Mama Shops (from Tamil மாமா, meaning uncle or elder) are convenience stores in Singapore that are located under high-rise apartment blocks built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Traditionally, they are owned and operated by Indians. Unlike other stores such as 7-Eleven, mama shops are not air-conditioned, and sell a variety of provisions within their limited area of approximately nine square meters.
Local residents often make use of mama shops as location markers.
The earliest mama shops were started by the early Indian immigrants who were traders and businessmen. Many eventually became small shopkeepers along Serangoon Road in the early 20th century. In its early days, the mama shop served mainly villagers in the vicinity. Since the shopkeeper was most likely to be the shop owner, service was rendered largely on a friendly and personal basis. In earlier times, many customers were granted unlimited credit, according to Ubid bin Ibrahim, co-owner of one of the oldest surviving mama shops. Bargaining, discounting of prices and personal delivery of goods were also common. Over time, shopkeepers became familiar with customers from the other racial communities, particularly the Chinese who observed the custom of reciprocity. As English was not a commonly spoken tongue back then, the Malay language served as the main form of communication between them.
When Singapore’s population underwent a major resettlement from villages to high-rise flats in the 1960s, many mama shops were relocated to the void decks – open areas on the ground floor of the HDB flats. While in the villages they had catered mostly to housewives, they now were frequented by children who would stop at the stores to browse through the thrift comics, inexpensive sweets, and cheap stationery. However, the resettlement caused a weakening in what had been a strong sense of community established back in the village, and many mama shops witnessed a loss in an otherwise frequent and loyal patronage. With the passing of time and increasing modernization, rising competition from air-conditioned mini-marts and upbeat convenience chain stores also dealt a blow to the survival of many traditional mama shops.
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