[Old Malls] Peninsula Plaza: A Burmese haunt
by Cindy Co and Glenn Ong
AT PENINSULA Plaza, the busy streets outside City Hall belie the stillness within. Traffic picks up slightly around lunchtime, with an influx of people making their way in for a meal, before dwindling back to its usual trickle. Peninsula Plaza is busier at 1pm than at 11am on weekdays, but just barely.
Built in 1980, the Plaza stands opposite City Hall MRT, and consists of a five-storey shopping mall topped by a 30-storey office building. The mall is popular among Burmese immigrants in Singapore, just as Lucky Plaza is with Filipinos, and its reputation has earned it the nickname of “Little Burma”. Mr Tan, the building’s maintenance superintendent, said that unlike many newer malls, Peninsula Plaza does not have a single developer or management. Instead, each store either owns or rents their own shop space from a property agent or landlord, a system known as the Management Corporation Strata Title framework.
The five-storey building draws a mainly Burmese clientele.
Petty crimes and more
Few are aware that Peninsula Plaza was a hotbed of criminal activity during the 1980s and early 1990s. A survey of news articles from the period often revealed reports of petty crimes – robbery, theft, piracy, peeping toms, and even fake policemen. Most sensational of all, a lone gunman laid siege to the building in 1991, forcing the mall into a two-hour lockdown, as three policemen exchanged fire with the gunman.
Youth culture also dominated Peninsula Plaza’s early days. One article from 1989 names Peninsula Plaza as the “go to” place for male fashion – it had a cluster of male fashion stores selling accessories to a fashionable young crowd. Tattoo parlours were also featured prominently in the Plaza, serving many young people – including a significant number of young women.
The mall is a lot mellower nowadays. Sales, rather than crime, are the store owners’ main concern. More than two decades ago, Peninsula Plaza had been profitable: Hour Glass paid a premium of $4.4 million in 1989 to buy two units in the mall, as they viewed the location to be strategic. But times have changed. Madam Mon, 48, an employee at travel agency Taw Win Oo, lamented about the dwindling business over the four years she has worked at the mall. While there had only been three to four tour agencies in 2008, more have sprung up in recent years, intensifying competition and forcing her agency to move upstairs to reduce operating costs.
Rent too, has increased. Feder Sports employee Madam Ooi, 51, estimates rent to be as high as $6,000 per unit, having increased over the past five years. Thirty-six-year-old property agent, Mr Mike Xu, cites $5,500 as the average rent for a shop on the second and third floors. He says that while prices have risen over the past few years, this year’s gloomy economic outlook has seen a dip in rental costs “between one-quarter and one-third”. Fluctuating rent also means that more unpredictable days are ahead for many business owners in the mall.
It is possible that increasing competition and higher rents have forced out many retailers. When we took a walk around Peninsula Plaza, we found a significant number of closed or empty spaces. We counted that, out of a total of 278 shops, 68 were closed and 24 were vacant.
Despite this, prices for products at some shops still remain low. Madam Thida, 49, owner of MTY International, a perfume shop, sells perfumes ranging from $8 to $12. When asked about her customer base, Madam Thida replied that “most of them are domestic workers from Myanmar”. She added that most of her sales are from regular customers who cannot afford products from upscale malls around the area. Clothes and apparel from retail shops on the ground floor range between $8 and $22. Similarly, meals at the Burmese eateries are also priced affordably. A meal for two – two bowls of rice, a bowl of soup each, and three dishes to share – costs $10.50 in total.
Within the mall, shops selling watches, cameras, and shoes – largely owned and staffed by Singaporeans – dominate the first floor. The prices at these shops are significantly higher, akin to the sort of prices one would expect from a mall located in a prime area like City Hall. Even in smaller shops, shoes from lesser-known brands are sold for around $50.
A Burmese town
As we proceeded upstairs, however, there was a subtle shift in the landscape – most signs were adorned with Burmese script rather than English, and the occupants comprise provision stores, travel agencies, and beauty salons. Provision shops sell Burmese goods and snacks – such as Sone See Yar, a Burmese cracker – which were sold for $2 per packet. Canned goods and preserved fruits also appear to be staples at these stores, and are priced cheaply from between $2 and $5. Travel agencies displayed advertisements for tickets to Myanmar, though most of their customers are Burmese workers planning a trip home.
Singaporeans, on the other hand, tend to approach these agencies for help to obtain visas, a tour agent added. Various eateries – we counted at least eight – are located in the basement and on the third floor. These eateries sell freshly cooked Burmese cuisine, such as pork belly, preserved vegetables, and a variety of curries.
Seeking a better quality of life
A survey of Burmese shop owners and employees reveals that quite a number of them came to Singapore in search of a better life. Many of them possess some form of higher educational qualification. Provision shop owner Mr Maund, 45, used to be an engineer and geologist. He came to Singapore 20 years ago, during the peak of immigration, in search of a job and a better life. He cited a dearth of opportunities for university graduates back in Myanmar. He has since become a permanent resident, and says that Peninsula Plaza was the obvious choice for selling Burmese goods, given the congregation of Myanmar nationals at the shopping mall during the weekends.
Mr Nyi, 37, holds a Master’s degree in engineering from the National University of Singapore. Mr Nyi also manages the provision shop with Mr Maund. He echoes his business partner’s sentiments, saying that he came to Singapore in search of better opportunities. Madam Mon, a travel agent from Taw Win Oo, studied and earned her credentials at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and Kaplan before getting her current job.
Others moved to Singapore to be with their families. As Madam Thida’s husband and daughter were working and studying in Singapore, she decided to migrate here too. Similarly, Madam Nweni, 48, an employee at a clothing store, moved to Singapore in order to be with her children as they pursued their education here.
Is there hope for Peninsula Plaza?
Planned upgrades for the building could help boost business. Mr Tan remarked that there have been no major upgrades since he has been here. Having worked in the mall since the 1980s, he added that negotiations are currently underway to upgrade the mall in line with the Building Construction Authority (BCA) Green Mark requirements, which would hopefully improve the aesthetics of its interior.
For now, however, some are banking on renovation of the Plaza’s neighbours. “Renovation of nearby malls (such as Funan DigitalLife Mall) will bring traffic to this old gem,” said Mr Xu.
Featured image by Najeer Yusof.
Images by Cindy Co.
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