With the thriving cafe scene in Singapore, it is no surprise to find new joints opening in various locations all over the island every week.
But perhaps a new trend could be emerging – HDB shops with a long history in old estates are being turned into cafes.
Foo Chee Kow and his wife Jessie Lim (both above) converted provision shop Tian Kee & Co. into a cafe of the same name. Image: ST/ Steffi Koh
Tian Kee & Co at Dakota Crescent, which opened about a month ago, used to be a 54-year-old provision shop, while Sin Lee Foods at Jalan Bukit Ho Swee took over the shop space of the popular 51-year-old Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop two weeks ago.
Both cafes have kept the original signboards of their predecessors.
The Tastemaker at Havelock Road, which opened on June 1, was a 49-year-old bookstore called Shing Lee. It was turned into a cafe by the owner’s grandchildren.
SundayLife! checks out the three newly opened cafes.
1. TIAN KEE & CO.
Where: 12 Dakota Crescent, 01-48, tel: 6344-8527, open: noon to 9pm (Tuesday to Friday), 10am to 9pm (Saturday and Sunday), closed on Monday
Old school provision shop Tian Kee & Co. always captured Mr Foo Chee Kow’s attention whenever he went on his regular evening jogs around the neighbourhood of Dakota Crescent.
He says: “When I moved here in 2011, I was surprised to find something like this in our estate. It had a very Tiong Bahru feel to it and made me feel nostalgic.”
The former Tian Kee & Co. provision shop, which has now been converted into a cafe. Image: Lianhe Wanbao
In January last year, the 37-year-old and his wife Jessie Lim, 38, decided they wanted to set up an old school cafe. After many months of scouting locations and not finding any suitable ones, they were delighted when they found out last October that the 54-year-old provision shop space was up for sale.
“We were so happy and bought it within 12 hours of learning that the space was available,” says Mr Foo, a self-professed heritage buff.
The couple kept the original signboard and retained the name for their cafe.
He says: “Many residents have patronised the shop since they were young. We wanted to keep the sign so Mr Lim’s grandchildren can see his legacy.”
Entering the cafe is like taking a wistful step back in time. Customers are greeted by the sight of 1950s Formica-topped tables, old stools, whirring ceiling fans and customised zinc roofing used as borders in the cashier area.
Almost everything displayed in the cafe used to be from the provision shop. These include Khong Guan biscuit tins, an old Milo tin, a chessboard as well as rusty metal tobacco and alcohol licence signs.
Long-time patrons of the old shop may also remember the Bonjour bread rack, which now holds a kettle of water, cutlery and condiments for customers. To top it off, the counter tabletops are made from the wooden planks from Tian Kee’s doors.
“We had the choice to renovate the place into something completely modern,” Mr Foo says. “But the shop’s history was precisely the reason why we fell in love with it in the first place, so we did not want to change anything if possible.”
The Tian Kee & Co. cafe serves dishes such as all-day breakfast (above), which comes with a roti prata for a local twist. Image: ST/ Steffi Koh
Despite its classic retro decor, the food sold here is decidedly contemporary, with offerings such as muffins, cheesecakes, pies, coffee, tea and iced drinks.
One of the cafe’s bestsellers is its all-day breakfast ($12.90), which comes with a sunny side up egg, bacon, a cheese sausage, a hashbrown, cheese and a piece of roti prata rather than toast, for a local twist.
Though it has been open for less than a month, the cafe has been gaining a following among people drawn to its old fashioned setting.
It is a bittersweet feeling for many residents, who ultimately appreciate that Mr Foo has retained the spirit of a provision shop so dear to their hearts.
Cobbler Lee Choong Hian, 67, a regular at the cafe, says: “I knew Mr Lim very well so I definitely miss the shop. But the older generation of people like items with historical value, so I think it’s great that they kept the sign.”
Australian David Newman, 48, a stay-at-home-dad who moved to Dakota Crescent 16 months ago, thinks the revamped Tian Kee & Co. has given a new lease of life to the sleepy neighbourhood.
“It’s one of the best things to happen to this area because of the people it brings together. I’m a little sad that the provision shop has closed but it was a dying trade. Like everything in life, things move on and this is change for the better.”
2. THE TASTEMAKER
Where: Block 22 Havelock Road, 01-705, open: 8am to 8pm daily
When he was in primary school, Mr Alvin Peh would help out during the school holidays at Shing Lee bookstore, his grandfather’s shop at Havelock Road, along with his younger brother and sister.
Now 28, he says: “We would help tidy and clean the shop, buy meals for our grandfather who manned the cashier and walk around to offer assistance to customers.”
The former Shing Lee bookstore opened by Peh Boon Poh (above) has been modernised and turned into The Tastemaker cafe by his three grandchildren. . Image: Stacey Peh
His grandfather, Mr Peh Boon Poh, 98, opened the independent bookstore in Chin Swee Road in 1935. It moved to Havelock Road in 1965. But Mr Peh never imagined that he would one day end up transforming his grandfather’s beloved book haven into a modern cafe.
He had discussed plans with his siblings to set up a store together that would encompass the five senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and sound in 2011, but the idea never materialised.
“We were all too busy with our own jobs back then to pursue the idea vigoriously,” says Mr Peh, a manager in an organisational development consulting company.
The opportunity came up again when his grandfather decided to close the bookstore in 2012 due to old age. He and his siblings spent approximately $190,000 renovating the store, turning it into The Tastemaker cafe. They pay rent to their grandfather.
The Tastemaker cafe. Image: Fu Yingzi
With the sleek and minimalist decor of the brightly lit cafe, which opened on June 1 this year, it may be difficult to imagine that this same space was once cluttered with wooden shelves full of books, knick-knacks and stationery.
Now, whitewashed walls, wooden tables and potted green plants hanging from the ceiling make for a therapeutic environment in the 600 sq ft cafe, which can seat about 40.
The cafe currently serves light fare such as cakes, toast and sandwich sets, but will be introducing local dishes such as laksa and curry chicken rice in a few weeks.
Yam cake at The Tastemaker, which is made from a family recipe. Image: Fu Yingzi
Its top sellers are yam cake and glutinous rice ($3.80 a serving), both of which are made from Mr Peh’s family recipes.
“A lot of local residents around the area are the elderly, and we want to cater to them as well. You wouldn’t expect to find such items in a cafe,” he says.
3. SIN LEE FOODS
Where: Block 4, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee, 01-164, tel: 6377-3170, open: 10am to 9pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday
The owner of this newly opened cafe, Mr Sean Lim, 24, wants to set the record straight: He did not keep the black and gold Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop signboard at the storefront to give his cafe a hipster vibe.
He says: “A lot of people such as food bloggers assumed we kept the shop sign because it was cool, but that was never the case.”
In fact, the coffee shop’s landlord, Mr Thian Boon Hin, 66, asked that Mr Lim keep the signboard, in exchange for renting him the shop space to open his cafe.
“Mr Thian said we could do whatever we wanted to the space as long as we did not remove the signboard,” says Mr Lim. “He places great sentimental value on this place, which has been in his family for more than 50 years, and we agreed because we wanted to be respectful.”
He runs the cafe full-time with his girlfriend and co-owner Jerraldine Chen, 23. Both of them are chefs. He used to work at haute French restaurant Guy Savoy at Marina Bay Sands, which has now closed, and she worked at three Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York.
“If we had deliberately kept the sign to make our cafe hipster, the charm of it all would have been lost. Things ended up naturally this way,” says Mr Lim, who eventually settled on the name Sin Lee Foods for the cafe.
Mr Thian, who lives above the cafe, says: “This shop was passed down by my dad and the sign is something that should not be casually thrown away. I’ve been working here since I was young and I want it to continue to exist.”
He became the landlord of the place 25 years ago, after the shop was passed down to him from his mother, 89, who had taken over from his late father.
Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop was turned into Sin Lee Foods (above), and its owners Mr Sean Lim and Ms Jerraldine Chen have retained its signboard. Image: ST/ Dios Vincoy Jr.
A hidden gem in the tranquil neighbourhood since 1962, the 51-year-old coffee shop was a favourite haunt among residents and gained a loyal following for its prawn noodles and lor mee. It also housed a beverage stall managed by Mr Thian, which sold eggs, toast and coffee.
He decided to rent out the coffee shop in January this year after the prawn noodle and lor mee stallholder, who wanted to be known only as Madam Wee, retired and there was nobody to take over her business.
The coffee shop’s location in one of Singapore’s most historic HDB estates was what drew Mr Lim and his girlfriend. The 900 sq ft cafe, which cost the couple $200,000 to set up, seats 50 people comfortably. It is air-conditioned and has an outdoor dining area under a sheltered pavilion.
Decked in wood, metal and with walls of faded red bricks, the interior of the cafe evokes a rustic and homey feel. The couple, who wanted their cafe to be “raw” and “clean”, originally intended to replace the old tiles they had hacked off the walls, but were surprised by the naked red bricks they found underneath and decided to leave them as they were.
Mr Lim has found other ways to preserve the past in his cafe. Customers can admire an artwork of old Chinese calendars layered with a coat of white paint displayed upright on the brick wall.
Small blue ornaments symbolic of the 1980s and 1990s era, such as a five-stone bean bag and vintage paratrouper, sit on a tiny ledge in the centre.
He says: “I wanted to add meaning to our cafe. The old calendars are indicative of the past, while the new coat of paint represents freshness. We want to bring something new to this neighbourhood, while respecting the current history contained within it.”
He collaborated with local art studio Ooze to put the piece up at no cost.
Though it has been five months since the closure of the coffee shop, not everyone in the area is aware that a new kid on the block has taken its place, especially with the old sign still prominently displayed.
Mr Lim says with a laugh: “Since we opened on July 1, there have been a number of people in their 30s and 40s walking through our doors asking for prawn noodles and lor mee. We’ve had to turn down their requests politely, but they still come in to try what we have to offer.”
Sin Lee Foods serves cafe fare, which includes truffle fries, salads, Eggs Benedict and sandwiches.
Its signature dish, Sin Lee’s fried chicken and waffles ($21.90), features a juicy boneless chicken leg placed atop cheddar cheese waffles with house slaw and melted maple butter. The cafe also sells beverages such as coffee, iced drinks and teas, priced from $4.
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on July 13, 2014. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.