IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Prata made famous by army boys

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 22, 2013

Prawn noodles, pizza, buffalo wings and halal Chinese dishes - Jalan Kayu now offers a smorgasbord of taste.

But it all began with the ubiquitous roti prata.

In 1960, when Thasevi first raised its shutters, its Indian pancakes quickly became a hit with hungry army boys from the nearby Seletar Camp.

Even the restaurant's current general manager Mohamed Yusoff, 62, was a regular patron before he started working there 15 years ago.

"The prata here became famous because of the army boys. One piece cost 10 cents last time, and each boy could eat five to six pieces."

Word of Jalan Kayu's roti prata spread over time, and the street is now synonymous with the dish, as well as another endearing aspect: its laid-back kampung atmosphere.

This is why the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) this week picked Jalan Kayu as one of three new "identity nodes", along with Holland Village and Serangoon Gardens.

It plans to spruce up the small two-lane road with new pedestrian pavements and more greenery while preserving its distinct village charm.

This announcement was part of the URA's Draft Master Plan 2013 - a blueprint of how the country could develop over the next decade or so.

The old shophouses and informal eateries give Jalan Kayu its rusticness, and long-time tenants and shop owners hope this will not change.

Mr David Ee, owner of Unilite Electronics Trading, said Jalan Kayu has not evolved much since 1974, when he set up shop there. A sense of community with neighbouring shops remains, the 61-year-old added. "People come to Jalan Kayu, because there's less hustle and bustle. And it's great that there are plans to rejuvenate this place."

Motorcycle dealer New Union has operated out of a shophouse there since 1966. It is still using the same signboard after nearly half a century.

"It's hard to find such a quiet, tranquil environment in Singapore these days, as the country continues to develop," said owner Yeo Hiok Ngiap, 54, who grew up in a nearby kampung. It was acquired by the Government in 1986, he said.

Some people, like Ms Ng Suk Hwa, compare the mood there to less developed parts of Malaysia.

Hailing from Kluang, which is north of Johor Baru, the 33-year-old, who became a pastor at the Abundant Grace Presbyterian Church along Jalan Kayu nearly three years ago, said: "There are no tall buildings here and I can hear the birds singing near the church.

"Even the plants growing here are not organised so there's a feeling of freedom.

"This setting is special, and it's good to preserve it to keep the uniqueness of Singapore."

Yet that short stretch of shophouses is the only part of Jalan Kayu that is still a throwback to the past, noted Mrs Jane Lim, owner of Jane's Cake Station there.

"The HDB blocks in front have already changed the entire view. My customers say they only realise this is Jalan Kayu when they drive past this street."

Besides the boom in housing blocks, roadworks and developments in the nearby Seletar Aerospace Park have also led to a rising stream of traffic passing through Jalan Kayu daily - chipping away at its tranquillity.

Over time, small streets have made way for wider roads. A nearby orchid farm and aquariums in Seletar West Farmway have become casualties of a new six-lane road that is being built parallel to Jalan Kayu.

Yet, when completed next year, that new road is likely to help restore some peace to Jalan Kayu as it absorbs the bulk of traffic from the narrow street.

The tenants also hope to see something being done to ease the parking crunch. There is currently only one carpark with 135 spaces, which is inadequate for diners, who keep coming back to Jalan Kayu, even if prata prices start from $1.

Said 43-year-old sales director Dominic Heng, after eating at Thasevi for the first time in more than two years yesterday: "The food here is still good. That's why we like it here."

roysim@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 22, 2013

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