Old school mama shops in the neighbourhood
The writing is on the walls; the long-term survival of individual convenience stores is at the tail end of a slow decline. Up until the 1990s and even into the days of nascent incursions from large chain convenience stores like 7-11, Cheers and iEcon, the mama shop was ubiquitous in every corner of Singapore from residential districts to business district alike. So pervasive were these humble establishments in our community that many puerile jokes were passed by word of mouth between school boys at the expense of these small proprietors, the version of the modern day meme from the not so distant past.
Mama shops have a long history, one that it shares with with the beginnings of Singapore itself. More than just a term of endearment, “Mama” is the Tamil word for "Uncle" or "Elder". Indian merchants came to Singapore as traders and stayed behind to set up businesses in the fledgling British settlement. Initially, they served the ethnically Indian villages along Serangoon Road, providing sundries and various household goods within their locality much in the same structure as such enterprises operated in rural India then and now.
In time, the proprietors of these small businesses developed deep ties within the community, which they served. As operator-proprietors, many developed personal relationships with their loyal patrons, which they served on a face-to-face basis. With the close bonds and familiarity with members of the community, provision of generous credit terms and free home delivery were not uncommon. During the relocation efforts by the government in the 1960s of villagers into planned housing communities, these shop-keepers were typically allotted space at the ground level of these apartment blocks to continue with their livelihood. In this way, the Mama store was exposed to a wider swath of Singapore’s ethnic makeup as each block of flats maintained a strict racial mix.
Aside from supplying urgently needed provisions within a short reach, the Mama store held a special place in the hearts of the children who were fortunate enough to have grown up in the vicinity of one. Prominently displayed in front of most stores on a large tilted table that typically stretched the width of the shopfront were rows of treats; either sugary, sour, chocolate covered, savoury or crisp but all equally coveted by school children. Strung up on suspended lines of cord and attached to it with black crocodile clips were the latest editions of comic books. It was also here, that kids could get the soda and popsicles that were usually tightly restricted at home. Their range of goods stretched from pieces of candy at a paltry 10 cents to electronic handheld games that cost 40 dollars. This was a mind-boggling array of treasures to a child growing up in those times, and all fitting neatly into a space that any kid could comprehend.
The acquisition of licensing rights by a local company, Dairy Farm International Holdings, and subsequent aggressive expansion of the 7-11 franchise in 1989 sounded the death knell of the friendly neighbourhood Mama store. With better facilities, better lighting, better branding and a wider range of cheaper goods, modern day convenience stores snatched a sizeable proportion of business away from the traditional Mama store. From a peak of 3000 stores in the 1980s to the current tally of less than 200, their presence was slowly replaced by 7-11 which has about a third of its outlets in HBDs.
That has left Mama stores with very few avenues to turn to for survival. Some have adjusted their business model to cater to niche markets such as select magazine genres or local products. One area which remains a bastion for these hardy entrepreneurs is, fittingly, the place of its birth in Singapore, Serangoon Road. It is here, amongst the very same clientele that gave it life, the immigrant from the subcontinent, does it find its most compelling reason for survival. Here, it supplies goods and periodicals from the South Asian homeland, dispensed with the same easy amity that made them a Singaporean institution.
In 2007, the Housing Development Board (HDB) initiated the Revitalisation of Shops scheme, which has since seen 4,684 shops benefit from co-funded upgrading. This is seen as recognition of the role they played in Singapore history, especially considering that those still plying the trade are the same pioneers who started out 40 of more years ago and are stubbornly holding out, to earn a living or just to remain productive.
Recently, a new sort of neighbourhood convenience has arrived at our shores; the Chinese run hardware store, with an astonishing variety of affordable DIY items and simple electronics. Following what appears to be a similar business model, albeit with a different set of goods, hopefully this new batch of migrant entrepreneurs will carry on the same traditions established by their predecessors.