Mustafa is the modern day version of a bazaar. The relationship of shop floor and back of house stockroom is turned on its head as everything is out on display. One wanders in a giant stockroom, wading through floor upon floor of mobile phones, shampoos, gold jewellery, suitcases, cleaning utensils before you chance upon the item you were looking for in the first place. Electronics that might cost hundreds or thousands of dollars are displayed in pretty much the same way as humble cotton buds; Mustafa’s aisles have become the great leveller. All this might sound like a nightmare to some, but to me it adds so much more charge to the hunting/gathering experience.
It is refreshingly brash, bright, bold and vulgar. Here I don’t expect to see art direction or visual merchandising – the good old pile them high and sell them cheap principle works brilliantly here. It is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. When I arrive jetlagged in Singapore, I head for Mustafa in the small hours where I know there will be many fellow insomniacs thronging the aisles in this vast emporium. I love the idea that it doesn’t shut, ever. There is no time for sprucing up for punters the next day; in the Mustafa universe there is no need to. On weekends the place is heaving, turning the mundane activity of shopping for socks or smalls an event. Harrods claims to sell everything – Mustafa can pretty much make the same claim, albeit at a slightly different price point. They boast a travel agency, currency exchange, cafe, visa services, supermarket etc, catering mainly to the denizens of Little India within which it is situated.
Lately it has grown in size from a large emporium to a behemoth, taking over entire city blocks linked by skybridges. It is possible to enter the store from one street and emerge disoriented, several streets away. It is the unplanned, unplucked and unruly sister to the slick underground shopping tunnels that link much of Orchard Road. I like how the changes in urban texture can take place without the micromanagement of urban planning. By linking several streets and city blocks Mustafa has inadvertently become a cut-through, a thoroughfare and an urban lobby.
My home city of Singapore has grown up in the years I’ve been away. It has become more cosmopolitan, knowing and worldly. But I’d like to think that I only have to scratch the surface to find the old louche Singapore that I grew up in. In ever changing Singapore, I’m glad Mustafa is around as I know that some things don’t change.