Jurong gets hip

SINGAPORE - Instead of making the hour-long journey to Orchard Road to do her festive shopping last month, student Caroline Phua took a 15-minute train ride to Jurong East Central. Miss Phua, 20, who lives in Jurong West Street 91, shopped at Sephora, Accessorize, Muji and H&M in Jem and spent almost $200 on gifts for her friends and clothes for herself.

The Republic Polytechnic student, who also counts spa product boutique Mount Sapola and clothing and food retailer Marks & Spencer among her favourite stores at the mall, says: "I don't have to squeeze with the crowds in Orchard Road.

"For restaurants such as Paul and Tim Ho Wan, I'd rather give them a miss than queue for a seat in town. But now I don't have to queue for a long time as the eateries have opened in Westgate."

Like Miss Phua, other residents in Jurong are cheering the opening of two new malls in Jurong East - Westgate by CapitaMalls last month and Jem by Lend Lease in June last year. They join existing malls in the area, JCube and IMM, which are both owned by CapitaMalls, and Jurong is now being billed as the new Orchard Road.

The two new malls have direct access to the Jurong East Temporary Bus Interchange and Jurong East MRT station. They will also be linked to the upcoming Ng Teng Fong General Hospital and Jurong Community Hospital, which will open by next year.

The Big Box Warehouse Retail Outlet, which will house electronic product and furniture companies as well as a hypermart, will open next year.

These developments are part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Master Plan in 2008, which outlined plans to transform the 360ha Jurong Lake District - home to more than one million residents - for the next 10 to 15 years.

Jurong, once seen as the poorer cousin of Tampines because of its industrial estates, is enjoying an image overhaul, thanks to the new malls. Besides a wide range of retail brands, they also offer food and beverage outlets commonly found in Orchard Road.

Brand names such as popular dim sum restaurant Tim Ho Wan, Paul bakery and ramen restaurant Ippudo can be found at Westgate. The seven-storey mall also boasts the first Isetan supermarket outside Orchard Road. More upmarket fashion brands Cos, Coach and Kate Spade Saturday have also set up their first suburban outlets in Westgate.

A spokesman for Tim Ho Wan, which has three other outlets in Plaza Singapura, Bedok Mall and Toa Payoh Central, says: "Jurong is where residential and commercial clusters meet, so opening at Westgate allows us to serve residents and workers."

The Westgate outlet is doing well, she adds, ringing up sales that are comparable to those at the Plaza Singapura branch.

Ippudo Singapore decided to venture into the heartland after opening two restaurants in Mandarin Gallery and UE Square, and a Ramen Express outlet in Asia Square Tower 2, says its general manager Satoshi Matsuoka.

Lifestyle brand Spa Esprit has opened three concept stores in Westgate - Browhaus, Strip and its first Skinny Pizza outlet beyond the town area.

A Spa Esprit spokesman says: "Our initial strategy was to concentrate our outlets in Orchard Road, but we have moved to Tampines and Katong in the last two years. Westgate is near housing estates and offices, so there's a buzz in the area."

Over at the six-storey Jem, household names such as Robinsons, Sephora, Uniqlo and Books Kinokuniya are drawing the crowds.

On the success of the mall cluster in Jurong East, Mr Donald Han, managing director of Chesterton Singapore, says: "While Orchard Road malls tend to depend on tourist spending, suburban retailing has been fairly resilient despite challenging market conditions."

With more new retail destinations such as Westgate and Jem being built, people will tend to frequent these regional malls more often than going to Orchard Road, he adds.

"This is why we are seeing international brands such as Kate Spate Saturday venturing into suburban territory. This was unthinkable, say, 10 years ago."

Former IT trainer Nala Sundrum, who lives in Boon Lay Place, also did her Christmas shopping in Jem and Westgate. The malls are just a 15-minute bus ride from her home.

The 62-year-old now pops into Jem at least once a week.

Ms Sundrum, who used to shop in Orchard Road once a month, says: "Now that Isetan has opened at Westgate, I don't need to go to Orchard Road anymore.Once all the buildings in the area are completed, the whole Jurong area will be an Orchard Road."

Given the large student population in the west - including undergraduates from Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore- polytechnic student Phua hopes to see karaoke chains such as K Suites set up shop in the malls.

But with big crowds come the usual problems such as traffic and parking woes.

Retail manager Chen Binjuan, 29, says: "Parking is a problem now, and cars are jamming the roads. It would be great if electronic signboards can be put up to show carpark spaces available in thenearby carparks so that we don't have to wait too long if there are no spots available."

Both malls say they are monitoring the parking situation. At Jem, there are almost 740 lots for vehicles while the three malls under CapitaMalls have a total of more than 2,200 parking lots.

The malls are just the start of Jurong Lake District's developments, which will also see new housing blocks springing up.

Six Build-To-Order HDB projects were launched between 2012 and last year, which will add 4,480 flats to the Jurong Lake area. The 740-unit J Gateway condominium next to Jurong East MRT station also sold out at a near record price of up to $1,700 psf when it was launched last year.

Mr Han notes that while the area has "largely public housing", he projects that private housing will make up as much as 15 to 20 per cent of the residential mix in the next five to 10 years.

Genting Singapore, which owns Resorts World Sentosa, is also developing a 550- room hotel with a 24-hour deli. It is slated to open in the first half of next year.

Not everyone is buoyed by the changes though.

Business owners, especially smaller players, at the bus interchange, JCube and HDB shops in the area opposite the Jurong East MRT Station are starting to feel the heat.

Ms Michelle Lim, 50, a part-time stall assistant with San Ling Seafood in FoodClique coffee shop at Block 132 Jurong Gateway Road, says business has slowed down slightly.

But she is upbeat. "I don't think it will last very long. People can't eat expensive food at the malls all the time. We still get our regular office workers and residents who want good zi char food."

Mr Steve Tan, 27, director of fries kiosk What The Fries, which opened at JCube in April last year, says that while the two new malls have boosted traffic to the area around Jurong East, they have also lured some shoppers away from JCube.

But he notes that CapitaMalls has made efforts to offer promotions and discounts to entice people back to JCube.

Mr Chew Hock Chye, general manager of Westgate, JCube and IMM, says: "To increase our shopper traffic and sales, we will be producing a series of bi-monthly mailers that will feature our JCube retailers. There will also be a loyalty programme and more joint promotions across the three malls."

Indonesian-born stall assistant Naatini, who works at the Western Delights stall in Fu Chan Food Paradise coffee shop at Block 134 Jurong Gateway Road, is hopeful that traffic will spill over to the stall, which moved from Jurong Point's Banquet food court four months ago.

Ms Naatini, 39, who goes by one name, says: "Business is picking up slowly and we hope more customers realise that we have moved and our regulars will come to look for us. Most of the crowd is in the mall area, but more are coming to the HDB coffee shops to eat."

With the scene heating up, the area is also drawing residents from other parts of Singapore.

Woodlands resident Steven Ang, 39, prefers to take his family of four to the Jurong malls over those in Orchard Road.

He says: "The malls in town can be really crowded on weekends and we have to queue for a long time to dine at restaurants. I don't need so many brands anyway. The selection in Jurong is sufficient and I don't have to walk very far to get to the neighbouring malls."

Private tutor Adeline Tan, 26, who lives in Tiong Bahru, has been to Jem and Westgate twice each since they opened.

She says: "My friend lives in Jurong East, so we chose to meet here instead of going to the City Hall or Orchard Road areas. Tiong Bahru may have the hipster cafes, but Tiong Bahru Plaza has nothing much compared to the wide range of shopping and food available in Jurong."