SG50 Icons - Mama Shop
There are some events, experiences, places or people so deeply ingrained in our childhood that our hearts still swell with poignancy at its precious memory and the thought of how fast time flies. That place for me has been a certain cluttered ‘mama shop’ and its owner, a man whom both my brother and I shall never forget. We were kids back then and we gave him a strange nickname — Superman. Who was Superman? The neighbourhood Indian-Muslim mama shop keeper at Joo Chiat Place. This was way before the Econ-Minimarts colonised HDB void decks. We frequented his mama shop like a fortnightly pilgrimage whenever mum took us to visit our maternal grandmother.
‘Superman’ was ironically the nickname he had given my elder brother Jeff who was then a school boy obsessed with superhero aspirations with a wardrobe of Superman T-shirts to prove it. Jeff may have also been Superman’s best customer. It explains why he was always welcoming and warm whenever he spotted my brother approaching his little shop, strutting proudly in his Superman tee. “SUPA-MANNN!” he would exclaim, cigarette-stained teeth gleaming and arms outstretched, like he had just sighted a celebrity and craved a fan hug. He would then proceed to market his wares of the week like a pro. “This, you like?” He proceeded to blow at a plastic windmill to make it whirl and break into a kaleidoscope of mind-boggling colours. He flipped a spinning top on the ground or wowed us with the magic of a wound-up toy. We liked everything and bought nearly everything.
He may not have been heroic like the local firefighter or policeman but his ‘super powers’ consisted of a knack for coaxing the neighbourhood children (my brother and I included) to empty our pockets of loose change into his coffers. I remember that stack of old biscuit tins he used to stash away all the dollar notes and coins we parted with in exchange for yet another frivolous purchase.
We never knew Superman’s real name though I’ll never forget how he looked. He was middle-aged with a slight paunch. On mosque-going days, he was dressed best in his ‘Baju Melayu' ensemble — a checked sarong skirt, a long-sleeved shirt and on his head, a songkok (a dark coloured boat-shaped hat). Most times he still had his casual sarong on but with a thin polyester singlet or top.
Every morning till close, ‘Superman’ sat in faithful vigil at his mama shop on his backless plastic stool. He would look at you with the kindest, crowfeet-cornered eyes behind a pair of thick-rimmed black spectacles.
At first, it was easy to be fooled by the puny size of Superman’s mama shop, which was really just a tiny nook. It occupied less than a quarter in length of the footpath lining a short row of derelict-looking shophouses at Joo Chiat Place. Mama shop owners like Superman were resourceful in utilising every bit of their tiny space—hardly a square inch was ever left unoccupied by items for sale.
As space was scarce, colourful magazines were clipped to pillars like wads of paper laundry from wooden clothes pegs, displayed from sturdy nylon strings curved down from their weight. From far, these strings of magazines would catch your eye like festive bunting. A small radio played Bollywood Hindi tunes which Superman turned down when we popped by so we could hear him above the din of the passing traffic and the noisy neighbourhood going about its business. There was just enough ‘single aisle space’ for walking and browsing before you usually bumped into someone or something hanging from somewhere. Superman’s mama shop reeked of tobacco smoke and oily grease. On very hot days it seemed to smell worse.
I always took comfort in buying some Hacks sweets to suck on to detract from the strong smell which was probably the only downside to browsing at Superman’s cramped shop. Hacks was an orange candy that had been the ‘lozenges of the eighties’. It came wrapped in a white plastic wrapper with a vintage image of a balding Caucasian man coughing into a white hanky. Others like the aunties such as my mother, took to the sweet preserved plums; the kind grandma called ‘kiam-sng-tee’ (salty, sour and sweet in Hokkien). They came in bright yellow or red, dripping with their tangy juices and Superman scooped them up from large clear plastic containers that had a red lid on and packaged them in clear cellophane packets. My brother Jeff would poke around the small stapled packets of ‘goli’ (marbles) superhero stickers or military aircraft trading cards he loved to collect. I zoomed in on the ‘masak-masak’, which were toy kitchen implements like doll-sized cutlery, cooking utensils and toy food made of colourful plastic.
Surrounding us were a riot of temptations: more cheap plastic china-made toys in brightly coloured cardboard packaging, foil packets of kid-sized snacks like crisps (my favourite was Jack and Jill potato chips), sweet puffed yellow fried corn snacks like Kaka (who could forget the free mystery toy giveaway inside), strange-smelling Apollo chocolate wafers, White Rabbit candies and other eclectic knick knacks that hung from strings backed against the cracked and peeling dilapidated walls. Somehow Superman managed to make his little mama shop cosy and neat despite how fully stocked and bursting at the seams it was with goodies.
Superman was quick to show us his latest wares — usually a new toy he brought in or something gimmicky to delight my brother and me, especially if it was battery-operated with flashing lights, sounds or came with cheap-tasting candy or chocolate. We also often spent five cents or more on a game of ‘tikam tikam’ for the chance to win the ‘big lucky prize’.
‘Tikam-Tikam’ was a child’s lottery game popular in those days where one could buy an ‘instant win raffle ticket’ for a tiny sum of about five cents and above. The raffle tickets were each numbered to correspond to the ‘lucky prizes’ displayed or pegged onto a paper board labelled with their individual winning numbers. We would give ‘Superman’ five or ten cents in exchange for one of those tiny, individually folded scraps of paper attached to a large cardboard which was the ‘Tikam Tikam’ board. He would yank off a folded ‘raffle ticket’ we pointed to at random, equally excited to check if we had scored the ‘lucky prize' such as the newest toy to win or other coveted prizes on display—anything from a spinning top to marbles, fizzy drinks, candy or even bubble gum. Unfortunately the chance of winning the top prizes rather paralleled adult lotteries.
A typical afternoon spent at Superman’s mama shop playing Tikam-Tikam, or sucking on lollipops such as some made to resemble an oversized baby’s pacifier or a ‘giant gemstone’ ring, was our idea of fun in those days before Toys ‘R’ Us.
In a typical afternoon’s haul, I would be strutting around pretending to look sophisticated in my new fuchsia pink heart-shaped toy sunglasses, blowing blue bubble gum. The bubble gum wrapper held a further gem — with some water, I got further kicks out of a temporary smudged tattoo for a day. My brother usually soared ahead of me ‘flying on foot’ carving through the wind with his colour-printed foam aeroplane.
Soon, we were tiny dots in the distance as Superman waved farewell, his biscuit tin jiggling with our coins. His tiny mama shop grew smaller behind us with our every skip. Like fading sunlight signalling the end of an era, we did not notice the vanishing light casting the last shadows on our fleeting childhood, our grandmother’s kampong or our endearing little mama shop eventually succumbing to progressive Singapore’s rapid urbanisation and land redevelopment.
My holidays to Singapore are never complete without a food crawl along the Joo Chiat area but I can never quite remember where exactly was the spot that Superman’s shop was. All I have are these strange and treasured memories triggered by anyone wearing a Superman tee-shirt.