Straits Times: Fri, Jul 27
THE passport to a second golden age for businesses in Crawford Centre has come partly from its close proximity to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) building.
The 10 blocks of Crawford Centre in Lavender were built between 1978 and 1982. Nine blocks have shops and HDB flats, but Block 465 houses only businesses.
Once home to thriving textile companies in the 1980s and 1990s, which have since mostly shuttered, the fortunes of the two-storey Block 465 have, in the last four years, swung towards companies that cater to the visa needs of customers and their lifestyle pursuits such as dancing and food.
A bridge over Sungei Rochor brings the crowd from the ICA building to Crawford Centre's eight visa agencies.
They help Singaporeans and permanent residents apply for visas and long-term passes for friends and relatives, as well as write appeal letters. For a basic visa application, agencies charge $50, of which $30 goes to the ICA as processing fees.
Often packed with non-English-speaking customers who need help filling in the forms online, the businesses are usually accompanied by side ventures to ensure profitability.
Hi-Techlink International has about 100 customers daily, but the real money spinner is its employment arm, which brings in professionals and manufacturing workers to work here. 'We do a proper and good job, that's why people keep coming to us,' said owner Samson Sekar, 47, who hails from India and became a Singapore citizen in 2006.
His next-door neighbour, China-Vietnam Bride, is kept busy with visa work too, but its owner also wants to focus on bringing in foreign brides, as 'one deal is enough to cover the rent'.
Said Mr Simon Lim, 34: 'We are a decent matchmaking agency with decent girls.'
Currently, he has two Vietnamese women putting up with friends while waiting for Mr Right to show up before their one- month social-visit passes run out.
They may have to wait a while. Mr Lim said that since his business opened last month, fewer than 10 men have come looking for a life partner, but they cannot afford the $5,000 fee.
'They are usually old and uneducated,' he said.
Catering to changing needs
THE mature estate is also taking a step towards a brighter future with Glamour Danzfit, a dance- outfit boutique that opened in April.
Co-owners and dancers Irene Lee, 53, and Wu Feng Jiao, 60, relocated from Selegie for the bigger space, proximity to Lavender MRT station and reasonable rent.
More importantly, it is just in front of the Arca Dance studio, which started in 2009.
'There are tai tais who would drop by after their dance sessions,' said Ms Lee, who quit the corporate world to follow her passion for Latin dance four years ago.
The enterprising duo are also collaborating with an Italian brand to bring in a line of dance outfits priced from $800 to a few thousand dollars. Suppliers from China charge from $200 to $700.
Just last month, they rented a unit next door from Kang Li Hung Garments Trading and used one- third of it to display the more elaborate competitive dance outfits.
The rest of the space is sublet to a new dance school for children called 515DanceSpace.
Its owner Li Xiu Zhu, 28, who specialises in modern and Chinese dance, started her first class last month.
Currently, all her students are those she is teaching as part of co-curricular activities at Compassvale Secondary School and Swiss Cottage Secondary School.
'These students like to dance, they even asked if they could stay overnight in the dance studio,' said Ms Li, who came here from China and became a permanent resident about six years ago.
515DanceSpace does not have a proper signboard yet, unlike a bakery called Naomi Kitchen, which has a cute pink one. It has served thousands of Swiss rolls, fruit tarts and shepherd's pies since April 2010.
Said Mr Kelvin Chua, 36, who owns Naomi Kitchen with his wife: 'At first, we sold cakes to the daughters and sons of the elderly who live here.
'Slowly, we saw a bigger office crowd, even from Shenton Way. Now, we have people who order our birthday cakes and travel down to get it.'
Time stands still for some
BUT amid the flurry of activity from the new kids on the retail block, time crawls slowly for the first-generation shops. Kang Li Hung Garments has had to rent out part of its premises to Glamour Danzfit to cut costs from its dwindling wholesale garment business.
'Our golden years were during the early 1990s, when long queues formed outside our shop and we had to buy one more shop just to store the clothes,' said Madam Goh Bee Ban, 73.
'My husband once wanted me to have more sons, but I told him that buying more property is better.
'Now, I collect rent every first and 14th of the month. Even having a son does not guarantee that,' added Madam Goh, who has five children and a string of investments from the early prosperous days.
Not all shopkeepers in the area are that lucky.
While owners of BMWs and Lexuses continue to head to Crawford Centre to wait for an hour for their fix of a $5 bowl of Hill Street Tai Hwa bak chor mee, a 30-year-old hardware shop nearby sports a 'closing down sale' sign, yet draws nobody.
Mr Tai Peck Seng, 68, who runs a textile shop on the second floor of Block 465, has had rows of cloth untouched for a while.
Pointing to an old clock with four names painted on it, he said: 'This was given to me by four friends on the shop's opening day in 1978. Two of them have died.'
He is hoping for a deal from the HDB to sell en bloc, as that would be a good reason to close his shop.
Rumours are swirling over a possible deal, but some think it will not happen.
After all, the renovation work and lift upgrading that turned Crawford Centre into a brighter and livelier place were completed less than two years ago. But Mr Tai remains optimistic.
'It'd be best if the Government takes over the place so that I can wind down the business. It's time to retire,' he said.
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PAST ITS HEYDAY
Our golden years were during the early 1990s, when long queues formed outside our shop and we had to buy one more shop just to store the clothes.
- Madam Goh Bee Ban, 73, whose garment business has had to rent out part of its premises to cut costs
At first, we sold cakes to the daughters and sons of the elderly who live here... Now, we have people who order our birthday cakes and travel down to get it.
- Mr Kelvin Chua, 36, who owns Naomi Kitchen, a bakery that opened in 2010
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