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7:43am at Beauty World, A Place in Limbo

7:43am at Beauty World, A Place in Limbo

  • Current Affairs
  • Features
Photography by Alexander Lim.

We associate different places with different periods of our lives: the park near your secondary school with your first love, the 24-hour cafe with late-night study sessions, that one random void deck with a painful break up.

Shaped by our memories and experiences, these places, in a way, come to remind us of who we are.

And so my relationship with Beauty World began last year.

After discovering their affordable xiao long baos, the open-air food centre on the top floor became my go-to dinner spot with new friends who lived around the area. The early days of a friendship are markedly similar to romance – a heady rush of getting to know one another over regular dinner dates.

From never caring much for the food centre to being there almost every week, I built a life around a place that, for at least a few months, felt like home.

Then in April last year, a mystery buyer offered $17.5 million to develop the food centre into an air-conditioned food court. I didn’t know the details of the sale, only that this meant I had to let go of a cherished spot.  

But as a strata-titled mall, the owner of every single stall needs to agree to moving out before the sale can proceed. Some have already left, like burger stall Hambaobao and ramen stall Buta Kin. But a few have yet to agree.

Most who remain for now settle for uncertainty, not knowing when their last days will arrive. 

This is a place in limbo.

I manage to catch a few stall owners, but no one can help with my questions. Communication from the management has been poor, and they know just as much as I do.

What they can tell me is that they may call it quits if the sale eventually goes through. It’s understandable as they’re all above 65 years old.

“It’s tiring and not easy. Rent is expensive and there isn’t another ideal location we’d like either. If we have to close, we will retire,” the stall owners of Wei Ji Cooked Food tell me in mandarin.

The family-run stall has been around for more than 30 years. In fact, since Beauty World first opened its doors, they have catered to retirees and the lunch crowd six days a week.

I ask the elderly owner of the drinks stall, who declines to be named, if he wants to set up stall elsewhere. He laughs: “Do you know how old we are? We’ve long retired. We’re only here to pass time.”

He emphasises that everyone is still waiting for a decision. In the meantime, no one can do anything, simply because “this is Singapore and everything is by law.”

Although his mandarin is heavily accented, the poignant resignation in his voice is clear as day. He speaks with the heaviness of one who sees no point in fighting money and power.

“I don’t know the stall owners’ names. I just call them uncle and aunty. But they know me lah. Sometimes they give me a discount. The food may be $3 but they’ll charge $2.60.”

For regular customers like Bob, whom I join for breakfast, the food centre has been a constant in their lives. Every morning before starting his shift as a cleaner, he buys a filling meal from the nasi lemak stall. He also eats lunch and dinner here.

Then there are customers of Wei Ji Cooked Food who have grown up patronising the food centre. First, with their parents, and now, with their children. Surely a place takes on even more significance when it has seen a family through three generations.

My own sense of loss suddenly feels extremely misplaced.   

The Beauty World food centre isn’t the first place where I’ve made good memories. Yet we expect places to stay around forever, available whenever we want to revisit a particular time in our past.

But neither modernity nor progress gives a shit about my personal history. When a place that has defined my identity makes plans to close, I’m reminded that nothing lasts forever.

But there’s something much worse about a place in limbo. I know an end is inevitable, I just don’t know when that will be. All I can do for now is replay my memories over and over, until I remember only an idealised version of the place. Maybe this will help when it’s finally time to say goodbye.

As Joan Didion wrote, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”

It is past 740am when I approach the owner of the Nasi Lemak Stall. The 70-year old aunty is grouchy after preparing her food for the breakfast crowd and shoos me away – but not before I casually ask if she’ll be sad when she needs to move out.

She laughs at my misguided nostalgia.

“Sad, for what?”

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Grace Yeoh Senior Staff Writer