Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chapter 25: Small Shops with Great People

When we talk about shopping in Singapore, we would naturally think of Orchard Road. With a slew of major shopping centers flanking both sides of the road, from Wheelock Place to Wisma Atrium, to Ngee Ann City, to Paragon, to Centerpoint, to Orchard Point, to Plaza Singapore, the temptation of buying is hard to resist. All the labels like Louis Vuitton are there; all the luxurious restaurants like Lawry's are there; all the supermarkets like Carrefour are there. It is easy to spend the whole day there just eating and buying.

With the development of public housing estates, smaller shopping centers like Jurong Point are also built in the area to serve the residents in the estates. These estate shopping centers are usually situated just next to the MRT station and/or bus terminals. They would have the usual fashion shops like Giodano, healthcare shops like Body Shop, fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and even major electronics and electrical appliances stores like Harvey Norman. To the residents, these estate shopping centers are more convenient than Orchard Road and usually less crowded. But of course, the range of products and services would not be as comprehensive.

Going deeper into the housing estates, you will find two-storey flats, usually situated near dry or wet markets, with small shops on the ground floor. These small shops, usually owned by families, provides convenient shopping for the residents who live a distance away from the estate shopping centers. Due to their cheaper rents, the products and services found in these shops are priced even lower than those found in the estate shopping centers. However, reasonable pricing is not the only factor that attracted the residents to these shops. These shop owners are good at handling customer relationships.

My mom had sent me to the video rental shop to return her rented VCDs which were one-day late. The video rental shop is run by an old man and several young ladies, probably his daughters. It is a small shop with shelves of movies and TV serials, in VCDs and video tapes formats, from the Western countries, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. My mom would usually rent Hong Kong TV serials from this shop. Though the local television station screens TV serials from Hong Kong regularly, those serials are normally at least one year old, whereas the serials that she rented from the shop could be as new as one month old. Furthermore, she preferred to watch her TV serials in Cantonese because she felt that after some sentences were translated from Cantonese to Chinese, some native language humor could be lost.

I handed the box of VCDs to the old man at the counter.

“What’s your card number?”
“Err… I don’t know… let me check with my family.”

Gosh, my mom forgot to tell me her membership number.

“No, it’s okay. Just tell me your phone number.”

I gave the old man my house number which he keyed into the computer beside the cashier. Seconds later, he retrieved my mom’s membership number and took out her rental card from a box of other rental cards. He opened the box of VCDs, checked it and signed on the rental card.

“Okay, that’s all,” the old man told me as he kept the box of VCDs.
“Erm… I think we’re a day later than the return date,” I reminded him. “How much is the late fine?”
“Yeh, I know. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

How forgiving. Perhaps our credit card companies and that major telecommunications service provider should learn from this old man and stop sending out warning letters when my cheques were late by a day or two.

There are two hairdressing saloons and a Malay barber shop below these two-storey flats. These hairdressing saloons are not as elegantly renovated as the REDS, Vive or Peter & Guys, and their hair stylists are not as highly paid. They do not provide you Cosmopolitan or Men’s Health for your reading pleasure while waiting, and they do not serve you Evian mineral water, tea or coffee. However, their hair stylists are friendly and committed to help their customers. Oh, and they charge a much cheaper rate.

One afternoon, I was going to one of those hairdressing saloons for a much needed hair cut. Before I reached the saloon, I could hear screams coming out from it.

“Boy, I won’t hurt you… come on, let aunty cut here…”
“Baby, don’t be so scared… let the good aunty cut your hair, then you’ll look nice nice…”
“Okay… don’t move, okay? Just a while more…. “
“Baby, you let aunty cut your hair and I’ll buy you ice-cream okay?”

A lady was sitting on the saloon chair and hugging her little boy close to her, while two hair stylists tried to cut his hair. The freaked out little boy was crying and screaming till his face was all red and full of perspire. The mother tried to coax him with colorful hair clips, sweets and small toys, while the hair stylists stood on both sides of the little boy and tried to steal a cut or two when his head was still for the few split seconds.

The commotion lasted for about an hour and the hair stylists finally managed to finish the little boy’s hair cut. When the lady was leaving the saloon, she felt so embarrassed for the commotion caused that she kept apologizing to the two perspiring hair stylists.

“No worries, Mdm,” the hair stylists assured her with their understanding smiles.

After the lady and her little boy left, the hair stylists went back to work. One of them smiled at me and apologized for the wait, then took me to a seat. I had a quick and simple hair cut that was finished in about fifteen minutes and it cost me ten dollars.

In recent years, a slew of ten dollars cut saloon have opened in Singapore. These small saloons with three to four hair stylists are originated from Japan, based on the concept of “ten dollars for a ten minutes cut”. Instead of washing your hair after the cut, they will ‘vacuum’ the loose hairs from your head using a tube that sucks in air. The hair stylists do not talk to their customers except for the mechanical “good morning” or “good afternoon” greetings in Japanese that are shouted at the customers as they entered the saloon. I wondered are the uncles looking for cheap hair cuts puzzled by the string of unknown language shouted at them.

Usually we could find a bakery shop among these neighboring stores. The bakery shop at my neighborhood does not sell costly fusion breads like those pork floss breads, sweet potatoes breads and tuna breads sold in new age bakeries like BreadTalk. In stead, they have the traditional breads like cheap char siew, a.k.a. BBQ pork, breads, red bean breads and curry chicken breads. All of these traditional breads look like a plain round bun regardless of their fillings and it is not easy to differentiate which is which without looking at the name tags. They do not look as artistic as those fusion breads and they are not as finely baked. However, when I bite into them, it made me reminisce about my childhood, about those days when a char siew bread for the recess break could satisfy me so much.

Besides traditional breads, there are also traditional cakes sold in the bakery shop. These are simple sponge cakes with butter cream toppings. Butter cream, unlike fresh cream that is light and puffy, tastes thick and buttery. One small rectangular piece of these traditional cakes and you will feel full immediately. These traditional cakes were used to make huge and colorful birthday cakes in the past, with shapes like Mickey Mouse, amour tank or simply numbers. When I was still a kid, I remembered that you could tell the age of the birthday boy or girl just by looking at the birthday cake, because the cakes will be in the shapes of their age.

Two shops after the bakery shop is a hardware shop. These typical hardware shops sell cheap baking tools, kitchen utensils, working tools, plumbing tools and parts, and lots of plastic containers and pails. Before festive seasons like Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa and Chinese New Year, the hardware shop will sell lots of baking pans in different shapes and sizes for the housewives to bake their festive goodies. But the hardware shop acts primarily as a life saver for the residents during emergency situations…

“Beng! The flushing button on the toilet bowl’s flush box is spoilt! After I pressed it, it just stays down and the water just flush non-stop!”
“Mom, I think the enclosed spring for the flushing button is spoilt.”
“Then hurry up and get a new spring from the hardware shop downstairs!”

“Beng, the kitchen light is spoilt. I suspected that the starter is spoilt.”
“Okay Dad, I’ll get a starter from the hardware shop.”
After my dad changed the starter, the kitchen light still refused to light up.
“Maybe it is the light tube that’s spoilt. Beng, could you go downstairs to get a new light tube?”

I could not imagine my life without that hardware shop in the neighborhood.

To me, these shops definitely meant to me more than the big departmental stores at Orchard Road. I knew I could trust those shop owners and I could definitely use their advices. Their ranges of products might not be as rich as those offered in big departmental stores, but at least the essentials are there. And though they might not know my name, I know these uncles and aunties know me.

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