Wealthy Indonesians would come to buy in bulk. Locals, dressed in immaculately tailored clothes, would look for the next fashion statement. And the hundred textile shops at People's Park flourished.
Now the ground floor is still a hive of activity, but that is because of the food centre. For the textile shops above, of which just 31 remain, business is quiet, and time is running out.
"We used to be able to sell as many as 10 boxes of fabric every month," said 64-year-old shopkeeper Patrick Liew, remembering the roaring trade of the 1970s and 1980s. "But now we take half a year to clear a box (a thousand yards) of fabric.
"There's no way we can pump up sales if a shirt costs $10 and a dress costs $17 at Bugis Street."
With the Economic Development Board developing labour-intensive industries in the 1960s, Singapore became the go-to place for textiles and garments as shops and factories sprung up.
But battered by mass production and imports of cheap ready- to-wear attire, shopkeepers told The Straits Times that business has plunged by as much as 75 per cent since the 1990s.
And they believe the odds of a revival are not in their favour, despite the upcoming upgrading by the Housing Board.
Under batch four of its Revitalisation of Shops scheme, the Government will spend $11 million co-funding the renovation of 35 sites, including People's Park which was built in 1968.
Once upgrading is completed, the centre, having been frequently mistaken for neighbours People's Park Centre and People's Park Complex, will be renamed People's Park Plaza according to previous reports.
But that has left shopkeepers with another worry: higher rents that will bite into their already paltry profit margins.
Their tenancies are due for renewal at the end of next year, and HDB will review their rents to reflect prevailing market rates.
An HDB spokesman said tenants whose rents may rise by more than 10 per cent will get help, through staggering the increase, for example.
"We hope they keep our rates low," said Madam Irene Wong, 54, who has been running a shop since 2005.
In a good month, she can make about $1,500, after paying rent of $2,200.
"You can't raise a family on that small sum. Thankfully, most of us are past that stage and are here to pass time," she said.
Madam Wong depends on a pool of 50 or so regular clients, most of whom are tai tais. These more well-to-do ladies are willing to splurge. It costs about $60 and $100 to tailor a blouse and dress respectively.
"They think it's worth it to have a cut and design which flatters them that nobody else has," she added.
Shop owner Maggie Ng, 58, said she will soldier on and continue serving her regulars and walk-in customers like tourists.
But these days, merchants at the complex cater mainly to fashion design students and retirees sewing pyjamas and bedsheets for their grandchildren.
There is little demand for tailored clothes. And the dearth of tailors has not helped.
"They can't see as well as before, so they've stopped sewing," said shop owner Seow Soon Kiat, 66, explaining how a generation of tailors is gradually moving into retirement.
"But we try to keep things fresh by selling modern prints and patterns from Japan and Europe."
But one frequent shopper, retiree Jenny Phua, 61, said the shops still have their appeal. "It's cheaper to buy your own cloth and sew your own bedsheets."
Fashion photographer Adrian Jiun, 28, believes a revamp could do wonders, and he suggests improving the ventilation, adding: "Perhaps they can consider modernising the place to pull in the crowds and to make it more comfortable for shoppers."
But Mr Liew, who earns an average of $1,000 a month, believes today's fashion is very telling of the end of an era for tailored wear. "Customers used to be very well-dressed. They came arm-in-arm with their beaus in beautifully tailored dresses. It was a very glamorous era," he said.
"But these days the young people wear mass-produced, run-of-the-mill shorts and slippers. It's just how it is.
"When the time comes, we have to be ready to close our shops for good."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 29, 2013
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