When you ask a Malay, Chinese or Indian where to find a “mama shop”, they mostly know what you’re talking about (despite its uniqueness these days), but have no idea where to point you to. It shows two things: that mama shop is iconic to this city; and their numbers are eroding.
Mama means ‘uncle’ in Tamil, referring to the men of Chennai descent who set up five and dime stalls along five foot ways. Their little “wall stores” miraculously contain a vast number of items, from ice creams to soft drinks and personal hygiene supplies to kitchen supplies. But their presence, like many pre-independence old trades, is diminishing.
According to a report by The Straits Times in 1986, the number of mama shops fell from 136 in 1975 to just 40 in the same year the article was published. It was attributed to the demolishment of shophouses, where these stores reside, and that no new license was issued since 1974, because “of the government’s programme to resite hawkers and mama stores”, the then Environment Ministry was quoted saying. They were resited to HDB void decks and hawker centres.
These days, mama shops and the snacks they sell reflect the changing times. But as they strive in a losing battle to offer a better range to compete with the supermarkets, they also preserve bits of their past in packets of cough drops and sour plums – goods offered since time immemorial. One unique feature about them is that they offer singular or very small portions – like a pack of six mint drops and one banana. We feature six of the remaining “wall stores” in Chinatown, Arab Street, Geylang and Little India – old neighbourhoods where some of the last few are found today. Text and images by Sheere Ng @ Makansutra