Before the time of 7-11’s, small shops, and supermarkets, small convenience stores called mama shops were the norm.
Even today they’re still found all around Singapore, standing as small yet stark reminders of the country’s growth over the years.
A short history of mama shops
Started in the early 20th century by immigrant Indians in Serangoon Road, mama shops have long established themselves as an important part of comfortable city living and Singaporean culture since then. Their very names are an allusion as to their origins – the name mama shop derives from the Tamil word Mama, meaning uncle or elder. That’s because those are the people usually manning the shops themselves.
Unfortunately, the presence of mama shops has been suffering a steady decline as of late. Despite being recognized by The Singapore Heritage Society, the competition they face from other establishments – who often have more resources and are backed by popular support – are slowly driving them out of business. They’re vulnerable to experiencing the same fate as the old sidewalk cobblers and kacang puteh carts, sadly.
It’s a shame, as according to the Singapore Provision Shop Friendly Association, there were about 3000 shops active in the 1980’s when it peaked. It’s a stark contrast to their dismal numbers today, reaching only up to about 200.
Still, there is hope – the HDB has made efforts to keep mama shops alive. Through the Revitalization of Shops (ROS) scheme in 2007, the government has pledged to co-fund mama shop budgets to help them stay afloat.
What’s a mama shop like?
Often found in the void deck area of Singapore’s HDB buildings, mama shops are small, non-air-conditioned convenience stores that sell a wide variety of very cheap and generic goods. Sundry items, canned goods, candies, and newspapers are staple items, though th e range of their merchandise is ultimately dictated by its owner.
One of the reasons why Singaporeans keep coming back to mama shops has a lot to do with nostalgia; old school snacks like the biscuit piring, haw flakes, and potato wheels are some of the hardest pickings to pass up for those who were able to enjoy them in their youth.
Not to mention the fact that personalized service is another big draw – customers who frequent their local mama shop are often subjected to discounts and an attention to detail that simply can’t be found in larger retail chains.
Many agree that a high value should be placed on mama shops due to its cultural significance, its community value, and its convenience factor. For those who are lucky enough to pass by one, why not pick up an item or two? Not only will doing so keep them on the Singaporean streetscape, but you’ll also be treating yourself to a trip back in time.