Lament Thambi magazine store closing, but stop the hypocritical heritage wailing

Singapore loves to champion a local icon when it’s far too late to actually save it

Thambi Magazine store at Holland Village.
Thambi Magazine store at Holland Village. (PHOTO: Amrita Chandradas/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

HERE’S a quick guide for any Singaporean business with deep heritage roots. If you’re closing or relocating, for heaven’s sake, don’t tell anyone. If you do, expect to be inundated with slightly hypocritical and vaguely narcissistic social media posts, lamenting your demise.

Typically, the posts go something like this…

“When I was a kid, I used to spend all my days at this Closing Singaporean Business (because Netflix didn’t exist then and there was only so many times we could visit the freakish woman with the exposed boobies at Haw Par Villa)."

“I used to buy so many products at this Closing Singaporean Business (and then the Internet made it possible for me to get the same products cheaper online)."

“And it’s a disgrace that another Closing Singaporean Business is going to be lost forever as we morph into a bland, identikit city (and I’m only typing this in Starbucks because I need good aircon and free wifi.)”

“I haven’t actually visited the Closing Singaporean Business for many years because of work and family (and I found inferior alternatives on Shopee.)”

“But I am going to visit the Closing Singaporean Business to pay my final respects (and sniff around for any two-for-one bargains!)”

And then, if the poor beleaguered owner of the Closing Singaporean Business is really lucky, he might be blessed with a second round of social media posts, perhaps even more ironic and lacking in self-awareness than the first.

Usually, these posts are reserved for LinkedIn specialists, the ones that begin with something deliberately generic – I was working in the lab, late one night - and then edge towards something dramatic - and suddenly to my surprise – before getting to the shocking denouement he did the monster mash – and encouraging the reader to bring out his executive “monster” by signing up for a C-suite course.

You see, there really is nothing that cannot be shoehorned into a personal branding exercise, whether it’s a novelty hit record from 1962 or the poignant closing of the Thambi Magazine Store. We couldn’t just make it about the store and its loyal and dignified owner, could we? We had to make it about us.

Within hours of the news breaking that the Thambi Magazine Store in Holland Village was closing after more than 80 years, the first round of cut and paste Closing Singaporean Business posts appeared. But the second round was all about the subsequent visits to the affected business. And they went something like this …

“When I heard the news about the Thambi Magazine Store, I had to rush down and take this photo with the owner. He’s the one with the furrowed brow, dealing with the stunning myopia of the Holland Road Shopping Centre management and worrying where he’ll find another location to keep his family business alive. I’m the one grinning like a school competition winner, wondering how many likes I’ll get for this Facebook post. Or, better yet, how I might twist this photo op into some claptrap about business pivoting in my next magnum opus on LinkedIn. Still, I did buy a magazine for the cat litter tray. I actually stopped reading physical magazines after Peak printed an unflattering photo of me at one of my wife’s charity balls. And my wife has held a lot of balls, you know.”

Yes, I’m getting carried away now. And yes, there were many sincere visitors to the Thambi Magazine Store, familiar faces who had patronised Periathambi Senthil Murugan’s outstanding magazine cave for decades. And I did contemplate making the trip myself, but I was aware of the hypocrisy (I have bought magazines at Thambi since 1996, but not regularly) and the narcissism (I didn’t want to make his economic plight about me.)

And quite frankly, that awful media photo of punters gathered around the store and snapping away with their phones as an emotional Mr Periathambi shuttered his shop for the last time defied belief, like social media hyenas circling a wounded lion, smelling weakness, or a viral post. A kind man’s discomfort is not a source of voyeuristic entertainment.

But I’m doing it, too, right? In writing this, I'm part of the same hypocrisy. Actually, no, Mr Periathambi and I have been part of the same industry ecosystem for decades. I wrote words. He sold them. Think of a prominent Singaporean print publication in the last 25 years and I’ve probably written for them at some point. Mr Periathambi’s magazine cave provided shelter for thousands of columns of mine, along with every bookstore in the country, and I will always be extremely grateful to the indefatigable, unsung heroes of our faltering ecosystem.

And, incidentally, what happened when several Times bookstores closed recently? The armies of nostalgia marched across our social media feeds once more, as they chanted stuff like…

“I used to get all my books from local bookstores. And then I discovered Amazon. And then Times Bookstore closed. And now I’m sad and I must blame the management or the government or something.”

Elsewhere in the high street, there have been variations on this popular lament…

“I bought my first office outfit at John Little and then I discovered Shein. And then John Little closed and I was sad. And then I was briefly happy when I rushed down to John Little’s 80 percent-off sale. And then I was sad again, so I posted some black and white photos of John Little.”

And maybe that’s the Hobbesian nature of the retail business. It’s nasty, brutish and short, with too many sunset industries battling for survival in the digital age. But we can’t have it both ways. We can’t always go cheaper, inferior, foreign and free (or even pirated and illegal) and then feign ignorance, regret or loss for the demise of local products and industries that we rarely supported in the first place.

Singapore is too small to preserve every struggling business and building, whatever the heritage value, unless we patronise them. Whether it’s a Holland Village magazine seller, a bookstore or a hawker stall, nostalgic love letters after the fact will not save them.

Hopefully, Mr Periathambi will find a new location for his magazine business quickly. But he doesn’t need our Facebook posts. He needs our money.

Singapore is too small to preserve every struggling business and building, whatever the heritage value, unless we patronise them. Whether it’s a Holland Village magazine seller, a bookstore or a hawker stall, nostalgic love letters after the fact will not save them.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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Yahoo Singapore Telegram
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