[Old Malls] Serene Centre: School’s out, let’s hit the mall
by Glenn Ong
LOCATED along the busy junction of Bukit Timah Road and Farrer Road, Serene Centre is the haunt for students in the area once the final school bell of the day rings.
Youths from nearby schools like National Junior College, Hwa Chong Institution, and St Margaret’s Secondary School pack the McDonald’s outlet and ice-cream parlour Island Creamery. Perhaps it is because fast food is kinder to a teen’s wallet, or perhaps it’s the free WiFi and their air-conditioned comfort, but these places are the preferred meeting – and studying – points of these students.
And this isn’t a new phenomenon – the nondescript mall has been home to teenagers since 1985, when it was launched. TMG spoke to Mr Kheng Lin Chun, 23, a current undergraduate at NUS, who graduated from Hwa Chong Institution in 2011. He told us that the biggest attraction of the mall during his time at Hwa Chong Institution was the McDonald’s. “It was one of the cheapest places to eat along Bukit Timah Road. And it opens till late,” he said. Ms Elza Loo, 21, also another NUS undergraduate, formerly from St Margaret’s (2007-2010), remembers eating there very frequently, and to her, “there is nothing at Serene Centre except for McDonald’s”.
But even this draw doesn’t seem to “save” the mall from an imposing stillness evident most of the day. Despite the small variety of services offered – the mall has 32 units – traffic is uneven. Serene Centre looks and feels more like a string of isolated stores sharing common walls than an iconic shopping centre with a coherent identity. According to its website, the mall is marketed as a place for residents in the neighbourhood to acquire necessities.
Sitting on a 32,225 sq ft plot of land, Serene Centre was developed by Chee Tat Holdings Pte Ltd, the same property development company that developed Textile Centre, located along Jalan Sultan Road. The company was headed by real estate tycoons Ng Eng Tee and Ng Eng Soon. Retailers we spoke to said that the mall has been handed to the third generation of the Ng family to manage.
The mall has been listed for sale at least twice. In November 1989, The Straits Times reported that the owner, Lok Joo Pte Ltd – a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chee Tat Holdings – put the mall up for sale at $20 million. The centre, which was built for $13 million, was then generating an annual rental income of $859,688. Then, exactly 21 years later, a November 2010 article by the Business Times reported that the mall was again up for sale for between $120 million and $130 million.
It appears, however, that the mall has not changed hands: Serene Centre is currently managed by Plaza Development Pte Ltd, which shares the same office address as Chee Tat Holdings. Our request for an interview with Plaza Development was declined.
In the mall’s busier days, it was home to iconic businesses such as Tierney’s Gourmet, a specialty grocer that, save for a brief mention and review online, seems to have disappeared without a trace. Mr Ricky, 27, who took over toy store Toy Brick Station from his father, said that Tierney’s was an anchor tenant of the second floor. Toy Brick Station, which has been in Serene Centre for 28 years, has been successful in drawing crowds with its Lego collectibles and card games. He and another shop owner, both second-generation tenants, said that while Tierney’s was the centre’s main attraction during their childhood days, their memory of the grocer has since grown hazy.
Another shop owner, who has been a tenant for more than 20 years, added that the McDonald’s used to occupy two storeys of space within the mall, with a third segment serving as a dedicated playground. The fast food chain has since scaled down to one shop space, and the playground is now gone.
Currently, the first floor is home to a launderette, a hardware store, a florist, a hair salon, and several F&B outlets. On the second floor, medical clinics and tuition centres line the long walkways. Serene Centre also has 10 apartment units on the third and fourth floors, equipped with a swimming pool on the roof.
A shadow of its former self
When TMG visited on a Monday afternoon, the mall was exceptionally quiet. Out of a total of 32 shop spaces counted, five were closed for business, and another five were completely vacant. We made a second trip down on a Tuesday, this time just before lunch. There was visibly more traffic, though we encountered a wine retailer, The Straits Wine Company, in the midst of vacating their corner unit on the first floor.
Retailers we spoke to expressed mixed feelings about the mall’s prospects. One business owner lamented that the rent is steep as the “landlord is unrealistic”. He added that rental costs are hard to cover as he makes only “20 to 30 per cent” from each transaction. Profit margins decrease further when a sale is made through credit cards or NETS, which incur administrative fees of up to 3 per cent, he said.
Another business owner we spoke to said that “walk-in traffic is quite bad”. He added that business for him has been relatively good as he attracts most of his customers from online platforms. While he has set up shop for only two years, his rent has already been increased, as the landlord adopts a “take it or leave it” position when negotiating rent. He added that the rent on the first floor is “20 to 30 per cent” higher than that of the second floor, which may explain why four out of the five vacant spaces were located on the first floor. Mr Adrien Lim, 36, who runs Blossom Floral Design on the first floor, said that while he would not provide exact figures, the rent is around “$12 to $20 per sq ft”.
A shopper we spoke to, Mrs Georgina Patterson, a 28-year-old teacher, said she has been to the mall only thrice since she moved to Bukit Timah about a year ago. She agreed with the retailers we queried, saying that business is “probably quite slow, except for McDonald’s”. She remarked that she only patronises the hardware store for household items, and when asked about what she thought about the services upstairs, she replied, “I’ve never even been to the second floor!”
Some tenants are making plans for expansion elsewhere – or relocation. Mr Lim from Blossom Floral Design said that he isn’t feeling the heat just yet. He owns two other branches outside the mall, and added that he will move out if the rent gets too high. Toy Brick Station, too, has opened another outlet at Thomson Plaza as a “backup plan”. When asked about expansion plans, a third retailer located on the first floor quipped, “see how lah”.
When queried on possible plans for renovations or redevelopments in the pipeline, shop owners said they are unaware of any, and are doubtful that these will take place in the near future. Mr Ricky said that one reason why the mall is quiet is that there is “no proper mix of tenants”. He added that “people won’t be attracted to come” into a mall that is dominated by tuition centres and clinics.
Yet, one retailer mentioned that the introduction of a new member to the management has improved “systemisation and standardisation” a little. For instance, the noise levels previously generated by students congregating in food outlets made it virtually impossible to do business after 7pm, but that has since subsided somewhat.
Reinvigorating the mall is going to require leadership from the management. Mr Ricky said that even though a website was created for the centre, “it’s not reaching out”. He added that there must be “sufficient marketing” should the mall hope to attract new crowds.
And by that, he meant customers other than the students that have made Serene Centre their second home.
This is the seventh 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, City Plaza, Katong Shopping Centre, and Queensway Shopping Centre.
Additional reporting by Cindy Co.
Featured image by Najeer Yusof.
Images by Najeer Yusof and Cindy Co.
If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!
For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.