SINGAPORE – Rida Video Centre, one of Singapore’s last video rental stores, is a bastion of a vanishing age.
Born in the golden era of VHS shops in the 1980s, the cosy mom-and-pop shop in Coronation Shopping Plaza is crammed from floor to ceiling with more than 10,000 titles – from dramas and documentaries to cartoons and arthouse films – gleaming beneath the warm lights.
The brick-and-mortar holdout was founded 35 years ago by owner Laurel Khoo and her late husband, Mr Ooi Kai Peng, and originally located in Serene Centre. It has been bruised by the rise of online streaming services, with a 30 per cent dip in business over the past five years.
Gone are the old VHS tapes, laser discs and VCDs: DVDs and Blu-ray discs are its mainstay now. But its personal touch remains, and the 60-year-old owner – a soft-spoken, maternal woman with a hearty laugh – says she wants to keep the shop going for as long as she can.
“Netflix cannot chat with you, but we can. And we can chat about anything, not just movies,” says Madam Khoo, a walking encylopaedia of film titles.
Before I can say “pause”, she hops off her stool and gives me a dizzying tour of the DVDs on display – from Mexican-inspired Disney film Coco (“Colourful, beautiful”) to Japanese movie Departures (“If you want to cry, watch this”), and Lebanese sleeper hit Capernaum (“Why would a boy want to sue his parents?”).
Rida stocks the usual Hollywood blockbusters and TV dramas but I also spy plenty of indie films – from Pedro Almodovar’s late-life masterpiece Pain And Glory to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Everything can be rented, but over 500 titles are also for sale, including newer 4k Ultra HD and Blu-ray discs.
“If customers want certain titles, we will bring them in if we can.”
Rida Video Centre has moved with the times – you can find it on Facebook, Instagram and Carousell.
Still, an old school charm lingers. Shelves behind the counter are crammed with some 10,000 index cards with customers’ membership details. Only a few hundred are still active, Madam Khoo says.
She pulls out one card dating back to 1996. “It still has a balance, so we can’t cancel the membership or recycle the card number. We just keep it.”
Madam Khoo tries to watch at least one movie a day. She struggles to name her favourite – there are too many. But shop assistant Geraldine Chio, 30, looks up from the counter and chimes in: “She loves Kubo And The Two Strings. She has played it more than 200 times.”
The store’s personal touch, perhaps, is what keeps old customers coming back after decades.
“She always asks, ‘What is your mood today?'” says Ms Teo, a retiree in her 60s who visits almost every day.
“I might say, I’m depressed. And she’ll say, okay, you’ll see something comical. It’s very homely. You feel you belong,” adds Ms Teo, who was at the store last week to return Danish film The Hunt.
Architect Benjamin Lee, 32, discovered the shop a few months ago and was struck by its range of 4k Ultra HD and Blu-ray discs.
“I don’t rent. I’m just a collector,” he says, pointing to his stack of films, such as Wonder Woman and Deadpool 2, at the payment counter.
Then there is 12-year-old Rayden Lim, who pops by with his mother whenever he goes for maths tuition.
“Renting is a better solution,” says the self-confessed film fanatic, who has a $50 pre-paid package entitling him to nine films. “If you buy, you have to watch the same movie over and over again.”
“Every video, every movie, tells a story. Life is a story – it’s how well we want to tell it,” says Madam Khoo.
The shop’s story began in 1985.
Madam Khoo and Mr Ooi met when they were colleagues at an electronics firm, and would watch gongfu movies in the cinema on date nights. After they were engaged, they took the plunge into the video business.
“A lot of his friends were in the video business… Watching movies is a great pastime, if you ask me.”
It was the golden age for video shops in Singapore. In 1985, the island had more than 100 video libraries and outlets. Videovan, which would become the sole distributor for 20th Century Fox and Disney films in Singapore, had set up shop not long ago. Over at D&O Film & Video in Tanglin Shopping Centre, crusty connoisseur Albert Odell held court.
By the 1990s, the Oois had expanded their business, spilling into the next-door unit at Serene Centre, and setting up new branches in Orchard Towers, Balmoral Plaza and Holland Village. Mr Ooi had the foresight to buy the units at Orchard Towers and Balmoral Plaza, which are now leased to tenants and help generate revenue today.
Renting movies was a more affordable option for many people in the 1990s, when buying a DVD would set you back around $80.
Rida Video Centre in Jalan Serene drew many expatriates, but was also popular with locals who lived in the Bukit Timah area. It saw over 100 people a day, who rented titles such as Monty Python and TVB dramas, and carted off VHS cassettes by the dozen.
Mr Ooi, a self-made man who had a brush with gang culture after dropping out of primary school, never allowed his poor English to get in the way of chatting with customers. He could often be seen on a bench outside the store in conversation with them.
Shop assistant Alex, 47, who has been working for Rida since the 1990s, says that before Googling everything became the norm, staff had to rely on memory to help people find what they were looking for.
“Eh, I want to rent this movie, thriller, damn good!” a customer might say, recalling only the name of an actor or the outlines of a scene.
Fast-forward through the years, and the rise of online streaming has sounded the death knell for giants in home video-retailing: HMV, Laserflair, VideoEzy and TS Video.
Rida has endured – for now. Today, it is lucky if it sees 20 customers a day.
Madam Khoo has also seen a fair share of challenges this past decade.
The first was Mr Ooi’s sudden death from a cardiac arrest in 2011, at the age of 50.
Another blow came in 2015, when Madam Khoo received word that Serene Centre would be hiking up its rent, which led to Rida moving to its current, much smaller premises.
During the Covid-19 circuit breaker, it would have closed down if not for help from the Government, says Madam Khoo, who is still servicing the mortgage on its unit in Coronation Shopping Plaza.
She also hopes to see lower licensing and movie submission fees. Her licence fee costs $3,000 for three years, and classification fees are $10 per half-hour per film (these have been waived amid the pandemic).
Ms Teo, meanwhile, hopes things will become more liberal. Video shops in Singapore are not allowed to sell R21 movies, such as Pulp Fiction and Call Me By Your Name.
Rida Video Centre
Where: 587 Bukit Timah Road, #02-17, Coronation Shopping Plaza
Opening hours: Daily from 9.30am to 8.30pm (till 9.30pm on Friday, Saturday and the eve of public holidays).
Contact: Visit their Facebook page or call 6466-4600.
“I mean, what are you protecting the public from?” she asks. “The children, the young adults, can watch it all on Netflix, or TV. This is the 21st century. In fact, the kids know more than we do.”
Brick-and-mortar video stores like Rida might seem like a dying trade. But there will always be people who want to rent movies, be it via DVDs or paid streaming, says Singapore Film Society chairman Kenneth Tan, 55 .
Madam Khoo, who has four adult children, says she would would like to spend more time with her grandkids – and one day hand over the reins to her staff or children.
She adds: “If there’s a day when it drops to totally zero sales, then I might think it’s time to let go. But for now, I’d say not yet. We’ll see how it goes.”
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