The Straits Times, Feb 15, 1998
By Elizabeth Gwee
KATONG SHOPPING CENTRE:
Open since 1973, it used to be known for its many
textile shops that have now been reduced to a mere
handful. Better known today for the renovation firms,
computer software and clothes shops there. Renovated
THEY are the shopping centres that time has
forgotten. When Katong Shopping Centre, City Plaza,
Beauty World and Bukit Timah Shopping Centre and
others of their generation were built in the late
'70s and early '80s, crowds swarmed to them like bees
to a honeypot.
What waited in store for these curious crowds was
a new and exciting experience of shopping in a cool,
air-conditioned multi-storey complex, which boasted
floor after floor of shops selling affordable clothes
and household items.
Said retired nurse Irene Yap, 68: "When Bukit
Timah Shopping Centre first opened in 1978, my family
would find every excuse to go there on weekends. What
we liked was how big it seemed, and the air-con.
There were so many things to look at, though not
necessarily to buy."
Certainly, where such shopping centres were once
filled with Singaporeans whiling away a lazy Sunday
afternoon, the same can hardly be said about them
Pay a visit to any of these older malls, on
weekdays or weekends, and you will find a slow and
sporadic stream of people making their way into the
Few are there to browse; most knowing exactly what
they want to buy, and get out as soon as they do.
Because, unlike the brand new malls around
Singapore, there is nothing about these older
shopping centres that entices people to hang around
and soak up the atmosphere.
It is the norm these days for newer shopping
centres to have several fast-food chains, a food
court, brand-name boutiques, pharmacies like Guardian
Pharmacy and Watsons, and a cineplex.
Most older shopping centres, on the other hand,
have a limited number of shops. In fact, a good
number of them seem to be occupied mainly by
renovation companies and foreign-maid agencies.
Most renovation company owners say they chose to
set up shop in places like Bukit Timah Shopping
Centre because these shopping centres have become
established as "renovation centres", what
with the large number of such businesses there.
They add that rent is fairly affordable there. The
rest of the shops, usually selling clothes, computer
software and sports equipment, are small and
As housewife Ivy Lum, 31, who was shopping at
Beauty World, put it: "This is where I come to
get mundane household items, like cheap towels or
plastic bowls and plates.
"If I want to do some real shopping, like for
clothes or gifts, I go to Orchard Road. The selection
is bigger and better, and the atmosphere is a lot
livelier. You feel like hanging around, whereas in
such old shopping centres, you have no desire
However, regulars of the older shopping centres
like retired secretary Mrs Tan Mei Sze, 55, cannot
imagine life without their old shopping haunts.
The Katong resident has been shopping at Katong
Shopping Centre since it first opened in 1973.
"More could be done to spruce up the
building, but I don't really mind it being so old
because it's become so much a part of my life.
"And it's not like the new shopping centres
-- so many bright lights, loud music, and so many
people. It's so much easier to persuade my husband to
shop with me in a more relaxed laid-back place like
mix of shops a must, to draw crowds
SAID Mrs Lynda Chong, head of retail management at
Temasek Polytechnic's School of Business: "The
success of a shopping centre is that it must draw
people in, so you must fill the mall with the right
shops. Many of the older ones seem to suffer because
they do not have the right mix of shops."
Even Mr Sebastian Fook, chairman of the management
corporation of Katong Shopping Centre, agreed.
"Many of the shops here are involved with
renovation services," he said, "but even if
their business is good, it does not help the overall
well-being of the shopping centre because the nature
of their business does not pull in the crowds."
While it is easy theoretically to decide on the
right mix of shops that will bring in the crowds, it
is not that easy to carry out in reality - especially
in shopping centres that are strata-titled, like
Katong Shopping Centre and Bukit Timah Plaza.
These two shopping centres are co-owned by a large
group of people, who own a number of shop spaces and
lease it out to their own tenants. Few shop owners
are bothered by who their tenants are, as long as
they are paid their rent.
Said Mrs Chong: "What results is a selection
of shops that very often do not complement one
another at all, and which does not help at all in
building an identity for the shopping centre."
MANY shop tenants agree that as times are getting
worse, their future looks especially bleak.
Shop tenants in shopping centres like Katong
Shopping Centre, Bukit Timah Shopping Centre and
Beauty World say that business is down by at least 20
per cent compared to five years ago, and look set to
go down even more.
Most rely on regulars to come to their shops, like
Mr Tony Alcantara, who has been running Lucky Rise
Trading, a shop selling religious items, for more
than 10 years at Katong Shopping Centre.
"Most of the people who come to this shopping
centre are regulars who have built a relationship
with us over the years," he said. "They are
mainly bargain hunters who want to stretch their
"But if they want to go window shopping, they
are more likely to go to Orchard Road, where there's
a better variety of things for them to look at."
Still, some shoppers see the small variety of
goods on offer as part of the shopping centres'
Housewife Diana Leong, a regular of Thomson Plaza,
said: "The selection might not be that big, but
in a way, it's better because you don't have to think
too hard about what you should buy and
For now, various shopping centre management
committees are trying to find ways to upgrade the
Bukit Timah Shopping Centre, for example,
underwent a $4-million renovation to change the
air-conditioning, the piping and the flooring, while
Katong Shopping Centre got a facelift and a whole new
coat of paint last year.
Thomson Plaza is also slated for upgrading at the
end of March next year when DBS Land will refurbish
the 150,000 sq ft -- 60 per cent -- of the shopping
centre which it owns.
Still, Mrs Chong feels a lot more can be done by
shopping centre management committees, which she
describes as the heart and soul of the place, to
promote the shopping centres, like improving the
layout and having the right balance between
"selling space and non-selling space".
"People don't just come to shopping centres
to shop. They come to unwind and relax, even to meet
"Older shopping centres need to be more
conducive for activities like these, with more open
spaces and maybe even fountains."
She feels that the once bustling shopping centres
should capitalise on their own individual histories.
"For example, Katong Shopping Centre used to
be famous for its textile shops, so why not revert to
those good old days?
"Who knows, you might not even have to change
the look of the shopping centre completely because
for many, it will be a wonderful trip down memory
Who they are and where
BUKIT TIMAH SHOPPING CENTRE
Open since 1978
Shop mix: Five floors of mainly renovation
contractors and maid agencies. Look out for
contractors who are approved by Radac, a non-profit
watchdog body for the renovation industry. A
sprinkling of clothes shops left over from the days
when the shopping centre was well-known among
Malaysian tourists for its affordable clothes.
Unforgettable for: Dubious advertising by certain
maid employment agencies. Everest employment agency
declares in a home-made poster: "We have
Indonesian Christians eat and handle pork on video
and personally screen", and bored staff who
congregate in passageways to play cards.
BUKIT TIMAH PLAZA
Open since 1978
Shop mix: Maid agencies, renovation contractors,
the largest NTUC FairPrice supermarket, which
occupies the space used previously by Yaohan.
Unforgettable for: Computer shops, cheap household
Open since 1983
Shop mix: Goldsmith shops, clothes, shoes,
Unforgettable for: Cheap household items.
Open since 1981
Shop mix: Clothes shops
Unforgettable for: Cheap Hongkong-made fashion,
from baby-doll to night-time vamp. A definite
destination if you are looking for the perfect Spice
Girl outfit. Also notable for the coin-operated
massage chairs on the first floor for weary shoppers
to be reinvigorated.
TANJONG KATONG COMPLEX
Open since 1983
Shop mix: 2nd Chance, Golden Chance goldsmith,
Toko Lisa department store, Smart supermarket and
interior design companies.
Unforgettable for: Yokoso, Singapore's first
round- the-clock supermarket and department store.
Also the first fully air-conditioned shopping complex
run by the HDB.
KATONG SHOPPING CENTRE
Open since 1973
Shop mix: Renovation companies, computer software
shops, textile and clothes shops.
Unforgettable for: The building's striking blue
exterior that is dominated by large holes in the
walls, and the many textile shops that have now been
reduced to a mere handful.
Open since 1976
Shop mix: Sports equipment shops, photocopiers,
engravers and men's tailor shops.
Unforgettable for: Sports shops where you get
personalised service -- an especially popular service
is re-stringing tennis racquets for $20 to $30.
However, be prepared to get very lost in the shopping
centre's maze-like interior.
UNITED SQUARE (known formerly as
Open since 1982
Shop mix: Cold Storage, Guardian Pharmacy,
Watson's, Times The Bookshop, Kids Sports, Philip
Wain fitness centre.
Unforgettable for: Singapore's first Galeries
Lafayette, which later moved to Liat Towers.
Open since 1979
Shop mix: NTUC Fairprice, Popular Book Shop,
clothes, sports and gift shops, ballet and computer
school for children.
Unforgettable for: The now-defunct Yaohan Thomson,
a favourite family haunt on weekends; free parking on
weekdays until 5 pm.