[Old Malls] Katong Shopping Centre: Maid agencies galore

May 30, 2016 12.14PM |

by Hamzah Omar Yaacob

ITS signature circular windows peek like eyes at rising condominiums and hip eateries in ornate shophouses a stone’s throw away. This is Katong Shopping Centre. A dreary blue and yellow building at the corner of East Coast Rd and Haig Rd, in need of a paint job and perhaps a modern colour scheme. It stands as a pitiful testament to Katong’s better days. Long forgotten is the neighborhood’s beachfront that presented a hive of activity with movie theatres, a beach resort, and seaside restaurants. Its waterfront was gobbled up by land reclamation starting in 1966 till the mid-1980s to make way for Marine Parade, taking with it the area’s rich past.

The 90,000 square feet mall is also part of the district’s illustrious history: It was Singapore’s first air-conditioned mall when it opened in 1973. Mrs Helen Cheang, who owns Helen Maids Agency recalls the state of the building in the 1970s. She said that “when it first opened, it was a very busy shopping centre”, and added that “it [Katong Shopping Centre] was a big deal then”.

The crowds are gone. It is late morning, and the number of maid agencies outnumber the shoppers. What catches one’s eyes are potential domestic helpers gathering at each agency ready to receive a day’s worth of instructions. The building is filled with these agencies. On the ground floor itself, 25 out of 40 units are maid agencies.

Maid agencies dominate the ground floor. Photo by TMG/Hamzah Omar Yaacob

An employee at May Myanmar Services who gave her name as Mdm Sharmilla said competition was stiff as “more [agencies] have opened up over the past two to three years”. She’s been with the agency for over a year, but was previously employed at Best Human Resource, another agency located in the mall’s basement. Her new agency has better business, and receives about seven to eight walk-ins on the weekends, she said.

Food and shopping haven

But it wasn’t always that way. Mrs Cheang said that 10 years ago, there were only four or five maid agencies. Now, there are over 50, spread across five floors. Mr Roslan Mohd, a barber at Sri Dewa, which has been at the mall since day one, said in Malay that “maybe [maid agencies are attracted] because the rent here is cheap and the area is residential”. Checks on property website commercialguru.com found units going for $6 to $8 per square feet (the units at the mall are owned by individual tenants). Abutting Katong Shopping Centre are housing estates such as Mountbatten, Joo Chiat, and Siglap, with a large presence of private condominiums and landed properties.

Walking down to the basement, the crowds become thicker as office workers form a long queue at Delicious Boneless Chicken Rice, a well-known food haunt in Katong. Close by is Dona Manis Cake Shop, a bakery that boasts a charming old-school exterior and famous for its banana pie, well loved by generations. Apart from food outlets, remnants of the mall’s past, centered around textiles, are apparent in the handful of boutiques and tailors still left open. One such business is Advanced Tailors, which specialises in menswear’s. Mr Johnson Wong, a tailor who’s been at the shop for 28 years, says the business has been around for at least three decades.

Said Mr Wong: “Maid agencies have replaced the boutiques. They [boutiques] will follow trends and go to other shopping centers.” The business now survives off regular customers whom he’s seen grow from “teenagers to adults”, so his takings are “quite constant”. Now, patrons flock to maid agencies, so they come with a “motive” and “don’t window shop or linger on”, he said. He added that “with Oriental Emporium, business was not too bad, but since it closed down, the crowds have gone”, pointing in the direction of where the department store used to be located.

Inside Katong Shopping Centre
Interior of Katong Shopping Centre. Photo by TMG/Najeer Yusof.

Oriental Emporium and Supermarket was an anchor tenant at the mall, and opened its Katong outlet on the mall’s inauguration in 1973, and lasted at most till the mid-1990s. The company, owned by Singaporean tycoon, the late Mr Lim Tow Yong, was established in 1967, taking on British giant Robinson’s at a Raffles Place outlet. It expanded rapidly and by 1975, had 11 outlets in all corners of the island, and by 1977, employed some 1,000 workers, according to news reports. But if anything, the sentiment of many shopkeepers was that residents were going to nearby Parkway Parade. Opened in 1984, it boasts two major supermarkets, an Isetan departmental store, chain shops and 561,000 square feet of retail space.

Taking the escalators up to the second floor, the whiff of burnt ink is apparent in the air. At the landing, eight photocopy shops line the corridors, and are by far the second-most prominent businesses in the mall after maid agencies. Mr Eric Chia, who owns E-Zee Link Marketing Services, and has been at the mall since 1997, said business was bad, and has been declining over the past few years. He blames the slump on the Internet, “because, for example, people don’t give out fliers anymore, [because customers] just go to websites”. He also said that demand from schools was down, which he believes could be due to “schools tendering out contracts”.

E-Zee Link Marketing Services. Photo by TMG/Hamzah Omar Yaacob.

But his main source of income, namely renting and repairing photocopy machines, has been hit hardest. He blames this on Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme, launched by the G in 2011, that gives eligible companies tax deductions and money to make productivity investments. Mr Chia says this has enabled companies to purchase their own photocopying equipment. He now relies on regulars and walk-ins, seeking photo-copying and binding services.

“Many photocopying shops have shut down, and the spaces have been taken over by maid agencies,” he said, pointing to the outlet next-door, Amity Employment Pte Ltd, which was closed at that point. Mrs Angie Ng, who has worked for the past 16 years at Louvy Printing and Stationary Supplies, across the corridor from Mr Chia’s shop, echoed his sentiments saying: “All online lah, all Internet, our business no good.”

En-bloc potential?

Walking away from the escalator landings, the screeching sound of photocopying machines gives way to silence. Here, several tuition and enrichment centers , and shops specialising in breathing masks and model airplanes, stand idly quiet.  About six units were vacant. The stillness is broken by a storefront covered in colourful kids dresses. Its owner, who gave his name as Mr Steve, sells what he describes as “dancing costumes” to primary schools and kindergartens in bulk. He was pushed out of nearby Katong Plaza by steep rents at the end of last year. “This is a tough business because it involves [clothes with] different colours, and many people [are] doing it” he said.

Vibrant costumes adorn the shop space. Photo by TMG/Hamzah Omar Yaacob.

Inside, the space is filled with tiny costumes including cheerleader, ballerina and fairy-tale outfits. The unit used to be an eatery called SnexCafe that folded last year – its old signboard and counter still adorn the shop. Mr Steve hasn’t bothered hacking the latter away because the building’s fate remains uncertain. According to the mall’s website, 80 per cent of 410 owners have agreed to put the property on an en-bloc sale. A previous attempt in 2012, which was valued at $445 million, fell through. A second attempt was initiated in mid-2014. Some shopkeepers, when queried on the matter, said the sale might happen as early as the end of the year. Others like Mr Chia feel the economic downturn might put a dampener saying “even condominiums opposite [Katong Shopping Centre] like Seaview haven’t sold [completely]”.

Where will all these businesses go? Some shop owners say they will simply retire or will be lured by cheap rents elsewhere. Surrounding developments provide little wonder as to what might replace the shopping centre: A cookie-cutter mall or a condominium. Such developments, like I12 Katong and Katong V, have made the area highly desirable over the last few years. But it’s a pity – none of these buildings will ever have the sea at their doorstep.


This is the fifth piece in our eight-part series on well-loved old malls in Singapore. Also read about Peninsula Plaza, People’s Park Complex, Golden Mile Complex, and City Plaza


Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

Images by Hamzah Omar Yaacob and Najeer Yusof

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