This used to be my playground

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 7, 2013

OVER the past 27 years, Mr Justin Goh has seen regular customers at his department store grow up, get married and eventually bring their own children to his shop.

But the 52-year-old, who took over the store from his father, is running his business on borrowed time, like his fellow tenants at the old Woodlands Town Centre.

Kwong Kee Departmental Store, at Block 1A, is one of the 197 shops, offices and eating houses that will have to move out by 2016.

The Housing Board announced in June last year that blocks 1A to 6A at the 33-year-old estate, located just before the Woodlands Checkpoint to Johor Baru (JB), had been chosen to be redeveloped under the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (Sers).

This means the shops, which sell everything from textiles to mobile phones to mattresses - mostly on the ground floor of the four-storey blocks - will have to leave the premises.

While financial assistance is at hand for those who find alternative rental spaces to continue their business, Mr Goh has not decided where to move to.

He said that no matter where he goes, it will never be the same as selling his wares at the estate.

His business involves personal relationships, where many of his customers address him by name and continue patronising his store despite having moved out of Woodlands, he said.

"We have regular clients. When it's back to school time, they buy school shoes, school bags from us.

"For weddings, they buy mattresses and bedsheets.

"This place has a kampung feel. Everyone knows one another. When we are scattered, it won't have the same feel any more."

The area was, in fact, a kampung before it made way for 1,300 housing units in 1972.

In its heyday, the mosaic-tiled Woodlands Town Centre, as it was known in the 1970s and 1980s, was the place to be, with fast-food options such as McDonald's, the Shaw Brothers-owned Woodlands Cinema and moneychangers offering competitive rates.

Food has drawn people to the far north from all over Singapore.

The hawker centre at Block 4A Woodlands Centre Road, which was was popular then, is still a favourite, with early-morning crowds snapping up pratas at Ahsia Food Stall, famed for its accompanying sardine curry.

Similarly, curry puffs from the 24-hour kueh mueh stall at the Rasa Rasa coffee shop attract long queues.

Madam Jamaliah Bahari, 64, who runs the stall and owns the recipe for the curry puff, said she can make up to 600 a day. Each curry puff is sold for a dollar. "Most of my customers are from JB," she said. "They come here to buy the curry puffs at about 4am before they start work."

She has been there for 10 years and said her business has been better than in the days when she rented stalls in Jurong West and Yishun.

Newer shops like Romeo Hair Studio - which offers hair tattoos such as tribal and cornrow designs, and charges as little as $6 - also have regular clients who come from as far as Tampines, said owner Rengan Balakrishnan, who runs the shop with his father, Mr Balakrishnan Kannan, 65.

When The Straits Times visited the estate on Wednesday, it was abuzz with activity. Families with young children navigated their way through narrow walkways to buy school bags, while a group of men relaxed over a game of checkers at a coffee shop.

But all may not be as it seems - some tenants told The Straits Times that business has been on the decline for as long as 10 years.

Mr Edmund Wong, 45, whose family runs a traditional Chinese medicine and supplement shop in the estate, said it has dropped by 70 per cent.

He described the area as a "ghost town" compared to its livelier days.

One reason, he said, was the relocation in 1996 of the Woodlands bus interchange which used to draw traffic to the area.

His family have been there for 33 years and are finding it difficult to find another shop.

Shop tenants in the area will get a $60,000 ex-gratia payment.

Singaporean tenants will also be granted a "relocation assistance benefit" of $30,000 per tenancy if they can find another space for their business by the deadline.

But that did not appear sufficient to Mr Wong, who said his family would have to pay more than double the current $4,000 month in rent if they moved.

Many who have nostalgic memories of the estate hope that it will not go, although they are resigned to the fact.

One regular visitor who goes to Woodlands Centre Road because she can find everything in one place said it will be a "waste".

Madam Yap Soo Min, 55, said: "There's Sheng Siong here, a POSB branch, cheap and good food at the hawker centre."

Her 15-year-old daughter, Jessica Ley, chimed in: "There are also make-up, toys and clothes."

Madam Yap, a part-time food-taster, said she would especially miss the ice kachang from the hawker centre, which she can get at $1.20 a bowl.

Mr Rengan, who opened his barber shop four years ago, has lived at a block of flats opposite the estate all his life.

The 38-year-old said he cannot imagine the area without the estate, which holds his best childhood and teenage memories.

"It's a major thing in my life that it's going to be gone. This used to be my playground."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 7, 2013

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