Younger generation of shopkeepers breathing new life into heartland malls

Younger generation of shopkeepers breathing new life into heartland malls
Members of the Ang Mo Kio Constituency Merchants Association (from left) Mr Ho Kim Long, 40, vice-secretary; Ms Gao Zhiying, 40; Mr Xu Guochang, 38; Mr Peter Lai, 65, president; Mr Mark Lim Boon Wei, 31, relationship officer; Mr Lim Kok Yong, 50, treasurer; and Mr Chiong Chee Seng, 53, secretary. The association has been recruiting younger members for ideas on how to survive in a worsening retail climate.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Walk into any HDB mom-and-pop shop and chances are there will be an elderly uncle or auntie behind the counter.

The heartland enterprise scene is often associated with old shopkeepers plying traditional trades such as sundry stores and medical halls.

But this is morphing as a younger generation enters the scene. Their average age is 48, down from 50 five years ago, said the HDB.

And many of them are breathing new life into the heartlands by setting up cafes, ice-cream parlours and gentleman barber shops.

Secondary school buddies Muhammad Tirmidzi Saad and Melvin Koh, both 31, opened The Black Tie barber shop at a Jurong West HDB block last month.

"We wanted an HDB space so we can be closer to and serve the community. All of us grew up in Jurong and this is like our kampung," said Mr Tirmidzi.

The vibe is youthful, to say the least. The store manager and all three barbers are no older than 26 and sport the latest hipster fashion of bow ties and suspenders. But the shop preserves traditional elements like a barber pole, and its vintage football theme pays tribute to football stars of yore such as Kenneth "King Kenny" Dalglish and Fandi Ahmad, whose photos dot the walls.

"Not many of our generation want to become barbers. But we want to carry on this trade," said Mr Tirmidzi.

Other youngish entrepreneurs cite affordable rents, a steady customer stream of residents and the relaxed atmosphere as some reasons for setting up shop in HDB neighbourhoods.

Mr Douglas Tan, 23, who founded cafe Tolido's Espresso Nook in Lavender three years ago, said: "It's homely here and we have lots of regulars who either live above us or in the blocks nearby."

The owner of leather accessories shop onlyBrown, Mr Kelvin Cheong, 43, is renting a third of an Everton Park unit for about $2,000 each month. "The rent is lower than what we would have to pay in some malls," said Mr Cheong, who opened his store last August.

Surprise also plays a part in drawing customers. Said Mr Cheong: "There is a pet store and stalls selling tau huay and ang ku kueh along this stretch. Nobody expects a shop like mine in an HDB block."

Shopkeepers are flexing their creative muscles in other ways, too. Mr Muhammad Zulkefly Jainul Abidin, 27, and his wife may have opened cold-press juice shop Fruit Depot only last month, but they already have a customer loyalty card.

"They get a free item after buying four drinks," said Mr Zulkefly, who also sells smoothies and waffles at his Depot Road shop.

"It makes sense because we are targeting more or less the same crowd - residents and nearby office workers - every day," he said.

The fever of youth is also heating up at the Ang Mo Kio Constituency Merchants Association, which has been actively recruiting younger members for ideas on how to survive in a worsening retail climate.

While most of its committee members used to be over the age of 50, now more than a third are in their 30s and 40s.

With young members such as Mr Mark Lim, 31, who owns a women's clothing store, on board, the association is exploring fresh ways to draw people.

Recently, they gave out lucky draw coupons to customers who reached a minimum spend at participating shops.

Association president Peter Lai, 65, said: "We let our younger shop owners take charge of activities. We hope they can apply their fresh ideas to attract more youngsters.

"We need to become one with them or we will get left behind."

The central perk of a once sleepy neighbourhood

Keeping Tolido's Espresso Nook jiving are (from left) founder and head barista Douglas Tan, assistant chef Liew Khar Kheng and head chef Lee Ker Voon.

A shop selling pails and pots, a salon offering cheap haircuts and a cafe serving latte with foam art may have little in common, but these adjacent businesses at Block 462, Crawford Lane have grown to be friendly neighbours.

Mr Douglas Tan, 23, may have set up cafe Tolido's Espresso Nook there with his mother just three years ago, but already feels like it is his second home.

"Our neighbours are all very warm and nice," he said.

"They help us water our plants when we close for a few days. They even feed Lucky - the neighbourhood stray cat that we adopted."

Indeed, the kampung spirit is alive and well for the stretch of shops in Lavender even though the owners are far apart in age.

They support each other's businesses too. Mr Tan, his chef partners Lee Ker Voon, 39, and Liew Khar Kheng, 31, and their two other full-time staff members all have their hair cut at the block's salon.

"We bought all our pots and pans from the store next door, and get our posters printed at the print shop a few doors down," said Mr Tan.

Meanwhile, their neighbours occasionally come over for a cup of coffee.

For Mr Tan, such intimacy is a nostalgic throwback to the mamak shops he grew up with in the 1990s, and one reason why he and his mother chose to set up shop in an HDB block.

"We thought it would be quirky to bring a Western vibe into the heartlands. We wanted the neighbourhood to have a place that serves breakfast all day."

Residents in the area seem to appreciate this, and many have made the cafe their regular haunt.

But the No. 1 fan title would have to go to a young man in his 20s, who lives in Block 463 and stops by every morning without fail for his long black, said Mr Tan.

"He was already here when we were still renovating, waiting for us to open," he recalled.

Next door, mixed-goods shop owner Tan Hong Lee is glad that Tolido's moved in.

"We mostly rely on long-time customers," said Mr Tan, 63, who opened his eponymous store more than 30 years ago.

"But it's a good thing that young people are setting up shop beside us. They are drawing more people to our sleepy neighbourhood."

A suitably stylish addition to an up-and-coming area

From left: Este Bartin’s co-founders Barry Lim and Justin Loy with their tailoring assistant Benedict Teo. There are plans for another store, also in a heartland area.

Business partners Justin Loy, 33 and Barry Lim, 35, met as teenagers and bonded over computer games like Redmoon.

But they had another common interest - dressing well. This led to them setting up door-to-door tailoring business Este Bartin in 2013.

For two years, they would go to people's homes by appointment and take measurements. But the duo soon found themselves searching for a brick and mortar outlet.

"We wanted a store front so people could come to us and there would be more of a walk-in crowd," said Mr Loy.

They found a space at Block 128, Toa Payoh Lorong 1 last year, and rented the partitioned unit for $1,300 a month.

The rest of the unit is occupied by a massage parlour and a salon.

It may be a modest shop which sees only about two to five customers each day, but the young entrepreneurs are content for now.

Popular dessert cafes along the same stretch of shops, such as Creamier and Frozen, help get the tailors noticed, especially by nearby residents. "We wanted a heartland location so that customers find it more convenient to drop by," said Mr Loy. "Why go to the malls and fight with the big boys?"

While the men are offering a traditional service long a staple in HDB estates, they present a youthful twist. Their shirt designs, with flowers and paisley, cater to the trendy, and their tailoring assistant Benedict Teo is only 23.

But they can be old-fashioned too. "We consulted a fengshui master who said east is a better direction for us, so we added 'Este', the Spanish word for 'east', to our name," said Mr Lim.

The second word Bartin is a portmanteau of Barry and Justin.

Insurance agent Andy Lim, 46, learnt about the tailors on Facebook last year and has since had five shirts and two pairs of trousers made at the shop.

Mr Lim lives in Choa Chu Kang but does not mind the commute. "The service here is very personal. These young people are brave to start their own business and I want to support them," he said.

Mr Tan and Mr Lim plan to open another store, and are adamant that it will also be in the heartland. Said Mr Lim: "HDB neighbourhoods are getting more neglected. We should come back and make them more lively again."


This article was first published on May 12, 2016.
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