SINGAPORE: As the sun sets and the office crowd files out, Orchard Towers sheds its skin and transforms into a different place.
Neon signs come alive, scantily dressed women front the myriad bars and pubs, and a different kind of crowd populates the building.
Most of the floors in the 18-storey landmark are taken up by office space, but the first five floors are commercial, dominated by bars and pubs that have given the once family-oriented shopping centre a seedy reputation.
The mall was the scene of a fight in the early hours of Tuesday (Jul 2), which resulted in the death of a 31-year-old man. On Thursday, seven people aged between 22 and 27 were charged with common intention to murder Mr Satheesh Noel Gobidass.
This followed another fatal incident at the same location in 2016 when a Frenchman died after he was assaulted by two men, who were subsequently convicted and jailed.
And last year, five men were arrested for rioting at the taxi stand outside Orchard Towers.
Yet, while still reeling from the incident on their doorstep, the mall remains safe, according to tenants CNA spoke to on Friday.
In fact, they added that Orchard Towers was no different from any other place that had nightclubs, pubs, karaoke bars and late-night drinking.
FIGHTING HAPPENS "EVERYWHERE" WITH DRINKS
“Fighting is common here, but anywhere where you have heavy drinking, there’s a potential for something to happen,” said a conference organiser who wanted only to be known as Mr Lee.
When his clients from overseas are in town, he takes them to dinner - "very good Thai food" - and then to a bar in the mall, he said.
The food and drinks are cheap, and his clients leave very happy, he said. He too, he added, nurses a beer or two from time to time on his own there.
“Many things can happen, but if you don’t participate, you are safe,” he said.
Rental for his 80 sq m office is also half that of other locations in the area, Mr Lee said; something that has kept him there all these years. This despite his daughter’s hope that he would one day move out of the building.
Mr Mohd Faruk, who works at a tailor shop on the ground floor, compared the place to other districts overseas that have call girls and late-night drinking.
“Such places exist all around the world. It's no different here; it’s not a big deal,” he said.
Ms Yao, who owns a shop that sells clothes for clubbing and high-heeled shoes, has no concerns about safety in the mall, so much so that she mans her shop on her own until 6am.
“There is so much security here. There are security guards and everyone here is my friend, so if I need help, I can ask them,” she said.
There have been occasions when she has had to ask for help, such as when men enter her shop drunk. But she said she has never had any bad experiences.
“As long as there are clubs and drinking, there will be fights,” she said.
One convenience store owner whose shop is near the back entrance of the mall, said that while he hears of, or hears, the fights, he very rarely sees them because they happen outside or on the upper floors.
He did not want to be named, but said that in the five years he has been working there, he has not had trouble at his shop despite staying open all night and closing at 6am.
Other convenience stores had similar stories.
Another owner, who also did not want to be named, said that the worst he has encountered were drunk customers getting angry when told of the price of items.
By day, the tenants said, the mall is like any other mixed-use space that has offices, as the lunchtime crowds throng the many food outlets in and around the vicinity.
BUSINESSES HAVE TAKEN A HIT
But the tenants acknowledged that the reputation of the place being a drinking hole has made walk-in customers all but disappear.
Mr Faruk used to own a tailoring business of his own, but shut down after 15 years.
As the pubs and bars sprouted, the mall gained its reputation as an entertainment spot, and the number of walk-in customers dwindled. His business took a 75 per cent hit, he said.
“No one comes here for shopping,” Mr Faruk said, although he said the general economic slowdown was partly to blame.
Another employee from a jewellery store said that on Fridays and Saturdays, it is not uncommon to see people sitting on the steps outside into the wee hours, and to see vomit on the ground.
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Money changer Zahir Hussain, whose family has owned the shop he works in for 40 years, said that he survives on the business of regulars. More business from walk-in customers would not hurt, he said.
But he may have a problem. At 6.45pm on Friday, 15 minutes before he was going to close, a customer entered his shop.
“It’s so early, how come the music is already so loud?” he asked, referring to the din from a nearby club.
Mr Hussain lamented the reputation of the mall, and said it was not always like this.
Even as the bars and the clubs started popping up, they would close at 12am. The entertainment spots were also high-class and attracted a different type of crowd, he said.
He was especially upset with shops he said were masquerading as hair or beauty salons, but were in fact sleazy joints. A walk along the upper floors reveals these shops fronted by women in skimpy outfits, very unlike beauty outlets elsewhere in the country.
Along with other businesses, he has tried to appeal to the management to weed out such shops, he said.
But Mr Hussain seemed to take the rough with the smooth.
“We are used to it. And my shop is outside the ERP zone; so at least that’s good,” he said.