””

Memories of Funan

I spent much time during my growing-up years hanging out at the mall, checking out its music shops and feasting on junk food

Something tells me I have reached that age in life when everything that used to be familiar to me starts to change. And this could not be more apparent than in the Bras Basah area where I had spent so much time in my growing-up years.

The National Library became a tunnel for vehicular traffic and my former secondary school in Queen Street is now a modern art museum. The old MPH building on Stamford Road became a designer furniture store and is now being retrofitted into a social space for the law faculty of the Singapore Management University. The old Cathay theatre has become a mall, as has the old Capitol theatre.

And just this week, news broke that Funan DigitaLife Mall - arguably the nation's most famous consumer electronics and computer mall - will close for three years.

The length of its closure suggests the building will probably be torn down and completely rebuilt, and CapitaMall Trust, the building's owner, promises it will resurface as an "experiential creative hub".


-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

No one has the faintest idea what those three words mean, so I guess CapitaMall Trust chose them deliberately to keep its options open.

The business journalist in me knows this is probably good for shareholders. The mall is ageing and there is room to build skywards to make better use of the land. Its value proposition in the retail sector is not as strong as it was before, because a wide range of gadgets and consumer electronics products can now be bought in any heartland mall.

Yet the closure of Funan was the saddest news I have heard in a while.

For me, it will always be known as Funan Centre - which was what it was called when it opened in 1985. And those who patronised its stores from the start know that it didn't start life as a tech or IT mall.

In fact, I remember the first phase of Funan's existence for just two things: the music shops on the third floor and the vast foodcourt on the top floor.

I have always been a huge music fan and, in the late 1980s, I would go record-hunting with my friends after school. That meant taking a bus from the National Library to Far East Plaza in Scotts Road where we would begin our itinerary at Valentine Music Centre and, later in our youth, Chua Joo Huat.

From there, we would slowly walk down Orchard Road, visiting the various branches of Supreme Music Centre and other music shops such as The Attic, in Centrepoint and Plaza Singapura.

Our last stop was always Funan Centre. Often, it would almost be evening and most of our party would have peeled off to go home or play basketball at Cairnhill Community Centre, leaving just a couple of us hardcore music junkies.

There were two famous music shops in Funan. Much more has been written about Roxy Records, which has survived against all odds to continue operating today in the somewhat dingy Excelsior Shopping Centre, but the store

I visited way more often was its competitor DaDa Records.

DaDa was run by a Cantonese- speaking couple who sometimes quarrelled in front of customers, making the atmosphere rather tense. When that happened, I felt a bit sorry for their two young boys, who were often at the shop helping their parents open boxes of new stock and tag new records and CDs.

But the family stayed together and their business grew on the back of timely shipments from suppliers in the United States and Europe that were reasonably priced. They just knew what to bring in.

Going there week after week, I literally watched the kids grow up. By the time they were teenagers, DaDa had moved into a much larger ground-floor unit.

Not long after that, however, their fortunes changed in line with the rest of the music retail industry. Vinyl records went out of fashion and compact discs (CDs) followed suit. DaDa resorted to selling DVDs for a while before giving up the ghost about a decade ago.

The shop is now a branch of Laserflair and, when I go there, I often think of the two DaDa boys, who must be in their 30s now. I wonder if they realise the silent impact their parents made on so many young Singaporean lives.

After a tiring afternoon spent traipsing around town, we would often go to the top-floor foodcourt in Funan to eat. Again, many writers now speak of brands such as Qiji and Funan Weng, but for a junk food-loving schoolboy like me, the true draw was Carona Chicken Rice.

For me, Carona's fried chicken wings are the stuff of legend. They set an Olympic gold standard that has henceforth never been reached in Singapore's culinary history.

Tastier than A&W and crispier than KFC, I just couldn't get enough of them - much to the annoyance of my parents who were too often faced with a kid too full to eat his proper dinner.

When I heard that Funan was closing, I immediately thought of Carona chicken wings and salivated. Makansutra claims the original recipe wings can still be had in a stall in Veerasamy Road, which I intend to check out this weekend before the rest of Singapore's sentimental Funan geeks descend.

I went abroad to get my undergraduate degree from 1991 to 1994. It was during those absent months and years that Funan became a mall that specialised in IT products. When I came back to Singapore in the summer of 1994, Challenger had opened.

The place looked like a posher and more "legit" version of Sim Lim Square, with enough competing shops to make for fun afternoons spent comparing prices and bargaining - that is if you could tell Microfield apart from Microcraft, Micro Data and Microhouse.

With the advent of the Internet and Internet-enabled mobile devices, Funan became a sort of everyday escape from the real world. This was especially during my first job as a civil servant in the Ministry of Finance, which moved in the late 1990s into The Treasury, just next to Funan.

Troubled by a nasty e-mail or facing writer's block with a policy paper, I would walk the corridors of the mall aimlessly, looking to buy something, anything that would cheer me up. Sometimes it was a new case for my Palm Pilot, other times it was a new computer game.

I would dream about getting a new phone or upgrading my printer. I wondered if I should switch from PCs to the new Apple Macintoshes that were coming out in candy-coloured plastic bubbles.

And Funan always delivered - for me and many Singaporeans. You could always get exactly the cable you needed at Suntronic, the perfect hard disk drive at South Asia and the early Japanese release of the new Playstation console from Gamescore, ahead of everyone else.

It even developed a regional reputation. Hong Kong has Sin Tat Plaza, Bangkok has Pantip Plaza and Tokyo has the whole Akihabara area, but Singapore's Funan sat among them all with ease and pride.

Today, the mall is still a good place to buy consumer electronics and gadgets, but those who still go know that it is long past its heyday as an IT mall. Challenger still operates a huge superstore on the top floor, but most of the old names are gone, leaving a mishmash of stores selling everything from photo equipment and toys to stationery and musical instruments.

In a way, Funan has come full circle - it rode the tech boom and is now caught in its downcycle. I still wander its corridors and see flashes of its past glory in the people that still go there - older gadget freaks such as myself, tourists from all over the world and, yes, the occasional young civil servant from next door, brows furrowed in thought.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure if Singapore is prepared to say goodbye when it closes its doors in the third quarter of next year.

Strangely enough, its fate lies in the hands of the corporate bigwigs and planners at CapitaMall Trust - mostly Singaporean men and women it served so well over the decades. I hope that when the time comes for the wrecking ball to be struck, they will be kind to an old and faithful friend.

• If you have memories of Funan Mall, e-mail stlife@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'Memories of Funan'. Print Edition | Subscribe