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Conversations from the Ground: Businesses on Campus

How are our brick-and-mortar vendors in SMU coping during this online semester? Writer Rachel Goh speaks to them to find out what challenges they are facing, and what we students can do to help.

As the saying goes, the grass is greener on the other side. Before the pandemic hit, I had this nagging feeling that I could do almost anything online. I could communicate, read, write, and shop online. Virtual life is a normalcy for our generation, and we are particularly good at it. Ironically, when the pandemic invaded in a sweeping motion, virtual life suddenly became distasteful. Something is clearly lost.

The pandemic has disrupted our routines. Take a stroll in SMU during your assigned back-to-school days and you’ll find a SMU you cannot recognise.

The once bustling atmosphere along the corridors of T-Junction has turned painfully stale; the never-ending lines in front of food stalls and printing rooms are non-existent; the deafening yet lively chit chatter at Koufu has been replaced with a loud silence; the insides of a seminar room, through the glass panel on the door, have turned from light to dark. As the noise and buzz dwindled, the unsung heroes who have been with me through my university life suddenly seemed to stand out even more and capture my attention.

I was ordering my Yakun set A at SOE one Monday morning and I noticed the friendly aunty proceed to ask me if I needed a lid for my eggs; then scampered to pass me my cutlery and straw over the counter - an additional step on top of their usual duty.

The introverted me who would usually never converse with store owners blurted out in mandarin, “Wah aunty, there’s more work for you to do now.”

“Yeah, lor”, she chuckled with a hint of resignation.

In this 3 second interaction, I had gotten out of my isolation bubble and experienced a sense of solidarity. It’s not only students who are struggling and adapting to changes, but business owners as well.

Scan, Enter, Exit, Repeat.

As an SMU student, you’d have often caught yourself devouring at Koufu or getting your caffeine fix there. The other day, I spoke with Michael, the manager at Koufu, on how this establishment has been holding up in this trying time. He had a lot of things to do, but somehow he had the patience and generosity to put his tasks on hold and entertain my questions.

“People’s limits have been pushed. There are now so many road-blocks. A lot more consciousness comes into your thinking, as you can see from the “in-and-out” systems. We used to breeze through so conveniently but now we have to look for the entrance and exit wherever we go.”

He continued.

“Koufu has to adapt accordingly, and systems are being stretched as you can see from the “in and out” system and temperature taking system into Koufu. Sometimes, we have trouble-makers too.”

Credit: Rachel Goh

I clarified what he meant by “trouble-makers” and it turned out they were SMU students who refused to comply to the temperature taking and even taunted him arrogantly by puffing up their chest while staring down at him. He would see no point in pursuing the matter and did not want to make life difficult for us students (SMU students, do better!).

Not only were there structural changes to the entrance and exit, store owners had to adapt by masking up while cooking. “It’s really hot and uncomfortable, you know!” he exclaimed.

And with seats cordoned off to ensure social distancing, it might not be helpful as people could flock to open areas to gather and eat.

“Systems are being stretched. This pandemic has required for people to pack and go from Koufu, as there are now lesser seats available here. But people could gather at benches in other premises. Food kiosks selling snacks would exacerbate this problem as these kiosks tend to not offer any seats like Koufu”, he reflected.

However, Michael seems to have found the silver lining. He’s now constantly looking for better ways to improve the daily operations of Koufu, and firmly believes that people should leverage these perilous times to invent devices that would be apt for current situations. He spoke of an auto hand-sanitizing machine that would be placed at the top or bottom of the handrails of escalators. He remarked that the handrail of an escalator is a breeding ground for viruses.

“This pandemic is pushing frontiers and innovation is key,” he said with gusto, “We need the engineers to design such machines, but I am not one!”

To get your western, cai fan, mala and coffee fix, do head to the basement of SMU in front of the T-Junction and you will see a big fat Koufu signage there!

But please scan your QR codes first – it takes only 3 seconds!

Silver Lining in the Storm

Along T-junction, we have the famous Kenboru. Tucked in the corner of SOA, we have Onalu, and below Li Ka Shing Library facing campus green, we have Bricklane bar. Serving decadent foods and drinks in sleek and cosy interiors, these nooks are made to appeal to the younger crowds. But do you know the founders behind these 3 establishments are the same SMU alumni?

Credit: Ong Jun Hao

I had the privilege to interview Ong Jun Hao, one of the co-founders. Despite his busy schedule, he was quick and efficient to reply to my questions. Upon seeing his replies, I was encouraged by his optimism during this challenging time.

Some of their key challenges include the need for additional manpower to scan temperatures, major reduction in traffic because of WFH and school being moved online; reduced in-house seating because of the 1m and 5 per table rule. These establishments are also utilising QR payments, pre-ordering, ordering using QR codes, and upgrading equipment in an attempt to leverage on new gaps the pandemic has uncovered and other opportunities.

“SMU is currently reducing our rental while we undergo this Covid’19 period. I think financial and government institutions are already doing a lot to help vendors like us, but probably more rebates or subsidies can be given,” he spoke with regards to financial aids.

However, Jun Hao is hopeful.

“We manage to find some time off to rest, for both the founding team as well as our staffs and we are optimistic that we will ride through this pandemic together with everyone else!” he said.

With regards to offers to promote traffic, Bricklane bar has been having a daily alcohol promotion for Pabst Blue Ribbon from 5-7pm, and Soju bundles on Mondays and Tuesdays!

Credit: Ong Jun Hao

Also, you can follow their Instagram and Telegram handles to receive first-hand news on giveaways, new deals, and exclusive promotions such as Mango Soju Tower and Rotational Tower!

Kenboru: @kenboru_sg (Instagram)

Onalu: @onalu_sg (Instagram)

Bricklane: @bricklanebar (Telegram), @bricklane_sg (Instagram)

An Experiential Union Observed

These conversations from the ground have shown that the interactions between students and food stall owners are so intimate: symbiotic on good days, and a pain on bad days when people refuse to play their part by cooperating. Whether we like it or not, we are all tied in this social ecosystem and our actions affect one another. Perhaps to make everyone’s lives much easier to get by in such trying times, a thoughtful action, an act of kindness or words of encouragement can really go a long way.

Pre-pandemic, there was an absence of disruption and life was much more fast-paced in a bustling grab-and-go environment where people everywhere rush to places. We tend to compartmentalise these strangers – store owners, random people along the streets, the bus driver – as foreign entities whom we do not have anything to do with. With fewer people in public spaces now and a greater consciousness in our minds wherever we go, such as ensuring we have our masks on, we might be less pre-occupied with ourselves and we could now see each other with communitarian lenses: just as the pandemic has affected me, it has also affected you. While we’re all technically strangers, we all have a common shared humanity and experience in this pandemic.

The next time you order food from any SMU food establishment and get impatient by delay or inconvenience, remember these business owners and staff are hustling alongside with you. While you struggling to pay attention to zoom classes, they are working hard and doing whatever it takes to keep their businesses afloat. If circumstances allow, let’s continue to show our support to campus businesses with our purchases, or better yet, with empathy.

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