The Straits Times : The disappearing 'mama shops'

The Straits Times
11 September 2011
By Yuen Sin

Remember the days when you used to pop by the kiosk at your void deck to pick up a quick snack or some groceries?

Such standalone kiosks, affectionately known as 'mama shops' (mama stands for 'Uncle' in Tamil), have weathered the times since they started out as wall stores along shophouses in the 1950s.

Selling sundry goods and traditional sweets, they have been hailed as icons of Singapore's architectural landscape and part of the nation's collective memory.

But like provision shops, these wall stores, too, are fast disappearing.

When they were introduced into housing estates by HDB in the 1980s, they used to dot the precincts as numerously as every fourth block.

At their peak in 1983, there were about 600 such shops. Low demand from prospective operators has resulted in that number dwindling to about 380 kiosks in the past five years.

All 10 stores that The Sunday Times interviewed said it is hard to keep afloat amid rife competition from chain stores.

Mr Sheik Duad, 41, who helps his uncle tend the Faizal & Jahabar Store at Block 175 Toa Payoh Central, said: 'In those days, where can you find a 7-Eleven in the housing estates? They were all available only in the city.'

His store, a stone's throw away from a Cheers outlet and a FairPrice supermarket, has been around for 40 years.

While some have modernised their shops, they are still a class apart from chain stores, which are able to reap economies of scale.

iEcon, for example, started from a group of provision shop owners who banded together to do central purchasing of stock and upgraded to minimarts. It made its mark in heartland neighbourhoods as early as 1982. There are now 100 of such iEcon stores, with 90 per cent operating in HDB estates and three of them in void decks.

7-Eleven entered the heartland in 1984, and about a third of its 550 stores are located in heartland estates, with 3 per cent in void decks.

Cheers, which has over 80 standalone stores, says 35 per cent are located in HDB estates. There are also four void-deck stores.

Another factor is the changing demographics of the old estates where these stores are mostly located in.

At Hoe Peng Kiosk in Shunfu Road, Mr Ong Hoe Peng, 50, said business has been getting worse in the 20 years the store has been around.

He said: 'A lot of my customers used to be neighbourhood kids but now it's mostly old people who live around here.'

Yet, owners staunchly cling on to the model of business that has served them over the years. It is the human touch, they say.

Take Mr Toh Yew Ghee, 41, who has operated a store at Block 222 Toa Payoh Lorong 8 for 13 years. Having interacted with residents there for many years, 'we're now like friends and sometimes they'll joke, call me 'handsome'.'

Delivery services are also available - without additional charges.

Mr Stephen Neo, 47, a senior executive, is also appreciative of the fact that things can be bought on credit.

'I can just grab a drink from the fridge even though I don't have money with me, and the owner will say no problem, pay another day.

'They are friendlier and there is also a sense of trust and closeness.'

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