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Booming trade for hawkers, but shopkeepers lament bygone era

Photojournalist Desmond Wee, who has lived more than half a decade in the Mountbatten estate, speaks to some of the first-generation shop owners at Old Airport Road Food Centre. They are the food centre's forgotten tenants.
Mr Ho Khek Yue, 70, runs Sze Lih stationery shop on the second floor of Old Airport Road Food Centre. More than 40 years ago, he sold 20 to 30 pens a day. Now, he sells barely a dozen a month. Old Airport Road Food Centre, which was opened in 1973, w
Mr Ho Khek Yue, 70, runs Sze Lih stationery shop on the second floor of Old Airport Road Food Centre. More than 40 years ago, he sold 20 to 30 pens a day. Now, he sells barely a dozen a month. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Mr Ho Khek Yue, 70, runs Sze Lih stationery shop on the second floor of Old Airport Road Food Centre. More than 40 years ago, he sold 20 to 30 pens a day. Now, he sells barely a dozen a month. Old Airport Road Food Centre, which was opened in 1973, w
Shopkeepers such as Madam Lim Kim Luan, 73, who owns five units selling shoes and electrical appliances, say business was much better in the 1970s and 1980s. She has thought of calling it a day, but cannot bear to do so.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Mr Ho Khek Yue, 70, runs Sze Lih stationery shop on the second floor of Old Airport Road Food Centre. More than 40 years ago, he sold 20 to 30 pens a day. Now, he sells barely a dozen a month. Old Airport Road Food Centre, which was opened in 1973, w
Old Airport Road Food Centre, which was opened in 1973, was once considered Singapore's most modern hawker centre and boasted the latest architectural designs.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

When Old Airport Road Food Centre was opened in 1973 to resettle street hawkers around Kallang Estate, I was a Primary 6 pupil studying at the now-defunct Mountbatten English Primary School.

The building, which had food stalls on the ground floor and shops on the upper levels, was considered the country's most modern hawker centre and boasted the latest architectural designs.

It reflected the style of food centres built in new towns in the 1960s and 1970s, such as those in Woodlands and Commonwealth Avenue.

My school was right opposite the food centre, where Broadrick Secondary now stands.

The area in which this new estate was constructed was actually the old Kallang Airport's premises.

Given that we lived within a stone's throw from Old Airport Road Food Centre, it became my family's favourite haunt.

My daily allowance then was 30 cents, and I remember skipping meals during recess at school to save up for a Bic ballpoint pen, which cost a dollar.

I bought it from Mr Ho Khek Yue, then in his early 20s, who runs Sze Lih stationery shop on the second floor.

I was happy, my mother was not, and I received a huge scolding from her.

 

More than 40 years have passed.

I am now a 58-year-old photojournalist, while the affable Mr Ho is 70 and still opens his shop daily.

He even remembers my mother, who used to take my three younger sisters and me to buy our school and personal stationery supplies in bulk for a discount.

Back then, he sold 20 to 30 pens a day. Now, he sells barely a dozen a month.

Times have changed and the small business owners on the second floor lament an era gone.

Their trade flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, with Malaysian tourists coming in by the busloads to buy towels and electrical goods.

Today, while some of the stores run by first-generation shopkeepers like Mr Ho remain open, Level 2 of Old Airport Road Food Centre is a pale shadow of its former self.

Said Madam Lim Kim Luan, 73, who owns five units selling shoes and electrical appliances at the centre: "I've dedicated more than half my life to my shops. I've thought about calling it a day, but I cannot bear to lose my life's work."

While I enjoy my carrot cake, char kway teow and seafood hor fun on the first floor like many customers in search of the best food in the Mountbatten area, I hope that, after filling our stomachs, we will take a stroll upstairs, where our presence will be more than welcome.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2019, with the headline 'Booming trade for hawkers, but shopkeepers lament bygone era'. Print Edition | Subscribe