SINGAPORE: On Wednesday (Oct 23), Chan Tien Sang will say goodbye to his shop of 35 years.
This day is long overdue — his film-processing shop is a remnant of the past, in a suburban strata-titled mall that is also grappling with declining foot traffic.
“Last time, it was called Beauty World, and there were a lot of people then. Now, it’s become ‘Rotten World’. It’s very old and worn out,” described Chan, co-owner of Kim Loon Colour Photo Co at Beauty World Centre.
He was one of its first tenants in 1984. But after more than three decades, some of the shopkeepers there are finding it hard to keep up with the times. And some, like Chan, are calling it a day.
“There’s a need to renew the place,” said the 68-year-old. “If you want to renovate the place, everyone has to take some money out … It’s very difficult to get everyone's agreement.”
Once the grand dames of Singapore’s retail sector, strata-titled malls like Beauty World, where many of the tenants own their units, are today living monuments of an era when many of the businesses were passed down to the next generation.
But as times and consumer shopping habits change, some of the mall’s shopkeepers are on their last legs, as the programme On The Red Dot discovers. (Watch the episode here.)
NO MORE EMPLOYEES
Chan inherited his business from his father, who used to operate a film-processing shop across the street, at the old Beauty World site, from 1965 until the move to the current mall in 1984.
He remembers the “golden era” of film photography in the 1980s, when there were plenty of film-processing shops in Singapore. “Some who came back after a trip would bring along five to 10 rolls of film to develop,” he reminisced.
WATCH: End of the road for these Beauty World Centre shops? (5:01)
But when digital photography began to pick up in the late 1990s, his business started to suffer, despite its prime location at the entrance of the mall.
“Now, people print only one or two photos. We won’t make much money. That’s why we decided to end the business,” he said.
He pointed to a Konica printing machine nearby, which was used to develop photographs. It stopped working some six months ago, but he did not bother sending it for repairs — there are no more replacement parts for it, anyway.
In opting to retire early, he and his brothers managed to sell the shop space for over S$1 million, making a modest profit from the S$700,000 they paid.
“I’m very used to this (working) lifestyle,” he added worriedly. “When you stop doing it suddenly, you won’t be used to it.”
Then there is shopkeeper Ho Kuek Sian, who also inherited his father’s business — half a century ago.
Ban Sing Siang Medicine Hall is now on its last legs, reckoned the 80-year-old who had let his last two employees go years ago.
“Business has declined, so we don’t need that many workers,” he said. “There’s only my wife and my younger brother.”
When CNA Insider visited him this week during the lunch hour, there were no customers around — he was reading some documents on his desk while his brother was wiping the glass cabinets.
He, too, spoke about the 1980s and 1990s, when there were more shoppers, especially Malaysians. But then new malls started sprouting up in nearby Clementi and Jurong East.
He knows his family business will not last beyond his generation, as his children have shown little interest in taking over from him.
“Times have changed … It’s mainly the older generation who consumes these herbs,” said Ho. “And this is a mall for the older people. Why would the younger generation want to come here?”
NO ONE BUYING
Despite being stuck in a 1980s rut, the shopping centre has a rich history.
The old Beauty World started out as an amusement park and gambling centre during the Japanese Occupation, before it was closed and reopened as Beauty World Market later.
A shopping area called Beauty World Town was built beside it in 1962, and the market became popular later, with more than 150 stalls selling textiles, stationery and fresh produce.
However, after repeated cases of fire there in the 1970s, most of the stallholders from the expanded market were relocated to the newly built Beauty World Centre, where the first three storeys were reserved for them.
Many of the old-timers there have since ceased their trade. Those who are still around — like Thomas Lai, who runs Brazil Tailor with his brother — know the clock is ticking.
“Right now in the Bukit Timah area, we’re the only one (tailor). A lot … have retired,” said Lai. “I only have one daughter — she’s really not interested in this trade.”
Today, the mall has a mix of old and new trades: There are old-school apparel shops, mom-and-pop stores selling toys, interior design firms, a McDonald’s outlet and even a couple of hipster cafes.
There is also an open-air food centre on the fourth floor. And while the mall is old, it is clean and well-maintained.
When CNA Insider visited on Monday, there was a sizeable crowd of mostly office workers and the elderly, not that it made a difference to, for example, one owner of a florist shop there.
“You see all these people walking around? They’re only here for lunch or are window-shopping. Do you see them holding any shopping bags?” he sniggered. And true enough, the crowd thinned out after lunchtime.
The shopkeeper, who did not want to be identified, has been operating there since the mall opened.
He said he makes just enough to get by and is waiting for an en-bloc sale to happen, as competition from new malls has affected his sales.
His shop also had no customers during CNA Insider’s visit.
Beauty World Centre Management Corporation chairman Dicky Goh Hui Khoon acknowledged that the mall suffers from low footfall, and his council is trying to attract more people by improving the facilities.
“The problem with Beauty World is that most of the shopkeepers are getting old. And it’s a problem attracting more youngsters to come into this building,” he said.
He even asked his son Malcolm for help, and the undergraduate designed a blog highlighting the shopping centre’s history.
“A lot of businesses in this mall have been passed down from different generations to the next. So I wanted to capture the sense of history (and) heritage that this place has to offer,” explained the younger Goh.
Closer to home, his father faces the same problem as the old shopkeepers there: Finding a successor to family business Hup Soon Department Store, which was first started at the old Beauty World.
The 61-year-old now runs the business with his siblings and niece.
“It’s a shame. It’s just that, so far, there won’t be any takers. My kids are both not interested in this business,” he said. “I think that this generation, after we finish … that’s it.”
Watch the episode here. On The Red Dot airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.