Friday, 11 December 2015

The “Mama Shops”

Provision shops located at the void decks of HDB flats

They have been around since Singapore's inception. Our parents and grandparents grew up patronizing these Mama shops. And to think they still exist till this very day, selling everything from Pocky sticks to Pokemon cards. Surely this deems it worthy of being called "an important part of our heritage".

Mama shops are facing increasingly stiff competition from various parties with more resources and popular support such as supermarkets and wet markets. The days where the Mama Shop industry flourished are long gone. With the rise of supermarkets and big shopping malls, a Mama Shop owner would have a very hard time maintaining his or her business.

Mama shops have been outclassed and overpowered by newer supermarket chains. They need to adapt to the times with new methods and means to remain relevant, or risk disappearing altogether. Society should nevertheless support them as they represent apart of Singapore’s unique heritage.

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The Last of Mama Shops

We all have our favourite mama shop. (Video: The memory makers)

When you want to buy snacks, newspapers or chat with uncle / auntie, it is just downstairs.

A Marine Parade void deck space meant a lot to Hassan’s grandfather: “This place used to be a bedroom on top, toilet and a cooking place for him.

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The earliest Mama shops were started by the early Indian immigrants who were traders and businessmen, and mainly lined the streets of Serangoon Road. In those times, it was common for shop owners to grant a personal line of credit to customers.

Every neighbourhood has one. While you may only know him by “Man” or “Ma”, he definitely knows your face, sometimes even your name. The mama shop - traditionally owned and operated by Indians (the Mama, which is Tamil for Uncle or elder), are heartland icons commonly situated at void decks around the island. You can find a variety of provisions in these little non-air conditioned stores - from everyday items like bread to sweets, and even comics. The mama shop is iconic because it’s the one place in the neighbourhood residents still congregate at and represents the sort of kampong spirit that has survived for generations.

The earliest Mama shops were started by the early Indian immigrants who were traders and businessmen, and mainly lined the streets of Serangoon Road. In those times, it was common for shop owners to grant a personal line of credit to customers.

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The disappearing 'mama shops'

Remember the days when you used to pop by the kiosk at your void deck to pick up a quick snack or some groceries?

Such standalone kiosks, affectionately known as 'mama shops' (mama stands for 'Uncle' in Tamil), have weathered the times since they started out as wall stores along shophouses in the 1950s.

Selling sundry goods and traditional sweets, they have been hailed as icons of Singapore's architectural landscape and part of the nation's collective memory.

But like provision shops, these wall stores, too, are fast disappearing.

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MacPherson Mama Shop

Standalone kiosks operating at the void decks of old Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks, fondly known as mama shops, were common sights in the eighties and nineties. At their peak, they numbered more than 500 in different parts of the island.

However, by the late nineties, the rise of neighbourhood minimarts and convenience stores had edged out these mama shops, and their numbers dwindled to only 300-plus currently.

A typical mama shop, like the old mama shop located at the corner of a shophouse at MacPherson, sells mainly basic necessities, such as eggs, instant noodles, canned food and bottled drinks. Cigarettes, batteries, magazines and newspapers are also popular items on sale.

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The Mama Shop – Actresses Felicia Chin & Sora Ma Start a Cafe Together

When the term Mama Shop is mentioned, one would probably recall a void deck store, probably dimly lit, items stacked and hung from every possible corner, with shelves of bread and eggs, newspapers and of course repackaged plastic packs of Hacks sweets.

Indeed, “Mama Shops” are a quintessential representation of local businesses in the 80s and 90s. These provision shops were first started by the Muslim Indian community and reflected in how “Mama” in Mama Shops comes about.

“Mama” means “uncle” in Tamil and would refer to an uncle’s shop as it is usually run by a portly Indian man.  From the 80s onwards, “mama shops” sprouted in void decks all over Singapore, expanding the range of items carried and have since evolved to become modern day convenience marts and stores.

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‘Mama shop’ at Penang Road defies change
Solosna Ramaswami looks on as he takes stock of the copies of newspapers that has come in for the day. (Photo: Shawn Danker)

Tucked away at Singapore Shopping Centre along Penang Road is Ramokohila Store, a “mamashop” that has been there for more than 30 years.

“Mama shops” are sundry shops run by Indian owners (“mama” is “uncle” in Tamil) and they are typically found in public housing estate neighbourhoods selling groceries, snacks, knick-knacks and even toys and stationery, but some may also be found in commercial buildings.

Ramokohila Store is on the ground floor of Singapore Shopping Centre, which was established in 1980 along the city’s shopping belt, and the building itself has stood mostly unchanged while the areas around it underwent rapid development.

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A mama shop is typically a basic provision shop that sells an assortment of sundry items, canned products, candies and newspapers. Mama shops are originally owned and operated by Indian immigrants but it is not uncommon to see owners from other communities. A simple mama shop can be a standalone kiosk, occupying the wall space of a shophouse five-foot-way. Many have also migrated to occupy shophouses or units at void decks under Housing and Development Board flats.

Traditional provision shops numbered at around 3000 at its peak during the 1980s, according to the Singapore Provision Shop Friendly Association. Today, there are fewer than 200 shops although the figure does not include shop owners who have not registered with the association. Many of them are mama shop owners.

A visit to the mama shop would usually mean a treat for the kids. Sweets and chilled drinks were hot items, as many households did not own a refrigerator then. One remarkable characteristic was the buy-on-credit policy that some shop owners practised with their loyal customers or residents living above their shop.

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Mama shop
Thevani Store along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 8, a mama shop at the void deck of a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat

A mama shop or mamak shop (from Tamil மாமா māmā, meaning uncle or elder) is a convenience store or sundry shop in Singapore that is often located under a high-rise apartment block built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Traditionally, they are owned and operated by Indians. Unlike other stores such as 7-Eleven, mama shops are not air-conditioned and sell a variety of provisions within their limited area of approximately 9 square metres (97 sq ft).

Local residents often make use of mama shops as location markers.

It has been claimed there is a hint of architectural value in the ingenious way the wide range of goods are displayed within the spatial confinement of the store.

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