The tenants of Upper Serangoon Shopping Centre are a mix of old hats and new blood. Some of its old occupants have long outgrown it while others have shuttered their shops, but it remains a monument to a bygone era.
Built in 1981, Upper Serangoon Shopping Centre (USSC) was the definitive heartland mall of its time, catering to residents in the Hougang area.
Specifically – because any discussion of the sprawling lands of Hougang requires precision – USSC served residents in the vicinity of Ow Kang Ngor Kor Chiok, or Hougang Fifth Milestone, in the Teochew Chinese vernacular.
Old-timers born before Singapore’s independence used Ngor Kor Chiok as a reference point for the area out of necessity and simplicity. In the past, road markers, or milestones, were placed along Upper Serangoon Road to measure distances travelled. Descriptions vary, but what can be gathered from recounts is that the Fifth Milestone was placed somewhere between Boundary Road and Lim Tua Tow Road, back when Upper Serangoon Road still had some of its hustle left.
Over time, however, the bustle of food stalls, goldsmith shops and the wet market – among others – slowly disappeared as gentrification and re-urbanisation modified the makeup of this little town. USSC is one of the buildings left behind from that bygone period. One look at the Shopping Centre and you’d know it to be the sort of mall that has seen better days (and many sordid nights, too).
USSC remains a monument, spectator to the many milestones of the past that have passed it by and have come to pass.
The façade of the building is dated, yet intact enough not to be dilapidated; its interior, eighties-era-rococo, yet well-maintained enough not to be ramshackle.
Unfashionable architecture notwithstanding, the Shopping Centre in its heyday was a thriving biosphere home to a multitude of shops. Like all organisms of an ecosystem, however, the shops charted their paths on different waves of success and failure, and met with their fates in different ways.
Some things never change
Some survived by doing what they’d always done.
Computex Computer Services Pte Ltd, for one, is still around and still doing what it has done best: selling computer games, peripherals and accessories to technology geeks of all stripes and shapes.
The famous “Ah Lim” still helms the counter. He is still famous, though not for the wrong reasons. When you first meet him, he sizes you up phlegmatically before mesmerising you into buying equipment you’ve never needed.
The mere mention of his name to boys who grew up in the eighties and nineties (and to some extent, perhaps, the noughties) evokes many things at once: a murmuring nostalgia of wanton abandonment while staring at the computer screen; the memory of carefree hours callously and unconsciously handed over to the thief called time; smiles of an unyielding innocence long lost to the ravages of age.
But Ah Lim isn’t the only institution to induce such retrospective introspection; if you were to walk around USSC today, you’d still see the evergreen Christiano de Florist, whose business is – unsurprisingly – in flowers, both real and artificial.
If these businesses flourish, they could very well breathe a new lease of life into the Shopping Centre, if not forever, then for another 32 more years, at least.
Red Panther – a barber/stylist – is alive and kicking too, having outlived both the internal barbershop strife that led to a split and its resultant competitor, Pink Panther.
Last but not least, there’s Abcol Enterprise, a photocopy and printing shop that, till today, has the same tacky, toner-smudged printouts from yesteryear plastered all over its shop front – as though needing to both bear testimony to its longevity and affirm the type of service it provides.
Keeping up with the times
While some shops survived, others evolved.
Few people know that Wan Yang, a name popular with massage and reflexology enthusiasts, built the beginnings of its empire in the then-backwaters of USSC. However, as Wan Yang grew, it took its business along with it, moving out of the mall and multiplying itself through chain stores across the island.
For stores that weren’t as successful at adapting to changing environments, natural selection came into play.
Few people interviewed remember Oriental Emporium, its name as exotic and archaic to modern ears as… well, an oriental emporium. Oriental Emporium was a supermarket that took pride of place on the third and fourth levels of USSC, selling provisions, apparel and sundry items. But it didn’t last long; Oriental Emporium and its umbrella group, Emporium Holdings, soon found themselves on the decline, and out they went, relegated to the realm of extinction caused by economics and faulty memories.
Growing up years
Faulty memories aren’t entirely to blame for forgetting such an important institution of the past, though.
Oriental Emporium was replaced by the markedly more memorable Paco Fun World, an arcade on the third level, and Pot Black Billiards, a billiards saloon on the fourth level.
Both these hangouts were in vogue for then-youths like myself growing up during the fin de siècle years.
Just as we had to climb the staircase that separated the all-entry zone (the arcade) from the restricted access area (the billiard saloon), we graduated from mindlessly jabbering and jabbing at rods and buttons to lounging around the smoke-filled room, holding cue-sticks and taking pot shots at billiard balls. And as the last of our tribe graduated from the school system into the school of hard knocks, changing technology and societal tastes saw the arcade and the billiard saloon go the way of the Emporium.
So many of our memories are marked by extinction – either remembering what has gone extinct or experiencing the near-extinction of those memories themselves, only for them to be jolted back to life by mindful prods from friends and family.
And shouldn’t this be what Singapore is about? Memories rooted in space through place and time. Not careering cars that can crash in a flash; not newly built-up urbanity and scraping skylines soaring over humanity.
USSC remains a monument, spectator to the many milestones of the past that have passed it by and have come to pass. Like all spectators, the grand old dame has seen her fair share of secrets and sleaze; it was not too long ago that much ado was made over a couple found dead in a transit hotel next to the Shopping Centre.
The story’s kicker? The deceased couple was married – though not to each other.
While dead men and women tell no tales, places and spaces do. But it remains to be seen how much longer USSC can tell its story.
Where it was once the definitive heartland mall, it is now a seeming anachronism from a bygone era, having had its services and functions replaced long ago by Heartland Mall. Obviously named by a very literary-minded fellow, Heartland Mall is a convenient MRT ride up north to the Kovan area (Lak Kor Chiok: Sixth Milestone; once located at Simon Road), where it sells more goods and services in a much less seedy atmosphere.
On the other hand, USSC might prove itself an up-and-coming competitor, since it seems to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts. In recent months, it has been repopulated with an influx of new outlets such as Krav-Maga Culture, a martial arts studio; Nectars and Wine, a wine retail shop; and Nature Vegetarian Delights, a restaurant serving the herbivorous segment of our population.
This bodes well for the mall, as economics is, somewhat paradoxically, sometimes the only force strong enough to withstand the financially-motivated fury of “en-bloc” fever. If these businesses flourish, they could very well breathe a new lease of life into the Shopping Centre, if not forever, then for another 32 more years, at least.
Now that’d be a milestone to look forward to.
Words and photographs by Laremy Lee, unless otherwise credited
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and Studio Wong Huzir