The Mall Time Left Behind

26 January 2016

We visit the town of Seremban in search for hidden gems amongst a forgotten mall’s longest standing businesses.

Wisma Punca Emas in its heyday was a mall that commanded a healthy, bustling crowd of shoppers. It even had a well-sized rooftop pool overlooking the town. That was mid-eighties Seremban. Today Punca Emas stands like a relic, its impenetrable concrete structure (a trickle-down of the then popular Brutalist movement in architecture) greying in the weather.

At the ground level, a lighting shop and a jeweller front the mall, their gleam a stark contrast to the rest of the building. It is late December and a Santa mannequin stands with arms empty next to a dishevelled Christmas tree – “welcome”.

Mui Jie (older sister Mui) does not want to claim ownership of Suara Emas music store. Her pretend-denials feel like they come from a place of obligatory humility. They cannot be taken seriously as she can name no other boss-in-charge. Working as a storekeeper since she was a teenager, she has seen the business move a few times and finally settle down at Wisma Punca Emas in the early eighties. She openly calls her business one that is like a “setting sun”. Indeed, the store is still packed with music formats that have been far left behind – CDs, cassettes, vinyl and even reel-to-reel-tape.

She pulls out drawer upon drawer of vinyl, flipping and stopping at the big names. After a pause, Mui Jie peers over her glasses conspiratorially and clears some cardboard to reveal an open reel deck and a box of reel-to-reel tape. If audiophiles drew a pyramid of high fidelity sound reproduction, reel-to-reel would sit at the zenith of that pyramid.

Yet her bestsellers these days are packs of cigarettes and canned drinks. “I’m just trying to clear my stock,” she says in Mandarin, referring to the shop’s music collection that extends from Chinese opera on vinyl, Van Morrison on cassette and Best of EDM on CD. “That’s why I stay open.”

After a few dark turns further into the mall, one unexpectedly comes face to face with a glaring glow. Brother Hair Salon’s light green interior is lined with mirrors that reflect upon each other into pendaflour infinity. The owner, Mr. Sathananthan, or fondly known as Appu, has a smile to match his barbershop’s lighting. He has been cutting hair since age 33 and is now in his sixties. With his laptop streaming Indian songs on YouTube, Appu attends to his customer’s beard. “Sometimes, I don’t even know what the weather’s like outside,” he confesses.

Appu claims to have around 10 customers on a weekday and about 20 on a weekend at best. The rental is kept at the RM200-RM300 range at Wisma Punca Emas by its individual shop lot owners. When asked whether he cuts the newer hairstyles, he laughs and says he tries his best. One thing that he will not do, however, is a sideburn. “I can cut two heads [sic] in the time it takes to shave a sideburn,” his face scrunches in mild irritance at the mention of it. It is perhaps this stubborn refusal that sees him through the decades of barbering. Like with Mui Jie, Appu also expresses how he would not know what to do with himself if he had to retire and stay home.

Another shop owner that has seen Punca Emas’ glory days is Khairul Kamal who sits hunched over his work desk at Westima. He’s known as a shoemaker but he also custom makes other leather goods like motorcycle jackets, belts and bike seats. His store is largely unadorned except for the piles of shoe moulds, a shelf of leather boots and a glass display of belt buckles. Khairul sources his leather from Kuala Lumpur and says that a leather jacket can take up to one month to finish and cost around RM700, depending on design.

Not a man of many words, Khairul reveals that he started making shoes in 1985 at the age of 18. One of his older customers, however, chatters away on his behalf, shedding some light on the unrecorded history of the mall. According to him, Wisma Punca Emas’ foundation was built to take 26 floors. It now stands at just six floors, the other floors were to be added on later but plans stalled when the owner ran out of money. None of the shop owners have much concrete information about this but there is a general thread about the late owner moving out of Malaysia to live in Canada.

Business started to drop when the nearby Terminal One bus station and shopping centre opened in 1996. As customers and business owners made the migration there, Punca Emas started its slow but inevitable descent into commercial irrelevance.

The history of malls perhaps is the history of our desires; where we pointed little fingers at toy displays, wasted teenagehood away at video arcades and dropped another box of washing detergent into shopping trolleys. So when time and financial tide sweep a once busy mall under the rug, we feel the loss of ourselves, too. Looking at the few stores that unswervingly trudge on is a reminder of the power of doing a job and keeping at it no matter the weather outside.

All stores are located on the Ground Floor of Wisma Punca Emas, Jln Dato Sheikh Ahmad, 70000 Seremban, Negeri Sembilan.

Suara Emas

Operating days: Mon – Sat (11am – 7pm)

Price range      : vinyls (RM10 – RM100), cassettes (RM5 upwards)

Contact           : 06-7623428

Brother Hair Salon

Operating days: Sat – Thur (10am – 7:30pm)

Price range      : haircut (RM10), haircut & shave (RM12)

Contact           : 012-6062605

Westima Shoemaker

Operating days: Mon – Sun (12pm – 7pm)

Contact           : 012-9279569/ 019-2041311

 

By Adeline Chua

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