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Jul 19, 2019

Kopitiam - Great Hangout for Retirees


Nostalgia is revisited in this photograph.  Remember these traditional biscuits which used to sell them for 5 to 10 cents each.  And the old-styled cup and saucer evokes a feeling of nostalgia.
[Source:  National Library Board]

In The Straits Times, 21 January 1998, Lee Kip Lee wrote Kopi Tiam memories:

I refer to the report "East Coast goes Upper with hip businesses" (Sunday Plus, Jan 4) which had a photograph of Jin Wee kopi tiam.

It is the place to go for elderly readers who wish to make new friends of their age.

Unlike the noisy, open coffeeshops in HDB estates, Jin Wee is on the ground floor of a terrace house.  It is run by two brothers, whose wives cook the meals it serves.

One of the highlights of my two years' sojourn in Siglap was to be able to frequent it in the mornings, between 9.30 and 10.30, to have coffee and natter with other retirees at our own special round table.

Visiting Jin Wee was like walking into the privacy of one's own clubhouse where, besides the regulars, I could meet a long-lost classmates who had cycled to Jin Wee (yes, lots of old fellows cycle with impunity in Katong and Siglap) after a walk at the East Coast Park, or recognise another childhood friend, despite his stoop and grey hair.

We were a diverse group who developed a bond of friendship and tolerance which permitted one of our "members" to insist on paying for everyone's drinks every day, on the ground that they were paid for out of his four-digit lottery winnings.

There were anecdotes recalled of groups of youths in the 1930s, living in the Makepeace and Hooper roads government quarters and raring for a fight with "invaders" from Katong; and of groups of adventurous Singapore Harbour Board shipyard apprentices spending their Sundays hiking from Pasir Panjang over a ridge up to St Joseph's Church in Bukit Timah, with tins of sardines, corned beef and bread for their meal.

New look, same food at kopi-tiam near you

The Straits Times kopi-tiam check article by Mathew Pereira and Stephanie Tham on 20 June 1992.

Muslin vs machine

The neighbourhood kopi-tiam is alive and well.  But it has a new look.

Far from disappearing, it has kept up with the times by renovating its premises and offering more hawker fare.

Most coffeeshops have said good-bye to bentwood chairs and marble-top tables with spittoons under each table though some old-time shops remain, especially in the Chinatown area.

Coffeeshop along North Boat Quay c1986


The Straits Times check 25 coffeeshops in Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio, Chinatown, Whampoa, Commonwealth Crescent, Bukit Gombak, Bishan and Tampines.

Most still serve kopitiam fare.  But on bright plastic tables and chairs and with better lighting and more fans.  In place of mosaic flooring, the shops have ceramic tiles.

Their operators said they keep pace with customers' tastes.  Younger people are more fussy about cleanliness, said Mr Goh Eng Soon, 38, who runs Hoi Yin Pow Dim Eating House in Ghim Moh.

Said Mr Goh:  "The old kopitiam does not work anymore."  Nobody wants to eat at a table with a spittoon underneath and where the floors are brown with age, he said.

After he spent about $40,000 on renovations, many long-time Ghim Moh residents who had never dropped in before became regular customers.

To Mr Don Foo, 36, who owns Ming Ju Restaurant at Ghim Moh and a Clementi West coffeeshop, change was a matter of dollars and sense.

"Customers will only walk into the shop if it is clean," said Mr Foo.

The old toilets were "frightening" before the $100,000 renovation, he said.

Now the shop draws more customers.  He also collects more from sublets.  The 10 vendors to whom it is sublet used to pay $400 to $700 per stall.  Now they pay $1,000 to $3,000, he said.

Mr K. Chandra, 32, runs his father's coffeeshop, Sri Karumanan Villas Restaurant, in Hillview Avenue.  He said many operators were told that the Ministry of Environment (ENV) had given them till 1993 to renovate.

Not so, said ENV.  It said owners had been encouraged to renovate and upgrade but there had been no talk about any regulation.

Customers confirmed that cleanliness was important.  Miss Angeline Chan, a secretary in her thirties, said:  "These renovated shops do not feel greasy or slimy."

Teacher Derek Chew, 37, said: "The traditional kopitiam is different from the romanticised ones you see on TV or along Orchard Road.  They were dark, dirty and even smelly.  No one will miss that."

But unhygienic or not, some swear by breakfast at the old-style kopitiam.  It is these old faithfuls who keep the originals alive in older estates such as Balestier Road, Whampoa and Chinatown.

These continue to be informal meeting places, especially for retirees.  But even their operators say it is a matter of time before they die out too.

Mr Thiang Swee Ping, 44, is a helper at Sin Wah Coffeeshop in Chinatown.  "People now want variety.  They want an air-conditioned place.  They want a cleaner place," he said.

"This place is clean.  It is only that it is old," he noted.  Sin Wah opened in 1941.

Business was definitely down, he said, adding:  "The old customers are gone and there are not that many passers-by these days.  Soon people will be calling these new eating places kopitiam.

For kopitiam regulars, the upgrading will be sad.

Retiree Ong Beng Chooi, 84, has been a customer of Hock Seng Coffee Shop at Commonwealth Crescent for the past 20 years.

"Not only is this place familiar, the coffee is still good too.  The atmosphere here is informal, relaxed and friendly.  It would be a shame if the place was upgraded and renovated," he said.

Mr Chew Wee Jim, a 72-year-old retiree, also has fond memories.

"It's a place where the old people can just sit around and chit-chat.  We feel uncomfortable in the newer establishments," he said.

It is not only elderly retirees who will mourn the passing of the old-style kopitiam. 

Technician Anthony Yip, 28, said:  "The kopitiam atmosphere is different.  While I do not go to a kopitiam often, it will still be sad to think that I will not be able to visit one at all."


Kopi tiam keeps up with the times


The pride of Nam Chuan coffeeshop in Block 186, Toa Payoh Central, is the $20,000 Cantilever machine that dispenses 10 types of soft drinks.

Each glass is filled within three seconds, about twice as fast as conventional machines.

Its operator, Mr Ng Chiow Tong, 52, made the switch to save labour and compete with the brighter, brasher fast-food newcomers in the HDB block.

His coffeeshop gleams with Italian ceramic floor and wall tiles, more fans, lamps, lighted colour bill-boards and pennants advertising fizzy drinks.

And a new lighted sign-board replaces the old wooden one.

"My business increased by 30 per cent after I renovated the shop to attract the young and catch the MRT commuters," Mr Ng said.

His shop used to be dark, with tables and chairs arranged haphazardly and stalls crowding the front.  And the damp gunny sacks he used to absorb water seeping from his old refrigerator gave it a malodorous air.

He has gotten rid of the 300 stacked cases of bottled drinks which used to take up one fifth of his coffeeshop's space.  The cannisters for his drink-dispensing machines now only take up 1 per cent of the space, and he now uses the Public Utilities Board's piped gas.

A manager of Fraser & Neave, a major supplier of soft drinks to coffeeshops, said more ageing shops, such as those in Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio, were renovated last year.

At the 18-year-old Kian Seng Coffeeshop in Block 17, Toa Payoh Lorong 7, 62-year-old Ah Or has also thrown out his charcoal bread griller, scratched marble tables, rickety chairs and wooden crates.

In their place are drinks and ice-dispensing machines and a smokeless Japanese gas grill for toasting bread.

Ah Or - less well-known as Msr Chua Kian Seng - dug deep into his savings and borrowed for the $200,000 renovations.

Said Ah Or:  "When your customers are wearing new clothers, your shop must also look new.  Before the renovation, at the end of 1986, my place looked dirty, the mosaic tiles were chipped and the furniture was old."

New tables and chairs

The kopi tiam owner, who started from a small shop in Jalan Sultan in the early 50s, said his drinks business has improved by 40 per cent since the beginning of last year.

The new tables and plastic red chairs in neat rows add cafeteria slickness.  "We broke down the store-room, so it's brighter and more spacious," said Ah Or.  "I put in extra furniture and two more stalls.  We can now seat 110, where before we could seat only 70."

The food stalls which used to line the shop front have been pushed to the back, where a new ventilation system sucks smoke out of the shop.

Customers seem to like the change, but some stallholders find the modernisation hard to stomach.

Their coffeeshop operators have raised their rents to recover renovation costs, and bring it in line with rates charged by operators in newer towns.

Stallholders complain that the new rents eat into their profits.  Some also cry foul because they say, the operators still pay lower rent for the whole renovated coffeeshop than the newer coffeeshops.

When one coffeeshoop raised its rent for a noodles stall from $500 to over $800, most of its old stallholders left.  But then there was a scramble by new applicants for the vacated stalls.

The coffeeshop operators feel the raise is justified, as a renovated shop attracts more customers.  They also say they have to pay higher bills due to more fans, lamps and machines.

But one thing still has not changed for the evolving kopi tiam - the aroma of coffee and the chatter.

Mr Ng still serves his brew for takeaways in empty milk cans, as well as in styrofoam cups.

Cigarette butts and footprints still dirty the floor which is washed before closing time, but Mr Ng said laughingly:  "If my shop is clean the whole day, I'll be worried."


The evolution of the kopitiam in Singapore


MUM's the word for coffeeshop

Modernise. Upgrade. Mechanise.  (MUM).

Be more hygienic.  Be more efficient.  Be better managers.

Pity the coffeeshop owners whose cup runneth over with exhortation.

He had more of the same served at an exhibition on modernisation of coffeeshops.

Dishing it out to the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association  and the Kheng Keow Coffee Shop Owners' Association was Mr Teo Chong Tee, Parliamentary Secretary (Environment and Social Affairs).

Mr Teo began in reflective mood.  The coffeeshop, he said, used to be a forum where people discussed social and political issues.  It was also a meeting place where people exchanged information.  

Now, he said, most people go to a coffeeshop just to eat and drink.  And coffeeshops face stiff competition from fast-food shops and hawker centres.

Then he pitched them the MUM formula:  modernise, upgrade, mechanise ...

Whether they will depends on many factors, the main one being uncertainty.

As many as seven in 10 coffeeshops will be affected by urban renewal, according to an official of Kheng Keow Coffee Shop Owners' Association.

"Modernise?  What for?" said the owner of a coffeeshop in North Bridge Road asked whether he planned to apply the MUM formula.

The shophouse was a pre-war building which he paid nominal rent, he said.  He had no idea whether the government would acquire it.

He had once thought of renovating the place and widening the passageway to the back so he could put in more tables.  "But if I want to knock down anything, I have to pay tea money to the owner."

Besides, it might not pay as people were moving out to housing estates and nany of the new buildings that had come up in the area had their own food and drink outlets to serve office workers.

His regular customers might object to machine-brewed coffee, he said.  They wanted their coffee the way it had always been made - by hand.

And he might also have to raise prices - which could put regular customers off.  Or extend opening hours - which would worsen the problem of finding workers.

Who wants to work in a coffeeshop for $200 when they can work in an airconditioned factory for $400 or more?

None of his sons wanted to take over the business.  And his daughters were all married and working elsewhere.

What he might do, he said, was transfer the shop to someone else, and help him run it.  Or, as  both his sons lived in Ang Mo Kio, he could live with either of them and work in one of the coffeeshops there.

Mr Teo would have told him that he need not fear customers shunning his shop if it went self-service or served machine-brewed coffee because some owners who have done so report better business.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 30 October 1983]

Traditional Kopitiam fare with nostalgic memories

The old-styled cup and saucer evokes a feeling of nostalgia.  [Courtesy of the National Library Board].


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