Street View: The old-world beauty of Beauty World

Train station's opening in 2016 may spell more foot traffic for aged mall

ST 20140314 Streetviewm

A TRAIN station bearing the name Beauty World will rise up in two years in a part of Upper Bukit Timah where an open-air market of the same name once stood.

The new segment of the Downtown Line promises to take visitors not just down memory lane but also right up to the doorsteps of a mall in a seeming time warp.

Like many of its cousins of the 1970s and early 1980s such as Katong Shopping Centre, Beauty World Shopping Centre - opened in 1983 - is looking frumpy these days compared with, say, swanky Ion Orchard.

But change is on the cards, with the new MRT line likely meaning more foot traffic and a chance for Beauty World to rejuvenate itself.

The mall could capitalise on its "retro" look, instead of going for a facelift, said retail expert Amos Tan, who lectures at Singapore Polytechnic's business school.

"It's definitely iconic, everyone knows about Beauty World. So now that it's more accessible, what can they do to be noticed?"

A spokesman for Knight Frank estate management, which runs the complex, said it is conducting a feasibility study into a facelift, "while retaining the building's overall image and aesthetic".

For now, before change sweeps in, regulars are happy with their quiet spot in crowded Singapore.

For while its occupants have come and gone, Beauty World has retained an old-school charm, devoid of the crowds and fast-food outlets seen at most mega-malls.

Step into its open-air hawker centre and you might hear an uncle soulfully warbling Hokkien oldies at a karaoke system shop next door, slightly off-key.

Here, hawkers like ban mian seller Andy Chng, 53, banter with customers in dialect and dole out free bowls of noodles, with extra servings of homemade chilli.

"There's an old-school feel to this place, it's quite different from most places," said investment analyst Clement Ong, 34, who comes for lunch about twice a week from his office at nearby Cheong Chin Nam Road.

Heritage blogger Lam Chun See, 61, recalls going to the Beauty World Market during his officer cadet trainee days to take the "ba wang che", or unlicensed taxis, to the old Safti training institute.

"My friends and I would buy fruits and snacks, then pile onto the taxis lining up at Jalan Jurong Kechil. The queues were like what you see at the airport now."

Most tenants and stallholders from the old Beauty World Market moved to the centre, built after repeated cases of fire there in the 1970s.

They brought with them businesses ranging from textile and tailoring services to watch repair shops and Chinese apothecaries.

In 1998, the shopping centre's then-owner Pidemco inked a deal to sell it to 194 individual buyers, allowing them to own shop space.

"Many of us are still here because we bought over the place. If we had to rent this space, we'd have closed down long ago," said Mr Chew Yong Koon, 73, owner of Grassland Book Store.

Mr Chew and his childhood friend Ho Kuek Sian, 75, who runs Ban Sing Siang Medicine Hall a few floors above the book shop, said they now make "only enough to get by".

"My wife and I do feel for this place because it's our family business and we've run it for about 45 years," said Mr Ho, who has six children and five grandchildren. "But if the building goes en bloc, we will call it a day."

Most shoppers have gone to newer malls in nearby Jurong East and Clementi, said shop owners.

"There are all these new shopping centres now with so many shops. It's hard for us to compete," lamented Madam Goh Qiu Hai, 58, of Great City Garment Tailoring.

Beauty World's patrons are mostly regulars such as retiree Khoo C.T., 69, and wife Lie L.K., 62. They drop by every fortnight from their Bukit Batok home for a grocery run followed by lunch.

"We used to come here with our children on weekends. Now they're grown up, they bring their children here too," said Madam Lie.

These days, more maid employment agencies and tuition centres have moved into the mall.

But the open-air hawker centre, known for its tasty mutton soup and ban mian, may soon make way for an air-conditioned foodcourt, said hawker Lai Chong Lee, 69. Talks are under way with the 41 stalls there, he added.

Said Mr Chng: "With so many new shopping centres, we cannot keep up with the times. Renovation is inevitable."

But Mr Chew has a different take. "I've been to these big shopping centres, and all you do is buy things there. Here, it's more comfortable to walk about, and you can meet people who've been around for so long."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 21, 2014