Heritage shops in Kampong Gelam have been impacted by rising rental prices, struggle to bring younger people, and difficulty in attracting customers. To survive, many of these businesses have adapted new techniques.
For example, kebaya maker Ratianah Tahir is now imparting the tricks of her trade to young enthusiasts. She has mentored around 10 students and taught them the intricacies of designing and making the traditional garment.
Of those she mentored, 20% have started their own Kebab business. Tahir is worried that not many will turn their skill into a business and the trade will disappear.
“People think this is glamorous work, but actually it is not. There is a lot of work behind the scenes, a lot of trial and error with the garment. It tests your patience and endurance. Many encounter a mistake and just give up,” she shared.
“So, sadly, (not many continue with the craft) as there are a lot of challenges and things to learn. It takes passion, determination, time and courage,” she added.
Many shops are also finding new ways to attract shoppers such as putting modern spins on Kebayas.
“Back in the 40s and 50s, all the ladies in Singapore donned kebayas, it didn’t matter what race they were. I think we have forgotten about the kebaya. I would like to bring back the romance of the kebaya to the new generations,” said another kebaya maker, Mdm Ratianah.
Her shop has put modern twists on traditional fashion, such as making them easier to wear by incorporating press buttons and zippers, as well as making them in patterns such as polka dots and cat prints.
Rising rental price
Even eateries are affected by the challenge of attracting new customers. Nasi Padang restaurant Sabar Menanti, one of the oldest such eateries in Kampong Gelam, has been serving up hot plates of steamed rice with a variety of authentic dishes from West Sumatra since the 1920s. However, it will move to North Bridge Road later this month since rent in the area will be doubled to S$17,000 per month.
“Kampong Gelam is a very popular area right now. There are a lot of foreigners coming here and owning shophouses. I think the rental rates are pegged to the price of the property that they purchase,” said Iszahar Tambunan, the third-generation owner of the eatery.
“I’ve seen a lot of businesses in Kampong Gelam closing after a year or two because, while they tried (hard), at the end of day, the rent affects the business,” he added.
The restaurant owner is also finding it hard to employ new talent so he turned to hiring employees from overseas.
“The younger generation right now, they have a lot of options of the kind of restaurant establishment that they wish to join,” he stated.
“Nasi Padang is very labour intensive. We start at five in the morning and we have 25 dishes to prepare. Even I have not mastered all the dishes, but I’m trying to pick up the skills from my mum.”
Thankfully, the restaurant is attracting younger diners thanks to social media.
“After we did a bit of revamping and started being more aggressive on social media, we do see more people coming in from other races, enjoying our food, foreigners as well. It’s very nice to see the younger crowd coming into a very old establishment to enjoy real food,” he shared.
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Why are rent prices so high?
According to Real estate firm ERA Realty, the rising rental prices are driven by more foreigners investing in shophouses since they don’t need to pay additional buyer’s stamp duties (ABSD), which they would need to pay on residential properties.
One Kampong Gelam, a community organisation, stated that the increasing rental is not unique to businesses there and that it is working with government agencies to find ways to aid struggling firms.
“When we speak to business here, it’s sad to see that whatever they are making, they all go back to the rent. This is the reality and it really is not a good thing to hear,” said Zaki Maarof, chairman of the organisation.
Maarof added that heritage trades need more help since they are harder to sustain. Many trades have vanished in modern times and they hope to bring it back one day.
The area is also planning more events and activities to create buzz and bring in more people.
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