Ghim Moh: Stay or go?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 18, 2013

More that just good food has been creating a buzz at the popular Ghim Moh Market & Food Centre.

Residents and stallholders are wondering what will happen next year, when the place undergoes a revamp.

Some popular stalls selling local delights from chicken rice and nasi lemak to chye tow kway and putu mayam at Block 20 Ghim Moh Road might move out when the centre closes in June next year for renovations that may last up to 18 months.

That is because June is when the 20-year lease expires for the market and food stalls. These were sold under the Stall Ownership Scheme in 1994.

"Improvement works" by the National Environment Agency are scheduled to coincide with the expiry of the lease.

After the revamp, stall ownership reverts to the Government and stall holders will have to pay rent.

So why are some hawkers moving out?

Only those who own the stalls there will have the option to continue their business after the revamp.

Those who are renting from hawkers who own more than one stall do not automatically qualify for space at the revamped market and food centre.

They will have to go through the usual tender process if they want a stall at Ghim Moh.

Many popular food stalls at Ghim Moh are operated by renters. These include Lian He Chye Tow Kway, Ghim Moh Nasi Lemak, 88 Chicken Rice, Heavens, which sells putu mayam and Hin Fried Hor Fun.

Some stall owners are negotiating with their tenants to pay a fee to take over the stalls. The fee is paid to the stall owner in exchange for the transfer of ownership to the tenant.

This way, the tenant, now a stall owner, will be able to secure a place in the revamped market and food centre.

SundayLife! understands that these fees range from $50,000 to $100,000 for one stall, and some stall owners are still demanding rental payments until the end of May next year, on top of this transfer fee.

Mr Daniel Surendran, 25, whose mother runs Heavens, says: "I really think it is quite expensive, and I don't know whether we will want to pay that."

The transfer fee is decided on by the stall owner.

The market and food centre at Ghim Moh is one of 15 centres that were sold under the scheme between 1994 and 1997, during which market stalls and cooked food stalls were sold to hawkers for between $26,600 and $141,000 each, for a 20-year lease period.

Over the years, some stalls have changed hands, with some stall owners buying up other units to rent out.

Ghim Moh Market & Food Centre's lease, and the leases of three other food centres - Block 207 New Upper Changi Road, West Coast Drive and Aljunied Avenue 2 - are the first ones to expire under the scheme, next June.

Whether there will be a temporary market in the meantime, is still under discussion.

On the renovations, a spokesman for the National Environment Agency says: "The scope of works will include the replacement of all plumbing and underground sanitary systems, replacement of floor and wall tiles for all stalls and common areas and re-roofing."

Stall holders at both the market and food centre are likely to change in the coming months.

There is no stopping stall owners from letting new tenants take over from their existing tenants, so long as these new tenants are willing to buy over the stalls.

In the last month, a stall which sells glutinous rice balls in a sweet soup has moved out, and a new fish soup stall, Ghim Moh Fish Soup, opened in its place.

The fish soup stall owner, Mr Goh Kang Gee, 67, is still undecided as to whether or not he will buy over the stall. The owner of the glutinous rice ball shop could not be reached for comment.

But it is likely that more situations such as this - new stalls setting up shop where old stalls once stood - are likely to occur in the lead up to the centre's 20-year lease expiry.

The spokesman for the Ghim Moh Shop & Merchant Association, Mr Philip Wong, 58, who also owns Soyfresh, a soya bean milk stall, expects that by March next year, the food centre will see a lot more new stalls in light of market forces.

The market and food centre serves not just the Ghim Moh community, but also residents in the Ulu Pandan, Holland Road, Mount Sinai and Bukit Timah areas.

It is also popular with workers from nearby offices, while gourmands from farther away like to travel here for the good mix of hawker food.

There are 72 food stalls at the food centre, and a handful of stalls have been there for 30 years or more. These include Guan Kee Fried Kway Teow; Thye Hong, which sells fish ball noodles; Mohd Faizal Eating Stall, well-known for its prata; Ghim Moh Chwee Kueh, which makes its steamed rice flour cakes from scratch; and Hock Lye Prawn Mee Lor Mee.

But diners will be glad to know that these stall owners have every intention of reopening at Ghim Moh after the revamp.

Mr Tan Hock Guan, 70, has been frying kway teow for more than 40 years, 33 of them at Ghim Moh.

He says: "I want to continue cooking, but I am 70, so I will see if I am still healthy after the renovations."

Mr Lee Sah Bah, 63, who runs Ghim Moh Chwee Kueh with his wife, says: "If I don't run my stall, what will I do at home?"

Some who operate stalls in the market are also likely to give up their stalls next year.

These include a fruit stall run by Mr Chua Shoo Song, 70, who has been at Ghim Moh for almost 37 years, and a provision shop selling dried goods such as dried shrimp and salted vegetables, owned by Mr Lek Meh Choong, 59.

Mr Lek says: "It is a very difficult business especially with competition from supermarkets. My shop is just a small provision shop. I could sell my stall before the lease ends but it is very troublesome and I would make only a few extra thousand."

If he gives up his stall when the lease ends, he will receive an ex-gratia payment of $18,000.

Diners and residents say they are worried that their favourite foods and market stalls will no longer be accessible once the leases end and they move out.

Housewife Candace Chia, 50, who was queuing for carrot cake at Lian He Chye Tow Kway, says she is worried that some of the centre's good stalls, including Lian He and Hin Fried Hor Fun, will have to go.

She adds: "I hope they will come back, but I am not sure that they will."

Retiree Lily Heng, 63, has been patronising the market and food centre for more that 25 years. She lives in the Ulu Pandan area.

She says: "It is a real pity that some stalls will have to go just because the stallholders do not own them. There should be some sort of priority for existing stalls that operate here. Why should the mix change when it is something that residents like?

"I would be very upset if I would have to adjust to a whole set of new stalls, but I am glad that the old ones such as the char kway teow and the chwee kueh stall have decided to come back."

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Where: 01-20

When this corner chicken rice stall opens at 10am, a small queue starts to form. Diners like it for its succulent roast chicken, sweet-salty soya sauce gravy and plump grains of fragrant rice.

It is run by Mr Teo Chee Keong, 47, and his wife, who is also in her 40s.

They opened at the food centre three years ago and currently rent the stall from its owner.

As renters, they are not entitled to a stall space when the revamped food centre reopens. They would have to bid for a stall should they want to continue doing business at Ghim Moh.

Mrs Teo, who did not want to give her full name, says: "We might go to another food centre when the lease runs out. And if we go elsewhere and business is good, we probably will not come back."

Prior to opening at Ghim Moh, Mr Teo had been cooking chicken rice for over 15 years, and had previously run stalls in food courts in the Woodlands and Yew Tee areas. Those stalls have since closed.

She tells SundayLife! that she has been hearing that take-over fees from other stall owners range from $80,000 to $100,000.

The couple are undecided as to whether they would like to buy over their stall. When asked, they did not want to elaborate on whether negotiations with the stall's owner had already begun.

She adds: "Even if we pay that sum, we will still need to pay a monthly rent. I do not see the point.

"Money is hard to earn these days."

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This corner stall selling freshly made roti prata in the morning and nasi briyani for lunch has been at Ghim Moh for 30 years. Its stall owner, Mr Seeni Syed, 53, has no plans to leave. He will be renting a food stall in the newly renovated Ghim Moh Food Centre when it reopens.

Patrons who go to the food centre in the morning will see a jovial Mr Seeni standing at the corner of his stall flipping prata on a large cast iron griddle.

He purchased the stall under the Stall Ownership Scheme on a 20-year lease for $98,000 in 1994. Before that, he had been renting a stall at the food centre.

That $98,000, he says, was money well spent.

He adds: "I will carry on because I have already been here for 30 years, and I have a lot of customers."

Indeed his stall is fairly popular, with queues of customers lining up for hot prata.

The stall is named after his elder son, Mohd Faizal, 24, who now helps his father with the cooking and food preparation. His younger son, Mohd Ismail, 17, is currently waiting to enrol in the Institute of Technical Education and helps out at the stall too.

Mr Seeni also has two daughters, both in their early 20s. One is a university graduate working in the medical field and the other is a kindegarten teacher. His wife is a housewife.

He used to run a stall in the Shenton Way area before moving to Ghim Moh. When he bought the stall 20 years ago, he thought the Government might offer stall owners a chance to buy it again under similar conditions when the lease came up.

He says: "But it doesn't matter. I still plan to run my stall."

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Soyfresh, a soya bean milk stall that sells traditional tau foo fa (soya beancurd) and chin chow, or grass jelly, has been operating in Ghim Moh Food Centre since 1997.

Its owner, Mr Philip Wong, 58, used to rent the unit next door before moving to its current location in 2007. Two months ago, Mr Wong, who is also the spokesman for the Ghim Moh Shop & Market Association, bought the shop unit from its previous owner for $60,000.

Now that the ownership of the stall has been reassigned to him, he is assured of a space when the newly renovated Ghim Moh Food Centre reopens.

While other vendors are thinking twice about the sum, he weighed it out and felt that it was worth paying.

Rental for his corner unit was more than $3,000 a month, he says. And because he now owns the stall, his agreement with its previous owner is that he no longer needs to pay rent until the end of May next year, when the hawker centre's lease comes up.

Effectively, that means he spent about $30,000 to buy the stall in July, as the remaining $30,000 would have gone to rental from then until May next year.

On why he thinks the take-over was worth it, he says: "I see a lot of potential here and traffic flow is reasonably good."

He adds that in the years to come, more residents will be moving into the area - six blocks of flats are slated to be redeveloped under the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme. More offices are coming up too, he adds.

He says: "Even if just 10 per cent of these people come to the food centre, that would be an increase in business for everyone."

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Popular stall Lian He Chye Tow Kway might be just one of many that will no longer be operating when the revamped Ghim Moh Food Centre reopens.

The carrot cake sellers, Mr Cheang Leong Peng, 59, and his wife, Madam Sim Gek Choo, 53, who have been selling handmade chye tow kway at Ghim Moh for the last 14 years, may be forced to look for a stall in another food centre to ply their trade if takeover fees for the stall prove exorbitant, they say.

They currently rent their stall.

Negotiations with the unit's owner have not started yet but the couple say that judging by the takeover-fees at other stalls, that it is likely to be $50,000 or $60,000, which is "very expensive".

The fee would be paid to the stall's owner in exchange for the transfer of ownership to them, which then entitles the chye tow kway sellers to a unit in the new Ghim Moh Food Centre. Only existing stall owners are entitled to spaces at the new centre. Hawkers who do not own stall units will have to go through the usual tendering process, which does not guarantee them a spot.

Madam Sim says in Mandarin: "Why do we have to fork out such a large sum of money?

"After all, we have been working here at Ghim Moh for so many years. Why is it that we do not have any rights, or a chance to come back to this food centre?"

The stall, which has a constant queue of people throughout the morning and at lunch time, sells white chye tow kway - crisp and eggy and with lots of chye poh or preserved radish, each slab smeared with tasty sambal, cooked by Madam Sim. There is also a black version, with dark sweet soya sauce, made by Mr Cheang.

Both of them stand back-to-back, frying batches of chye tow kway in large flat pans.

They make their way to Ghim Moh from their flat in Jurong West at about 5am each morning, and make the steamed radish cake from scratch.

Mr Cheang says in Mandarin: "I understand that if stall owners who were formerly subsidised stallholders return their stall to the Government, they receive an ex-gratia payment. But what these stall owners want to charge should not be too far off this mark."

SundayLife! understands that the ex-gratia payment is $23,000 for cooked food stalls.

Mr Cheang would be keen to pay several thousand more, but double that amount would be tough, he says.

The couple are still deciding what to do.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 18, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to