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  • Writer's pictureFaith Zheng

Peninsula Shopping Centre: More than its Past

My first encounter with Peninsula Complex was a complete accident. It was an unusually crowded weekday afternoon, and I was rushing for work at Peninsula’s futuristic neighbour, Funan. The thick crowds on the road prompted me to think of a shortcut into Funan. Thus, when the narrow and empty Coleman street turned up right before Funan’s flooded gates, instinct swerved my body right and onto the quieter path, in search of that alternative entrance. As I rushed past an alleyway full of trucks and smoking corporates, I noticed a bistro that stuck close to the pavement, its patrons a mix of tourists and flashy locals. Football commentary weaved between a diverse mixture of conversations, as I sighted an elegant signage that read ‘Peninsula Excelsior Hotel’.


Behind this cramped bistro, were a set of tall glass doors that led to the entrance of a building. I curiously brisked in, starting my first experience of this obscure building. The noises from outside died out as stale, chill air settled on my sweaty body. My heart thumped between my ears. The majority of stores, squeezed tight like sardines, were pitch black, a sign of closure. Those that were open made sure passer-bys knew, their brightly lit stores selling either electronics or beauty products. There was a cafeteria that housed middle-aged businessmen, with hard creases lining their foreheads as they stared into their black mugs. A rectangular floor plan began to form in my mind as I made paced turns around each corner, with a singular set of narrow escalators decorating the mall’s centre. Foreign nostalgia and sadness washed over me, as I assumed the heritage and history of these stalls and their patrons would soon be lost to the country’s infamous en-bloc habits. Closed stores, a lack of patrons, and silence all pointed my assumption towards an old mall awaiting its demolition sentence. I hurriedly rushed out through another set of glass doors before I had to clock in late. The contrast between Peninsula Complex and its mall counterparts was evermore stark when I whizzed past the automated doors of Funan. The chatter of crowds smacked me hard in the face as I snaked past groups of shoppers and tourists, hurriedly rushing up the wide escalators. The bright lights of each shop, with an attendant standing at its forefront blurred into a repeated glaze as I rushed over to my place of work. The entire brief journey there, had me convinced that Peninsula Complex was nothing more than a mall past its prime.


With my curiosity piqued, and an ethnography assignment due, I decided to settle on this mall for my research. The same stale air greeted me upon my formal visit, the air conditioning working to gradually cool my skin. My new white Vans provided a stark contrast against the yellowed tiles, wedged between thin lines of stained grout. I made a quick right, passing a mix of half-opened, ambiguously shut stalls, to the security counter. I accidentally made eye contact with one of the guards, quickly darting away from their aimless gaze. The counter they lounged behind was a simple glass table, labelled jointly as security and customer service. I decided to tackle the building from top to bottom. Snaking behind the guards, I made my way up the narrow escalators, noting how large I felt in comparison to standing on other escalators. I can almost reach the level above me while traversing between floors. The first thing that caught my eyes was a floor directory, creatively embedded into the building’s wall. I snapped a photo of it, hoping that it would provide sufficient orientation towards my ethnography.


Decorated Directory


The directory solidified the rectangular nature of the mall I sensed in my first visit. Most older malls shared this rectangular structure, from Queensway Shopping Centre, People’s Park Centre, as well as Peninsula’s neighbour, Peninsula Plaza. A stark counter to modern malls. I briefly wondered if this choice was a deliberate one shaped by legislation, or one of cultural significance that was lost to time. While the layout allowed for systematic navigation, I still found myself lost due to the mirrored turns and corridors. At some point, I felt like a rat in a maze, searching for an elusive chunk of cheese. The top floor seemed to have a theme of sports equipment, with a high frequency of brightly lit storefronts hosting a myriad of athleisure shoes and sportswear. These stores sat amidst a sea of closed shutters that once occupied shops, ranging from college, offices, to pubs.


I assumed this thematic categorisation would follow on subsequent levels, but I was proved wrong. As I descended to the third floor, I spotted two thrift stores that carried similar items of different prestige. A young girl in punk fashion manned the one a floor below, while a bearded man wearing lines on his face, donning a thick leather jacket and a bandana manned the one on the third floor. I walked in anticipation for a similar theme to jump out at me. Instead, I was greeted with confusion, more than anything. The shops on this floor were more haphazardly categorised, with a couple of them shrouded in mystery, with blurring stickers pasted on their glass walls. Some labels included learning centres, clubs, and skin solution centres. There were tailors that had their grand suits out on display, obscuring their makers who are at work.


A hidden tailor hard at work


Mid-exploration, the building cleanly opened up to a walkway, labelled as ‘Excelsior Shopping Centre’. I stood in awe at the connection. Signboards were filled with assorted artworks, the dated granite floor reflecting the spotlights that illuminate its decor. Sandwiched next to this connector, was a narrow storefront. With Excelsior Shopping Centre being built a decade later than Peninsula Complex, I wondered if any of the stores was cut in half as an architectural compromise for the connector.


A decorated walkway.


Other things that the third floor had to offer included a church. Its glass walls were similarly fogged by glass decals, giving the church an air of mysticism. I stood relatively perplexed by the sight, having never seen a place of religion nestled in a commercial building.


A quaint church


Along a similar vein, was a store that plastered its glass walls with ‘Chinese New Year’ themed Christian imagery. The activity of the store can be traced back to 2021, with its TraceTogether signs still up. Additionally, the contradiction of the store sign being a spectacle shop with its display of anime figurines and antiques contributed to my confused gaze. The anime figurines in particular were from a show of a largely younger demographic, further complicating the profile I had of the shop owner.


A mix of culture, religion, and hobby


The second floor mirrored the third floor, being a collage of assorted stores. Some storefronts had clutter spilling out of their metal frames, elevating the level of chaos. This level hosted the same mysterious offices and collector shops, as well as mislabelled stores. There was one shop in particular that caught my attention.


Remnants of old and new


The clash of new and old was starkly present from this storefront. An old trading store contrasts with a more modern sale of spells and spirituality. From pragmatism to spiritualism, this store seemed to embody the contradiction of Peninsula Complex in itself. Another floor down brought me back to where I started. I heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that I had just completed another maze. Similar to the fourth floor, there was a dominance of technology stores as compared to others. I decided to take a well-deserved break at the cafeteria, joining the hardened office workers in their mid-day break. I wrote down a couple notes of reflection, taking in the silence of the mall. It is likely that no other cafeteria would be as peaceful, especially in the bustling city centre.


Reaching the final floor of Peninsula Complex, I realised I had not fully experienced the disorientation that the mall had to offer. While the basement held a similar structure to its other levels, there were a few awkward turns that confused my journey through this final level. Half the floor was occupied by music shops that held bespoke guitars, ranging from classical to electronic to novelty designs. These stalls had a slightly more modernised feel, their products and arrangements being something that I recognise.


Fancy guitars, not for sale


The other half of the stores were a similar mix of photography, collector shops, thrift stores and food stalls. A short and tanned lady handed me a food pamphlet, her store’s seafood package screaming at me through imagery and text. Peering into her shop, I saw cheery patrons demolishing said seafood package. I waved her off, storing the restaurant as a potential foodspot in the future. An exit caught my eye, as I followed it to an underpass. A small sign pointed in the underpass’ direction, detailing that my journey would land me at Peninsula Plaza.


Exit.


With the recent closure of old malls such as Golden Mile Complex and Peace Centre, old malls seem to be more of a hindrance than a treasure to Singapore. However, citizens feel otherwise. Wu (2020), writing for Rice Media, documented the multi-faceted meanings behind older buildings like Golden Mile Complex, pointing out the persistent demolition of iconic and historic architecture creating a cynicism amongst Singaporeans towards old landmarks. Wu (2020) noted the nostalgia, apathy, and sentimentality associated with the building at the time, when the complex was gazetted for conservation. This sentimentality and fondness carried over to Peace Centre’s final hurrah in 2024, with social movement PlayPan temporarily transforming the mall into a community-building site before its demolition (Chiu, 2024). While I was able to explore Peninsula Shopping Centre today, the same can not be said for the years to come.


References

Chiu, C. (2024, January 27). “It’s hard to find another place like this”: Peace Centre to close after Jan 28. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/it-s-hard-to-find-another-place-like-this-peace-centre-to-close-after-jan-28

Wu, I. K. (2020, December 2). Forget Sentimental Value. What’s the Real Value of Golden Mile Complex? Rice Media. https://www.ricemedia.co/current-affairs-features-forget-sentimental-value-whats-real-value-golden-mile-complex/

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