The holes in the walls

2 03 2010

One of the things you always found around were the convenience stores of old: the hole-in-the-wall shops nestled in the corner of the five-foot way at the side of a building or in some alleyway. Many referred to these shops as “Mama shops”, “Mama” being the Tamil noun for elder or uncle, as the majority of these were run by shopkeepers of Indian origin. You could get most of your cravings for snacks fulfilled, rummaging through the compartments of the wooden racks laid against the wall, or in the plastic bags that lined the walls and racks, or maybe pulling it off a cardboard backing on which it was stapled on. This was where the newspaper and your favourite magazine, the daily supply of cigarettes and other necessities such as medicated oils could be picked up from.


This was one of the things about the streets of the Singapore that I grew up in that I just so loved … where my weekly dose of the Dandy and the Beano comics and Shoot! magazine were obtained from, as well as my favourite snacks: preserved Chinese olives, which we called “kana“, packed in threes and twisted in a roll of paper and clear cellophane; and ball-shaped fish keropok. The hole-in-the-wall, was where many of my fellow schoolboys in their attempt to style their hair as John Travolta did in the movie Grease, got their means to do so: a bottle of Vitalis hairstyling liquid (Vitalis was in the late 1970s and early 1980s what Tancho Pomade was in the 1960s and early 1970s) and a plastic comb. The shops also provided some necessary objects without which we may not have had much to do with our spare time: small rubber balls for our games of “hantam bola“, the objective of which was to hit another player (hard!) with the ball; and the air filled plastic balls which we kicked around the corridors and basketball courts; as well as “kuti-kuti“: little colourful plastic pieces in the shape of animals and sometimes everyday objects, which we tried to “kuti” or flick over one another using our forefinger.

A typical hole in the wall shop in Little India.

Magazine display - clothes pegs are used to attach them to a vertical piece of string which is suspended from a horizontal line or bar.

My favourite comics were Dandy and Beano which I purchased off the clothes peg from the hole-in-the-wall shops

Items which were also popular were the Hacks or Hudson’s cough drops, sold at five cents for two pieces, or as the shopkeeper would have said: “five cents two”. These sweets were (and still are) very popular with the local population. This brings to mind an advertisement for Hack’s on TV in perhaps the late 1970s or early 1980s, which seemed to have caught the attention of many back then. The advertisement had someone resembling Tarzan, losing his voice and with it, his distinctive yell. Saved by a Hacks cough-drop, an exuberant Tarzan finished the advertisement off with the yell “Or-ee-or, Hacks, Hacks” followed by a catchy jingle that went “one for you, one for me, and one for the family”, which perhaps a few would remember.

A hole-in-the-wall shop along a five-foot way in the 1960s with its display of magazines and interestingly, bananas on a stem for sale (which I mentioned in my post on Selegie Road). Photo courtesy of Mr Derek Tait.

These days the convenience stores are bigger holes in the wall, many of the traditional Indian run ones have appeared in dedicated units found in the void decks of HDB flats. There are of course the more modern air-conditioned ones like 7-11 and Cheers, requiring customers to have bigger pockets with the relatively high operating costs. It is nice to know that there are still a few of the traditional ones around, in some of the parts of Singapore where time has left behind. These have somehow become less popular with supermarkets and the new convenience stores sprouting up everywhere. The few that are left may soon, as with many of the things I loved about the Singapore of old, be just a distant memory.

The modern day hole-in-the-wall shop: a much bigger and air-conditioned hole with items sold at bigger prices.




14 responses

3 03 2010
Derek Tait

This reminds me so much of all those little shops when we were there in the 1960s. I seemed to have liked all the same stuff that you liked. It’s funny, I was just talking to my parents, here in England, about the Beano at the weekend and I said that I didn’t think that it was available in Singapore when I was a kid. I thought that it was just distributed in the UK. I loved the comic too, and the Dandy. It’s funny that we both have read and enjoyed the adventures of Biffo the Bear, Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street kids!
I also remember those coloured bouncy balls, the coloured plastic animals and all the little cheap toys that you got from shops then. They certainly bring back happy memories. Thanks.

4 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your comments Derek. I suppose there wasn’t very much in terms of keeping us kids occupied in those days that we ended up with similar interests and pursuits back then. The Dandy and Beano were really popular and they usually “flew off the pegs” of the little shops on arrival (I think they used to come in on a Tuesday here – can’t be sure) which were perhaps our equivalent of the newsagents. Biffo, Dennis and the Bash Street kids were my favourites! Yes, the shops were a good source for the little cheap toys … my sister also got her paper dolls there and there were also those paper balls which you could inflate by blowing into the hole at the top and this tube which contained some gummy like substance which you could blow up into a bubble with a little plastic straw that would come with the tube!

15 03 2010
Lam Chun See

I used to get my Beano comics at a mama shop in Serangoon Gardens near the Parmount Theatre. Do you remember the character Desperate Dan? How about the Mad Magazine? That one came later, maybe late 60’s.

16 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your comments Chun See. Oh yes! I certainly remember Desperate Dan, stubble and all and his Cow Pie! He was in the Dandy wasn’t he? Yes, I also remember the mama shop near Paramount … in fact I may have got this copy of the Beano from that shop as I used to hang out in the area around that time. It’s quite sad that the former theatre building has been torn down. Used to also go to the NIB second hand book shop around the corner as well.

I did get copies of MAD magazine as well, I think I still have a copy of one of my MAD magazines around somewhere – but these were pricier and being a football fanatic, I used to save my allowance for Shoot! instead.

10 05 2010

These holes-in -the-wall were the pioneers of birth control in S’pore. Condoms were sold quite openly much to the amusement of ignorant schoolboys.

11 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

I guess Rabi that is one way of looking at the role that the hole-in-wall stores used to play in our society!

18 05 2010
Macaroni under the flyover « The Long and Winding Road

[…] pieces of boiled cubed pineapple could be seen at the bottom of. Another favourite of ours was the Indian convenience store that operated out of one of the units close to the entrance from the bus stop where we could pick […]

25 05 2010

I loved Beano comics too!!..used to get them at the second hand bookstore in Serangoon Gardens that has since closed down.

25 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

🙂 The NIB second hand bookstore in Serangoon Gardens was a favourite of my mother’s!

9 08 2010
Back to school in many ways … « The Long and Winding Road

[…] we were in school. Much has changed since then, memories of what had been around flooded back: the hole-in-the-wall “mama” shop around the corner of Bras Basah Road, where boys would have obtained many items […]

7 10 2010
Go fly kite and jump into the harbour! « The Long and Winding Road

[…] string. The kites were similar to those I would have seen hanging outside the provision and mama shops, two of which would have gone for an affordable five cents. Many of the boys would have made their […]

16 04 2011

what great memories…thank you for the great pictures

26 04 2011
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for visiting! 🙂

18 08 2012

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