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The Dwindling Heartbeat of Local Communities: Explore Singapore's Mama Shops

Visit the Mama shops before they disappear completely!

· 3 min read

Most Singaporeans born in the 1990s and earlier would probably have fond memories of visiting Mama shops. As Singapore continues to develop its skylines and city landscape, some things inevitably got to go. Amongst many other things, these Mama Shops that used to be a common sight in many residential areas are now very rare — in fact, the Gen Z and Gen Alpha Singaporeans might not even know what Mama shops are.

If you are visiting Singapore, and want a glimpse into the lifestyles of Singaporeans in the 1960s - 1990s, consider popping by some of these Mama shops! And while you are it, it's a great way to support small, local businesses in Singapore.

Source: Maksym Kozlenko

What are Mama Shops?

Mama Shops are small provision shops that are often tucked away in residential neighbourhoods. They are typically small, family-owned businesses that operate at the void decks of the HDB flats (the public housing in Singapore). For those unfamiliar, void decks refer to the ground floor of the HDB blocks — they are left open for residents to gather and hang out.

Mama shops are known to sell an eclectic mix of products, ranging from daily necessities like toiletries and spices or condiments used for cooking. They also sell magazines, newspapers, and a lot of local snacks. Amongst their catalogue of items also includes toys, which contributes to the multitude of reasons why we loved visiting these shops as kids.

Singapore Mama Shop
Source: Hunting Lions

Mama shops are best known for their cheap prices. But more than just a place to buy necessities at an affordable price, these shops were also an integral part in fostering a sense of community in the neighbourhoods. As the Mama shops are mostly frequented by residents in the area, a visit to these shops often meant you will see familiar faces — and the store owners probably knew everyone in the neighbourhood.

💡Tidbit: There is a common misconception that “Mama Shops” derived its name because it's 'the shop that mothers go to'. In actual fact, the term “Mama Shop” originates from the Tamil word “mama” which means uncle or elder brother. These shops were initially mostly set up by Indian immigrants, but over time, evolved to become an inclusive feature of the multi-ethnic Singaporean society.

Are there still Mama Shops in Singapore?

Starting from the late 1990s, Mama Shops gradually lost its place in Singapore. This could be attributed to the rise of convenience stores like Cheers or 7-Eleven. With the rise of these convenience stores, some of the younger generation now also have an association that Mama shops are 'dirtier' and 'messier' than the convenience stores or supermarkets - which is not necessarily true.

Adding to this is also the fact that the void decks of the new HDB flats were much smaller than before. In fact, some newer flats don't even have a void deck — the ground levels were used for childcare centers, carparks, or a common function room.

But, all is not yet lost! There are still Mama shops in Singapore. Even if they are not as common as they used to be, it is still possible to find these tiny shops in places around Singapore - mostly in the older neighbourhoods and residential areas.

Source: Asia One

Where to find Mama shops in Singapore?

If you wanted to explore some of these older neighbourhoods, consider visiting MacPherson, Hougang, Toa Payoh, Potong Pasir, Queenstown, Bukit Batok, nd Marine Parade areas. Of course, Mama shops are not exclusively found here, and you can still find them in other neighbourhoods in Singapore, though they could be less common. Alternatively, you could also visit Little India and Serangoon, where there is still an abundance of Mama shops.

Aside from just checking out a Mama shop, stepping out of the main tourist attractions, and into the residential areas are also a great way for you to get a sneak peak into life in Singapore.

What to buy at Mama shops?

Mama shops sell a variety of things, but one of the most recommended things to buy from these shops are the local snacks that they carry. Pick up some old-school sweets like Hacks candy, a old school bangle chocolate, or even a popsicle!

It is also a great place to pick up some toys if you have young children at home. Don't expect the quality of these toys to be superb - but they can definitely be entertaining.

Bonus: Speakeasy Bar in Singapore with a Mama Shop Concept

Well, if you don't really want to specially visit a Mama shop, but just wanted to see how it was like, you can head to Mama Diam (it's the Hokkien pronunciation for Mama Shop) instead!

Mama Shops
Source: Mama Diam Facebook

Mama Diam is a speakeasy bar with a 'shopfront' like a traditional Mama Shop, and recreates the look of an old void deck in Singapore, complete with old-school blue chess tables that are often found in void decks of older HDB estates.

Aside from the retro set-up, diners will also be given a “Bubble Balloon” and “Country Erasers” — popular old-school local games. You can also help yourself to some popsicles, a childhood favourite in the sweltering heat of Singapore.