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A tale of two neighbouring streets

DIFFERENT FORTUNES: While Haji Lane (pictured) seems to be bustling with activity, shopkeepers in Arab Street are struggling to stay afloat in the face of high rentals and dwindling customer traffic.


    Jun 26, 2014

    A tale of two neighbouring streets

    IT IS a tale of two streets.

    Though Haji Lane and Arab Street are located side by side, one is a bustling hive of activity, with cafes and boutiques attracting the young and hip. The other is a sleepy stretch of mostly textile and carpet shops struggling to stay relevant.

    In Haji Lane, shops have seen their business grow up to 15 per cent year on year, with some even looking to expand. However, shops along Arab Street are feeling the squeeze from high rentals and low customer traffic.

    V.S.A. Omar, who runs Batik Emporium in Arab Street, said that the shop used to rake in $100,000 each year in the 1960s.

    "We used to have Singaporean Malays who would wear batik and sarongs," said the 52-year-old. "But the old generation has passed on and the new generation is not interested."

    His batik business has fallen by more than 80 per cent since its heyday, and a money-changer shop that he owns keeps him afloat.

    Lee Kok, 76, who works at Aik Bee Textiles, said: "We need young people to re-invent this trade. It's not easy for old people like us to think of ways to market ourselves."

    In Haji Lane, Turonny Fuad, 43, the co-owner of Tokyobike, said that business at his bicycle shop has grown by 15 per cent year on year since it was set up three years ago. The shop sells around 50 bikes each month and is looking to set up another outlet elsewhere.

    It was in 2005, when brands like Comme des Garcons set up shop, that Haji Lane received a new lease of life. The street, which also used to be home to textile shops and warehouses, saw more independent shops selling limited-edition shoes and apparel.

    Now, cafes, boutiques and even furniture shops have sprung up.

    Brian Koh, 38, owner of Life by Design Consultancy, moved to Haji Lane four months ago because of its buzz and "culture".

    "You don't get the standard shops in malls here. Over in Arab Street, the shops are more homogenous," said Mr Koh.

    Alice Tan, head of consultancy and research at Knight Frank Singapore, said that, since 2005, Haji Lane has also become a famous tourist spot.

    But with popularity come higher rents. Since mid-2004, median rents of shophouses in Arab Street, Bali Lane and Haji Lane have risen more than two-folds to between $4.36 and $6.50 per sq ft per month, according to findings by Realis and Knight Frank Research.

    For struggling Arab Street, this is a double whammy. One cafe owner said that the dwindling crowds and revoking of shisha licences last year hit her hard.

    "Four months ago, I spent $100,000 to set up this restaurant, hoping to attract the shisha crowd," said the 51-year-old. "But now, my cafe is empty."

    Last year, about half of the 12 shisha cafes in Kampong Glam had their shisha licences revoked.

    Still, Haji Lane, which moved with the times, is bustling. Arab Street, caught in a time warp, nurses its wounds.