More colloquially known as Ah Beng Handphone Shops, neighbourhood handphone shops have been around for as long as I can remember.
Many of us see such shops as dodgy and shady, with some going so far as to say that these shops are “just money laundering fronts.”
It doesn’t help that these shops are usually run by seemingly twenty-to-forty-plus-year-old guys who would speak a brusque mix of Mandarin, dialect, and English. Together with their tough demeanor and the loud music that you can find blaring from some of such shops further alludes that of an ah beng.
Gradually, the impression that these shops are Ah Beng Handphone Shops stuck, even though not all of such shops are run by ah bengs.
But after all these years and in a time where even big names like HMV and Kinokuniya have closed down amidst the retail doom, these small Ah Beng Handphone Shops are surprisingly still surviving. This is also despite the advent of e-commerce, Carousell, and Facebook live auctions.
For the purpose of brevity in this article, I will be referring to such shops as Ah Beng Shops hereon.
With many unanswered questions like how these Ah Beng Shops are still around and how they actually do business, I decided to take a trip to one of the older neighbourhoods, Bedok Central, to search for them.
Ah Beng Shops’ Ah Bengs Don’t Look That Ah Beng
Many of us have the impression that the people running Ah Beng Shops are ah bengs. When I left office for Bedok, I had even told my colleagues that I was going to make new ah beng friends from Ah Beng Shops. “Good luck, have fun,” they said.
Of the 15 to 20 Ah Beng Shops I walked past, only three of the shop staff looked a little like ah bengs. And only one shop exuded the ‘ah beng vibe’: blasting music so loudly that it could be heard from a few shops down, and a strong smell of cigarette smoke emanating from the shop. Even so, the staff of that shop looked like an ordinary teenage boy – no gold hair, piercings, or tattoos like what you would expect of a typical ah beng.
In fact, more than half the shops I saw were either run by uncles who look like those you’d catch stirring kopi while watching TV at kopitiams at midday, or average young men who look like they were just working a part-time job to earn some money.
Some of the Ah Beng Shops were an amusing sight as they were not so much a shop as they were a single counter awkwardly placed at a corner of another retail shop peddling completely unrelated items – imagine an uncle at a small mobile phone counter at the corner of a hair accessories shop. Bizarre.
After being shooed away by five Ah Beng Shops to “try the other shops”, and told by one that “here nobody will want to talk one lah, what to talk? Do business only, nothing to talk about,” I was thankful to finally chat with Leon*.
Venturing Into The Ah Beng Shop Industry
I first stepped into Leon’s shop with dread for he looked like a middle-aged ah beng who would spout an uncouth mix of Hokkien and Mandarin, and I panicked at having to express myself with my atrocious grasp of Mandarin. The other half of me was worried that he will bite my head off for poking into his business.
However, my perception of him totally changed as our conversation started, making me guilty for putting such a stereotype on him before I even spoke to him.
Not only could he speak in fluent English, he expressed himself well. It was evident that Leon was neither illiterate nor an ah beng. As I came to know later on, he is in fact a graduate from a local university.
For 40-year-old Leon, venturing into this trade wasn’t a choice as much as it was a fight for survival.
Previously a branch manager at a bank, Leon had to do a drastic midlife career change after getting embroiled in a bad case of office politics, leaving him no choice but to leave the banking industry for good.
Having spent 10 years in the banking industry and well into his thirties, switching to a completely new industry was not only a scary thought, it was problematic. Many of the routes he considered, like going into F&B, would require him to start from the bottom again – something he cannot afford as a father who has to support his daughter and his aging parents.
With the help of friends dealing with mobile phones, he settled on opening an Ah Beng Shop together with a business partner. Even then, he had to learn the ropes of the trade by himself, spoiling many phones and paying many ‘school fees’ in the process.
Fighting For A Slice Of Pie
While there are Ah Beng Shop bosses who could diversify with multiple shops across the island to capitalise from different groups of customers like Seedly wrote about in an article, Leon only has one physical store.
Having counted more than 15 Ah Beng Shops in the vicinity, I wondered how Leon even survives amidst such extreme competition.
“Actually, there are more than 20 shops here,” he corrected me nonchalantly, “it’s very competitive, so we just have to find more channels of revenue online.”
Although Leon doesn’t have multiple shop fronts, he operates his business over online platforms like Carousell and Qoo10. He also travels around to collect mobile phones from other shops around Singapore for repair, which his staff and himself would stay up until past midnight to complete.
“It’s not possible to survive just by sitting in the shop and waiting for customers to walk in. We have to reach customers from as many avenues as possible.”
True enough, the 45 minutes that I was there, only two people stopped by: a migrant worker who asked if the shop takes in a certain model of mobile phone, and a little girl who was just wandering around. None culminated in any sales.
Leon’s sentiments of having to find more ways to make money was echoed by Chan*, the boss of another Ah Beng Shop I managed to speak with.
Having spent more than 20 years in this line ever since he came out of NS, Chan emphasised the importance of going online to reach more audience because the market is way more competitive today.
Even with his online foray, Chan still has to make at least a few hundred dollars daily in the shop to maintain overheads and profit.
“Because of the current online market, customers have a lot more options and are smarter, so it’s not just important to go online but also to provide good service.”
Like Leon, Chan runs one physical store with a business partner and sells their business services on multiple online platforms.
Explaining further on providing good service, “it’s very hard to profit from just selling items today. You can sell something at a thousand dollars but only earn $10.” Instead of employing aggressive sales techniques or trying to be the cheapest, Chan prides himself in simple, honest service and leaves it to customers to decide.
Despite the odds, Chan’s business never ran into a deficit, which he attributes to his loyal customers.
Leon, however, isn’t as fortunate with his business finances.
On good days, Leon’s shop makes a four-figure sum, “a middle-tier office worker’s salary,” but these days, one good day is usually followed by three bad days. And on bad days, they would literally have $0 revenue. With rental and staff salary, that means making a loss. Many times, Leon even had to fork money out from his own pocket just to keep the business afloat, but “you gotta do what you gotta do. I’ve got a wife, a daughter, what else can I do if I don’t make this work?”
His expressions tell of someone who is jaded, yet hopeful for better days ahead.
The Shame That Comes With The Ah Beng Label
Having runned this business for close to six years, I asked how Leon felt about being labelled an ah beng merely because he ran an Ah Beng Shop.
“Like that lor, if people want to think of us that way, what can I do about it?”
However, when I probed further about his family, his reaction was a different one altogether.
“My mum would say things like ‘waste money send you to university, then now you come out and do this kind of things’, ‘so shameful’, and that I’m a disgrace.”
As Leon shared about the hurtful judgment from his own mother, I couldn’t help but notice his quivering lips when he paused to find the right words, as if holding back some repressed emotions.
Leon’s wife works an office job and would always encourage him to join her at company gatherings, but having seen the reactions people would give whenever he reveals what he works as, he would choose to avoid such social gatherings because “I don’t want to embarrass or make things awkward for my wife.”
Leon gets such judgment from other parents when he picks his daughter up from school as well. “When I tell (the other parents) that I sell handphones for a living, they will look at me like this.” Leon proceeded to stare at me with wide-opened eyes and raised eyebrows – a puzzled look that is best expressed with the words ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’.
Confirming my suspicions that such negative judgement from people gets to him, Leon bemoaned about the lack of respect for people in his trade.
Having to serve many ridiculous customer requests throughout the years ranging from requests to stick on customers’ screen protector for free to being maligned for spoiling a phone after teaching someone how to upload a photo on Facebook, Leon explained that their tough, no-nonsense personality came about because of such customers.
“Then if we don’t agree to these requests, customers will say ‘your service sucks’.”
Then, there are the shrewd customers who like to compare prices to what they can get online from websites like Taobao. To which Leon will reason, “Are you going to go to a restaurant and ask them why their dishes are so expensive when the ingredients are sold at a much cheaper price at the supermarket?”
While Leon lamented that people tend to treat them like nothing and only look for them when their services are needed, he said that appreciative customers make the struggle worthwhile.
And as much as I would have loved to justify that Singaporeans aren’t that terrible, I had to agree that his is of a job so undervalued and underappreciated. Yet, whenever we want a quick fix for our phone or wish to sell our used phones away, many Singaporeans still look to them for getting these done.
A job that many people look down on, and one where no Singaporeans want to take on anymore. In fact, both Leon and Chan have to resort to hiring only foreigners, because it is almost impossible for them to find any locals willing to work in this line.
Moreover, working in retail also means long hours and burning away weekends. Even as a boss, Leon dedicates every day of the week to his shop so that he can earn enough. “I hardly have time for my daughter. I wish I got more time to spend with her, but what to do? I need to support my family.”
As I understood more about the hardship Leon and the other Ah Beng Shop bosses or staff face in such a diminishing trade, I started to have a new-found respect for them. After all, ah beng, uncle, or ah boy, these people are but retail workers who are there running a legit business to provide convenience to anyone who need quick mobile phone solutions.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.
(Header Image Credit: Mobile Square)