Press play for a personal touch

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 art-house films – gleaming beneath the warm lights.

The brick-and-mortar holdout was founded 35 years ago by owner Laurel Khoo and her late husband 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, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD 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 encyclopaedia 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”) to Lebanese sleeper hit Capernaum (“Why would a boy want to sue his parents?”).

Rida stocks the usual Hollywood blockbusters and television 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 more than 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 tried to move 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 about 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 mathematics 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.”

Madam Khoo says: “Every video, every movie, tells a story. Life is a story – it’s how well we want to tell it.”

The shop’s story began in 1985.

Madam Khoo and her late husband Mr Ooi met when they were colleagues at an electronics firm. They 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. 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 at Orchard Towers, Balmoral Plaza and Holland Village.

Mr Ooi had the foresight to buy their units at Orchard Towers and Balmoral Plaza, which are now leased to tenants and help generate revenue.

Renting movies was a more affordable option for many people in the 1990s, when buying a DVD would set one back about $80.

Rida Video Centre in Jalan Serene drew many expatriates, but it was also popular with the locals. It saw more than 100 people a day, who rented titles such as Monty Python and TVB dramas and carted off VHS cassettes by the dozen.

The late 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 before Googling everything became the norm, they had to rely on memory to help people find what they were looking for.

“Eh, I want to rent this movie, thriller, da** 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 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, they would have closed down if not for help from the Government, says Madam Khoo, who is still servicing the mortgage on their unit in Coronation Shopping Plaza.

She also hopes to see lower licensing and movie-submission fees. Her licensing fees cost $3,000 for three years and classification fees are $10 per half hour a 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.

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 the Singapore Film Society’s chairman Kenneth Tan, 55.

Madam Khoo, who has four adult children, says she would like to spend more time with her grandchildren – 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.”

•Rida Video Centre is at 02-17 Coronation Shopping Plaza, 587 Bukit Timah Road. Go to facebook.com/ridavideo.centre or call 6466-4600.

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