People's Park textile trade unravels

PHOTO: People's Park textile trade unravels

SINGAPORE - Wealthy Indonesians would come to buy in bulk. Locals, dressed in immaculately tailored clothes, would look for the next fashion statement. And the hundred textile shops at People's Park flourished.

Now the ground floor is still a hive of activity, but that is because of the food centre. For the textile shops above, of which just 31 remain, business is quiet, and time is running out.

"We used to be able to sell as many as 10 boxes of fabric every month," said 64-year-old shopkeeper Patrick Liew, remembering the roaring trade of the 1970s and 1980s. "But now we take half a year to clear a box (a thousand yards) of fabric.

"There's no way we can pump up sales if a shirt costs $10 and a dress costs $17 at Bugis Street."

With the Economic Development Board developing labour-intensive industries in the 1960s, Singapore became the go-to place for textiles and garments as shops and factories sprung up.

But battered by mass production and imports of cheap ready- to-wear attire, shopkeepers told The Straits Times that business has plunged by as much as 75 per cent since the 1990s.

And they believe the odds of a revival are not in their favour, despite the upcoming upgrading by the Housing Board.

Under batch four of its Revitalisation of Shops scheme, the Government will spend $11 million co-funding the renovation of 35 sites, including People's Park which was built in 1968.

Once upgrading is completed, the centre, having been frequently mistaken for neighbours People's Park Centre and People's Park Complex, will be renamed People's Park Plaza according to previous reports.

But that has left shopkeepers with another worry: higher rents that will bite into their already paltry profit margins.

Their tenancies are due for renewal at the end of next year, and HDB will review their rents to reflect prevailing market rates.

An HDB spokesman said tenants whose rents may rise by more than 10 per cent will get help, through staggering the increase, for example.

"We hope they keep our rates low," said Madam Irene Wong, 54, who has been running a shop since 2005.

In a good month, she can make about $1,500, after paying rent of $2,200.

"You can't raise a family on that small sum. Thankfully, most of us are past that stage and are here to pass time," she said.

Madam Wong depends on a pool of 50 or so regular clients, most of whom are tai tais. These more well-to-do ladies are willing to splurge. It costs about $60 and $100 to tailor a blouse and dress respectively.

"They think it's worth it to have a cut and design which flatters them that nobody else has," she added.

Shop owner Maggie Ng, 58, said she will soldier on and continue serving her regulars and walk-in customers like tourists.

But these days, merchants at the complex cater mainly to fashion design students and retirees sewing pyjamas and bedsheets for their grandchildren.

There is little demand for tailored clothes. And the dearth of tailors has not helped.

"They can't see as well as before, so they've stopped sewing," said shop owner Seow Soon Kiat, 66, explaining how a generation of tailors is gradually moving into retirement.

"But we try to keep things fresh by selling modern prints and patterns from Japan and Europe."

But one frequent shopper, retiree Jenny Phua, 61, said the shops still have their appeal. "It's cheaper to buy your own cloth and sew your own bedsheets."

Fashion photographer Adrian Jiun, 28, believes a revamp could do wonders, and he suggests improving the ventilation, adding: "Perhaps they can consider modernising the place to pull in the crowds and to make it more comfortable for shoppers."

But Mr Liew, who earns an average of $1,000 a month, believes today's fashion is very telling of the end of an era for tailored wear. "Customers used to be very well-dressed. They came arm-in- arm with their beaus in beautifully tailored dresses. It was a very glamorous era," he said.

"But these days the young people wear mass-produced, run-of- the-mill shorts and slippers. It's just how it is.

"When the time comes, we have to be ready to close our shops for good."

Fabric shop owner has her work cut out for her

At 29, she is the youngest textile shop owner in People's Park at Chinatown, where most owners are in their 50s and 60s. Plus, Ms Ng Mei Ling has a Singapore Polytechnic diploma in electrical engineering.

Which explains why people have questioned her about her choice of career.

But she makes no apologies.

"I've always had an interest in fabrics because I used to go to my mother's shop when I was young," she said. "There is no office politics here, and it's fun because I get to talk to different customers. I'm the chatty sort."

She took over the family business, Malin Textile, in 2008. Her mother, Mrs Maggie Ng, 58, owns another textile shop in the same complex, and so does her 33-year-old sister.

"My previous job was not what I was looking for in terms of prospects, so I decided to come back and help my parents with the business," said Ms Ng, who previously worked as a sales administrative employee.

"We sell different kinds of fabrics, so we cater to different customers. Of course, there is some competition among ourselves, but that motivates us."

Her age gives her an advantage when it comes to attracting younger customers such as fashion design students.

"I can communicate with them because I speak English while most shop owners here are Mandarin-speaking," said Ms Ng, who sells fabrics imported mainly from Japan.

While she admits that there is "not much profit" in the textile business, she says she is earning "enough". And while demand has dropped over the years, she remains optimistic about the business.

Said Ms Ng, who has about 15 customers a day: "I have young customers here with an interest in dress-making, or craft-making. Fabrics are versatile, they can be used for many things.

"Also, if you compare something that's custom-made to a mass-produced item, there's definitely a difference in terms of quality and design."

And yes, she does get most of her dresses and pants tailor-made, because they fit better.