Keeping Provision Shops Alive in Modern-day Singapore
Noreen Shazreen speaks with local shop owners about the challenges of managing a provision shop in Singapore and what we can do to preserve it.
Story and photos by Noreen Shazreen.
Hype Issue #54
December 17, 2021
Upon entering the shop adjacent to Juying Secondary School, a wave of nostalgia swept over me as I spotted traditional gumball machines, all-time beloved childhood snacks, and staples such as rice and sugar displayed at the void deck of Jurong West Street 92.
As I perused the items along the aisle, Mdm Teck Hua Ong, 66, owner of Soon Soon Foong Provision Shop, eagerly welcomed a crowd of customers, many of whom are students, to her provision shop in the western part of sunny Singapore.
With the help of her husband, the couple has been tending their provision shop for over 29 years since its establishment in 1992. With a friendly and calm demeanour, Mdm Ong explains that she launched the business as a means to occupy her free time by selling products and interacting with customers.
“Customers come to our shop because it is more convenient for them. Sometimes, they may only lack an item, such as no sugar or rice. They would also let their children buy items for them here. They can trust aunty and uncle,” she says with a laugh.
In Singapore, provision shops are commonly found at the foot of Housing and Development Board (HDB) void decks.
Whether you call it a mama shop or a chap he diam, provision shops have become an integral part of Singapore’s heritage since the 1960s.
Historically, these shops were owned and managed by Indians, thus earning the name mama, which means “uncle” in Tamil. Provision shops were of great significance to residents in the community, selling a wide variety of items such as spices, seasonings, magazines and newspapers, snacks, and basic necessities.
Located in the heart of Jurong West, Soon Soon Foong Provision Shop offers items from snacks to cold drinks, from sundry items to canned food, from newspapers to even hair accessories.
Once a common sight in Singapore, traditional provision shops have seen a decline due to stiff competition from modern supermarkets, minimarts and convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, which offer a variety of products and a more conducive shopping atmosphere.
In a remarkable twist of fate, provision shops have also experienced a slow rate of customers due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even small businesses like Soon Soon Foong Provision Shop have experienced a loss in revenue due to the economic slump.
“The pandemic has affected our business badly. Due to school closures, fewer students come here, and they make up the majority of our customers. Even though there are a few students, it’s not as many as last time,” Mdm Ong adds.
The pandemic has affected our business badly. Due to school closures, fewer students come here, and they make up the majority of our customers. Even though there are a few students, it’s not as many as last time.
The same struggle is also echoed for family-run provision shop Minaka Trading, located across Buffalo Street, which has been in business for four years.
Ms Shrimathi Chokkalingam, 34, the administrative manager of the shop, recalls putting on a one-person show during Ganesh Chaturthi as one of her staff members had tested positive for COVID-19.
Before taking over the management at Minaka Trading, Ms Shrimathi worked as a full-time nurse at St. Andrew’s Hospital.
“I was the only one who ran the shop for ten days. It was the biggest challenge, but I think I did well,” she says.
Her father-in-law, Mr Anakatti, 83, purchased the shop in 2009 and leased the premises before launching his family-run business in 2017. Unfortunately, Ms Shrimathi had to take over the operations at the store together with her husband and sister-in-law when Mr Anakatti fell ill last year.
Ms Shrimathi says that although business endures a slow period during the holidays, the shop typically experiences a peak in sales on the eve of celebrations such as Christmas, Deepavali, Ganesh Chaturthi, New Year, and Hari Raya.
While the business experiences a slump during holidays, there is an increase in customer traffic on the eve of major celebrations and festivals.
Due to the increasing competition from supermarkets and convenience stores, Ms Shrimathi also seeks to leverage on technology such as social media platforms to market her business and develop a broader customer base.
Living by the importance of prioritising her customers, she says: “We have some [regular] customers that we need to satisfy. [To provide] customer satisfaction, we need to be unique and different from others.”
Family-run provision shop, Minaka Trading, specialises in selling fresh tender coconuts, with over 2,000 coconuts sold per week.
Although owning a provision shop in modern Singapore has its own unique set of challenges, Mdm Ong has never regretted her decision to open the business due to the perks that she enjoys.
Mdm Ong says: “Being a provision shop owner allows you to get to know a lot of people. I love chatting with customers in Malay and Chinese [language].”
“I have served customers since their primary school days up till they reach adulthood. When they grow up, get married, and have children, they will find me and tell me about how much they have grown up,” she adds.
I have served customers since their primary school days up till they reach adulthood. When they grow up, get married, and have children, they will find me and tell me about how much they have grown up.
Mr Noor Iskandar, 25, a frequent patron of Soon Soon Foong Provision Shop, says that he regularly visits the shop due to the memories he holds of his childhood.
“I used to visit the shop all the time with my cousins and close friends when I was younger. Being able to grow up with the shop gives me a nostalgic sense of home,” he says.
Minaka Trading carries a variety of goods such as canned foods and sauces, fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, and seasonings.
Neither Mdm Ong nor Ms Shrimathi expects their children to take over their businesses, as running a provision shop usually places last on an individual’s list of career choices and aspirations.
With better educational opportunities and greater employment options available, most of the children of provision shop owners often consider other career options rather than taking over the family business.
Perhaps, only time will tell whether we can preserve the cultural tradition of provision shops in Singapore’s ever-changing society. Nonetheless, it is essential for Singaporeans to support local provision shops, a cultural facet of our heartland that is often overlooked, to preserve a part of our national identity.
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