Limited, “History/Milestones.”
21. Metro Holdings Limited, “History/Milestones.”
22. Metro Holdings Limited, “History/Milestones.”
23. Metro Holdings Limited, “History/Milestones.”
24. Metro Holdings Limited, “History/Milestones.”
25. Cheryl Ong, “Metro in UK Joint Venture to Develop Two Manchester Sites,” Straits Times, 3 July 2014, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Founder of Metro Department Store Dies,” New Paper, 12 August 2009, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Metro Holdings Limited, Annual Report 2016, 13, 16.
“Metro Moments: Major Landmarks,” Straits Times, 8 November 1998, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
“Page 14 Advertisements Column 1,” Straits Times, 30 November 1962, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as of 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.