The Big Read in short: Old malls and their unique charm
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how some of the oldest shopping centres here have found a special place in Singaporeans’ hearts, and are holding their own in a cutthroat retail scene. This is a shortened version of the full feature.
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how some of the oldest shopping centres here have found a special place in Singaporeans’ hearts, and are holding their own in a cutthroat retail scene. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.
SINGAPORE — When news emerged recently that an en bloc attempt is underway at Queensway Shopping Centre, there was a collective dismay among some Singaporeans.
Their affection for the place, which was built in 1976, mirrored how some felt when they first learned that Golden Mile Complex was put up for collective sale in November last year.
Even though Golden Mile Complex could be conserved, many felt that it would lose its distinctively Thai character. So far, there have been no takers for the 46-year-old Brutalist building on Beach Road.
Despite fancier and bigger malls springing up all over the island, some of Singapore’s pioneer shopping centres built in the 1970s and early 1980s such Queensway Shopping Centre and Golden Mile Complex have retained a special place in Singaporeans’ heart — even among younger generations who are drawn to their unique offerings and distinctive characters.
Their plight, along with en bloc sales of old residential properties, seemed to have renewed interest among people in buildings constructed a few decades ago. Some questioned why these older structures have to make way.
Among them is architecture photographer Darren Soh, who is alarmed at the rate at which Singapore’s urban landscape is changing.
“The built landscape in Singapore is changing so rapidly that you probably wouldn’t recognise it from your childhood (days),” said the 43-year-old who has been documenting architecture from Singapore’s early independence years for the last 10 years or so.
As far as shopping complexes are concerned, architecture professor Yeo Kang Shua from the Singapore University of Technology and Design said that unlike certain old malls, the contemporary ones lack the same charm and reputation.
Over the years, Queensway Shopping Centre became known for its sporting goods, for example. Others, such as Tanjong Katong Complex, Bras Basah Complex and Peninsula Shopping Centre have also carved out a niche for themselves while keeping up with the times.
While they may no longer be doing rip-roaring business these days and face an uncertain future, these malls are symbols of resilience — holding their own despite the onslaught of new mega malls and e-commerce.
TODAY takes a look at how they have developed a unique identity and loyal following, while at the same time reinventing themselves and drawing younger customers over the decades.
QUEENSWAY SHOPPING CENTRE
Opened in 1976, it was not always known as a sports mall. In its early days, it had an eclectic range of shops that sold jeans, vegetables and live ornamental fish.
It was only around the 80s that sports shops began to proliferate within the mall.
Visitors say they love the shopping centre for its culture, with friendly and approachable shopkeepers ready to go the extra mile for their customers.
Recognising that just offering retail services alone may not be enough to keep their business going, shopkeepers say they have to provide extra services: For example, apart from selling sports goods, sports shops there repair equipment. Tailors also offer tailoring lessons.
Going forward, the place could perhaps benefit from some new blood, one shopkeeper said. The relatively low rent would provide the perfect opportunity for businesses to try out new concepts, he added.
TANJONG KATONG COMPLEX
The Housing and Development Board’s first air-conditioned shopping complex opened in 1983.
It was popularly known for Singapore’s first 24-hour Japanese supermarket Yokoso.
The area around Tanjong Katong Complex used to be a kampung for Malays. But for decades, the mall housed Chinese merchants who had resettled from various kampungs.
It was only when the old Geylang Serai market closed for renovation around 2006 that more shops selling selling traditional Malay costumes appeared.
While business is slow for most of the year, shop owners typically see a spike in sales in the lead-up to Hari Raya celebrations.
The fate of the mall’s future is uncertain as its lease expires in 2022.
BRAS BASAH COMPLEX
Since its opening in 1980, the building has established itself as a go-to place for books and arts.
The area’s history as a book and arts hub pre-dates the complex’s opening, with many such shops catering to schools which used to be in the vicinity.
Even as times changed and people’s interests shifted, Bras Basah Complex has managed to retain its niche appeal.
However, it has not been easy and many shop owners had to adapt and adjust.
Today, Bras Basah Complex also hosts a growing number of art galleries and specialty shops. This helps it to retain a steady pool of customers.
PENINSULA SHOPPING CENTRE
Opened in 1974, it was one of Singapore’s first few fully air-conditioned malls.
It started out with a mix of local retail shops, but shifted towards mainly music-related stores and services in the 2000s.
The mall’s niche in music was largely anchored by the growth of homegrown brands such as Davis Guitar and Swee Lee.
Despite the rise in online shopping, the retail experience for music products is different, the shopowners say.
The mall is seeing a growing number of related stores — such as guitar repair shops — which in turn attracts more of the same crowd.
With the music stores drawing a good crowd, other retailers in the mall have also adapted their business to capture a slice of the pie. For example, a sports goods store started selling tee-shirts bearing images of various music bands