Going, going, gone?

PHOTO: Going, going, gone?

His dirty fingernails and bandaged thumb suggest that life hasn't been too kind to this elderly shop owner.

Mr Chang Boon Lee's hardware and bicycle repair shop, at the back of an HDB shophouse in Changi Village, doesn't even have a proper signboard.

His cramped shop is half the size of an HDB bedroom.

The smile on his face doesn't betray the obvious - the fact that his business could be nearing its end.

Like many other shop owners of his generation, the 72-year-old says he has to fight hard just to stay afloat these days.

The owner of Kian Chuan Seng Bicycle Company says in Mandarin that a good day would see 30 people calling in for some household items or getting their bikes fixed.

A bad day is when cyclists come and buy nothing - they use his tools for free or just pump their tires with free air from his compressor.

It's a far cry from the days when his father's hardware shop - which used to be situated across the road - saw streams of customers.

He recalls that former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had visited his dad's shop for some minor bike repairs.

These days, his small shop gets hardly a glance. The competition is also stiffer, he says.

Says Mr Chang: "I can't give the kind of discounts that huge hardware chains give. What I can give is only personalised service to my small group of loyal customers."

But it may not be enough, he concedes with a weary nod.

Among the oldest shops, such as a provision shop and a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) clinic in Dakota Crescent - both in operation for more than 40 years - there is a sense of an impending end.

At Block 12, Dakota Crescent, Mr Chon Ah Kau, a physician, says his trade will end with his passing.

Mr Chon set up the United Chinese Medicine Clinic with two friends in 1971. Back then he charged $4 for a consultation.

Says Mr Chon, 69, a registered TCM physician: "Most of my patients, formerly residents of the estate, have left. They occasionally return. These days, there are no 'walk-in' patients."

A drop in business is a sign of the times. He winces at the monthly $1,200 rent he has to pay and the dwindling crowd of about 10 to 20 patients who visit him daily.

When he started the business, rent was only $230. He now charges $14 for each consultation.

Adds Mr Chon, who lives in Bedok: "In the past, after deducting rent, I took home $1,000. Now, I take home (a few) hundreds (a month)."

Similarly, the sole provision shop in the Dakota Crescent estate sees only the occasional customer buying biscuits or taxi drivers getting cold drinks.

Mr Lim Tian Kee, the owner of Tian Kee & Co, says his 53-year-old business suffered when the "big players" appeared.

Mr Lim, who is in his 80s, says in Malay: "Once the FairPrice supermarket appeared in the area... overnight, I started to lose business."

Mr Lim's nephew, who declines to be named, tells TNPS that Mr Lim's children top up his rent because the business simply isn't making money.

Mr Abu Bakar Puteh, a 12-year resident of Block 4 nearby, sums it up when he says that "FairPrice has everything we want and it is cheaper".

The 48-year-old cleaner says: "It's a pity but I only go to his shop (Tian Kee & Co) when I'm too lazy to walk."

These old timers are facing trouble because their businesses are basically old fashioned, says Mr Mohamed Ismail, CEO of PropNex.

HDB records show there are currently about 8,500 privately owned shops and 4,900 rental shops islandwide.

Old businesses, says Mr Ismail, are just no longer relevant to the heartland consumer.

While clinics, bakeries and services like those provided by opticians will still have a place, old school hardware shops and provision shops are simply overshadowed by their bigger, more organised competition at supermarkets and malls.

The neighbourhood malls are also a dime a dozen and conveniently located these days.

Says Mr Ismail, 49, of the old timers: "I think this is a dying breed of people running such businesses...

"They're holding on to the past until they can find a different kind of business - which is more relevant - to take over."

He adds: "The cost of running the business, (problems with getting) the next generation (to take over), profit margins being squeezed out by the mega supermarkets and rising rentals are challenges they face today." Mr Ismail is especially concerned for void deck kiosks and convenience shops - affectionately known as "mama shops" in local parlance.

But some like Mr Muhamad Kudbudeen, 55, continue to hold on to businesses their fathers had built. His standalone kiosk at Block 10, Marsiling Drive was established in 1974.

But supermarket chain Sheng Siong's appearance in the mid-1990s resulted in a 20 per cent drop in Mr Muhamad's business.

He says: "We can't compete with Sheng Siong on price alone. They buy food items in bulk while we buy maybe a few cartons at a time."

Yet, his provision shop survives by serving regular customers in the neighbourhood and offering credit for those with financial difficulties.

He adds: "About a dozen customers still use the Buku Tiga Lima (in Malay, the Triple 5 book in which sums owed are jotted down). They're honest people familiar to us, and they will always make payment when they receive their salaries."

HDB first built standalone kiosks at the precinct level in the late 1970s with the intention of providing residents convenient access to basic necessities.

According to the HDB, at its peak in the 1990s, there were 560 void deck kiosks islandwide.

Since then, the number of void deck kiosks has fallen to 380 as a result of low demand from prospective kiosk operators.

Mr Ismail tells TNPS that it's sad to see such "institutions" slowly fading away.

But it's not all doom and gloom.

HDB introduced the Revitalisation of Shops (ROS) scheme in November 2007 to help heartland retailers enhance the vibrancy and competitiveness of their shops.

HDB assists by co-funding physical upgrading works of common areas or promotional events organised by merchants' associations. The board also provides rent-free periods for tenants to renovate their shops.

From the 1990s, HDB provided minimarts became which are more popular as "they are bigger and have a wider range of goods" checked.

The spokesman tells TNPS checked: "Despite the healthy competition from supermarkets and minimarts, these traditional standalone kiosks are still able to enjoy brisk business because of the convenience and personalised services they provide to residents."

For those (shop owners) facing hardship, help is available under the Revitalisation of Shops (ROS) scheme.

A spokesman says that shops have experienced success after the ROS scheme, and l ast month, it announced another 3,000 shops to benefit under the ROS scheme.

The nub: The old timers we spoke to either did not know of the scheme or had no merchants' association to work for them.

Mr Chon from Dakota Crescent says his estate is so deserted that he doesn't think any upgrading can help.

Mr John Tan, a managing director of Golden Leaf Curtain Centre in Whampoa Drive, agrees.

The family business, which has a staff of 20, was established in 1973. It still operates from the same shophouse. "Only about 20 per cent of the original shop owners have remained. The rest have relocated or gone out of business," he says.

But Mr Tan's company now But instead of going down without a fight, Mr Tan has steered the company into the future. It has a website and keeps in touch with his customers through Facebook.

It now has a factory in Ang Mo Kio where its curtains are sewn.

Its managing director John Tan, 52 checked, tells TNPS over the telephone while attending a fabric exhibition in Turkey: ""To stay alive, we had to think out of the box and spend a lot of resources developing and enhancing our business."

Location alone does not guarantee success.

In the late 1990s, Mr Tan's company set up its first simple website checked and now keeps in touch with customers via Facebook checked.

Iwho took over the family business in 1985, Sadly there isn't interest in Whampoa estate to form a merchants' association to take advantage of the ROS, Mr Tan says.

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