Keong Saik Road: Chic enclave with old-world charm

Above: At least eight businesses have opened in Keong Saik Road this year, including Potato Head Folk, a group of food, drink and entertainment outlets within a building dated 1939. Left: Brothels occupied at least half of the buildings there about a
Above: At least eight businesses have opened in Keong Saik Road this year, including Potato Head Folk, a group of food, drink and entertainment outlets within a building dated 1939. Left: Brothels occupied at least half of the buildings there about a decade ago. Three continue to ply their trade like this one near Foong Kee coffee shop.PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Above: At least eight businesses have opened in Keong Saik Road this year, including Potato Head Folk, a group of food, drink and entertainment outlets within a building dated 1939. Left: Brothels occupied at least half of the buildings there about a
Above: At least eight businesses have opened in Keong Saik Road this year, including Potato Head Folk, a group of food, drink and entertainment outlets within a building dated 1939. Left: Brothels occupied at least half of the buildings there about a decade ago. Three continue to ply their trade like this one near Foong Kee coffee shop.PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Several areas in Singapore are undergoing a gentrification process that has breathed new life into old neighbourhoods. In the first of a four-part series in Street View, we explore Keong Saik Road, which has morphed from a street of disrepute into an enclave for chic food and beverage outlets, boutique hotels and offices.

At first glance, Keong Saik Road, off New Bridge Road in Chinatown, appears overrun with trendy pubs and restaurants.

But some of its old-world charm remains. On weekends, snatches of opera singing drift down to street level from several decades-old clan associations housed on the upper floors of shophouses.

On weekdays, the click-clack of mahjong tiles can sometimes be heard as wrinkled hands swiftly shuffle tiles in serious games of mahjong.

And the kind of establishments Keong Saik is most notorious for have not all gone away. Brothels occupied at least half of more than 50 buildings there about a decade ago. Three continue to ply their trade so discreetly that many do not know they exist.

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While some old ways do not change, new businesses, such as posh eateries, a Japanese hair salon and a co-working space, have rapidly taken over most of Keong Saik Road in the past five years.

At least eight new businesses have opened this year, including artisanal bread shop Bread & Hearth, vegan eatery Afterglow and edgy tailor business 1:1.618 x Leong T.

Two months ago, PTT Family, an Indonesian hospitality and entertainment group, opened Potato Head Folk in a 1939 three-storey building formerly occupied by the 75-year-old coffee and kaya toast shop Tong Ah Eating House.

Mr Dre Masso, 38, project opening manager of PTT Family, said: "Stepping into Keong Saik Road, we felt that it has a village feel to it with its iconic shophouses.

"Like many Chinatowns around the world, it is going through a gentrification process. The old KTV bars have cleared out, giving an indication that the street is going to be replaced by something better."

The area's reputation as an up and coming area, its proximity to the Central Business District and high foot traffic, attracted Mr Jonathan Yang, 29, to open Mexican eatery Muchachos last year.

He said: "Almost immediately after I moved in, rental prices in the area surged, but I had already signed on the dotted line and got a good deal."

Executive director Matt Cullen of creative agency Arcade, which opened at Keong Saik in 2011, said: "It is a wonderful address for creative people to be inspired by - some of the coolest restaurants, cafes and bars in Singapore are popping up everywhere."

Many credit the opening of Hotel 1929 - and its European restaurant Ember - by hotelier Loh Lik Peng in 2003 for speeding up changes. Mr Loh now has his hand in five businesses in Keong Saik and its neighbouring streets including tapas bar Esquina and grill restaurant Burnt Ends.

The road now boasts of two other boutique hotels, The Keong Saik Hotel and Naumi Liora.

Tenants there estimate that crowds have gone up by up to 30 per cent over the past two years.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the area sometimes gets congested with cars double and tripled parked in the two-way street. There are also more tourists and expatriates.

Over the past two years, the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple and Kong Tee Peng Temple in Keong Saik have also noticed more devotees in their 20s to 30s.

Madam Wan Fut Kuen, 73, caretaker of the Chinese temple built in 1928, said: "They are the office crowd who come during their lunch break."

Mr Leong Siew Kwai, 82, president of Leong's Clan General Association which moved to the area in the 1990s, feels changes are for the better. "Every era has its own set of activities. We cannot expect the road to stay the same.

"As we own this shophouse, new businesses also help fund our activities through the rental we collect," he said.

His association leases out its ground floor unit to French restaurant Taratata, which is converting the space into a 60-seater space for functions, due to open in November.

Demand for space has driven up rent: In general, rental rates for a ground floor unit range roughly from $8,000 per month to more than $10,000 per month, up from around $4,000 to $5,000 per month five years ago.

While clans benefit from the extra income, rental hikes have affected old timers such as Tong Ah Eating House. Owner Tang Chew Fue, 51, pays around $12,000 per month for a 1,000 sq ft unit, compared with $8,500 for a 950 sq ft unit previously.

Foot traffic is higher but this does not mean better sales.

"I lost money in the first six months of re-opening here last year. Sales are still between 30 and 40 per cent lower than in my previous location," he said.

The man who inadvertently changed Keong Saik is wishing it had stayed more "authentic".

Said Mr Loh: "Its flavour is muted down now. There used to be a lot of wholesale merchants selling dried goods and ah peks ("old men" in Hokkien) in their singlets sitting in coffee shops with girls."

Mr Cheang Wei Chen, 65, deputy general secretary of clan group Singapore Yen Peng Wui Kuan, was philosophical though.

He said: "This place has always been lively from the time when it was full of brothels. Now it is just a different kind of lively.

cherylw@sph.com.sg