'We don't know where we will go': Tenants and visitors say their last goodbyes to Golden Mile Complex after 50 years
Tenants and workers at Golden Mile Complex share their memories and plans as the conserved building closes a chapter.
SINGAPORE: With Golden Mile Complex set to close in May, long-time tenants, customers and staff are making preparations for their final goodbyes.
Mr Ronald Teo, Thai Supermarket’s operations manager, is looking forward to retiring after holding the fort for 30 years.
The 61-year-old started working at the supermarket in May 1993, as one of its first few Chinese employees. In his three decades there, he has seen the number of employees grow from fewer than 10 workers to about 30. Like him, many of them have been with the supermarket for more than a decade.
Mr Teo, known to some of the staff as Uncle Ronald, already resigned early last year. The en bloc announcement came a few months after his resignation and delayed his plans.
Golden Mile Complex, a conserved building, was sold to a consortium comprising Perennial Holdings, Sino Land and Far East Organization for S$700 million (US$518 million) in May last year.
The consortium said at the time that the existing 16-storey building will be “sensitively restored”, and the main building's key features and its signature terraced profile will be retained in the new “mixed-use integrated development”.
Completed in 1973, the strata-titled development was one of the first in Singapore to integrate shops, offices and homes. The building became a Thai enclave because it was a stop for tour buses from Thailand and Malaysia.
Following the announcement, the supermarket’s owners asked Mr Teo to stay on as the operations manager for a while more to oversee the move. The supermarket opened in Golden Mile Complex in 1985.
“The bosses said I have to stay to help them set up the new store first … After this new store, I want to retire,” Mr Teo said with a chuckle.
Admitting that he feels tired after managing the supermarket for so long, Mr Teo said that since his bosses are about the same age, they understand his desire to retire.
“The only thing is since the en bloc went through, I’ll help them to set up the new place. Because if I don’t, they sure don’t know (how to), I’m the only one who’s familiar with all of this.”
In 30 years, Mr Teo has seen the supermarket double from its original size of less than 5,000 sq ft to about 10,000 sq ft. Another 10,000 sq ft, which used to house rows of home items and clothing, has been converted to office space.
The supermarket occupies multiple combined units on the second floor, with a walkway in the middle. The outlet grew as the management – Yen Investments – slowly acquired more shop units.
Many times, Mr Teo would have just completed work on one unit when he received news that another unit would be added.
In the early years, nearly all of the customers were Thai construction workers, he said, adding that "no locals wanted to come here".
“Over the years, especially this last 10-over years, it has changed. From Thai construction workers to locals and other nationalities who love Thai food, (they) come here to buy things.”
He recalled that fights used to break out there as well, and the police had a mobile kiosk where officers would be stationed on the workers’ pay day, he said.
When he first started out, the supermarket also sold fewer types of products. Mr Teo said that the construction workers would buy very similar items but in large quantities – for example, beef was one of the best-selling products in the past.
“We carted in like a mountain of beef and everything just moved (off the shelves),” he said.
From fewer than 100 items, the supermarket expanded to stock thousands of products, and customers now buy very little meat and more condiments and snacks.
The supermarket will close in the middle of April, to prepare for its move to Aperia Mall in Kallang. It will reopen there around May, said Mr Teo. The new unit is similar in size to its current spot, and it will also house takeaway F&B outlets and retail kiosks.
The supermarket currently houses Golden Banana, a stall famous for its fried bananas and potato balls that sees long queues every day. Golden Banana will not be moving to Aperia Mall with the supermarket, but there will be a stall selling similar items at the new outlet, said Mr Teo.
“We try to create a mini Thailand, a very mini one, so these shops will be tenanted to Thai people who run the businesses here,” said Mr Teo.
The Buddha statue outside Golden Mile Complex will also lose its home when the building is handed over to its new developers.
The statue originally belonged to a competing supermarket, located right opposite Thai Supermarket, said Mr Teo.
When that supermarket closed down more than 10 years ago, other outlets in the building took turns giving it a home. Eventually, the Thai Supermarket management offered to move the statue outside and set up an altar for it.
When CNA visited Golden Mile Complex last week, the president of the Thai Dance Society Naree Sawong was overseeing a troupe of six dancers performing a Thai blessing dance in front of the altar.
The 41-year-old, who has lived in Singapore for about 15 years, told CNA that the statue is one of the most popular ones in Singapore among the Thai community. For the last 14 years, the troupe has been commissioned to perform a blessing dance there at least once or twice a month, she shared.
“This is a Thai building, at Golden Mile, many Thai people come here, so it’s a popular one,” she added.
When she heard the announcement about the en bloc sale, Ms Sawong felt sad, and wondered where else she could go to meet others from the Thai community in Singapore.
“All the Thai people we come here to eat, after practice we come here to meet all the other Thai people. Next time we also don’t know whether there will be a new place that will become like this.”
Now, Ms Sawong and her friends still come to Golden Mile Complex to eat and shop for Thai ingredients every weekend.
“We don’t know in future where we will go to. Last time when we come here ... we can buy everything. But next time, we must see what we want to eat and go where, where we need to go and buy.”
Thai Supermarket has received a few inquiries about the Buddha statue from parties who are interested in taking it in, said Mr Teo.
“But we have yet to decide, because we want to make sure that the person who’s going to take over, we want them to give this Buddha a proper space,” he said, adding that some people wanted to bring the statue home.
The supermarket management also asked the Aperia Mall management if it could set up an outdoor altar for the Buddha statue, but was turned down.
“At that time, I was the one who carried the Buddha, walked all the way to Waterloo Street shops, and asked for the Buddha to be refurbished,” Mr Teo recalled with a smile.
Like Ms Sawong, other long-time tenants and workers at Golden Mile Complex said they were sad to leave the community and friends there, but also voiced reservations about the state of the building.
Thai restauranteur Nongkhai Donsada, 62, who has run Nong Khai Beer House for 18 years, called the community there her family, and said that the buiding feels “same as Thailand”. She is moving her restaurant to Peninsular Plaza, as many of her customers are Burmese, she said.
This nostalgia was shared by a number of Thai workers and shop owners CNA spoke to.
“We feel very sad because we here for very, very long already. This is like home as well because here is the Thai community … cannot find something like this anymore. It’s like family because we work with the people we are familiar with,” said Mei, 28, who only gave one name.
The sundry shop owned by her family will move to Boon Lay Shopping Centre to cater to the Thai migrant workers living in dormitories, she said.
Ms Nopphawan Pion, 50, who has worked there since 1999 in various jobs after coming to Singapore, also said she was sad to be leaving but pointed out that the building is “too old” and said that the toilets were “very dirty”.
But the waitress at Na Na Original Thai Food said she would like there to be another place like Golden Mile Complex for Thai people to gather.
Many of the businesses are moving to neighbouring Golden Mile Tower, nearby City Gate and Sultan Plaza. Some, like Mr Goh’s repair and handyman business, will shut for good.
“Some businesses here won’t be continuing, some can’t find other locations … for shops like ours, it’s hard to find somewhere else,” he said. One of the reasons is that the rent there is low – only about S$800 to S$1,000 a month for the third-floor unit that he’s renting.
The sole church remaining in the building – the Thai Good New Centre – will move to the premises of a sister church in Bedok, also citing high rents in the area.
Pastor Rosanna Hutagalung, 64, was ambivalent about leaving, as she will miss the close-knit community they have there, but pointed out that Golden Mile Complex also has a “sleazy side”.
“I remember when the building was first built … I came here and I thought it was a very beautiful place – it's not like what you see now. The ground floor was spacious … It was very clean,” she said.
She later went to work for her church in Thailand for 17 years, and when she came back in 2020, the environment made her feel “uneasy”, and it doesn’t represent Thailand well, she said.
“It’s almost like Patpong here … people say this is a little Thailand, because of the food,” she said. “I suppose it is from the mindset of tourists … (Thailand) is actually more than that.
“I’m a bit 50-50 about this place,” she said.